When I heard that Naughty Dog and Sony were releasing DLC to the best game of 2013, “The Last of Us,” my response was a bit conflicted. The truth is that more of something that’s already perfect isn’t necessarily a good thing. “The Last of Us” is so well-constructed narratively that the prospect of adding to the canon already created by the amazing writing within it could have just added fat to an already-lean project. The ending of “The Last of Us” is pitch perfect; one of the best of all time. It’s not something that leaves the player dying for more like the world of “Borderlands 2,” which 2K Games has proven that they can just keep adding to every other month (they just released an 8th piece of DLC this month called “Mad Moxxi and the Wedding Day Massacre”). When it was revealed that “The Last of Us: Left Behind” would feature parallel storytelling and not subsequent, I breathed a sigh of relief. And five minutes into playing “Left Behind,” I knew all of my fears were unwarranted.
The reason “Left Behind” works is that its developers considered their project thematically more than narratively. Yes, it’s interesting to see what happened between Fall and Winter and how Ellie kept Joel alive as it would be interesting to see a deleted scenes that connects narrative tissue in your favorite movie but this DLC works because it is thematically of the same fabric as the full game. It’s not an experience that seeks to add to the action of the full game but deepen its themes. There’s heart-pounding action in “Left Behind” but there’s also a tonal air of melancholy; what these character sacrificed, especially a girl named Ellie who was forced to grow up far too quickly.
“What will it take for us to get back the way we were?” “Left Behind” takes place in two alternating timelines, shortly after Joel gets injured and Ellie has to search a mall for painkillers to keep him alive and a flashback to an earlier time in that mall with an old friend who was about join the Fireflies and leave Ellie behind. Fans of the game (and don’t you DARE play this until you finish the full game) will know that Joel was nearly killed after being impaled at the University of Eastern Colorado at the end of Autumn. Ellie gets Joel to a mall that contains a military medical helicopter that had crashed through the roof and, she presumes, has supplies. It also drew a bit of attention.
During Ellie’s quest to get the medicine from the helicopter, “Left Behind” flashes back to just before the main narrative of the game (but after the prologue, of course.). Ellie is awoken by the return of her friend Riley, a girl of similar age who has joined the rebellious Fireflies. She’s back but she’s leaving again. The girls take the chance to explore the abandoned mall nearby (the same one that Ellie is “currently” searching for supplies) in a relatively safer time. There’s still a threat of violence in the air but one distinctly accomplished element of “Left Behind” is in how it distinguishes the two halves of it narrative in terms of dread.
In the “safer” time, Riley and Ellie explore the mall like pre-teen girls would. They go to the arcade and try to play a game (and, in a beautiful touch, imagine doing so). They go to a Halloween store and try on masks. They have a squirt gun fight. In many ways, these segments are reminiscent of “Heavy Rain” in the way they play with the relatively mundane in terms of what we’ve come to expect from gaming but add so much thematic density to both this story and “The Last of Us” overall. “Left Behind” is the most melancholy DLC I’ve ever played. As the girls just act “like girls,” one really comes to understand what Ellie went through, what she’s lost, and what she’s fighting for in later chapters of the game. It actually makes her arc more resonant and emotionally powerful.
I would never suggest inserting “Left Behind” into the proper game because it might throw off the pacing but I do think there would be value in playing “The Last of Us” again after experiencing these “deleted scenes”. They make Ellie’s arc even more powerful and memorable. As we all learned with “The Last of Us,” this is not a project that approaches its genre simplistically. For most people, 2013’s best game was more than just your average zombie shooter. And I should have known that it’s DLC would be more than just your average downloadable add-on.