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.
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.
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.
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.