Feature Article

Coming of Age in The Last of Us: Left Behind

Everything matters.

by

The following editorial contains spoilers for both The Last of Us and its recently released downloadable content Left Behind.

The Last of Us: Left Behind is remarkable in more ways than you would think possible for a three-hour story expansion. Ellie cements her place as one of gaming's most well-realized characters here, and though some of her personality building stems from the quiet cinematics where I was just an interested observer, Left Behind doesn't end her development there. What really caught my attention was how the core of her change occurs while we're in control of her. It's the combat, exploration, and bonding activities she shares with her friend Riley that establishes who she is, and who she'll ultimately become.

Ellie is an average teenager during the most hellacious period of human existence. Her naivete in the early moments is endearing, as it's clear that she has yet to be hardened by the world around her. We enter Left Behind with a similar mindset as our heroine. More interested in fun than serious contemplation, we view the world through the lens of amusement. It's how we've been conditioned to see games, searching for any element that can provide levity, so we're on the same level as Ellie as she sneaks out from her dorm room into an empty mall. How things became so run-down doesn't matter at this point, so neither I nor the characters dwell on the history. It's all about the present.

Ellie and Riley grow before our eyes in Left Behind.

During The Last of Us, Ellie was by Joel's side throughout most of the journey. They developed a delicate relationship in which it always felt as if one character was withholding information from the other. Rare moments of honesty, such as when Joel angrily shouted that Ellie was not his daughter, revealed the painful bruises that had still not healed, and the unsettling ripple that lay beneath the surface kept me on edge even outside of combat. Ellie was strong and excitable for much of the adventure, so willing to consume everything that makes up humanity, and I was disheartened to see her enthusiasm so often stifled by the tormented Joel.

There's no such barrier in Left Behind. Rather, we're allowed to enjoy life along with Ellie. It's such a dramatic shift from what the main adventure conditioned us to feel, and so different from what the dilapidated buildings communicate, that I hesitated to let down my guard. Surely, something terrible is going to befall Ellie and her friend Riley or else no story would exist. And after the devastating finale of The Last of Us, I didn't want to once again open myself up to such devastation. Despite my resistance, it soon became clear how impossible it would be to not join along with Ellie.

Ellie cements her place as one of gaming's most well-realized characters

Left Behind does an incredible job of establishing a tone of friendship and hope from the earliest moments. Even though this is a prequel and I knew what was going to happen, that nagging fear dissipated because of how expertly the story is told. Instead of foreshadowing the terrible events that could destroy the lives of these two teenagers, the game makes us worry about the source of their falling out, and whether or not their friendship can endure. Naughty Dog was smart to raise so many questions about the history between Riley and Ellie early on because it made me forget about what was going to occur in the future.

Riley is more proficient with a water gun than a pistol.

Prequels are tricky ways to tell a story because it's difficult for a game to offer a genuine surprise when we already know the ending. Left Behind avoids this problem entirely. Yes, we know that the time between Riley and Ellie will end, but that's not what's important here. Rather, it's their relationship we care about. It's how they interact with each other and what they have to say about the world that has been devastated by the zombie invasion. Each moment carries with it the weight of immediate importance as we grow ever closer to these two young characters.

Much of Left Behind is listening to Riley and Ellie talk as you explore a mall. It's not the most exciting experience, even if you're enthralled with their stories. It's when we step away from that wander-and-examine action that we see how well Left Behind implements storytelling within traditional gameplay. Ellie and Riley are just teenagers looking for a little fun, right? Well, you can't have that lighthearted mood when there are zombies about, so there aren't any infected during most of their time together. The mechanics of combat still surface, but are used to further their bond rather than exterminate monsters.

When the two girls see a couple of broken-down cars in the mall, Riley challenges Ellie to a game of glass breaking. Here, I threw bricks at car windows just like I tossed bricks and bottles at infected during intense combat. That I could perform the same actions with a totally different feeling is a great achievement because it invests us in the world without ruining the storytelling. The same thing happens later on, when Riley produces a couple of water guns from her backpack. The familiar sneak-and-shoot combat from when you square off against infected is used here to further the relationship between Riley and Ellie. Its impressive how fun and diverse Left Behind is and how well it tells its story, even while mostly shying away from the combat that makes up much of the core adventure.

Each moment carries with it the weight of immediate importance as we grow ever closer to these two young characters.

