The Last of Us is kind of a big deal. The biggest critical hit on the PlayStation 3 this year, Naughty Dog’s magnum opus is already selling as well as a game of this acclaim should be. Broken down from the sum into its parts is a third person shooter with the kind of heart the Tin Man always wanted.
I cannot stress to you enough that there are MASSIVE FUCKING SPOILERS in this column regarding a supporting character that Joel and Ellie encounter while making their way through Lincoln, Massachusetts. You will want to experience this for yourself, and by the time the section of the game is over, you will realize just how much Naughty Dog may have advanced both an industry and a community’s representation.
Warning: Spoilers Below
After navigating your way through an expertly trapped Lincoln, far removed from the business district of Boston, we are introduced to Bill. Portrayed in voice and body by W. Earl Brown of Deadwood fame, the anti-government Texan who knows how to repair a car just as well as a gun reminds me of what might happen if Hunter S. Thompson were able to meet Bill Hicks in the middle. His first instinct is to check both Joel and Ellie for infection, naturally protecting his own ass…an ass whose size Ellie cannot keep herself from commenting on every time the air threatens to be dead.
We are never told exactly what the history is between Joel and Bill, much like we never really learn what Joel did in the past to turn him into the emotionally bankrupt vessel we control. The fact remains that Bill owes Joel for something, and helping secure a car for their escape will wipe away the debt. What follows is a tense navigation through a neighborhood filled with infected bodies that will swarm you the second you make a sound.
During the consistently entertaining banter between the three survivors, Bill makes a passing mention of having previously cared for somebody before the infection spread throughout the world. Bill is unaware that Tess, Joel’s running partner and someone who may or may not have become extremely close to Joel, has sacrificed herself and begins to push the issue of her presence and this job. Tensions between Joel and Bill nearly boil over when they come upon a hanging body inside a house.
Stopped dead in his tracks, Bill identifies the body as that of “Frank.” When Joel asks who Frank is, Bill answers “He was my partner…he’s the only idiot that would wear a shirt like that.” Bill, visibly shaken over the loss of someone who was once dear to him, cuts down the body and follows Ellie to a battered but functional pickup truck. He continues to wait while silently cursing Frank for stealing a car battery, and upon sharing Frank’s suicide with Bill, Joel watches as Bill crumples it, throws it to the ground and says “Fuck you, too” with a lump in his throat.
In about five minutes, Naughty Dog managed to do more for the portrayal of gay characters in video games than the industry has managed to pull off since we started playing games on something other than a computer.
There was a time when the mere mention of anything LGBT-related in gaming would be considered grounds for immediate censorship. Birdo, the egg-slinging dinosaur in Super Mario Bros. 2 was explicitly identified as a transvestite in the instruction manual. This was removed when Nintendo caught the text, and the gender of Birdo has never been nailed down since. Final Fight gave us Poison, who could be a cross dresser or post-op transsexual depending on where you played the game at the time.
Earthbound and Chrono Trigger managed to sneak in some subtext, but Final Fantasy VII was the first time I could clearly see gender roles being obviously switched up. I remember going out of my way to make Cloud as sexy as possible for Don Corneo and not being entirely sure if I should pretend to be attracted to Barrett.
As gaming grew into more of a business than a creative medium, guns and soldiers began to dominate anything with a serious budget. While trying to appeal to the common and not necessarily open-minded gamer, shooters have never highlighted any gay characters that I am aware of…certainly none that get soft drink tie-ins. If Activision ever has the balls to push the envelope, I dare them to create a scene while your character is taking fire and one of your fellow soldiers tells a story about how his boyfriend back home once made a complete ass of himself while cleaning the apartment.
If it seems like I am glossing over the history of anything LGBT in consoles, it is simply because there has been mostly none until recent strides, mostly on the RPG front. You can, of course, engage in sex with men, women and other variations of gender as whatever version of Commander Shepard in Mass Effect 3. Metal Gear Solid HD Collection gave us Vamp and Volgin, practitioners of not only homosexuality but, depending on how much you dug into the game, BDSM. The Persona series has regularly featured gay characters, and the 4th entry even showed the inner struggle of a boy coming to terms with whether he is or is not.
Rockstar has been in position on numerous occasions to make similar progress, but they usually elect to leave it up to the player to decide (Bully), turn homosexuality into comedic fodder (GTA, Red Dead Redemption) or play up the stereotype of the coke-addicted victim a la Gay Tony.
The Last of Us does something I have only seen happen in David Cage’s Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit, where a man who is attracted to another man is portrayed simply as a human being. The latter game shows this in Tommy, Carla Valenti’s neighbor who works at a bank and talks about a potential new love interest who also works in banking while lamenting the workforce‘s lack of acceptance, even in New York. It was a very revealing and human moment in a game meant to attach you emotionally to its characters.
Bill does a lot more than simply break down stereotypes. While Indigo Prophecy is a niche title at best, The Last of Us is on its way to several Game of the Year nominations and will continue to sell millions as the year comes to a close. Put on paper and reduced to numbers, other companies can look at how a man who loved another man is portrayed in one of the biggest games of the year: not as an addict, not as a flamboyant dresser and not as a closeted bigot.
Bill is just another survivor, and that’s the entire point of being a human in the game.