Stephanie Dinsae

i am marked an enemy perfect for collapse: Sapphic Joy and Black Death in The Last of Us Part 2

CN: This essay contains graphic depictions of violence and it also contains light spoilers to TLOU2, so proceed with caution. No spoilers too drastic to the main storyline, though.

The corners and the walls are adorned in what looks to be fleshy, fungal growth. The growth takes up entire parts of the buildings sometimes, with its muted, faded blood reds and organ pinks protruding, with its rotten greens and questionable dim, dark, greys. The world appears quiet and abandoned except for the blatantly infected beings, some of whose bodies are buried under thick layers of fungus. Their overbearing presence decorates my field of vision– groaning and clicking and edging along the bounds of where their vessels allow them to go, ironically lively, as fungi tend to be. Alive? Certainly. Sentient? Who knows. Yet they are all so attuned, sensitive to any sudden movements, any sudden noises, glass shattering, bricks hitting walls, my sneakers running across the ground. If they catch sight of me, it’s over. If I don’t make it out of there safely, my head will be bashed in or my throat will be ripped out or they might emit their noxious gasses from their burdened bodies onto mine. The choice of how I will die does not belong to me, but the choice of how they do does: in stealth or in the dangerous open. We must murder the infected before they murder us, and we must also murder the two factions of humans we’re up against. We, being me (playing as Ellie) and her supportive, bold, badass girlfriend, Dina. The zombie apocalypse is its own hell, but at least I have a girlfriend to join me for the devastating ride.

I played The Last of Us Part 2 during the initial quarantine of 2020, my mind scattered, uneasy, uncertain, unsure of what would come next. The apocalyptic devastation of the game quieted my mind from the real world, which I could only escape through engaging with the creations of others. I’ll say that I only played a glimpse of The Last of Us before jumping into this second game about a year and some change later. I also watched a bit of the playthrough when I realized I would not be brave enough to finish it. I was frightened of the infected and the seemingly high stakes of the Listening/Stealth Mode, which the apocalyptic zombie environment of the game heavily relied on. Somehow, despite that first hesitance, I immersed myself into the second part, due to a proposition from my younger brother that we split the cost of the newly-released game, fear be damned. As I mentioned, I was adamant to escape my own grim reality, but I think I was also enthralled by the queer love that unfolded on my television screen. It was surreal to see hotheaded, smart-mouthed Ellie from the first game grow up, even more surreal to see her be so unapologetically lesbian. What I also noticed of Ellie as I played her and observed her through cut scenes is how reserved, pensive, quiet she had become. There was a lot she was not saying or that she may have felt too awkward to say. Upon meeting Dina, as a player entering into the game in medias res, it was clear to me why Ellie liked her. Dina was forward, playful, supportive, and charmingly comfortable in her own skin. 

Fast forward to Ellie and Dina locking themselves in an abandoned library while on patrol during a chaotic blizzard. The two find a downstairs weed den, grown and curated by Eugene, one of their late townmates. As Ellie, I interact with a few artifacts of the den, including an iconic gas mask bong. I then interact with a glass jar of at least seven joints, which seems to be sealed shut, considering the fact that neither I nor Dina can open it properly. After struggling for just a few seconds, Dina slams the jar onto the ground. As Ellie, I am surprised by her reckless resolve to get things done, probably also a bit amused and intrigued. We are trying to figure out if the weed is still smokable and Dina, joint already in between her lips, having flicked open her lighter in two smooth swoops, sits down to light it. I am in awe at this cut scene, which yes, I have watched/played through at least three times because it is so heartwarming to see how gay it is. From the eye contact Dina gives Ellie, the knowing smile on her face, to the ease into the unspoken tension of what they are wondering about the other, especially after sharing a kiss on the dance floor at their town celebration a day before.

