SPOILERS FOR THE LAST OF US 2
Pop culture can be a tough thing to surround yourself in when you’re a trans woman. You’re hardly represented, and even when you are, it’s... we'll be polite and say, not great. Visibility for our demographic is getting better, undeniably, but personally, it’s hard for me to find kinship in the trans women found on television. The Laverne Coxs and Jamie Claytons of the world are fierce, intelligent role models, but I don’t see myself in them. Their curves or their slight frame are just as unattainable to me as those of any cis woman.
The situation is worse in video games. Representation is scarce, and when we are included, the characters are often shallow, defined solely by their trans status, or treated as the butt of a joke. While no medium is doing a fantastic job with trans representation, games are lagging behind. Given that games are my favorite entertainment medium, that can really suck.
The original Last of Us stands among my favorite games of all-time and likely holds my personal record for most replays. The morally complex storytelling and messy characters grip me anew every time I pick the game up. Despite that, I was immediately hesitant when I caught wind that The Last of Us 2 featured a trans character, given how often I have been let down by attempts at representation from developers I normally hold in high regard.
In the early moments of the game you take control of Abby, a woman unfamiliar to us. From the beginning of our time with her, she talks of locating “him.” The only “him” that could possibly matter at this point is Joel, and given the events of the last game, I knew she wasn’t looking to give him a stern talking to. Simultaneously, I couldn’t help but notice her features: strong jaw, broad shoulders, wide arms, and I was met with an equal blend of excitement and fear. Is she trans?
I was excited because the idea of playing as a trans character in a AAA game was so beyond my expectations, but I was afraid for two reasons: 1) that they would fumble on providing good representation (fueled by early reactions I’d seen online), and 2) that Abby would find and kill Joel, which would make Ellie hate her and hunt her down, and that the game would ask me, the player, to kill Abby. That was something I knew I couldn’t do.
Not much further into the game, the first of my predictions came true: Abby finds Joel. It’s here that we see Abby without her coat for the first time. Her broad frame is clear, the shape and size of her arms, and I have a thought I have never had while playing a video game: “She looks like me.” I cannot adequately express the power a feeling like that has, nor the shock of going from that feeling to “I hate her.” Abby not only finds Joel, Abby not only brutally murders Joel, she does it in front of Ellie. The game wants me to hate Abby, and in this moment, I do. Not because Joel doesn’t deserve it. He does. Rather, I hate her because of the pain on Ellie’s face and how much I feel for her. Ellie’s anger becomes mine, and my fear deepens. Abby looks like me and she’s going to die.
The game then spends the next ten hours having me, as Ellie, hunt Abby down, full of righteous indignation. Ellie commits increasingly horrible acts in the name of vengeance, building up her all-consuming hatred until you’re finally face-to-face with your target and then… the game puts you back in Abby’s shoes. Not for another short stint, either. For nearly the rest of the game, through which the story humanizes her, shares her pain and fears with you, and asks you literally and figuratively to see the world through her eyes. The game wants me to empathize with Abby, to understand her, and I do.
Abby’s story is ultimately about shedding her past and the power of chosen family. Through the game, Abby doesn’t just reject her violent past, she embraces hope. She finds Lev, someone who challenges her preconceptions of the world around her, and like Joel, regains a piece of her humanity as a result. Unlike Joel, she’s able to hold onto and keep that humanity through the rest of the story, leaving conflict behind to pursue the re-building Fireflies, hoping to still do some good in this doomed world. Abby has seen how hollow revenge is and just wants to be happy, but keeps being dragged into the dirt by the brutal hellscape she lives in. In the climax of the game, she flat-out refuses to fight Ellie again. She has no appetite for violence. She’s tired. It’s only when Lev’s life is threatened that she relents and gives Ellie what she wants.
While I don’t live in the same kind of dystopian hellscape Abby does (debatable), I found a deep connection between her journey and my own. When I first came out, I was all piss & vinegar. I was finally myself at 31 and had a chip on my shoulder toward the world that made it unsafe for me to do so sooner, robbing me of additional years of authenticity and happiness. I wrote lengthy blogs about how hard everything was (and still is, to be fair), take downs of transphobic articles or behaviors I came across. I wanted to strike out against everything that hurt me. The longer I’ve been out, the less I find myself attacking that which I hate, and the more I find myself building up that which I love. It’s not enough to fight the bad, we must also champion the good. I focus less now on being angry at the world and more on trying to be the example I needed to see when I was but a wee trans egg (closeted trans person). I’m no longer a weapon against what’s wrong, but a tool to bring about change. Much like Abby, though, I will still cut a bitch if they come for my friends.
I started the game full of fear that Abby was trans and that I would hate her, and instead spent a majority of the game hoping that she was. “Please be one of us,” I thought. “Be one of my people.” She isn’t. The reveal I had grown so hopeful would come was not to be, and my relationship to Abby only deepened as a result. For someone who has such a hard time seeing herself in the trans women populating television, the idea of seeing myself in, and relating to, a cis woman so much was unexpected and powerful.
Instead of hating Abby, I grew to love her, and to understand her in a deeply personal way. That understanding extends beyond the text of the game into the reaction to her from so-called fans of the series, who decided they hated Abby before they got to know her, and who refuse to acknowledge her struggles, perspective, or humanity and who still, after everything, wish they could have killed her in the end. Abby may not be trans, but her journey, and the outside reaction to it, is something that resonates with me deeply and viscerally.
There’s a moment late in the game where Lev and Abby are running from the WLF, Abby’s old crew. “Those are your people!” Lev yells, tears in his eyes. “You’re my people!” Abby yells back. It’s a powerful declaration that had me fighting back tears. Abby may not be trans, but Abby is my people.