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The trans narrative in ‘The Last of Us Part II’ is compelling. There’s so much more to be done.

(The Washington Post illustration; Naughty Dog)
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Note: This article contains major spoilers for “The Last of Us Part II.”

Lev’s appearance in “The Last of Us Part II” is one of the game’s most interesting elements. A young transgender man on the run from a community that refuses to accept him, he’s the harbinger of a significant tonal and narrative change in Naughty Dog’s latest. To some players, the changes he brings are undoubtedly welcome. But as one of the only trans characters in AAA games, his presence, for trans audiences especially, is complex; not necessarily unwelcome, but a reminder of just how messy and contested our place in mainstream fiction really is.

Lev comes into the story during the part of the game where you play as Abby, the woman who kills Joel, the protagonist of the first game. Later in the game, she gets captured by the Seraphites, the game’s faction of religious radicals, and finds herself saved by Lev and Yara, two young Seraphite apostates. Yara is injured, and Abby ends up helping her, connecting with the children along the way.

It's from this moment that Lev emerges as a major focal point of Abby's story and the player's attention. We learn, from Abby's perspective, his backstory — that he's trans (though the word itself is never said), that he was cast out of the Seraphite faction after he shaved his head, an act that marks him as a man among the Seraphites, and that he and his sister left his unaccepting mother behind. Resolving this arc becomes a major concern of Abby's story.

As a transgender player, the inclusion of Lev is, at first, extremely surprising. Naughty Dog went out of its way to conceal almost all of the story of “The Last of Us Part II” from players before release, including with an embargo from Sony with rigid requirements about what could and could not be said about the game’s story by reviewers. Coming off that initial shock, trans players have been divided about Lev, some of us loving him and some of us very, very dissatisfied with the way he’s handled in the game.

Lev goes through immense suffering in the game, much of it directly tied to his trans identity. He's deadnamed by your enemies — a term for when a person uses a transgender person's former name, one tied to a gender they do not hold as their own, which most trans people find unwelcome at best and traumatic at worst. His sister dies, and his mother tries to attack him when he returns to the island, a conflict that leads to him killing her himself. Terrible, terrible things happen to Lev, but even so his role in the story is, paradoxically, one of hope and optimism.

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“The Last of Us” games take place in a profoundly grim and violent world. Much of the thematic subtext of the sequel’s story deals with the way various fascist ideologies rebuild themselves after the post-apocalypse — fascist in the sense of seeing the world as a cruel, violent place with an in-group protected and controlled by the application of self-perpetuating violence on outsiders and transgressors. Abby’s WLF is good old-fashioned American militant fascism, all guns and concrete and violent cruelty, while the Seraphites are a primitivist cult with the sort of religious restrictions and hard line beliefs familiar to anyone coming from an evangelical Christian background. Ellie and Joel, too, are classic images of American violent avengers, cowboys on the new, zombie-infected “frontier.”

In this context, Lev’s suffering makes sense as the inevitable consequence of the religious fascism of the Seraphites trying to impose on his identity. His persistence to break free from them and embrace queerness offers an alternative to both him and Abby, who’s desperate to find something meaningful in her life after her pyrrhic quest for revenge turned her into a person she no longer wants to be. For the both of them, pursuing Lev’s path — a path away from dogma, away from conquest, and toward an honest self-actualization — provides a means to escape the cycle of meaningless violence. Instead of revenge, both characters are, by the end of the story, fighting for a mutual future (in which the two make up a nontraditional sort of family unit). Lev’s story breaks open the revenger’s logic that motivates much of the story. He has no interest in retribution, no interest in violence in and of itself. He just wants to be himself; he sees no other way to be. To live any other life would be intolerable.

But more than for his place in the ongoing story, Lev speaks to me because in the quieter moments of the game, in the time you linger with him, he feels real. His personality is distinct — he's quiet and calm, yet entirely unyielding in his beliefs and his faith in himself. He is deeply religious, even against the cruelty the practitioners of his religion have enacted upon him. His reactions to his circumstances make sense to me, as a trans person. I know people who think and behave the way he does, and I recognize a part of myself in him. This is what I want from my trans characters: Not for any particular good or bad thing to happen to them, but for them to feel honest. I want trans characters who are given the luxury of being complex the way cisgender characters have always been allowed to be, and Lev satisfies that desire in a context I wasn't expecting.

