The messages Ian Alexander has received from fans about the transgender character he plays in the new blockbuster video game "The Last of Us Part II" have been bittersweet.
The messages, telling him his performance has helped players to come out, also remind him of the representation he didn't have when he was growing up.
"It made me think about how seeing a character like that when I was younger and coming to terms with my gender might have been so comforting and validating and how I didn't have that," said Alexander, 19. But he said the messages also make him "happy that I can be that for some people."
"I do know my character will be a lot of people's first exposure to trans masculine people in the media, so I do recognize how important that is ... but I don't feel special, necessarily, because this is something that is long overdue."
Both Alexander and Lev, the character he plays, are transgender, likely a first for a major video game.
"The Last of Us Part II," released June 19, has been described as "groundbreaking" for being a big-budget game from a major developer with several lead characters who are queer. In addition to Lev, Ellie, the game's protagonist, is a lesbian, and Dina, Ellie's love interest and fighting partner, has romantic relationships with men and women.
The game's director, Neil Druckmann, vice president of its development studio, Naughty Dog, said the addition of LGBTQ storylines in the highly anticipated game was a part of exploring new perspectives to give players a rich and diverse world.
Druckmann said he wants players to "see the perspective of people that have different identities, different sexual attractions, they come from different countries," and explore how the characters react "if you plop them in this world."
While "The Last of Us Part II" has moved forward the needle of inclusivity and representation in video games, it has also gotten blowback from some critics and players for its storytelling choices around the portrayal of Lev. Druckmann, however, said some missteps are inevitable when you're in largely uncharted territory.
LGBTQ characters in an apocalyptic world
"The Last of Us Part II" is the sequel to "The Last of Us," which was released in 2013. Both games are set in a pandemic-ravaged apocalyptic America where the deadly Cordyceps virus has turned a majority of the population into violent, mindless zombies.
WARNING: Major spoilers ahead for "The Last of Us Part II"
The first game is played from the perspective of Joel, a smuggler taking Ellie, a teenage girl who is immune to the virus, to a rebel militia in hope that their doctors can use her immunity to find a cure. Along the way, Joel and Ellie develop a parent-child bond. When Joel learns that Ellie will have to be sacrificed to find the cure, he fights to free her, eventually fleeing the hospital with Ellie while she is sedated.
The second game starts several years later. Joel and Ellie are living in a small town with other uninfected people, and life appears to be starting anew. This time, instead of playing as Joel, gamers play from the perspective of Ellie, now 19.
When Joel is murdered by a group of mysterious travelers, including a new character, Abby — whom players control later in the game — Ellie sets out on a quest for revenge with her love interest, Dina.
Later in the game, while playing from the perspective of Abby, gamers are introduced to Lev and his sister, Yara. Lev and Yara have fled retribution from an ultrareligious uninfected faction, the Seraphites, after Lev shaves his head and starts identifying as a male. The siblings soon become Abby's friends, and Lev and Abby later team up to fight both the zombies and the Seraphites.
A character that's 'complex in a new way'
There's an open-door policy at Naughty Dog, Druckmann said, in which anyone on the team can pitch ideas for a game the company is developing. In addition, he said, prominent members of Naughty Dog are part of the LGBTQ community, and a dedicated segment of the company is devoted to finding ways to prioritize diversity in its games.
It was a confluence of these things that led to the conception of Lev and his portrayal in the final game, Druckmann said.
"There was a pitch to make a trans character, and we felt like we can make it work with Lev," he said, adding that making the character trans would give the siblings a reason to be running away from their religious tribe. "It felt like a way to make him complex in a new way than anything we've seen in a video game."
Once the idea was greenlighted, Druckmann said, Naughty Dog's queer staff members, who include transgender employees, began to give input on how to move the character forward. He said the team also consulted with an LGBTQ scholar.
Then it began looking for an actor to play the part.
"We wanted to make sure we cast a trans actor, because authenticity was so important for this character," Druckmann said.
But when Naughty Dog started reaching out to agencies looking for a trans teen, the agencies said they didn't have a single candidate who fit that description, he said.
Alexander didn't have representation at the time, but Druckmann was able to track him down for an audition.
"When you attempt to put diversity out there and you understand you're wading into sensitive areas, you're not going to get everything right, and we know we're still learning about how to cast a character like this."
Neil Druckmann, Naughty Dog
Alexander said that when he read the script, it was "scary" how much his "personal experiences mirror Lev."
"I remember reading it and being like 'Did they base this off of my life?'" he said. "I was raised in a very religious, conservative background. ... When I was about 12, 13 years old is when I was coming to terms with my gender identity and sexuality, and I ended up choosing to leave the church."
Alexander, who was born in Utah to a family in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, even got backlash from his religious community after he cut his hair short — which closely parallels a major plot point in Lev's backstory.
Alexander said he was overcome with joy when he saw the final version of Lev. He said he feels his involvement is helping to move gaming inclusivity forward, but he said he's able to walk this path only because other transgender people, particularly Black trans women, have long fought for a seat at the table.
"I do know my character will be a lot of people's first exposure to trans masculine people in the media, so I do recognize how important that is and how impactful that is, but I don't feel special, necessarily, because this is something that is long overdue," he said.
'Being deadnamed sucks'
In many ways, Lev is a first step forward for trans representation in video games, but some critics have said there are stereotypes in "The Last of Us Part II" that could be harmful.
