When I first learned that Naughty Dog would be releasing single-player DLC for The Last of Us — their first ever single-player DLC for any game, incidentally – I was a bit skeptical. I loved the ambiguity of the ending of the base game, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what happened to Joel and Ellie after the credits rolled. It turns out the DLC is a prequel to the main story, focusing on the events surrounding Ellie’s bite and subsequent infection. This assuaged my fears that the DLC might ruin the ending of the main game, but a new set of worries began to take hold.
If the new chapter was set before the events portrayed in The Last of Us, for instance, how might that affect the game’s mechanics? Ellie becomes a bit of a badass over the course of her journey in the main game, learning the arts of stealth and butchery from Joel. Would this new episode rely more heavily on stealth, and the ability to avoid conflict rather than fighting? Or would we be asked to believe that Ellie has always been a cold-blooded killing machine, able to sneak up on and eviscerate enemies twice her size, even at an early age?
But Left Behind isn’t actually a prequel at all. The new chapter, which takes about two hours to complete, occurs during the events of the main game. At the close of The Last of Us‘ autumn chapter, Joel is thrown over a balcony and is impaled by a piece of rubble. After Joel’s injury, the base game jumps ahead an undisclosed amount of time, and the player takes control of Ellie after she’s tended to Joel’s wound and found a place for the two of them to hide. Left Behind fills in this gap in the narrative, while simultaneously telling Ellie’s origin story through the use of flashbacks.
Naughty Dog’s decision to design the DLC in this way gives players the best of both worlds. In the present day portions of Left Behind, we get to play as Ellie the hardcore badass, after she has learned how to survive in a hostile world. These utilize the same stealth-action and scavenging mechanics that are found in the main game. In the flashback portions, which are built almost entirely around exploration and character development, we get to play as Ellie the troubled and inexperienced youth. These sections feature some of the series’ best writing and story-telling. Both halves of the DLC play off of one another thematically, creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Though the flashback sequences put extra emphasis on narrative, they’re not entirely devoid of gameplay elements, and Left Behind incorporates The Last of Us‘ mechanics in new and interesting ways. Instead of playing hide-and-seek with bandits, for instance, at one point Ellie and her friend Riley engage in a water-gun fight trying to hunt one another. Likewise, instead of searching the environment for resources, flashback levels are littered with fun little knick-knacks that add levity and a child-like sense of wonder to an otherwise bleak landscape.
The plot of Left Behind won’t be entirely unfamiliar to fans of the main game — in fact, you already know exactly how it is going to end. But Naughty Dog has deftly created a story in Left Behind where the journey is far more rewarding than the finish line. There are many parallels between the Joel & Ellie and the Ellie & Riley narrative, with similarities in setting and tone. This connection is strengthened by an ancillary storyline told via notes and audio logs hidden throughout the game’s environs.
All in all, Left Behind showcases just how well the folks at Naughty Dog can craft meaningful narratives and interesting, believable characters. The Last of Us was a story about Joel’s chance for redemption, Left Behind gives Ellie her shot to come to terms with something that has caused her guilt. Even though we know all along where the story is going, getting there is the real reward. With clever implementation of the base game’s mechanics, and a nuanced story (which has far more in common with good books than traditional gaming narratives), Left Behind is an experience that no fan of The Last of Us should leave behind.