Left Behind: A Survival Story

jpgGentle readers, a little while ago I promised to review the new The Last of US DLC when it came out. Titled Left Behind, it was released on February 14th, which, among other things, was the same day that Ellen Page came out of the closet. This will become important later. In any case, because of a hateful thing that I call a “job”, I didn’t get to download and install it until today. It took me a couple hours to make my way through, with lots of pausing to gush about various parts. My review can be summed up thusly: it is important, and it is awesome.

My editors are telling me that I have to write more than that, so I’ll start by telling you why it’s awesome. Left Behind opens on a series of flashbacks which you’ll recognize if played the base game, a scene where Joel is gravely injured. Now, in the normal game, Ellie shoots her way out the front door, Ellie and Joel get on a horse, Joel falls off, fade-to-black, wake up in the Colorado wilderness. You start Left Behind playing through the story of how Ellie gets Joel patched up and manages to move him after he passes out. This adventure is interpolated by the story of Ellie and Riley, which you may remember was mentioned at the end of The Last of Us.

left-behind-dlc-release-last-of-us rileyThat story opens with a flashback to Riley, who, not for nothing, is a dead ringer for what you’d imagine a young Marlene to look like. She has reappeared in Ellie’s life after a long absence (about forty-five days) and surprises her by sneaking into her military school bedroom. After a confrontation about Ellie thinking that Riley was dead and Riley having joined the Fireflies, they venture off to rediscover their friendship via mischief in a local mall. Cut back to the mall in Colorado, where Ellie is attempting to collect the necessary supplies to suture Joel’s wound, and must move earth and sky to do so. I’ll get back to plot in a second, but it was at about this point in Left Behind that I noticed that Ellie’s sprint was slower in the snow.

(Fair warning: major spoilers after the jump.)

Part of what made The Last of Us so worthy of praise was its attention to detail and mood, and Left Behind is no exception. To that point, it took little time for the DLC to establish the same sense of desperation and the constant feeling of always looking over one’s shoulder that characterizes the main The Last of Us experience.

I will admit that all I wanted for Christmas was more gameplay featuring Ellie, elevating her role as a protagonist in the story. That is exactly what I got, and I was happy to find that Naughty Dog brought their A-game to Left Behind. Now the reason I prefer gameplay with Ellie is that she’s smaller and has a harder time defeating enemies with just her bare hands (though that knife certainly doesn’t hurt). Also, her gameplay is generally marked by even more scarcity, which encourages the stealthier aspects of the game. The feel of the game is also remarkable. They didn’t skimp on the desperation or fear, especially in those parts of Left Behind set in Colorado. I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I drew Ellie’s pistol against the same cardboard cutout, for fear that it was one of the Infected.

The action sequences of the game are fairly easy, especially if you’ve gotten the hang of how to make the most of a fight in The Last of Us. There are a couple of scenarios where the player is set upon by both Cannibals and the Infected that are actually pretty simple if you let them kill one another first. The difficulty does build, right up to the end. The last combat sequence in Colorado is surprisingly challenging, which makes the whole thing feel more worthwhile. The non-action sequences, like the puzzles, etc., are great, emphasizing movement in three dimensions to reach an objective, including one that leaves Ellie climbing on air ducts to avoid being electrocuted. The setup is always simple at first, but then complicates itself just enough to become challenging.

In the other half of the story, the non-combat sequences are mostly interactive events like throwing bricks at cars, trying on masks at a Halloween shop, and really following these girls as they discover the ruins of the old world. Most of these are straightforward, but they contribute to the feel of the story in a way that is almost sublime. Participating in their interactions gives the player a real sense of the closeness that Ellie and Riley share. There may or may not even be a dance break or a water gun fight.

