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.
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.