The Last of Us is the greatest game ever made. I stand by that statement as much today as I did in June, when I made that statement for the first time. I’ve replayed the game two or three times since, and it hasn’t lost an ounce of impact. It’s powerful. On Friday, the first – and reportedly, only – piece of single-player DLC was released for the game. A short campaign where you play as Ellie, “Left Behind” is an addition in the best sense of the word: it does not detract, change, or in any way weaken what came before. It is simply more.
Actually, allow me to retract that. It’s not “simply” more – it’s quite complicatedly more. While this is the same game to be sure – it has the same pulse-pounding stealth gameplay and is every bit as intense as the base game – this is a decidedly different beast on a narrative front. It, too, has things to say about survival, but where “Left Behind” distinguishes itself from the base game is in its bizarre but welcome sense of joy and optimism in a world that seems so devoid of it.
“Left Behind” is a beautiful piece of DLC, representing the macrocosm of the base game in microcosm.
[Standard spoiler warning applies. There will be spoilers for both The Last of Us and “Left Behind” beneath the cut.]
This isn’t going to be a long review because this isn’t a long game. But I can say that this two hours was incredibly meaningful. Divided between two different settings – one prior to the events of the base game, before Ellie was bitten, and in which she and friend Riley explore a run down mall, and one during the events of the game, between the events of Summer and Fall, after Joel was impaled by rebar – the game cuts between them at thematically relevant points, creating a wonderful contrast between Ellie’s life before infection, and her attempts at survival post infection.
Perhaps the starkest difference is the joy inherent in the former situation. Ellie and Riley are constantly joking around, exploring an old costume shop, a carousel, a department store that is the setting for a brutal water gun battle, and reading silly puns out of a joke book. The game is perfectly willing to engage, as well, as it has the player provide input for nearly every aspect of their play. Riley puts a silly wolf mask on Ellie and demands that she roar? The player’s got to handle that with a small little mini-game. Riley coaches Ellie through an imagined fighting game (because the arcade doesn’t work)? Player has to input fighting-game-style button combos. It’s honestly all rather silly, but it’s joyous and brings a smile to my face. In a game as violent and depressing as The Last of Us, that’s remarkable.
All this joy is, of course, in stark contrast with the other situation, which finds Ellie scavenging for medicine for incapacitated Joel. The warm glow of the morning light and tungsten lighting in the mall is replaced for a harsh, wintry atmosphere that is cold in more ways than one. The silence is deafening, and there is a powerful sense of loneliness and isolation even in the face of hordes of men trying to murder you. This is the Last of Us that we know and love, and it’s more of the same – in the best possible way. The point of this situation isn’t to surprise us with new things. It’s to provide more of the gameplay that we loved in the base game, while also serving as a thematic counterpoint to the other situation. And in that, it is successful.
The ending of this game, like the base game, features an orison about survival. But this is a much more optimistic one. Unlike the base game’s statement that survival is ultimately a selfish, destructive pursuit, “Left Behind” finds survival to be a much more positive thing. Survival isn’t about the need, about clinging to life, but rather about spending more time with those you love. Whether it’s two minutes, or two days, the game says, survival is worth it. We fight for that time, no matter how short it may be. And that’s downright inspiring. That moment, of course, is immediately following Ellie and Riley’s infections. It avoids being sickly sweet and saccharine because it is colored by the knowledge that both of them are ticking clocks. They’re both going to die (or at least, they think as much). We know it. They know it. But they choose to fight.
Because those two more hours with someone, or something, that you love? They’re worth anything in the world. A