Now, let me be clear: the mechanics of this game, especially Left Behind, are not separate from the story so much as they are a part of the story itself. Player interaction is used to convey the emotions and meaning of the story in a way that is not just audiovisual, but kinesthetic. This is my brief opportunity to say “suck it” to any who would contend that video games are not art. Take a look at this, I think it makes my point about participation quite nicely:

ellie_riley_last_of_us_photo_booth_facebookThe storytelling of Left Behind is excellent, and simple. It’s not convoluted, and once it’s all said and done, it’s easily followed and recounted. There’s also a level of emotional engagement at work. For most of the game, the scenes in Boston with Riley are characterized by a sense of youth. There are arguments, high emotions, mischief, incredibly poor decisions, and a question of belonging. There’s even a photobooth, where you can take a bunch of silly pictures, and upload them to your Facebook—these are mine.

In Colorado, it is about survival, making it past the next checkpoint, getting past the next Clicker, etc. This isn’t accidental; it seems a deliberate effort to keep the player from settling too heavily into one emotion. Finally, at the end, the two storylines are brought together, if only by Ellie’s memory. In one completely heartwrenching scene, the players learn that Ellie’s tenacity is not just the result of survival instinct, but also an effort to honor time spent with life’s important persons, alive or dead. 

Okay. Now we’ve talked about why Left Behind is awesome. Let’s talk about why it’s awesome and important. The Last of Us, as a franchise, has some message power to it. It was a widely-hailed release, by a company that had distinguished itself with the Uncharted series, and was almost an instant classic. It may very well be video gaming’s “Citizen Kane moment”. I bring that up to say this isn’t some throwaway indie game, and that when it makes a decision, people notice that. I say “it”, but really I mean the whole creative team at Naughty Dog. They made the decision to make a DLC which primarily featured Ellie. Why wouldn’t they? She’s insanely popular and a great character in her own right. That being said, there’s lots of backstory with Joel to be explored. There was a choice to heavily feature the game’s female co-protagonist. That’s great because we need more compelling female protagonists in popular video games. Simple enough.

They also made the decision that Riley should be African-American. No, she’s not the only African-American character, nor is she the only black female character. But she’s a good character, the player can easily empathize with Ellie’s attachment to her, and she rises above some easy tropes. However, when she arrives in Ellie’s dormitory, she’s joined the Fireflies, but since doing so will separate her from Ellie, she eschews this choice at Ellie’s request. This could be seen her lacking her own goals and convictions apart from affections for or providing aid to a white lead, a quickly developed coincidence of “dream girl” and “magical negro” stereotypes. I would disagree, and cite that she is in many ways more mature and worldly than Ellie, given that she’s been through Firefly training. More importantly, she makes a choice for personal affection over ideology and the greater good, and it’s been established that this franchise trades in exactly that choice. Also, and perhaps most importantly of all…

ellie_riley_kiss…Riley’s choice to stay sets up a reveal of romantic attraction between the two and an interracial lesbian kiss, and I really shouldn’t have to tell you why that’s important. In terms of forward-thinking choices about what video games are going to put on screen, this is a coup. Left Behind was an emotional masochist’s wet dream, and to see that kiss and know that it is all going to be torn apart is not easy. It’s my distinct hope that someone who would normally see something like that and dismiss it, or manipulate it into something it’s not, will have their heart widened just a little bit. A key step in terms of representing non-standard, not-awful romance in the medium, the relationship between Ellie and Riley is an object lesson in how much a skilled storyteller can do with a small story. I believe that when we look back, Left Behind is going to mark a forward step in representation in video games, and that’d be a big deal even if it weren’t freaking amazing. Finally, remember when I told you to hold onto that tidbit about Ellen Page? You can now add “came out on the same day” to the list of similarities between Ellie and Ellen Page.

I’m really bad at giving ratings in the form of numbers, and knowing me, I’d try to give it a 13/10. So suffice it to say that Left Behind is worth the play time. It is a little short for 14.99USD, but you can download The Last of Us, an Online Pass, and Left Behind for 43.99USD on PSN, which ain’t bad. I have paid much more for much less satisfactory video gaming experiences.

3 thoughts on “Left Behind: A Survival Story

  1. I have played very few video games in my life. But I want to play this one – these two – like CRAZY now. Your enthusiasm and clear explanation of both the fun and inmportance of them has sold me utterly.
    Also, your enthusiasm is adorable.

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