Of course, there is traditional combat, because without physical conflict, there wouldn't be a zombie apocalypse. But Left Behind doesn't throw in encounters just to keep the experience fresh, though that is a nice bonus. Rather, the face-offs have a purpose in establishing who Ellie is. These sequences take place years in the future, after Riley and Ellie have parted ways. And we see that transformation play out in every aspect of Ellie's character. She's no longer the fun-loving girl with the loud laughter and ready supply of jokes. Well, she may still be, but she stifles her instincts when she has to worry about survival. Something important had happened between the playful moments with Riley and the present in which she's fending off deadly attackers.

Ellie fights with a purpose.

I had no interest in fighting when the infected first stood before me, and Left Behind accommodated my feelings. Ellie may have the ability to fight, but doesn't enjoy it, so I kept to the shadows rather than confront the zombies head-on. Yes, Ellie had hardened from the beginning of the game, but not so much that she relished fighting. That Left Behind was able to communicate so much without dialogue was impressive. By structuring enemies in such a way that confrontation would lead to my own death, the game forced me to hide, and so I learned even more about Ellie. She's strong enough to fight but smart enough to avoid doing so.

It wasn't until later on that Ellie's anger erupted. Coincidentally, this is also the lone section that drew me out of the experience. Through both the noninteractive cutscenes and combat scenarios, I learned that Ellie was stronger than most teenagers, but doesn't take any pleasure in killing zombies. So during the final section of her story arc, when I was forced to hunt down and kill the remaining survivors, I felt as though everything I had learned about her had been turned aside. Left Behind did such a fantastic job of telling its tale through every element--be it dialogue, action, or the crumbling architecture--that I was saddened to see that trust betrayed. We don't see what caused Ellie's violent tendencies to become insatiable, so such a change clashed with the available information.

Through that out-of-character sequence, though, I gained a further appreciation for storytelling in games. Left Behind is exceptional for how it so carefully molds Ellie. Given how often modern games have a barrier that separates gameplay and cinematics, it's refreshing to see a cohesive experience in which every piece of the adventure is on the same page. And even though that last instance of forced combat committed the same sins as so many other games, it just reminded me how far we still have to come before games stick by their own rules rather than ignoring character development in favor of violent fun. Left Behind is an affecting adventure. I hope other games use it as an influence in how to craft stories, and hopeflly learn from its one misstep.

Discussion

61 comments
Sarijon
Sarijon

TLoU is such a brilliant game its just such a shame that the SP (only) DLC is such a disappointment, not only in character choice, but also in story line, game play mechanics and length! Both GS & IGN rated 'left behind' a 9 but for me it falls a long way short.

1st of all there are more interesting story lines/Characters than Ellie's - Tess's, Tommy's or Marlene's for instance. Secondly half of this DLC 'story' has already been told in the main game ie Ellie going off alone to find medicine for Joel & certainly didn't need a retelling abait differently. Thirdly the other half of the DLC story isn't actually a game at all but a series of long 'emotional' cut scenes coupled with QTE's that have no real relevance to the game as a whole. Fourthly the length & content of this DLC (a few short hours) falls well short of the rather hefty price tag of £11.99 ......... in short all rather disgusting (that I retained my copy for this) as I loved the main game so much I played it four times!!

psuedospike
psuedospike

 Do yourself a favor and don't read this bull, just go play the DLC, it will take as long as reading both Tom's review and article above...only much better written and a better use of your time!

Garm31
Garm31

The anger inducing, flaccid ending is unforgivable. What a huge let down. My guess  the only reasoning for it, is that maybe Riley didn't die.  We the player don't see her die and maybe Ellie didn't either.  Maybe she just thinks shes dead. Maybe Ellie and Riley were bitten by an infected, that passed on the cure.  An one of kind rare infected that produced anti-bodies to fight the Virus. Hence Riley returning in the sequel to stir up some drama. That is the only reason I have to defend Naughty Dogs failure.

leikeylosh
leikeylosh

Jesus Christ, McShea, we get it. You regretted giving an 8 to the original game and now is trying to make up for it.

NTM23
NTM23

I guess I was wrong in my assumption. I don't want to bring it up as if it's all that's important, because it's really not, but it's the one thing that's discussed that I had wrong. I felt that the moment Ellie pecked Riley on the lips was merely a show of strong affection, and that it wasn't taken as far as "Ellie's a lesbian" even though it can be seen that way; even through the date it was released, and the music that had played in that section, I just felt that they both really loved each other as friends and it was a strong bond, almost like sisters, not lovers. Neil Druckmann said the opposite, which kind of bummed me out; not because she's lesbian, but because it took away from how I felt about that moment in the game and what I saw that relationship to be, and to have that actually revealed after I had played it made me think about it pretty differently, having Ellie be quite a different character for it. 


