This may have been the first year of the PlayStation 3's slow fade from relevance, but one look at our nominee list says that fade will be very, very slow. Though there were a wealth of options that preserved the PlayStation 3 as an awesome platform for gaming this year, there was one experience that broke new ground for incredible storytelling potential of video games: the downloadable expansion for last year's Best PS3 Game winner, The Last of Us: Left Behind.
Wait, what? Some DLC is winning GameSpot's Best PS3 Game award? When it's this good, absolutely. Left Behind also won our Game of the Month award in February, prompting some to scoff at the fact that a mere downloadable add-on to a game could be compared, on its own merits, to full standalone releases. But the reality is that it's been years since traditional archetypes of price and length applied to video games. What constitutes a "video game" is a moving target, and constantly updating and reevaluating that definition is essential to the growth and prosperity of this medium we love so much.
Left Behind, too, is essential. Though clearly based in many of the same elements that made The Last of Us excellent, Left Behind's remarkable achievements in character development and gameplay mechanics are entirely its own. Ellie and Riley's friendship is one of the most rich and nuanced relationships we've seen in games, charting not just the extremes of emotion that you'd expect in such a perilous world, but also the subtle ebbs and flows of fondess and distance, the warming and cooling that temper and forge the bonds we hold most dear.
The emotive acting and genuine writing are wonderful, but what makes Left Behind a wonderful game is how brilliantly it repurposes The Last of Us' core mechanics. The vital combat skill of hitting an enemy with a brick becomes a mischievous teenage game of smashing car windows. Exploring the environment for items to use in crafting becomes scouring the mall for joke books and masks to use in goofing off. A water gun fight uses stealth and shooting to create a moment of light-hearted play. These moments stand in dramatic contrast to the desperate, desolate combat that Ellie must undertake in the snowy sequences and serve as a glowing example of the power of games to entertain, enlighten, and evoke emotion with nonviolent mechanics.
In perhaps the most transcendent scene in the Left Behind, Ellie stands with her eyes closed before a non-functioning arcade cabinet and Riley talks her through the act of playing an imaginary fighting game. Though small prompts appear so you can play along, the screen is taken up almost entirely by Ellie's face. Skepticism gives way to concentration as she dedicates herself to the task and steadily gets swept up in the moment. The imagined lights of the game dance across her face, each color a shade of the happiness she is awash in from having a game to play and a friend by her side. In this moment, she is a mirror, and you see not only the imaginative, transformative joy of games, you see yourself.