Saturday, February 15, 2014

Don’t Go: My Impressions of "The Last of Us: Left Behind"

I cried.  I knew full well how it would end, but I still cried.  I didn’t try to steel myself for what was surely going to be an emotional ending.  I knew it wouldn’t help.

Left Behind is the first and only single-player DLC for Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, and although I’m disappointed there won’t be more to this title (ignoring the rumored potential for a future sequel), the developers and story writers couldn’t have closed this game more beautifully or tragically.  They didn’t go out with a bang so much as a heavy, thoughtful breeze that chills you to the bone.  Much like the rest of the game, the action is just a tool for the greater story to unfold, exploring the strongest and weakest moments of the characters and everything in between.  In the end, we’re left to gather the fragments of our thoughts and emotions, trying to piece them together while finding a way to move on.

Spoilers for Left Behind and the main story are ahead.  Usually at this point, I’ll tell you to read at your own risk.  But this time, if you have yet to play either the main game or DLC, stop at the end of this paragraph, hit the red X in the top right corner, close your laptop, toss your monitor out the window, whatever you got to do, then do yourself a favor and experience The Last of Us and Left Behind with fresh, unspoiled eyes.

I’m calling this “My Impressions of Left Behind” rather than a “review” because I just don’t like that idea.  The Escapist, IGN, Destructoid, and every other video game blogger will be sharing their opinions and reviews.  If you want to see a score out of ten, plenty of other websites will be happy to oblige.  Also, I can’t quite call this a review because I won’t be saying anything negative here. I’ve been a heavily biased fan of this game since finishing my first play through, so I didn’t go through this DLC thinking of what could have been improved.  I went into this with the express purpose of enjoying every minute.

Left Behind is a prequel that focuses on Ellie and her best friend, Riley, in between the events of the comic series, “The Last of Us: American Dreams,” and the primary narrative of the game.  Interestingly enough, the DLC starts off immediately after The University chapter with Ellie desperately searching for a way to keep Joel alive.  As the story progresses, we jump back and forth between Ellie on her own in the present, and Ellie and Riley together in the past.  In a clever parallel, both of these storylines take place in different malls.

Playing as Ellie the entire time, this DLC isn’t very combat focused (provided you’re better at sneaking past enemies than I am).  Instead, we see more of the other major elements of the main story’s gameplay, such as puzzle solving, stealth, and spending gratuitous amounts of time in each environment searching for artifacts and staring at everything because it’s so damn gorgeous.  The chapters with Ellie and Riley together especially are more about exploring their relationship rather than the mall itself.  I spent a solid ten to fifteen minutes in the Halloween store alone trying on all the masks, reading each answer from the fortune-telling skull, and following Riley so I wouldn’t miss a single line of dialogue.

This is in heavy contrast with the chapters in the Colorado mall, where Ellie is alone with only herself to rely on for help and conversation.  As she digs through stores for medical supplies, there are artifacts scattered about telling pieces of story involving a helicopter crew who crashed in the mall and were forced to fight infected and each other.  Through these artifacts, including a heart-crushing photo of the crew in happier times, we see the slow disintegration of the bond between four good friends.  In the Boston mall chapters, however, we see a relationship being mended, but not without its own tests.

With The Last of Us, the task at hand – whether it be navigating a building full of infected or battling fist and gun with hostile survivors – only serves as the surface conflict.  At the same time, the lighter moments, such as Ellie reading aloud from a joke book, asking the fortune skull if she’ll ever get boobs, or snapping pictures with Riley in a photo booth, are hiding the tension following them from the start of their journey.  While Ellie’s challenges become more daunting in the Colorado mall as she risks her life avoiding or fighting survivors and infected, her emotional tensions come to a head back in Boston when Riley reveals the Fireflies are sending her away to another city.

Ellie is a strong character, physically and emotionally.  She keeps her walls up, as Winston comments in one of his written notes Ellie can find in the Boston mall.  She buries her sorrow in sarcasm, telling Riley she can make her way without her.  But a person can only keep their defenses up for so long, and as she and Riley dance together, both of them knowing their final goodbye is just around the corner, Ellie utters what is probably her most heartbreaking line in the entire game besides her “Okay” at the end of the main story.

"Don't go."

And here is where I started to tear up, and it’s the same reason I still tear up every time I play through this game.  Even though Riley pulls off her Firefly pendant, a wordless promise that she’ll stay by Ellie’s side, we still know that their time together is running out.  Thanks to Ellie’s admission to Joel at the end of the game about the events that led to her getting bit, we already know that she is the only one who is going to walk out of that mall alive, and what happens to her and her best friend will shape the person she becomes and her motivation to keep going from that point forward.

Closing out this DLC in a way that couldn’t have been more appropriate, both girls, bitten and infected, sit in the sunrise near the mall exit that was so close but not close enough.  Riley goes over their options, and in a speech perfectly reminiscent of Joel’s at the very end of the game, she sums up the reason why we have been playing since the start. 


“To fight for every second we get to spend with each other.  Whether it’s two minutes or two days, we don’t give that up.”


Finishing this DLC and thinking back on my multiple play throughs of the main story, I’m reminded of what it is that both Ellie and Joel were fighting for, what kept them going when their own worlds fell apart along with the larger world around them.  Now that we’ve seen the story from the “American Dreams” comics to the Left Behind DLC to the main narrative of The Last of Us, we can see just how alike Joel and Ellie really are, whether or not it’s obvious on the surface. 

