While the majority of the HBO adaptation of The Last of Us retells the story of the first game, Episode 7 is a notable exception. That’s because it’s delving into DLC territory to bring it The Last of Us: Left behind to the small screen and give Bella Ramsey’s Ellie an hour to shine.
left behind is a 2014 extension for The last of us that would later be available as a standalone version. It is set in the middle The last of us, while Ellie searches for medical attention for Joel at an abandoned Colorado mall. This setup acts as a frame story as most of the game is a playable flashback. In it we see a part of Ellie’s life before she met Joel while exploring another mall with her friend and would-be love Riley. It was a significant chapter in the series as it confirmed Ellie’s sexual identity, but it’s also an important moment for games in general. Lesbian relationships were generally not portrayed in AAA video games in 2014, and the idea of a tender kiss between two women was particularly unheard of.
Episode 7 of the game’s TV adaptation will tell this story in its own way, but the DLC is a must-have for fans of the show who haven’t tried the games it’s based on. As a matter of fact, left behind is the perfect entry point; That’s because it’s the best Last of Us game, if not the best pound-for-pound game from developer Naughty Dog, period.
hold it tight
On a basic level left behind excels at telling a strong story, plain and simple. The focus here is on thoroughly building a relationship between Ellie and Riley in a short amount of time, which Naughty Dog pulls off with ease. That’s thanks to a set of unforgettable beats that span the spectrum of emotions you’d get in a full-length Last of Us game. Essentially a playable romance about two young girls on a date, it uses interactivity to create some particularly intimate moments.
In one standout sequence, Ellie and Riley find an old fighting game arcade cabinet. When Ellie is disappointed to find that it’s no longer working, Riley tells her to close her eyes and then narrates an entire fight telling Ellie which buttons to press while the camera focuses firmly on her face. Executing basic combat combos becomes sentimental; it is an act of love. Another sequence throws the two into a photo booth and asks players to choose which faces they want to make in each shot, frankly simulating a very real childhood memory in a mall. The DLC still involves puzzle solving, stealth, and combat like the main game, but moments like this are special. They envision how interactivity can be used to communicate a much wider range of emotions.
What is the most notable thing about left behind is that there’s no filler between its beats – something that’s rare in a Naughty Dog game. While the studio creates excellent stories that are as well-written as much prestige TV (one reason The Last of Us works so naturally as an HBO show), it still carries the medium’s baggage. The audience wants to get their money’s worth with expensive games, something like that The last of us can’t be a tight two hour experience like a movie. The studio needs to pair its best beats with complications that offer more possibilities for action, and this is where Naughty Dog’s worst instincts come to the fore.
The Last of Us Part II, for example, uses the same narrative complications over and over again just to take it to a different level. There’s a plethora of scenes where Ellie walks across an unstable bridge or structure that collapses, throwing her into a set piece that she must navigate to get back to where she was going. These moments rarely move the plot enough to add a point A2 between points A and B. That can let some of the studio’s best games sag at times, as the video game and cinematic pacing collide.
With its positioning as a budget DLC, left behind had a great excuse to avoid these (literal) pitfalls. Every second counts, with every gunfight or close encounter serving a specific purpose that advances Ellie’s story. This keeps the focus on character growth and emotional beats, rather than bogging players down with system-heavy digressions. This more digestible pace of storytelling makes for a game that I imagine would be a better starting point for any fans of the HBO series looking to dig into games. It’s the missing link between director Neil Druckmann’s cinematic ambitions and video game instinct.
While it may be optional side content, left behind deserves to be celebrated and discussed in the same way as the two mainline Last of Us games. It’s a hyper-focused work that perfectly balances tragic moments with tender ones while also reminding us how interactivity can enhance a story. In a perfect world, more video games would be so confidently streamlined instead of looking like one of The Last of Us’ bloaters.
A revised version of left behind can be played as part of The Last of Us Part I on the PlayStation 5.
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