This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us and its expansion, Left Behind.
The Last of Us leaves us with a full circle in terms of plot, character development, and universe. Of course, this all pertains to Joel, our rough and gruff lumberjack of a protagonist. He has his weaknesses and those weaknesses are what shape the entire game, subverting expectations while Naughty Dog plies every trope of the zombie aesthetic into the story. It’s only when he’s impaled and stuck in limbo that the focus shifts to Ellie, and her needs in their father-daughter relationship.
Luckily for us, the game advances the plot and drops us of at a stage where Ellie is somewhat experienced with surviving on her own. Left Behind shows us a space in between when she’s hunting for supplies in a dilapidated shopping mall. Joel is still cut open from his tumble and sutures are what he needs to stop the bleeding. But one open wound gives way to another, and Ellie’s need for intimacy is fully exposed. The story cuts back and forth between two points in her life: a present and past where she came face to face with the fear of losing a loved one.
It’s strange, to think there’s a calm before the storm, even in post-apocalyptia. When we played as Joel he brought our world into his, the main story showing his life both before and after the pandemic. This was an easy way to channel our expectations and understandings of contemporary life while funnelling it into the dystopian future of The Last of Us. Ellie was born in a world infected and dissolute. What works so well about this gaiden is that we get to see life as she understands it. There was a time when she was living a comfortable life, albeit comfortable by her standards. She was a regular kid making the best of her efforts in the only world she knows. She went to school, joked around, and shared this carefree style with her best friend, Riley.
Riley was an outlet, a way for her to express whatever jovial antics she was forced to repress. Childlike wonder lies around every corner of Ellie’s flashbacks, using her despair to rediscover the breathing space she used to have. She was quite the dreamer: planning trips, thinking about space travel, and at the same time staying grounded in the fact that her life was confined to whatever the military instructed. While the majority of the story involves walking from one joke or mini-game to another, this structure’s never felt so engaging. These small bursts of unique interactions elicit meaning in how they’re used. Most games string a chain of mini-games as filler, but this account let’s you see the fun Ellie abandoned before she went on her road trip with Joel.
The story intercuts between past and present to contrast these two worlds Ellie’s lived in. Her past is rose-coloured, showing a carefree life of jumping from one escapade to the next. The majority of these sections take place in the golden hum of a resurrected mall where Riley and Ellie fool around in the world of yesterday, when electricity was prevalent. They ride a carousel, use a photo booth, and try to figure our what “Facebook” means. There are no infected, no hunters — just walking and playing, in the most literal sense of the word. Though in the end, her adventure is cut short with an abrupt collision with the realities of her world. Clickers give chase, both of them get bitten. But where one girl meets her demise, the other is revealed her gift.
In the present Ellie scours a snowed in mall, pallid and littered with threats. She faces danger, alone, and struggles to survive and reach Joel in order to avoid another loss in her life. The plot hinges on this attachment she has to her adopted father, and the refusal to let death take him. While she was full developed by the end of The Last of Us we never got to see what her life entailed — what “normal” means in this post-pandemic future. Left Behind gives us a window into the past, through the open wound Ellie still harbours.