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Analyzing Left Behind: A Spoiler Discussion of The Last of Us’ DLC
In case you were hibernating last Friday due to the ridiculous cold, you likely know Left Behind, the highly anticipated DLC prequel to The Last of Us, was released. Over the weekend, we posted a spoiler-free review of the DLC, but today Alex and I will be discussing the story in all its spoilerific details. If you don’t want to know what happens in Left Behind, stop reading now!
Perhaps Naughty Dog‘s claim to fame with Left Behind was the heavy emphasis on exploration—and obvious detraction from combat—and it was an absolute delight. For both Alex and I, simply soaking in the atmosphere in all its post-apocalyptic decrepitude was the highlight. It served as a potent reminder of why (and how much) we love The Last of Us and the world the developers crafted. Simple things like the girls’ antics in the Halloween store or taking pics in the photo booth were effective at conveying that these two characters rarely get to experience what most of us would deem a normal childhood. It held a certain charm while maintaining a despondent air.
On that note, the exploration in Left Behind was a bit more lucid than in The Last of Us. The DLC’s focus on facetious banter is a bit of a departure from the main game’s unyielding sobriety, but even so, it never loses that quality that makes the story so unique and moving. After all, in the end this is a tale about two teenage girls struggling for a reprieve from a horrifying and militaristic world.
And speaking of which, one of the more curious aspects of Left Behind is Riley’s maturity. Sure, you can argue she lives in a world of martial law where everything is about living to survive, but you have to remember (as Naughty Dog was so quick to remind us): Ellie (and Riley) grew up in this world. They don’t know what it’s like to have your parents drop you off at the movies with your friends. Heck, neither of them really know what it’s like to have parents. Naturally, they would be more mature than your present-day teenager, but contrasting Riley with Ellie (as she appears in Left Behind), Riley feels years ahead emotionally.
Reading American Dreams (a prequel comic that illustrates how Ellie meets Riley), it’s clear Naughty Dog intended Riley to be more mature…but in it, they seem to forget that, like Ellie, she is a young woman. Even when she’s bitten at the end, she has no emotional fit. Even Ellie’s aspersions weren’t enough to evoke an extreme emotional reaction. Sure, some people are so good at building walls around themselves that it’s practically an art form, but this is a young woman in the throes of puberty. While she is still a good counterpart to Ellie, something about it just seemed…off.
That isn’t to say the characterization was bad, though. Far from it, one of the more interesting aspects of Left Behind is the contrast between Ellie’s relationships with Joel and Riley. Ellie’s reversal of roles as it pertains to Joel is one of the DLC’s highlights: in The Last of Us, Ellie is (for most of the game) the tag-along, the defenseless character to Joel’s machismo. Even in Left Behind, Ellie is more in the “victim” role with Riley, who, despite being the non-playable character, assumes Joel’s role in being the protector. She holds the gun and she’s the one who is joining the resistance while Ellie is stuck being trained to fight for a military she despises. In the other half of Left Behind, however, we see how Ellie’s experiences with Riley in the mall that night/morning have hardened her. Meanwhile, Joel is the victim and, in fact, comes perilously close to death when Ellie arrives and saves the day.
It should also be noted that, with Riley being in the protector role, all of the combat curiously takes place in the Ellie/Joel story. It’s not entirely unexpected, as the prologue sequence with Riley was meant to be based on exploration, but it is an interesting reversal.
Where Alex and I’s impressions differ is in—you guessed it—the kiss between Ellie and Riley. While Alex opines it seemed more platonic, I detected a romantic vibe during the DLC throughout. From the moment the two stole away to the mall, I sensed there might be something more to their friendship. Does this mean Ellie is homosexual? Not necessarily. To me, her presumed attraction to Riley may stem more from, “She’s all I’ve got in this world” than the more commonplace, “I’m just attracted to women.” Maybe Naughty Dog was going for the latter, and I won’t argue they weren’t, but part of the intrigue is the mystery of the motivation behind Ellie’s action.
While Alex felt the kiss stemmed more from general excitement that Ellie was reunited with her best friend, he remarks that the scene was impeccable, citing the moment when Ellie asks coyly, “So what do we do now?” right before the Infected arrive as brilliant writing. For me, the highlight in the scene was when Ellie finally breaks down and pleads, “Don’t go.” On par with cinema right there.
And then we come to the end. There has been quite a bit of debate about the way Left Behind ended. Many felt it was the perfect end; others felt Naughty Dog should have illustrated Riley’s death. True enough, Left Behind missed a huge opportunity for emotional impact by cutting the ending short of Ellie watching her friend die from infection while she mysteriously lived on. It almost even makes you feel Naughty Dog should pick up there and spend another couple of hours showing Ellie’s journey into the Fireflies’ hands. Of course, that won’t happen, but it’s a bit of shame we didn’t get to see that, sorrowful as it would be. However, the ending remained faithful to The Last of Us, leaving us hanging ever so vaguely in the same manner as The Last of Us did.
Another complaint, first mentioned in brevity in our official review, is the sheer verbosity, particularly in the ending. As Alex notes, eking out the scene seemed a little redundant; cutting to black after Riley says the line about going out “all poetic and shit” may have made a stronger statement. Anyone who’s played through the main game already knows how it ends, so taking a little more care with the end might have been judicious.
Of course, a discussion wouldn’t be complete without addressing just how well Left Behind fits in with The Last of Us. Alex was quick to point out that “Left Behind doesn’t compromise this beautiful knife-edge of mystery,” and I totally agree. In fact, despite knowing Riley’s fate from the get-go (as well as Joel’s), there was a still a sense of wondering what would happen next. How would Ellie find the medicine for Joel? Would the helicopter actually have supplies? How was Riley going to die? Do the pair reconcile before Riley’s death, or does Ellie carry the guilt of remaining angry with her best friend with her?
There was plenty to wonder about, but if there hadn’t been, Left Behind likely wouldn’t have worked so well. While clearly not one hundred percent essential, it does serve as an excellent prologue. Never once did we feel it was superfluous or an effort at money-grabbing. Naughty Dog stayed faithful to the game’s nature and did a fantastic job showing how a key event in Ellie’s life—namely, her first close, personal relationship with another human—shaped her into who we see in The Last of Us. I hadn’t expected the side story with her hunting down medicine for Joel, either, and while I felt they got a tad carried away in some of the combat encounters (the last one seemed to strain the boundaries of practicality), I still felt it added something to the DLC, as well as the main game’s story.
And that about wraps up our discussion. What thoughts do you have about Left Behind? Join in the discussion in the comments!