Anyways, I liked it. Some people said that Ellie in the main game had swore too much, and personally, I thought in some cases it was really well done and didn't quite reach overdone, though at times bordered it, while in this one, I felt she had said 'fuck' far too often; it was still delivered well by Ashley Johnson, but it wasn't terrific hearing it almost every other sentence, or that's what it seemed to be like. I also, in some areas of when you were exploring with Riley, were moments when the charm didn't come across quite as strong; perhaps because it was excessive at times, I don't know why, but some, as in very little of it, just didn't work for me. There were also lines read by Riley's actress that came across as pretty common sounding, like when you're in the halloween shop and she's reading off books sitting on the shelf. 


It's very minor, but worth mentioning to me since it's what I have to complain about in what's an otherwise great experience. Finally, I am with some others on it as well, in waiting for that emotional ending in which Riley turns and Ellie figures out she wasn't, but it simply ended on Riley's quote to Ellie, which is an adequate way to go, but it could have been better (I sat through the credits hoping for more). So, though I think it was a great experience, and a nice addition to The Last of Us with some really interesting and unique aspects, it was neither better than the original game to me, and I would hope we see more of Ellie and Joel because of the way this ended. It ended adequately for the DLC, but not necessarily for the last time we see these characters.


About Ellie killing all those guys at the end, I think it made complete sense in why she turned into the person she did, though I doubt she could kill all those guys, but... Video games. So I never questioned why she had acted that way, though for Tom, I don't think it's a satisfying reason one way or another, and that's fine, but it is what it is and I don't think it's hard to understand how she turned into what she turned into. My two favorite parts were probably the arcade moment, and the water gun fight; they were just unique. I also liked the end, running from the infected. Alright, on to Burial At Sea Episode Two, and then I think I'm done with last-gen.

SullyTheStrange
SullyTheStrange

I believe those last two paragraphs are totally wrong. Ellie doesn't have out-of-character "insatiable violent tendencies" -- she has someone to protect. Just as we see Joel go through hell and back to save Ellie at the end of the main game, now it's Ellie fighting to save Joel, and she won't let anyone stop her. The parallel extends with our knowledge of how Ellie and Riley's story ends; we know that Ellie ends up losing the person who means the world to her, and who does that sound like? Joel and Sarah. Neither Joel nor Ellie ever recovered from that loss, but after they eventually meet, both of them tried to fill that hole with the other. In the final battle against the hunters in Left Behind, "present" Ellie fights like hell to save Joel the same way Joel will go on to fight through the hospital to save her.


Writing this made me realize exactly why they set up the story of Left Behind this way: the two halves of the story mirror each other tragically. On one side, you see Ellie losing the most important person in her life, and on the other, you see her saving the most important person in her life. The former is exactly what fuels her during the latter. She has experienced devastating loss and will do anything to keep from experiencing it again.


I would agree however that more could've been done to strengthen this connection, perhaps by Ellie showing guilt at the sign of Riley's bitten hand -- "could I have saved her if I didn't miss that last jump, if I was faster in killing that last infected on top of her?" I could still present that as evidence but it's more of a stretch than the rest. Whether or not Naughty Dog intended that, I'm sure they intended everything else I've said. I believe it would've been weirder if she DIDN'T hunt down every last person trying to take Joel away from her.


Normally I would take the author's side here -- if this was about the recent Tomb Raider, the way Lara transitions from innocent girl to murderous survivor in about the span of a minute or two was definitely for gameplay's sake at the expense of story, but here I just don't feel that way at all. 

Guest1001
Guest1001

A game and a DLC later ... and I'm still wondering what the big deal was about the writing of The Last Of Us. The majority of characters in the game were unlikeable scumbags. Ellie made fun of a man's weight several times, attacked him after he'd just saved her life, overstepped her bounds by talking about Joel's daughter and, in the DLC, it's hard to like any characters who are so stupid as to play loud music and dance on tables in a place that could be filled with zombies.