4 comments:

  1. I agree with EVERYTHING in this article, especially your statement about how this DLC was a tool to further the main campaign's story. In fact, I'll even say that I don't know how the main campaign can live without it now. Like Flannery O'Connor said in response to critics saying her stories were too violent, it's these situations that bring about what's indispensable about the characters. The main campaign showed us this through and through, but the DLC really drove this point home: as fathers, daughters, friends, loved ones, as human beings, we need those bonds to have meaning in our lives, to keep us going, especially in a bleak, violent, and utterly hopeless environment like in TLOU. The DLC successfully accomplished this in such a brutal, poignant way. I, too, welled up inside when she said, "Don't go."And when she kissed Riley, my jaw just dropped, and I literally said out loud, "Holy shit! That's fucking awesome!" Again, like the spirit of the game, that incredible moment wasn't over-the-top. It was simply honest.

    Okay, now, can I say how much fun it was to be in the Halloween store? I think I spent 15 minutes in there, too, just trying to find everything I could get my hands on, laughing at Ellie's responses ("Fuck you, skull"), and seeing her and Riley's relationship unfold. The whole DLC was filled with little moments of joy, curiosity, and even reminders that Ellie has no idea about pre-apocalyptic America, like where she picked up a jar of rubber eyeballs and said something along the lines of, "People actually bought this stuff?" Playing The Turning in the arcade was great, too. I thought, "Really? We're going to imagine playing it?" But it totally worked with the sound effects, the health bars coming up, and the frantic scramble to hit the correct button sequence for the combos. It brought me back to that scene in Bill's town, where Ellie thought she could finally play it for real. It made that scene much more powerful, showing that Ellie is always reminded of Riley in the main campaign and that her decisions, the makeup of who she is, and her values are rooted from their short-lived relationship.

    What did you think of the gameplay?

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  2. I think TLoU is one of the few games out there where you can reference Flannery O'Connor in a critique and have it work. Like you said, this is the first time I've ever played a DLC that feels just as important as the main campaign. It puts the story in a whole new perspective, especially considering that the main narrative takes place just three weeks after the DLC, so everything about Riley is still fresh in Ellie's mind. It adds new weight to those little scenes like the arcade machine in Bill's town you mentioned or in the Boston museum when Tess asks how Ellie managed to get into the mall, and especially in the ranch house near Tommy's dam when she says the line about how everyone she's ever cared about has either died or left her. This story has even slightly changed my outlook on the game's ending. I understand why Joel did what he did, and since he saved Ellie's life, I pretty much fully supported him pretty much dooming humanity in the process. But after playing this DLC, I'm starting to feel like Marlene was right. Maybe sacrificing herself is what Ellie would have wanted if it meant giving Riley's death some purpose.

    I had almost the exact same reaction to the kiss scene. I like that they left it ambiguous as to whether Ellie is actually a lesbian or if the kiss was just a spur of the moment swell of emotion and that was just her outlet for it. I agree that it was a very honest moment. Just having her hug Riley or really anything else wouldn't have been as powerful a statement to show what Ellie was feeling inside.

    I thought the gameplay was really well done. The parts where you play as Ellie are some of my favorite in the main story, so I was really excited that we got to play as her through the DLC. She's definitely capable in combat, but there's still that feeling of vulnerability while playing as her as compared to when you're controlling Joel. Like with that store full of infected after you start up the generator, if I was Joel, I would've just strangled my way though there with no problem. But with Ellie, the stealth approach seems like the smarter way to go, especially when facing human enemies who she has a harder time killing. They did a good job at emphasizing that vulnerability at the beginning when you're only weapon is your knife and you have to sneak your way past a clicker. The added strategy of pitting human and infected enemies together was also really fun (in a morbid kind of way). Pretending to play The Turning in the arcade was an unexpected extra, as well. It was a cool feature since the parts with Ellie and Riley, up to that point, didn't have a whole lot in the way of gameplay other than exploration. Makes me wish I was better at fighting games, though. I'm guessing one of the hidden trophies is probably to get a flawless victory. I was terrible at the water fight with Riley, too, but it was still a playful twist on the game's combat system when I was using listen mode to hunt her down.

    How did you feel about the way the DLC ended, particularly where they chose to end it?

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  3. Damn it. I just noticed I used the wrong "your" in that last paragraph. Feel free to ignore that.

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  4. I had the same thought about the ending, too. It kind of made me question Joel's decision -- Oh, hell, it made me downright angry with Joel. And like you stated, Ellie probably would have wanted to sacrifice herself, especially after everything she's gone through, starting with Riley's death. On the other hand, Ellie is all Joel had, which the DLC points out that those relationships are all we have.

    I agree with you about how you have to be more strategic when playing Ellie. Throwing a bottle or brick towards the hunters so that the clickers could fight them just added another element to the combat. It would've been awesome to see that in the main campaign, and they probably thought the same while making the DLC.

    I thought the ending was great. I don't think we needed to see Riley turning or Ellie finding out she's immune and joining Marlene. I think it was nice that they ended it at a threshold rather than a milestone -- before the inevitable happens to Riley, Ellie wiping her tears away while blood smears her face, feeling more of her innocence slipping through her fingers. It's at a point where they can still be together, even if it's for a short time.

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