Given that the end scene of The Last of Us seemed so self-contained and final, any thoughts of getting DLC let alone a sequel were far from the minds of fans. Yet now, we’ve received the DLC, a true sequel, and a remake of the original game with the DLC included. With The Last of Us Part I bringing the DLC to new audiences and the characters and storylines included in the upcoming HBO show, it feels right to look back there as well, to some of the most formative events of the entire series.
The Last of Us: Left Behind tells the events of two different timelines: one prior to the first game and one during the first game after Joel and Ellie visit the college campus looking for the Fireflies. Let’s go into what makes this DLC click, and be warned, major spoilers for the first game and DLC lie beyond this point.
At its core, The Last of Us: Left Behind is a story about the relationship between two characters. Sound familiar? That’s because it mimics the same tried and proven formula that was used in the first game, compressed down into a 2–4 hour experience. Importantly, Naughty Dog didn’t just copy and paste the formula, change some lines, and call it a day, but neither did they fully re-write. Left Behind is like the first game had an update, in the form of parallels drawn between Ellie’s relationship with Riley and the one she shares with Joel.
“Back in Boston… Back when I was bitten. I wasn’t alone. My best friend was there.” - Ellie
Unlike the first game where the focus was just on Joel and Ellie, Left Behind has a dual focus on Ellie’s relationship with Riley and pivotal events that change the nature of her relationship with Joel. It’s no coincidence that both timelines take place within a mall and that both display pivotal moments that come to define who Ellie is and will become. In doing so Naughty Dog crafted two unique scenarios but found a way to link them together. As shown by the aforementioned similarities and drawing parallels between the characters’ relationships, the developer deepens our understanding of each one by comparing it to the other.
We know the ending
For many games, knowing the end actively hurts the overall experience, as any tension that would be created is lost. But in Left Behind knowing the ending is one of the games’ many strengths.
The first game’s narrative tells the story of Joel, a grief-stricken man finding hope, love, and compassion through his connection to an equally closed-off Ellie. Similarly, Left Behind tells the story of Ellie coming to terms with losing Riley, first by going to join the Fireflies (a militia group) and then succumbing to the bite of an infected. The central theme of loss/fear of loss ties Ellie and Riley’s relationship to that of Ellie and Joel.
With this being the main focus of the story, the ending almost becomes a secondary matter. It won’t change our experience of watching a relationship develop, and in the case of Left Behind it adds to the overall experience as we know these are the last moments Ellie and Riley will have together.
The main portion of the game introduces Ellie’s best friend Riley, then follows them as they sneak out of the Boston quarantine zone together to explore a derelict shopping mall. This shows Ellie just being herself, not having to worry about the overbearing presence of FEDRA. Most importantly it shows Ellie being true to who she is, especially when it comes to how she feels about Riley. This couldn’t be more clear when the duo steps into the remains of an old arcade in the mall.
"Alright come here. Close your eyes. Use this to move. This is your punch, this is your kick, and you block with this." - Riley
I referenced this scene within my Last of Us Part II article, comparing it to the scene when Joel gives Ellie a tape of the moon landing, and for good reason. Amongst the plethora of scenes that combine to make this DLC so great, the arcade scene sits firmly at the top. You could argue that the kiss Ellie and Riley share later on should take that spot, but looking at the two moments side by side leads to the realization that the kiss scene only gives a surface-level understanding of their relationship whilst the arcade scene gives the player a much deeper idea of the relationship they share.
The scene begins with Ellie and Riley finding out that the arcade game they wanted to play was broken, not surprisingly, as the world is 20 years into a global pandemic after all. Instead of sitting in a sulk, Riley tells Ellie to close her eyes and she paints a picture of the game for Ellie. During this entire scene, there’s no conversing between the two, only continuous prose from Riley, creating an everlasting memory that will always symbolize the bond that they have together.
And whilst a lot of these scenes have no direct comparison in The Last of Us, it’s important to remember that these flashbacks and memories of Riley are being triggered by her fear of losing Joel. And so at face value, these moments have no relevance to Ellie and Joel's relationship, the connection she shared with Riley is reflected in how she feels about Joel.
The importance of the ending
Earlier I said the ending doesn’t necessarily matter as it doesn’t change our understanding of the relationship between Riley and Ellie. However, it is pivotal in understanding the overall message of the game, and it allows the ending to become one of Left Behind’s greatest strengths. One of the most pivotal scenes in the first game occurs when Ellie runs away after learning Joel intends to leave her in Jackson with his brother. Taken in context with the newly revealed ending of Left Behind, many more of Ellie’s motivations and emotions fall into place and begin to make sense.
"Everyone who I've cared for has either died or left me, everyone, fucking, except for you. So don’t tell me I’d be safer with someone else because the truth is I would just be more scared." - Ellie
Ellie cares about Joel, and while it may not be in the same way that she cared about Riley, what matters is that her connection to Joel and to Riley is fundamentally the same. And we as players realise that as much as Joel needs Ellie to help him overcome the grief of losing Sarah, Ellie needs Joel to be there for her. She needs someone whom she can trust and care about without worrying that they are going to leave her, similar to what she once had with Riley.
By creating this DLC with a character as well-crafted as Riley and thus giving Ellie a meaningful backstory, players receive the context required to fully understand her motivations in the first two games and any future installments. Over the course of 3 short hours, Naughty Dog gave us a reason to play a DLC we didn’t think we wanted or needed.
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