“The Last of Us: Left Behind” Review
The Last of Us ruined video games for me. My tolerance for sophomoric writing in games evaporated the moment Ellie said “Okay” at the end. There have been several story-intensive games that I flat-out gave up on after I finished The Last of Us. So much of video game storytelling is reflexive posturing, mimicking the iconography of better tales. The Last of Us understood how to ape its cinematic inspirations and where to break new ground. The Last of Us is nothing short of an astounding achievement in narrative-based gaming. Naturally, its first and only DLC, Left Behind, had a lot of live up to. Developer Naughty Dog recognized this and outdid themselves by focusing the story on a different aspect of the same themes explored on the main game.
Left Behind is a prequel wrapped up in a lost chapter of The Last of Us. After Joel is incapacitated at the university in Colorado, the narrative flashed forward some time, skipping over the details of how Ellie kept him alive. Left Behind tells the story in that gap but goes further. Left Behind uses flashbacks to tell another story that serves as Ellie’s origin of sorts.
Before Ellie met Joel she was a student at a military boarding school. Her best friend Riley had left to join the resistance group known as the Fireflies. In Left Behind Ellie remembers the night Riley returned from her Firefly training and the two of them tried to rekindle their friendship.
Left Behind is an achievement in gaming for the simple fact that the majority of its playtime is spent with two teenaged girls as they goof around in an abandoned mall. There is no one to fight or kill, no puzzles to solve, no trappings of a standard video game. What it does do is recreate the pure sense of fun between two friends. It invokes memories of childhood, how you could find joy and fun anywhere as long as your best friend was at your side. The girls try on masks at a Halloween shop, ride a carrousel, and take silly photo booth pictures. The Last of Us was a dour experience punctuated by moments of terror and moments of beauty. Left Behind is a quiet and, at times, joyful experience. The sequences with Ellie and Riley had me alternating between grins and misty eyes.
In order for the DLC to feel like the game in the main narrative portion, Ellie must find a medical kit to patch up Joel. She searches another abandoned mall. This one, though, is full of Infected and murderous survivors bent on killing her and Joel. These sections play like The Last of Us‘s standard fare. Like The Last of Us though, they serve a higher thematic purpose. When juxtaposed with Ellie’s memories, Ellie’s determination in the present is illuminated. By the end of Left Behind Ellie makes more sense, and her devotion to Joel comes into focus as Riley’s story is revealed.
Left Behind is remarkable work from Naughty Dog; there is nothing like it in gaming. It is an emotional and visceral experience; its combat, harrowing, and its story, touching. The two halves of the experience serve a greater thematic purpose that explores the truths of being a teenager, the meaning of devotion, and what it takes to survive. A game with something to say is a rare thing, it should be celebrated as much as possible.