Naughty Dog’s hotly anticipated sequel to their zombie apocalypse-themed 2013 game “The Last of Us” has received plenty of criticism about its themes and its dystopian universe. But, while professional reviewers have fairly recognized the game’s successes and shortcomings, other gamers on the internet have disapprovingly fixated on one aspect of “The Last of Us Part II”: its lesbian protagonist.
“The Last of Us Part II” takes place in a postapocalyptic United States, where the main protagonist is Ellie, a young woman who miraculously survives an infection outbreak and whose experience of a tragic event motivates her to pursue vengeance. Another protagonist, Abby, is on her own quest for revenge. Hate fuels each of their journeys.
Professional reviewers grappled with the game’s relationship to violence — namely how deeply horrific, omnipresent and seemingly inevitable it was in the game’s world — criticizing the game’s cynical outlook and deprivation of player agency.
At the same time, however, reviewers praised the title for its beautiful in-game world, lovingly crafted mechanics and levels, well-developed characters, complex plot and phenomenal acting performances. The game divided fans and critics alike and generated a healthy discourse.
What concerns me the most, though, and is unfortunately and often the case when a triple-A — that’s the video game equivalent of a blockbuster — female-led title is released, is that an unsavory contingent of gamers came out of the woodwork to lambast the game.
For some gamers online, their misogyny and homophobia were often thinly veiled by a nonsensical argument that Naughty Dog was forcing their game to be political by making its lead not only a woman but gay to boot.
This drivel seems to assume that the very existence of women or lesbians is somehow a political statement as opposed to a fact of natural human life. Or perhaps gamers’ complaints are that the absence of a gruff white male protagonist is political. This notion is absurd, but loath as I am to give these bigots any benefit of the doubt, they did get one thing regrettably right. For a game to star a queer woman is, at present, a radical statement.
For whatever reasons, be they societal expectations, insidious marketing tactics and conditioning or systemic exclusion of minority groups from STEM fields like computer science, gaming has long been dominated by white men. Or perhaps, more accurately, the perceived primary audience and stereotypical image of gamers have been white men. I refine my statement because the assumed nonexistence of female, nonbinary, nonwhite and queer gamers is as despicable as it is untrue.
But one of the biggest problems gaming has had is getting rid of these poisoned notions in who developers choose to make their protagonists. And so time and time again, even now, square-jawed, stubbly white dudes grace the covers of our games and serve as our avatars. So to have a protagonist be a woman and a lesbian certainly is a departure from the norm, despite how natural and familiar such a person’s existence should be to the audience. It shouldn’t be a political statement, but frankly, to some, it is.
So what? The aforementioned malignant gamers would claim that this politicization is not only newfound in games but is also somehow a bad thing, that games have always been apolitical and purely escapist. But even these suppositions are wholly untrue. Gaming has always been political. All art is political. eMedia with the purpose of spreading beauty, evoking emotion, stirring thoughts and perhaps imparting a message is political.
Yes, games’ messages have varying degrees of bluntness, but even radically political games have been around for ages. Nobody seemed to raise much of a fuss when the “BioShock” games explored the fallacies of Randian Objectivism in 2007. Nobody cared when the “Mother” series dealt with issues of parental neglect, abuse and pop culture way back in 1989.
Games are to some degree political, and that is not a bad thing. If art can be assigned a purpose, that purpose is to help reflect the world we live in, in all of its beauty and inequity. “The Last of Us Part II” achieves this purpose; it engages in this type of reflection in spades. And “The Last of Us Part II” has done so without a hint of gameplay and merely by featuring a young lesbian woman on its box art. Its existence has held the mirror up to the ugliness and ignorance that still pervades corners of video games and their consumers. The game has succeeded as a piece of art, regardless of its reception.
Gaming has had to grow up quickly: In four decades it has grown from a niche subculture to a pervasive form of mainstream media. It has experienced growing pains from such a rapid expansion, yet there is no excuse for the archaic conventions games still cling to and the hateful groups they attract as a vocal minority. But as these groups are exposed, it will become easier to move past such bigotry.
The reception of “The Last of Us Part II” has taught the industry an important lesson: The way to excise hatred from gaming is to represent the world as it really is in all its beautiful diversity.
Mac Riga is a senior in the College. START/SELECT will appear online every other week.