We do not get to see the kiss until the game’s very end, but the moment was so joyful and their passion so intense that another of their townmates, homophobic and bitter, hurled an anti-lesbian slur at them. They are now in the den, just the two of them, sharing a joint full of “home”-grown weed. Sly Dina utters “Can I ask you a question?” “How would you rate our kiss from last night?” I am hesitant as Ellie, a bit nervous to address what I believe to be the unspeakable. I feel the tension growing, I am tuned in, controller in hand, as I watch their body language, how Dina turns towards Ellie and how Ellie leans in, so that she and Dina’s faces are only a few inches apart. Ellie is shy and dodges the question with an “I don’t know”, scared to reveal that she enjoyed the kiss. The soft guitar music begins, Ellie licks her lips, they engage in flirtatious banter, ripe with tension, making comments like “You’re infuriating”, “Have you met you?”, “You make me wanna go back outside into that blizzard”, “No one is stopping you.” The guitar continues as they slowly close the distance between them with a passionate kiss, which crescendos into passionate making out, their breaths exasperated, their lips excited to meet again. The scene goes to black as we catch a last sight of Ellie now on top of Dina, kissing her deeply once more. During this part of the game, I recall pausing the cut scene many times to squeal, laugh, smirk, grow flustered. I even took photos of the paused television with my phone, excited to be feeling so seen in a mainstream game franchise. I was captivated by how accurately the scene depicted sapphic angst, captivated that I could play as a lesbian who was fearless in killing zombies and people, if need be, but was still so bashful and nervous when interacting with the girl she liked. Very sapphic behavior indeed. 

As a sapphic gamer, how could I not have been reeled into the game? Sneaking through Seattle (where most of the game takes place), taking out the infected while on the perpetual edge of my seat was worth it if I could just get to see Ellie and Dina smile at each other again, hug each other tightly, share a sweet kiss. And while we navigated Seattle on our quest, which was filled with infected, we also came across and killed many people from both the factions of the Western Liberation Front (WLF) and the Seraphites. Two human groups who hated each other’s guts and hated trespassers even more. Later, I learned that the story of these two human groups served as an allegory for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Please see Emanuel Maiberg’s article, which provides an in-depth exploration uncovering the Israeli politics sewn into the game’s world.  As I tried to keep Ellie alive through our fair share of murder and stealth, I noticed that many of the automated enemies from the factions were often Black people or other people of color, reminiscent of people who looked like me and my loved ones. And we murdered them in countless ways, with trap mines, Molotov cocktails, knives, axes, silenced guns, flaming arrows, and the list continues. As I played from start to finish, I learned that grief is complex and doesn’t always allow us to see clearly and make the best decisions, especially in a landscape where everyone is fighting for their survival. I also learned that while it might be simple to acknowledge that The Last of Us Part 2, a game in which vengeance is an incessant cycle, brings death to many, it is eye-opening to me what sort of deaths were given to whom. I’d like to highlight a moment in which I, as the player, once again had very little choice in how a certain death came about, as it was clear it had been embedded by design. 

This moment comes much later than the weed den scene. Ellie, saddened and furious, is looking to spill blood. We sneak onto WLF grounds, specifically their hospital base and its surrounding areas. Ellie and I are looking for someone named Nora, a medic, who will have more information about someone else we are feeling particularly bloodthirsty about. Nora is Black and the graphics make her melanin look vibrant and warm, perfect for death, against the cold grey backdrop of the Seattle setting. In the midst of playing, I find out that she is voiced by Chelsea Tavares, an actor I love from All American, another show I am watching at the time. To get to Nora, I, as Ellie, must start off killing the countless WLF soldiers in the surrounding bases of the hospital. This part of the gameplay proves to be stressful for me as I maneuver myself to avoid being seen. The WLF soldiers are everywhere, though I am able to snuff out a few of them in secret.  I sneak into the hospital and eventually the lifeless bodies tip them off that there is an intruder and they bring out their dogs used for sniffing out enemies. At this point, I pick up a nearby brick and throw it at a wall to deter the dogs. My heart is beating and unlike certain parts, I am not confident I will make it out of there with stealth alone. Soldiers close in on my hiding spot and once they see me, they yell to alert the others. They shoot at me, some swing their weapons. I shoot back, run, attempt to dodge melee attacks, sometimes to no avail. I die again and again, struggling to fight them all off. After being shot to death or mauled by dogs enough times, I finally reach the floor where Nora is and I do not want Ellie to get to her. Nevertheless, I understand why Ellie is adamant and I have no choice if I want to continue the game. At a critical point of what becomes Ellie chasing Nora, Nora quickly rushes away from Ellie, running into a locked section of the lower level of the hospital. 

After we enter through a door where we hear distant coughing that we know to be Nora’s, Ellie, in cut scene, takes a chair in the space and uses it to jam the door from opening. It is clear that this is personal for her. In red lighting, towards the farthest door is Nora, on the ground, veins emerged all over her body, including in her forehead and arms. The spores, fungi that can infiltrate the brain through inhalation and kill the host in a matter of days if one is not wearing a mask, have moved quickly and it is clear she is a goner. We approach her and she feebly attempts to swing a loose pipe at us. Ellie pulls it away from her and returns the favor, swinging full force at the arm of an already weakened Nora. The medic, who has helped so many of her soldiers heal from injury, is now helpless against Ellie. Ellie then asks Nora what she has come all this way to ask: the whereabouts of the main particular somebody she is bloodthirsty about. To which Nora responds “I’m fucking dead anyway, why would I tell you anything?” Ellie, with malice tucked deep in her face, says “Because I can make it quick. Or I can make it so much worse.” 

