Left Behind, the story-based DLC follow-up to our 2013 Game of the Year, doesn’t really need to exist, but I’m glad it does.
The beauty of The Last of Us’ narrative lay in the maturity and restraint the developers showed in crafting it. Everything that needed to be explained was explained, characters were fully developed, plot threads were neatly tied up, and the ending was audacious enough to actually, well, end. The finality of those closing moments did so much to leave us with a period rather than an ellipsis, and any narrative-driven DLC would seek to undermine that. Either we end up with a postscript, demolishing any impact that the original ending might have had, or we get some prequel thing that fills in gaps that may or may not have needed to be filled.
Luckily, we ended up with the latter, and Left Behind is much, much better than it should be.
**Warning — Minor Spoilers Ahead**
Left Behind’s narrative cuts back and forth between two different stories, each one following a different section of Ellie’s journey. The main thread takes place right before the Winter chapter of The Last of Us — Joel has been gravely injured, and his survival rests in Ellie’s resourceful hands. Holed up inside a suburban Colorado mall, Ellie must contend with clickers and bandits alike, find some first aid, and get back to Joel.
Spliced in between these dire moments are ones of quietude and tension, of friendship and longing. The other half of the narrative takes place before the main events of The Last of Us, after the arrival of the cordyceps outbreak. Ellie is a young, naive student in a Boston military academy. Her friend, Riley, has left to join the Fireflies — a terrorist group at direct odds with what remains of the government. Riley returns to try and make things right with Ellie, and she leads her into an abandoned shopping mall for one last adventure.
There’s a tender believability in Riley and Ellie’s strained friendship, and it shows in how they interact and explore this once great bastion of teenage angst and consumerism. These sections actually feel closer to something like Gone Home, as you spend most of your time interacting with your environment, examining objects, and exploring instead of fending off the zombie horde. Ellie and Riley’s relationship feels real, their interactions feel human and relatable, and by the end of the two hours or so you’ll spend playing Left Behind, you’ll feel like you know these characters. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but suffice to say there are plenty of surprises in store as they make their way through the mall.
In fact, these quiet moments are the best parts about Left Behind, while the combat feels even more out of place here than it did during parts of The Last of Us. It’s not that these sequences are bad — in fact, the stealth-based gameplay is just as tense here as it was in the game proper — but they feel like unnecessary padding. Save for a fight sequence near the end, the combat feels unimportant, drawing out what would have been a fairly brief adventure.
Left Behind could have been terrible — an unnecessary coda to a story that already had a fitting end. Instead, we get a touching narrative that explores some key moments in Ellie’s growth as a character. And while Left Behind doesn’t necessarily need to exist, any excuse to step back into this bleak wasteland and explore these wonderful characters further is a welcome one.