I am not, nor have I ever been, a teenaged girl. And yet, for three hours, The Last of Us: Left Behind made me experience what it might feel like to be one, with all the worries, insecurities and uncertainties that come with it. It is for this reason, and many others, that Left Behind is such an important title for the videogame industry.
WARNING: This article contains major spoilers for The Last of Us: Left Behind.
Last summer, I wrote about how I wasn’t as immediately struck by The Last of Us as many other gamers were, even though I still thought it was a brilliant game. Little did I know all it would take was a three-hour DLC chapter to make me appreciate just how remarkable a title it really is.
Having sat on it for a few weeks, I finally completed The Last of Us: Left Behind last night, and this article has been forming in my mind ever since. It’s rare for a game to have such a profound effect on me, but when it happens I often find myself subconsciously writing about it, so by the time I actually start typing, the words flow quite naturally. And so it was with Left Behind.
Until the DLC’s release, Naughty Dog had only ever mentioned that it was a prequel to The Last of Us, so it was a surprise to find that this is just one of the two stories Left Behind tells; the other being set during the main game, between the Fall and Winter chapters. The idea to have two stories running simultaneously was a genius design choice for the DLC, as Ellie’s struggle in the present can be seen as the complete antithesis to the fun and games of the past. It was also smart to only include combat in the former, because it makes the difference between the two timeframes all the more apparent.
However, things get even more interesting when you look for similarities between the two stories. Obviously the fact that they are both set in shopping malls isn’t a coincidence, but there are more subtle connections too, such as the photo Ellie finds on the dead pharmacist, which foreshadows Ellie and Riley’s antics in the photo booth later in the game (even though, from Ellie’s perspective, that actually happened in the past).
Even Left Behind’s title has implications in both scenarios. In the present, Joel is incapacitated, leaving Ellie to fend for the both of them; while in the flashback, Riley returns after leaving Ellie 46 days beforehand and, by the end of the story, will soon leave Ellie behind for good.
The DLC is full of beautiful sequences that are not only entertaining to experience as a player, but that say a lot about Ellie and Riley’s friendship; from Ellie’s infamous joke book to the imaginary arcade game. This also seems like as good a time as any to mention the incredible performances by Ashley Johnson (Ellie) and Yaani King (Riley), which inject so much heart and character into the already movie-worthy script.
And then of course, we have that kiss; the single moment of Left Behind that, perhaps unsurprisingly, has generated by far the most discussion across the World Wide Web; I’ve lost count of how many forum threads I’ve seen called things like ‘Is Ellie gay?’. Although Neil Druckmann (Creative Director and writer of The Last of Us and Left Behind) has gone on record as saying his intention was that the girls are indeed gay, he did also explain that other interpretations aren’t necessarily wrong, even if he doesn’t agree with them.
As I was playing, I personally thought it was a more spontaneous decision, as it was simply the quickest and easiest way for Ellie to express how much Riley means to her, and vice-versa. To be honest, I didn’t really expect Naughty Dog to confirm anything either way, so it was a little surprising that Neil Druckmann chose to talk about it so openly, even insinuating that it was planned this way throughout the development of the main game.
Due to the fact it explores the relationship between two teenaged girls, Left Behind was always going to be compared to The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home. For the most part, I think these comparisons are fair, however, in many ways the two titles are actually quite unlike each other; not least, due to the stark difference of their endings.
Gone Home closes on an undeniably positive note, with Sam and Lonnie beginning a new life together, away from the authority and prejudices of their families and fellow school students. Conversely, although Ellie and Riley plan a similar existence, the possibility of such a future is snatched away from them the second they get bitten by the Infected.
What’s interesting about Left Behind is that we already knew how Ellie and Riley’s story was going to end, but that doesn’t make it any less poignant. In fact, it’s even moreso, because now we understand the significance of the duo’s relationship. Similarly, the fact that both of them are indirectly responsible for getting bitten only adds to the pathos; although it is Ellie who falls off the scaffolding (prompting Riley to jump down and help her), it was Riley’s idea to visit the mall in the first place (and to put on the music that draws the Infected to them).
Although it explains a lot, Left Behind doesn’t quite fill in all the blanks. We still don’t know specifically what happened during the time between Ellie and Riley getting bitten and Riley dying. When did Ellie discover she was immune? Did Riley realise it too before she died? Did Ellie perhaps kill Riley herself? Where did Ellie go after that? The answers to these questions are still left up to the player’s imagination, which is perhaps a more effective story-telling technique than detailing exactly what happened.
The Last of Us: Left Behind feels like a real watershed moment for videogames, and one that deserves to be discussed. Of course, there will always be a place for all-out action titles that require no thought other than deciding where to place your next headshot; but as developers and gamers grow up, let’s hope we’ll see an increase in games like Naughty Dog’s extraordinary latest creation.