This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us and some details about its DLC, Left Behind.
Though my parents initially forbade me from playing video games as a little girl (for being generally violent or otherwise unladylike), I found ways to smuggle games into my life anyway.
Whether it was through the N64 at my dentist’s waiting room or in the rare occasions when a friend’s brother let us use his Gamecube, all my early gaming experiences were stolen moments — precious, blissful, forbidden, and far too fleeting. As the weirdo obsessed with games among my four sisters — but not weird enough to be welcomed to play with the boys at school who had consoles — I could only love games in secret.
I could only love games in secret
Later on, I self-funded my love of gaming through babysitting, buying my own consoles and even vowing to get a career in the industry as a grown-up. Despite my lifelong commitment to games, though, it wasn’t until college in 2014 that I actually saw myself reflected in one for the first time ever.
That character was Ellie, co-protagonist of The Last of Us. But if you only played the main game, you’ll have missed the moment that meant the most to me. Actually, even if you played the Left Behind prequel DLC (a downloadable addition to the original game), which told Ellie’s story before meeting her father-figure Joel, you still might’ve missed it, since it’s an entirely optional scene.
As Ellie, after sneaking out and breaking into the mall with your best friend Riley, you can go to Raja’s Arcade, a dilapidated but still brightly lit relic of a gaming haven. Riley calls your attention over to The Turning, a Street Fighter-esque game featuring her favorite character, Angel Knives. The cabinet’s busted, but Riley doesn’t let that stop Ellie from experiencing her first video game. A mini-game begins as Riley tells Ellie to close her eyes while she narrates a fight sequence. You press the button combos to execute all of Angel Knives’ best moves. The camera stays on Ellie’s face the whole time, the arcade’s broken blue screen illuminating what I can only describe as her Gamer Face — enraptured, lips pursed in deep concentration and determination.
It’s there in Ellie’s expression that I saw not just myself, but all the stolen moments that were my only access to games as a girl. Despite every obstacle keeping her from playing (you know, like the apocalypse, zombies, Marshall Law, to name a few), nothing could keep her away from discovering that joy for herself. You hear it in Riley’s voice, too, relishing in the badassery of the black female fighter character that let her see herself through the lens of a video game power fantasy.
There are other, bigger, more significant moments of representations for marginalized identities in Left Behind (which we won’t spoil here). There’s also much to be said about the fact that Riley is sidelined so Ellie can have her moment, like so many women and girls of color are in IRL discussions of female representation in video games. But the power of representation, of seeing yourself through video games specifically, speaks for itself in Left Behind.
We get to see ourselves for the first time only through stolen moments.
But still, getting to see yourself in games as a marginalized identity is often an addendum, like a DLC or folded into the narratives of more dominant identities (like Joel’s or even Ellie’s). We often get to see ourselves for the first time only through stolen moments, like an optional mini-game.
The developers of the game, Naughty Dog, even had to sneak Ellie into The Last of Us as a playable character by lying to everyone prior to the game’s release and . They had to to keep her on the game’s front cover. The goodwill Naughty Dog accrued from the game’s success and the audience’s clear adoration of Ellie as a playable character is exactly what allowed them to give her own solo story in Left Behind, and later, her own entire game in the upcoming Last of Us Part II.
The specificity of the moment in Raja’s Arcade in Left Behind is was got to me, this simple yet revolutionary recognition that girls are allowed to love games, allowed to feel empowered by them — that I wasn’t weird for feeling that way myself. But it was the original game’s surprise twist of Ellie as a playable character that awakened me to what I’d been missing out on all those years I fought to play games that never even bothered to see me. I didn’t just get to play as a young girl protagonist for the first time. I played as one that felt tangibly human, so specifically relatable that we even shared the same favorite cuss words.
The gaming industry has made some efforts to represent more women and girls in the years since 2014, but the scarcity of who gets to feel seen by them remains. Many are still left behind, left out, left unseen. Even now, Naughty Dog once again has to fight a vocal but small minority of their audience that’s rejecting the addition of a trans character to The Last of Us Part II.
But everyone deserves their stolen moments — stolen moments that become a lifetime of loving games that love and see you in return.