The Last of Us: Left Behind is a compelling and tragic companion to The Last of Us. It juxtaposes a glimpse at Ellie’s life as a (relatively) normal teenager with her future life as a hardened survivor adept at killing. The portion of Left Behind detailing what happens to Ellie shortly after Joel becomes incapacitated at the University of Eastern Colorado is just as tense and compelling as the core Last of Us experience, with some new twists thrown in such as having situations that mix human enemies with infected. It’s possible that this action-heavy side of Left Behind was added as an afterthought, in order to have some traditional action gameplay to break up the more relaxed and nonconventional Ellie and Riley sections, but it’s just as possible that having both was the plan all along because the two end up working really well together. The most interesting (and freshest) part of Left Behind, however, is undoubtedly the side that details the last days of Ellie and her best friend, Riley’s relationship as they explore an abandoned shopping mall together. Here, we get a terrific and emotional piece of story-telling that not only gives more depth to Ellie’s character, but that is also just a commendable short story in its own right. Indeed, if The Last of Us proper did not exist and this part of Left Behind was completely standalone, it would be a fantastic and moving little vignette just on its own merits.
The mechanics of Left Behind are interesting because Ellie and Riley engage in nonviolent games together, like throwing bricks at cars and having a stealthy water gun fight, that are a playful mirror image of the brutal actions that Ellie performs in the future. Both sides of the game take place in a mall, so it’s very clear what the developers were going for and it’s very effective. Seeing Ellie as a (again, “relatively”) normal teenager hanging out with her best friend makes it all the more tragic how much of an efficient killer the world (and Joel) ends up making her. Most of the little scenes in Left Behind, like the two girls playing around with rubber Halloween masks and laughing about how people used to buy stuff like that, are charming in their own way, but two in particular stood out to me. The first is when Ellie and Riley ride the carousel. The whole process of walking over and getting on the carousel, Riley turning it on, Ellie riding it, and Riley joining in just before the machine stops being completely in-game and controlled by me made me reflect on how magical a video game experience can be. That may sound silly to you, but something about the perfectly-timed music, spinning the camera around to see Ellie’s excited facial expressions, and looking at the slowly spinning scenery as the carousel made its rotations perfectly put me in her shoes, strengthened my attachment to her as a character, and illustrated just how amazing something like this would be to a kid in a hellish world like The Last of Us’s. It struck a chord with me, and I teared up a little during the moment.
The second scene that stood out to me is the arcade one. At one point fairly early on in The Last of Us, Ellie and Joel happen upon a small record store with an arcade machine sitting in one corner of it. In an optional conversation, Ellie tells Joel that she played the game with her friend in the past and proceeds to describe it a bit. I was puzzled by this scene, because I questioned Ellie doing something as normal as playing a video game with a friend in the world that she was born into. Left Behind gives glorious context to that small throwaway conversation and it’s brilliant. Ellie and Riley come across that same arcade machine and seeing that it’s broken, Ellie expresses disappointment because she wanted to play the game. Riley casually tells her that “she can” and tells her to close her eyes. What follows is a surprisingly simple and brilliant sequence. The entire scene is just a close-up of Ellie’s face with her eyes closed. Riley starts describing the game and, Ellie’s hands on the arcade machine’s controls, she tries to imagine it. At first she is skeptical and so am I. But soon the borders of the screen begin to dim and I’m imagining Riley’s narrative of the game right along with Ellie. The imaginary game soon begins to bleed into reality as traditional fighting game health bars appear at the top of the screen and we begin to hear sound effects from the battle taking place in Ellie’s mind. As Riley describes each moment of the battle in detail, the player presses buttons according to prompts that appear on the screen. Whether you fail or succeed, the battle continues. Soon I’m wildly mashing buttons and by the end I’m totally into it. I want to win the imaginary fight just as much as Ellie. Similar to the carousel scene, this moment accomplishes so much with so little and simply and effectively puts me into Ellie’s shoes, making me feel like a kid playing a video game for the first time. It perfectly illustrates the importance of imagination and escapism, especially in a bleak world like Ellie and Riley’s. It also strengthens the bond between Ellie and Riley and demonstrates what a cool friend Riley is.
But Left Behind is also just a well-told teen romance. There’s no hamming it up and nothing feels forced or unnatural. This aspect of the game was unfortunately long spoiled for me, and I admit I was kind of waiting for it to happen, but the brief kiss shared between Ellie and Riley came at the perfect time and felt totally authentic. In that moment, when Ellie finally honestly told Riley “Don’t go” and Riley threw her firefly pendant to the ground, just for a second I desperately wanted the two to just stay together, keep having fun together and try to live the most normal life they can possibly have together in their broken world. I didn’t want Ellie to meet Joel and become his replacement daughter, or do all those horrible things later on down the road in the name of survival; I just wanted her and Riley to keep dancing in that department store. But, of course, this is The Last of Us, so that was never going to happen.