At this point, the cut scene cuts back into gameplay and Ellie looks sinister, menacing in the red light. I cannot see Nora’s face and for that, I am semi-thankful, because a small square prompt appears near Ellie’s hair and I really do not want to press it. I try to stall, but once again, I cannot if I want to continue the game. I am nervous because I know the weapon Ellie holds in her hands and how hard she has already swung it at Nora. She is dying, her voice still lovely to my ear, but strained, struggling. I give in, press the square ever so slightly and Ellie swings the pipe with all her might. Blood materializes onto her shirt, my controller vibrates. I am supposed to be having fun, adrenaline pumped, yet all I feel is the distance between me and Ellie. How close I felt with her as a fellow sapphic, how distant I now feel remembering that she is white and I am not. How easy it is for Ellie to see blood, especially when there is a Black person barring her from the true object of her rage. I am wishing it is over and yet another square appears. I reluctantly tap it again and she swings with the same blunt force, more blood droplets now mingling with the older ones on her shirt. Nora whimpers and I grimace. I cannot imagine what the pain must feel like against the spores already taking shelter in her body. Yet another square appears and I’m wondering why this specific interrogation feels so drawn out. I press one last square, silent, mad that I had to sit there and Ellie swings again and the screen goes black.

It is striking to me how poetically violent the choices of that scene are: the red lighting that fills the room feels reminiscent of the rage that Ellie is fuming with. The music builds during this scene, it is an ominous, pulsating sound. The cut scene after is devastating: Ellie returns to the theater, shaken up by her own violence, bloodied, frightened. After she gets what she wants, it appears she is afraid of who she is becoming. I grapple with feeling stuck, feeling reminded of the vicious murder that always follows Black people at the hands of those who aren’t, whether it be in the game world or the real world. I played, hoping for solace and escape, and I only received it in fragments. My queerness and Blackness served up as direct antithesis to each other in this game. In the same breath with which I squealed at and lauded the sapphic representation, I shuddered at the roles Black people were assigned in the game. They were rendered immediate enemies, difficult and relentlessly killed by Ellie’s hands, by way of me. Yet, with all I witnessed in my playthrough, I returned to play the game or certain parts of it again and again. It is clear its hold on me, despite the anti-Black choices embedded into its design. How apt for a game of the apocalyptic genre to give me such sweet queer love and then quickly pull the rug from under my feet, never failing to let me know that it is far too unrealistic to envision that someone like me can escape into a new world, complex of its own accord, and find my complete self. Untouched, melanin warm and vibrant, perfect for living and even attempting to thrive.


Shakespearean Sonnet for Ellie and Dina

i am your devotion blizzard undone
in your hands snow-melted to the shy touch
your kisses soften me like silenced gun
flick your lighter on the denim i blush

with you i am fearless body language
charmingly comfortable smooth swoops
blood and banter built from recent anguish
sneaking through the city just to find you

we crescendo into passion amidst
grimly dim dark grey scape of our world
i will love you in any apocalypse
forever honored to be your girl

we started off ripe with deep deep tension
now we are infected with affection


Petrarchan Sonnet for Nora

i am marked an enemy perfect for collapse  
though i give life and suture the fragments  
of my soldiers who dwelled in time well spent
in murder and weapons caught in sly traps  
i patch the stark gash wounds within maps   
curated for exclusion well meant 
for somebody with a warmer pigment  
like mine, unable to escape the wrath: 

red lighting and mostly misdirected 
rage in the dangerous open air      
where blood materializes in specks 
at the sight of my skin split bare     
a blank space used as heinous object  
from eyes so sinister, menacing stare


A poet and Black Classicist from the Bronx, Stephanie Dinsae is a 2019 Smith College graduate and has received an MFA in Poetry and Literary Translation from Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Stephanie often writes poetry about myth as it relates to Blackness and her own life, friendship, video games, and the flexibility/fallibility of memory. Her favorite things to do are dance around to music and obsess over astrology. In case you were wondering, Stephanie has major Libra, Scorpio, and Sagittarius placements. You can find more of her work on Instagram @writesumdinsightful.