Garm31
Garm31

Amazing and very human story of friendship, sorely let down by a short campaign and limp ending. I cannot understand why the devs would build up a relationship between two friends and not produce the ending we were all waiting for. It cuts off mid sentence. I thought there would be a emotional climax. What a fuckin' pity. This dlc doesn't add anything to the best game of last gen. It's a missed opportunity. It's also WAY! overpriced.

PlatinumPaladin
PlatinumPaladin

Cheers for the spoiler alert. I'll have to read this another time perhaps.

DiamondDM13
DiamondDM13

Did you play the same DLC that I did? What do you mean she hunted down the survivors? You had 2 options, kill them all, or let them open the door and kill Joel. I don't see where those violent tendencies were, just saw her try her best to protect Joel, just like he did for months during the main campaign...

And you do have to kill them fairly quick, otherwise they open the lock. But you can mostly just use the bow to kill the guy picking the lock and wait for the infected to arrive, at which point you can let the infected do the work.

Gelugon_baat
Gelugon_baat

Heh-heh, Tom McShea may not be aware of the American Dreams comic. :P

caroliro
caroliro

I don't know if i would qualify her violent tendencies as insatiable. It seemed to me that her actions against the survivors reflected some feelings of survivors guilt in the recent loss of Riley. (i.e no harm to Joel, if she can help, it at any cost.)  

Jawehawk-DK
Jawehawk-DK

Seriously McShea. At the very least, you should be sure you know the facts about the game and its story before writing both a review and article about it. Left Behind takes place just a few weeks before the story of The Last of Us. Not years!

NTM23
NTM23

@psuedospike  Dang, if it takes two to three hours to read this and his review... Well that's unfortunate.

Gelugon_baat
Gelugon_baat

Just in case some of you don't know, psuedospike has a problem with Tom McShea. ;)

(One too many McShea'd reviews that psuedospike doesn't agree with.) 

In other words, do take psuedospike's opinion with a pinch of salt. :)

NbAlIvEr10000
NbAlIvEr10000

@Garm31  If you'd played the main game the pieces all come together.  This DLC was perfect and ND did not disappoint.  If you understand the story, you'd realize the emotional feedback that "you" personally know that Riley won't survive, but Ellie will considering how close the two of them were (*wink wink).  You are putting way too much into the reason behind the story of this DLC.

Arkhalipso
Arkhalipso

@Garm31  It's not a virus, it's a fungus. Riley dies, Ellie knows it. I think they were bitten by different infected, but in any case, if that infected had some kind of "anti-bodies" or wathever, it wouldn't have got infected in the first place. Like Tom said, we all knew what was going to happen, but that was not the point of the DLC.

NTM23
NTM23

@Garm31  No, Riley dies. That has already been established, it's just that we didn't get to see it happen which is unfortunate.

NTM23
NTM23

@leikeylosh  No, I think he's just trying to make people understand his side, not so much that he's sorry about it, because he's not. That being said, I understand his side, I just think it's way off on the majority of the stuff for this game.

NbAlIvEr10000
NbAlIvEr10000

@NTM23  I totally agree with pretty much everything you've said.  I find the whole "lesbian" thing is being talked about the most on the net and feel you nailed the overall tone of it to the "T". Even during that scene when I was first playing it, I myself could feel the compassion to both players and even could put myself in Ellie's shoes; even knowing so much before it even happened that she was going to kiss her, simply because I felt it should happen-- which IMO, sums it up perfectly that this isn't her being a lesbian, but simply showing emotion to someone she actually loves.

snowy_otaku
snowy_otaku

Well unlike naruto945, I read your comment and I agree completely.

FabledVeteran
FabledVeteran

@Guest1001  As @nazgoroth says, they're young and not completely thinking what they do through


The DLC shows us that Ellie and Riley, are both young, naive and have no clue what the world is like, or at least view it in the way a young mind does... The whole DLC puts them both at risk, on many occasions, but they never seem to think about the consequence as they're enjoying the time they have together

nazgoroth
nazgoroth

@Guest1001  

Also, in the dlc they're what? 12? 13? Kids will be kids. Kids aren't always rational.

NTM23
NTM23

@Garm31  Yeah, the length didn't bother me so much, but the ending was disappointing, and that's where I wanted more.

NTM23
NTM23

@DiamondDM13  Yeah, honestly, I read this article and it seems Tom didn't understand the concept in that section, though I would say that even if he did, he still wouldn't be satisfied because in the end, she does turn into someone that has had enough of the humans and infected messing with the ones she loves, and the things they're trying to do. I also want to say, Ellie nor Joel 'enjoy' killing as Tom would put it.

