Thoughts On – The Last of Us: Left Behind
The success of 2013’s The Last of Us can be accounted for on a basis of presentation. Less a game and more a carefully constructed character study, Naughty Dog’s widely-beloved release may more appropriately be described as a lengthy string of dialogue scenes with bits and pieces of player interaction thrown in to give off the illusion of playing a video game.
The discussion of what constitutes a true game experience would be an endless back-and-forth matter of opinion, so I will sidestep from attacking The Last of Us for its design decisions. However, what I do believe is worth discussing are the merits of designing a truly successful overall experience, one that can stimulate the critical eye as well as the emotional core of the individual interacting with it (ie. the player playing it). And The Last of Us achieves this in spades.
That being said, I believe the 2013 standalone is a title worth celebrating, but also one which deserves heavy criticism. Its derivative plot provides a basis for its otherwise very convincing character arcs, featuring a cast of truly believable personas making truly believable decisions, positing situations where the conversations between them spark intrigue and cautious insight into their personal motivations. Again, the game plays out more like a Shakespearean play of sorts, inviting the audience to jump in every once in a while to hit a button to keep the main actor from dying.
But while the dialogue scenes are carefully constructed, the enemy encounters pose a frustrating mess of sloppy game design tropes, and the game’s stolid approach to interaction leaves so much to be desired — ie. picking up a ladder to place against a wall; scaling the ladder; pushing a garbage can; opening a garage door; climbing more ladders; etc.
This backwards approach is such a shame given the complexity of the narrative and the disturbed beauty of the setting, and The Last of Us suffers as a game for it. It’s quite apparent that Naughty Dog placed much more emphasis on crafting a focused story than a focused game during its production. It stands as one of the best experiences I had in 2013, but also one of the worst games I played.
In regards to its status as what I define to be a proper “game,” my critique of Left Behind, the downloadable prequel to the base product, basically mirrors my thoughts on The Last of Us. However, I find its narrative to be all the more impressive and convincing, and for a rather simple reason: its unique take on the modern “coming of age” tale.
Weaving a convincing and unique coming of age narrative in this generation is no simple task — not anymore at least. It can be argued that the most definitive tale to feature a characteristic “loss of innocence” was achieved through J.D. Salinger’s classic novel The Catcher in the Rye, and that every other such story can be traced back to the founding principles presented within its pages. At this point, one could call it a book that everyone’s read; that is if they’ve ever experienced a high school English class, since it’s a typical choice amongst educational systems throughout the US; and it’s legacy remains quite evident despite the decades proceeding it.
A young individual grows bewildered from the constantly-evolving world around them, and they struggle psychologically with coming to terms with their own gradual, instinctual maturity. Thus provides the basis for the common “coming of age” tale, the roots of which are planted firmly within Salinger’s most popular work. The novel was a breakthrough for the world of literature, and subsequent works across numerous mediums such as Knowles’s A Separate Peace or Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho are set upon a foundation built by its lasting influence.
But what’s important here is not necessarily the influence of the novel, but rather the universal effects it has cemented within pop culture through its very notion of these themes of age and maturity. Perhaps no other subject matter is more “relatable,” given the very nature of Humankind as an aging species. A modern “coming of age” tale is nothing new, and there have been a litany of releases centered around the ubiquitous concept.
Where Left Behind most succeeds as a standalone tie-in is in its cautious approach to capturing the burgeoning maturity of two young girls in a crumbling civilization, where time seems to have all but stopped and yet Life continues onward despite the urban decay surrounding them. Whether it be through the excitement of late-night sneaking out past the walls which house them from the perils of the widespread zombie infection; the wonder of discovering a powered-up carousel amidst the ruins of a once-brightly colored mall; the intimacy of forging handheld memories in a busted photo kiosk; the thrill of reenacting playful warfare with innocent water guns in place of live weaponry; or simply a quick reaction to passionate impulses, inspired by confused status of relationship and the future (in perhaps the game’s most convincing character-driven scene); writer Neil Druckmann gracefully offers a prequel which understands the importance of providing a background to the original story, while also still withholding certain details, but appropriately implying them throughout character conversations. Because a prequel should not exist only to explain the events leading up to a certain work’s plotline, but instead offer its own revelations regarding the Human condition, where Left Behind fortunately succeeds.
Whereas The Last of Us focuses more on the struggle to evolve onself within the contexts of a ravaged world, Left Behind takes a step back to explore the more intimate mind of adolescence, where exploration means both scrounging for supplies to pursue existence as well as perusing the shops of a deteriorating shopping mall with a close friend at your side. This narrative parallel is a large function of how wonderfully paced Druckmann’s writing is, and the experience concludes appropriately, not lingering on its argument for too long nor without first rightly justifying its mirrored concepts. The player already (hopefully) knows the fates of Riley and Ellie following their run-in with zombie bites; what’s important is the heartbreaking implications which smack themselves into the fragile psyches of these two adolescents: they are going to die. And that intense realisation is enough to shatter the very fabric of their ambitions for the future, the long-running conversation which fuels nearly the entirety of Left Behind’s runtime.
Now there are flaws to its script. The spoken-word thesis provided by Riley at game’s end seems a bit tacked on and too conclusive as opposed to the gorgeous ambiguity of the original game’s climax; and the Facebook marketing tie-in is simply embarrassing, a rather crude reference given the seriousness of the tone, inappropriately shoehorned into an otherwise beautiful moment between the two leads. Also, enemies of course spawn out of seemingly nowhere as to elicit more gameplay sequences, once again to portray the illusion of experiencing a straightforward game; fortunately however, attention has been brought to allowing more player control over combat situations, allowing them to pit the zombie attackers against the human in a rather clever approach to stealth gameplay.
Regardless of the base game’s faults of functionality, Left Behind convincingly offers a plot where the scariest aspect of its apocalyptic setting is the idea that two lost adolescent souls are incapable of attaining what they long for, no matter how much they fight for it. The only glimmer of hope is in the haunting memories which fuel their desire to move on; and for one of them, that hope can grow attached to others leading the same path towards self-redemption.
One person is all it takes to reignite the beauty of a seemingly-lost world; but it’s our impulsive reactions which decide where our future lies. Left Behind exists to explain that there is no definitive end to anything; not childhood, not love, not civilization, not Life in general. Memories and photographs are evidence of this optimistic outlook, as well as the core instinctuality of Human maturity which exists within each and everyone of us on Earth.