This post includes spoilers for The Last of Us: Left Behind.
Much has already been made of The Last of Us: Left Behind, an add-on chapter to one of last year's biggest blockbusters. Our own Tom Mc Shea has written a review and an excellent analysis of the DLC's strengths as a piece of interactive storytelling. And today in Wired, Laura Hudson posted a great piece about what playing Left Behind meant to her, entitled The Videogame That Finally Made Me Feel Like a Human Being. I just felt the need to add my voice to the chorus of voices proclaiming that The Last of Us: Left Behind is both outstanding and vitally important.
Some might be inclined to think that I feel this way simply because it's a story about women. Well, you wouldn't be entirely wrong. It's a sad reality, but a reality nonetheless, that games about women that treat those women as actual, complicated, three-dimensional human beings are exceedingly rare, so when games tell stories about women, they are still noteworthy for that reason and that reason alone. I think about how many women who play games, myself included, once latched on to characters like Princess Zelda, characters whose few moments of seeming strength and agency made them appear strong and admirable within the landscape of video game women, but who, by any reasonable standard, are terrible. (In last year's great The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Zelda is still a damsel, more a plot device than a character.) Because it is so rare, when games do give us stories about women who aren't sex objects but people, it is something worthy of being acknowledged and celebrated. I look forward to the day when this isn't a big deal anymore, when such portrayals of women in games are commonplace, but for now, it's still a huge deal.
But the thing about Left Behind is that it doesn't need me to fall back on that argument because, gender of the characters aside, it also depicts one of the most real relationships between two of the most human characters ever portrayed in a game. And while I positively love well-designed action, rewarding gameplay systems, and all the other mechanical things that go into making games fun, I don't think there's anything more important or exciting happening in games right now than these little glimpses of the potential for games to actually tell stories about people. Left Behind does this masterfully. Within its very brief running time are so many moments between Ellie and Riley that feel more alive and true than such moments in just about any other game I've ever played. Some of those moments are funny. Some of them are sad. Some of them are sweet. We're only with Ellie and Riley for a short time, but that time gives us a glimpse of a fully realized, complex relationship.
I can't stress enough how believable these characters are. When Ellie asks a fortune-telling skull, "Am I ever gonna get boobs or what?" I thought, yes, this is it, this is exactly the kind of humanity that you never, ever see in games. That's the sort of thing that a girl her age would actually think and feel. When Ellie reads Riley jokes from a book, their reactions to the jokes don't even feel scripted. They feel real.
When I started playing, Left Behind asked me if I wanted to allow it to post to Facebook. It would only post one thing. In general, I don't let games post to Facebook or Twitter for me. But I had a good feeling about this. And I'm glad I did. What wound up being shared to my Facebook was a strip of photo booth snapshots, taken as Ellie and Riley do one more normal thing people their age might do; they live in a devastated world, but as Left Behind repeatedly reminds us, they're still just teenagers. If the relationship between the characters weren't believable, this strip of photos would have been meaningless, a reminder of a time I pushed some buttons and made some polygonal figures take on different poses and expressions. But instead, because I was there with Ellie and Riley when they rode the carousel, and when they hunted each other with water guns, and when they threw bricks at cars, and when they tried on old Halloween masks, and when they listened to music, and when they kissed, those pictures mean something.
And as Tom has written about, it's wonderful, the way this relationship isn't just formed through noninteractive cutscenes but through gameplay. Left Behind is brilliant in the way that it takes mechanics that we've previously associated with fear and violence and makes them the stuff of play, things that Ellie and Riley (and you) share. It's beautiful. Left Behind exists within the limitations of AAA action adventure games, and like Tom, I lament the chapter's need to fall back on the conventions of these games and end with a climactic section in which you have to kill a bunch of dudes. But I also appreciate how Left Behind so often takes its own mechanics and presents them to us in contexts that completely change how we feel about them.
Does every game need to tell a meaningful human story? No, of course not. But the issue is that almost no games do. This, more than anything else, is what I feel like games need more of in the years to come. Left Behind is an extraordinary demonstration of how it can be done.