Gelugon_baat
Gelugon_baat

Just in case some of you don't know, psuedospike has a problem with Tom McShea. ;)

(One too many McShea'd reviews that psuedospike doesn't agree with.)

Gelugon_baat
Gelugon_baat

@Jawehawk-DK  

Maybe you should re-read the passage. :/

But then you have not always been good at reading, haven't you, Jawehawk-DK?

Ayzed
Ayzed

@NTM23 @Garm31 I wanted to see her turn and see how Ellie managed to kill her and/or escape.. even just a cuscene of it after the credits would have been epic.

NbAlIvEr10000
NbAlIvEr10000

@SpiderLuke @leikeylosh  I'd have to agree and disagree with you on that.  Sometimes you just have to think about the developer and understand just HOW MUCH detail went into the creation of this game.  Not only that, but how GREAT the overall acting was for this game.  The emotional level of detail put into the backstories of all the characters is what really made this game shine.  I would have stuck with a rating he gave the DLC and that would be a 9-9.5.

NTM23
NTM23

@naruto945 


I did, on more than one occasion. What you said is, in other words 'tl;dr'. Go back to reading twitter.

NbAlIvEr10000
NbAlIvEr10000

@NTM23 @Garm31  I read your other comment and totally agreed on most of it, but could you elaborate on what  more you wanted to see at the end?  Many people are criticizing the end, but I felt it summed it up perfectly in concordance to the main story.  {SPOILER}  I've read that people seem to think that Riley could have ended up living, but I don't see that showing any relevance to the story when you know how deep ND put emotional backstories to each character.  It's one of those "pieces to the puzzle" ending that pretty much sums it up straightforward.  This game was great at getting you emotionally involved with every character and knowing that at the end really makes you feel for Ellie not knowing that she is going to live and only to see her best friend turn in the end.

psuedospike
psuedospike

@nl_skipper I believe it was 7.5, they upped it to an 8 when they did away with decimal scores.  Pot meet kettle.

naruto945
naruto945

@Gelugon_baat @naruto945  article was good 4 paragraph comment was not

NTM23
NTM23

@NbAlIvEr10000  


I said it in my above comment that you said you agreed with :P. I take it you agreed about the lesbian aspect though, which is fine. I also touched on the whole 'Riley may not really be dead' thing as well. I mean, they never showed it, so if they were to make some sequel, they could pull that twist out, but they had already said that she did die. I don't really think it's in question. 


I said above that for the DLC, while I am disappointed in its end, I thought it was adequate, so I'm not going as far to criticize it in a completely negative manner, but I would be extremely disappointed, and don't believe it's an adequate end to Ellie's story, or Joel's. It didn't even have to show Riley turning and Elli figuring out that she wasn't as an emotional end, it could have been a little after, a more quiet yet still somber moment, showing how she first coped with it, with the loss of another one, and what's she's thinking about after she finds out she won't turn.


Oh, and I don't think you need to mention a spoiler, since spoilers are welcome in this article. The article itself has spoilers in it.

NTM23
NTM23

@psuedospike I should also say that they don't change scores, no matter how many times they change the reviewing system. They've only changed scores for games a few times, and that was a long, long time ago (like for Shenmue).

NTM23
NTM23

@psuedospike No, they had the previous reviewing system up when they put The Last of Us review on, it was still an 8.0. I remember because people were angry that he didn't give it any visual emblems.

Joben420
Joben420

@Gelugon_baat @that98kid  


LOL wow you don't even realize it? And you're trying to patronize people?  Don't mean to be offensive but you need to work on your reading comprehension skills before you try to critique people on the internet.


"These sequences take place YEARS in the future, after Riley and Ellie have parted ways."


That's how you proved yourself wrong.  The Last of Us starts in the Summer.  The events of Left Behind are only weeks before the start of The Last of Us.  "These sequences" that Tom refers to take place in the Winter section of the game, a mere 6-8 months at most in the future, not years.

that98kid
that98kid

You just proves yourself wrong and Jawehawk-DK right...

Gelugon_baat
Gelugon_baat

@Jawehawk-DK  

Well, if you are going to say that, then I would say this:

you read the entire article again - you won't find a statement saying that the events of Left Behind happened years before The Last of Us.

In fact, the only sentence with the phrase "years" appearing in it was the following:

"These sequences take place years in the future, after Riley and Ellie have parted ways."