The Last of Us – Left Behind: The Zombie Apocalypse vs. Female Friendship and Much, Much More
This past Friday Naughty Dog left everyone a wonderful, fungus-and-scream-filled Valentines Day present: their first single-player story DLC for The Last of Us, in which the only player character is the game’s teenage co-protagonist Ellie. Left Behind promised to expand up on the early history Ellie as first established in a comic book miniseries written by game director Neil Druckmann and drawn by Faith Erin Hicks, no stranger to creating comics about zombies, the post-apocalypse, or teenagers.
But Left Behind holds a special surprise for anybody who can appreciate the novelty of even a short game that’s primary storyline concerns the relationship between two teenage girls and also has zombies in it. If you have, or can obtain the means to play it, I recommend you do at your earliest convenience. That surprise isn’t likely to remain a surprise for long. (Warning: This review will spoiler cut revelations about the plot of Left Behind, but will talk openly about the events of The Last of Us)
Left Behind interweaves two separate plot lines, one ripped straight from one The Last of Us‘ time jumps, in which Ellie searches for medical supplies to treat an unconscious Joel after he was impaled on twenty year old rebar in the University of Eastern Colorado. The other takes place after the American Dream miniseries, but before the events of The Last of Us: Ellie’s good friend Riley unexpectedly breaks into her government boarding school dorm room in the Boston quarantine zone after an unexplained absence of more than a month and convinces Ellie to sneak out with her for a night of mischief like old times.
It becomes pretty clear over the course of the DLC that one of these plot lines is the “story” plot line, and one of them is the “combat” plotline, and to be honest I’m not certain whether I think that’s poor integration of the core gameplay of The Last of Us with what was the primary narrative of Left Behind, or an effective and perhaps even necessary way of setting the tone for the Riley portions of the game. In Colorado, there are items and health kits to craft, zombies to shiv, environmental puzzles to solve, and, it should come as no surprise, plenty of regular old violent human beings to contend with. In Boston the game’s various mechanics of throwing, shooting, climbing, and jumping are repurposed (and in one touching scene, some new ones are invented for a video game with the video game) to various less violent (ok, well, at least less deadly) teenage games and competition.
I think my primary problem with the gameplay of the Riley portions of the game was not necessarily that Ellie and Riley weren’t gunning down or sneaking by Infected left and right, but that those repurposed mechanics weren’t actually advancing the plot. It was not necessary, for example, for Ellie to beat Riley at window breaking in order to see the next cutscene and move on. And while it didn’t annoy me at the time, it is not clear what is supposed to connect these two stories until the very end, when Riley’s dialogue is laid over cutscenes of Ellie and Joel, which only highlights the difference in progression between the two.
On the other hand, one of the things I complained about in my review of The Last of Us was that I was unable to read the game’s pacing, and spent even the most relaxing, deliberately hopeful moment in the entire game tensely waiting for the other shoe to drop. I didn’t have that problem with Left Behind, and when the Riley portions of the game reach their long-awaited climax (from the very end of The Last of Us, we know that Riley and Ellie were bitten at the same time, resolved to lock themselves away and go mad together, only for Ellie to find that she was immune) your progression becomes very dependent on playing well.
But ultimately, either way, I don’t care enough about the fact that the stakes were lower in the Riley half of Left Behind, because the Riley half of Left Behind was still the best part of the game. The Last of Us pairs Joel and Ellie as two puzzle pieces whose vulnerabilities fit together. Joel feels that he’s experienced loss that cannot be healed in his life, and Ellie feels that the events of her life have been defined by being abandoned. The title of The Last of Us describes what is Joel’s major character moment in the game: changing his “me” to an “us” that includes only Ellie and no one else. As far as he’s concerned there’s the two of them and no one else, even if it means saving the whole of humanity, matters. As a title, Left Behind succinctly sums up both the ultimate question at the heart of the Riley plot line, and its eventual foregone conclusion. Riley and Ellie resolve to die together, but Ellie doesn’t die. Riley goes where she cannot and leaves her behind, in a world without her friend. Well, actually, without her girlfriend.
Let’s get spoilery! If you have the means to play Left Behind and haven’t been spoiled about it yet, go play it and don’t highlight this paragraph until you’re done. Look, I’m a writer and I’m interested in creating and living in a world where we have a more diverse representation of folks in our mass media than at current. And that means that sometimes that even when I am experiencing stories I’m thinking about the ways they could be better, not just from a purely critical point of view, but also from the standpoint of minority representation. I reached a point in Left Behind where I actually took a deep breath and told myself to stop reading things into Ellie and Riley’s relationship. “Yes,” I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to be playing a queer female protagonist in the hotly anticipated update to a 2013 Game of the Year title? But, you know, playing a DLC update to a GotY title that’s entirely about the friendship between two teenage girls is still pretty freakin’ significant, and I’m happy with that.” Not two scenes later Left Behind established beyond a doubt that Ellie and Riley have romantic feelings for each other, and indeed that those romantic feelings were the entire catalyst for the plotline.
I don’t have much more to say about that. It’s awesome! It was adorable! My feelings about it are best summed up by this spoiler filled Tumblr post. That’s all. Go play Left Behind.