Skylights

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The Last of Us: Left Behind (2014)

Left Behind tells a companion story to 2013’s The Last of Us, situated before and alongside the prior game’s main narrative. To the player, it is a coda, a trip back to a tone and style of play otherwise available only through revisiting the first game. It may be the last time a Last of Us experience will feel this way. There is slim hope for a commercial and critical blockbuster escaping an unnecessary sequel, and Left Behind may be the last small window into the first’s story. Where sequels, and even DLC efforts, expand and inflate, the developers have pitched this entry’s scope and scale downward, with a short running time and a handful of locations.

The action alternates between a pair of narratives: two young friends reconcile in a tour through an abandoned mall, and one young woman searches for the supplies to save a companion. The person Ellie needs and cares about in the first story is not the person in the second. And where Joel in the second is wordless, shaking, and fading, Riley in the first is the driving force. The tour she leads Ellie on through the mall carries the player through a series of minigames, many premised on flights of imagination. This relaxed appreciation for the virtues of play brings Ellie back to someone in her life, and the stakes at hand involve their relationship. These episodes are not contests of life and death, and Left Behind in these sequences avoids combat. Real peril emerges only once, and the response is to take flight, not to engage. In a setting as bleak as The Last of Us, the presence of delight is revelatory, and the small pleasures of the mall echo the first game’s unexpected encounter with giraffes in the American West.

The second story, of Ellie’s search for medical supplies, has a color scheme limited almost to grayscale. Snow glitters on the ground, sunlight floods in both through skylights and the jagged outline of a crashed black helicopter. You walk through the shell of a world gone by. Sometimes a lock bars entry, a remnant of a time when there were set lines. Other times a room has three ways in, through broken windows and collapsed walls. There can be no architecture where there is no plan, and in advancing, the player learns the good sense of foresight, seeking chances to set the two sets of enemies upon each other. The game furnishes no new weapons, no elaborate tools of death and destruction. There is no point in looking cool, as no one is watching. There is only a wounded, shivering man and the time left to save him.

In results, the story with the happy moments lacks a happy ending, and the story where you’re relieved to set infected monsters onto human beings has one. Left Behind‘s narratives of young love interrupted and young life threatened are both about gratitude for simple things—companionship, the items needed to survive—and looking beyond is the wrong idea. A side-story you encounter concerns the crew of the downed helicopter, and they die scared and haunted. Searching into the past is almost always a source of pain, in The Last of Us, and in the case of Left Behind, the immediate future will be even worse. The parts in which you’re happy are the parts in which you’re playing, or watching something monumental unfold. The game hits hardest when one character refuses to acknowledge the inevitable, and it reads as a triumph.

It makes sense for a game to argue for the here and now. The Last of Us, and its quiet companion, offer optimism from an oblique perspective, an appreciation for the times when people move forward even when it makes no sense at all. The ones with a plan for the future will prove to carry out the worst evil; the beings with focused drive have brought the world down. Humanity is at its best in the things we cannot articulate, in the goals we do not define. In the smiles it draws from the pointlessness of play, Left Behind honors the first game while recontextualizing its aims. And in the sequences where it tugs you forward relentlessly, it reawakens the tension and excitement of wanting nothing more than to live.

Riley wants to remind her friend of good things, and she asks Ellie to play games. Left Behind argues for her wisdom.

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