Even the game's violence, on some level, speaks to me: I find the ability to lash out in bloody revenge against the people who have mistreated him cathartic. It's a way to channel my own anger at the way my people are treated every day. The game is fascinated with revenge and in finding means to make its players understand the violence its characters commit, and here, more than anywhere else, it sunk its claws into me on those terms. I have a lot of anger at the way trans people are treated, and this game unleashed a dark part of me that was happy to enact that anger in imagined violent outburst. Fighting alongside and for Lev, I enjoyed the violence. It felt justified.

But it's understandable that so many of my peers would disagree with me. Where I see validation in viewing Lev from Abby's perspective, critics like Waverly (who uses they/them and she/her pronouns) at Paste Magazine see one more instance of trans characters being created, as they put it, “to make cis voyeurs feel good about themselves.” Lev's suffering feels, under that lens, like just another example of what is often communicated about trans characters in media — that we exist only as buckets to carry around pain. That what characters like Lev offer to predominantly cisgender audiences is a chance to feel some emotionally satisfying empathy that conveniently lets them avoid reflecting on the complexity of trans experiences or the way they might treat trans people in their personal lives. After all, he's the only trans person in the game, and one of the only in mainstream games. Looking at that, it wouldn't be unnatural to view him as a synecdoche for trans experiences in general and to decide that, well, maybe being trans is just a nightmare.

And my own experience playing bears out some of what Waverly is saying, even if I came out with a more positive impression of this particular experience than they did. All of my thoughts are situated within my understanding of a story that inevitably centers someone else. You cannot view Lev unmediated — his perspective is always understood through someone else.

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Which brings us, ultimately, to the real problem with any conversation about Lev and trans representation in games in general, which is that it’s not a conversation that’s allowed to happen on even ground. Even if Lev is a good, well-created character, it does nothing to change the fact that trans people are underrepresented both on the screen in AAA games and, more importantly, off it. We are given virtually no opportunity in the mainstream of video games to tell our own stories. The history of trans representation in all media is one where we have been killed, persecuted, made to suffer in almost all mainstream stories told about us. And even when there is something in these stories that hooks us, that feels honest, it’s inevitably told by people who are outsiders to our own experiences. The fact stands that “The Last of Us Part II” was created, not without any trans voices at all — Lev’s voice actor is a trans man and trans developers were reportedly on the dev team — but still through the leadership and overriding creative vision of non-trans creators.

Moreover, Lev’s existence was treated as a plot twist, meaning that those of us who do have a personal emotional response to the worst moments of Lev’s journey were given little chance to prepare ourselves or make an informed choice about whether this was media for us. As an early reviewer for the game, I went through a complicated series of emotions before becoming attached to Lev. My first was anger, then exhaustion. This is a personal thing to find in a video game, and I would have appreciated a warning.

There is a large, diverse, exciting community of trans and queer creators working in the margins of games, in independent and alternative circles. And we are even starting to find representation in the middle tier of smaller independent publishers, with games like “If Found,” created by the queer development team Dreamfeel, being promoted and published by industry fixtures like lauded publisher Annapurna Interactive. But there are no big-name trans creators in AAA games. None that have the chance to lead a big studio, to obsessively push their creative vision the same way creators like Neil Druckmann are. There are barely any women or people of color given that privilege, either. And until that changes, no amount of interesting character work is adequate.

To be clear, I liked Lev’s story; the character resonated with me, and I’ll be thinking about him and Abby for a while yet. But without real empowerment and representation for trans people in media, that’s not good enough. If you want to actually show compassion to marginalized communities, few compassions resonate quite like letting us speak for ourselves and paying us to do it. When that happens, games like “The Last of Us Part II” won’t feel like battlegrounds because there will be enough games about us, developed by us, to go around. Until then, stories like Lev’s, even if they resonate with you, will be only a harbinger of how much better things could be.

Julie Muncy is a freelance writer, editor, and poet working in Austin, Texas. You can follow her on twitter @juliemuncy23.

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