Druckmann and Alexander said they hope Lev is moving the industry in the right direction, but they acknowledged that certain aspects of the character and how his story plays out have been criticized by both cisgender and transgender gamers.
The criticisms often center on a scene in which Lev is "deadnamed" by members of the religious tribe he fled, meaning they refer to him by his birth name rather than his preferred name. Critics also claim that Lev isn't given the autonomy to tell his own story and that — although the game is brutally violent for all its characters — the violence Lev endures is related mostly to his gender identity.
"When you attempt to put diversity out there and you understand you're wading into sensitive areas, you're not going to get everything right, and we know we're still learning about how to cast a character like this, how to write, what's the proper amount of consulting we should do," Druckmann said. "These are ongoing relationships we have with our craft."
Kazuma Hashimoto, 29, a Japanese trans man who lives in Germany and does translations for Japanese games, was a fan of "The Last of Us" and was interested in playing the sequel, but he said that when he finally did, he was disappointed with Lev's portrayal.
"It was kind of like 'Oh, it's nice to see an Asian trans man played by an Asian trans man,'" he said, "but I feel like Lev's story is kind of disappointing in that Lev's experience is told through the perspective of their sister, a cis person."
Hashimoto said he would rather have seen Lev tell his own story or have his gender identity be part of the game's subtext, rather than such an explicit part of the storyline.
"There's just, like, an understanding that this character is trans because the actor who is playing him is trans, or maybe they would have some agency telling Abby about their experience with the Seraphites," he said.
"Even though everybody is miserable, every other character gets to tell why they're miserable, and he doesn't. ... You're putting a trans character in the story only to rob him of his voice."
Hashimoto also took issue with the game's use of Lev's deadname during a scene in which he is fighting with the Seraphites.
"As someone who is trans, the deadnaming f------ sucks. Being deadnamed sucks, and playing through a game where a character is deadnamed doesn't feel good," he said, adding that the game should have had some type of warning before scenes that could be traumatic for transgender players.
The game's strict embargo meant reviewers couldn't include information about Lev's being trans until after it was released. Had that information been available ahead of time, Hashimoto said, players could have prepared themselves for potentially traumatic scenes.
Other trans gamers echoed Hashimoto's criticisms, saying they, too, were hurt by the deadname use and other devices used to tell Lev's story.
Ben Roswell, 22, a trans man, said he was also bothered that Lev wasn't given the chance to tell his story, saying the depiction would have been "miles better" if the character had been given that opportunity.
"Even though it's a miserable world, and even though everybody is miserable, every other character gets to tell why they're miserable, and he doesn't," Roswell said as he played the game. "You're putting a trans character in the story only to rob him of his voice."
Trans representation in media: What's at stake?
Transgender representation in mainstream media, while increasing, is still far from plentiful. For example, there were "zero transgender-inclusive films from the major studios" in 2018, according to a report released last year by the LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD. The study did, however, find positive and accurate depictions of trans characters on TV shows like "Pose."
That having been said, the stakes are high when it comes to the limited representation that is out there.
Rory Gory, digital marketing manager for The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth, said authentic portrayals can help transgender people cope with their struggles and imagine better futures.
"Positive representation humanizes trans people for those who are outside of the community, opening up dialogue and allowing for empathy," Gory said. "It's important to center trans voices in the creation of narratives about trans people and to listen to the feedback trans fans give on current representation so that we can retire harmful stereotypes and create better narratives moving forward."
Harmful stereotypes, while less common than they once were, are certainly not fully retired.
Anneliese Singh, associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Georgia College of Education, who hasn't played "The Last of Us Part II," said media, including video games, can often fall into portraying stereotypes.
"Sometimes, the portrayals can further some of the harm that trans people already experience, which mostly entails physical violence, sexual violence and mental violence," she said.
Singh said it will take many meaningful conversations to create trans characters in media — especially in video games — who are authentic and nuanced.
"Of course, in video games, there's so much misogyny that's upheld, and so within a realm of so much misogyny and violence, it makes sense that the representation of trans characters is going to take some deep and meaningful thought to make sure that they are portrayed well and in reality," she said.
A misstep in the right direction?
Druckmann hasn't shied away from the criticism of "The Last of Us Part II," saying he hopes the debate leads to better representation.
"I love that there's a conversation out there both positive and critical about what we're doing, and I hope instead of scaring other creators away, it encourages them to wade into this," he said. "You're going to get some criticism. That's OK. That's how we improve our medium. That's how we're going to get different kinds of stories and different kinds of story creators."
Alexander also understands the criticism and acknowledged that for some people, the storytelling devices used for Lev can be triggering, but he added that every trans person's experience is different and that for him, Lev feels like real representation — not a stereotype.
"I have seen the critiques about the use of Lev's deadname," he said. "I definitely understand that and empathize with that. Speaking from my personal experience, I have faced a lot of deadnaming and misgendering in my life, and I feel like it is just a realistic but unfortunate and uncomfortable part of being trans."
While Druckmann said he hopes Lev inspires creators, Alexander said he hopes Lev helps other trans youth feel less alone.
"I was just thinking this is going to mean so much to the kids out there playing this game that might be either questioning their gender or maybe they came out as trans. They're just trying to feel seen. They're trying to feel heard," he said. "So I think this is going to mean a lot to a lot of people."