By Shay McCleavy
4 out of 4 stars
Can video games tell engaging stories? Last summer The Last of Us was released to critical and commercial success on the PlayStation 3 platform. Its setting was a post-apocalyptic United States ravaged by a mutated strain of the Cordyceps fungus (it’s a real thing, check it out at your own risk) causing zombie-like creatures. The story centered on Joel (Troy Baker), a bitter, broken man, and Ellie (Ashley Johnson), a young, feisty 14-year-old girl, as they trekked across America avoiding dangerous survivors and the infected. It was an affecting tale creating an experimental mix of subtle character building interactions while also giving you tense, propulsive and brutal action.
The creators have released a new downloadable three-hour story for those who own the game, and have continued to press their experimental gameplay. The Last of Us: Left Behind is first and foremost a coming-of-age story. It presents two tales intercut with one another. The first supplements a key moment from the original game, the second acts as a prequel recounting Ellie’s last day with her friend Riley (Yaani King).
The former recalls the main game’s tense stealth and survival aspects while pitting you against the infected and a party of humans hunting Ellie and Joel.
It’s winter; you’re holed up in a dilapidated mall searching for medical supplies. Playing as young Ellie allows for a different perspective than most video game protagonists. She, and by extension the player, must cautiously and thoughtfully take part in or sneak past conflict. The vulnerability coupled with only owning a knife, a handful of bullets and eventually a bow and arrow makes every action count.
The latter forgoes combat for story, experimentation and emotion. Instead it focuses on the friendship between two teenage girls. You’ll spend most of the time exploring another abandoned mall, only this time you’re a younger Ellie curious about a world outside her quarantine zone. The contextual banter between the girls that you will engage in highlights their beautiful playfulness, while contrasting the dangers of the counterpart story. Each player may find something different to interact with, allowing a sense of discovery while leading to new conversations with Riley. It gives you the chance to play like a teenager. A scene exploring a Halloween store enables you to try on scary masks to frighten your friend; another involves finding a photo booth and choosing poses. It also repurposes the game’s controls in inventive ways. Instead of firing arrows into the hearts of enemies, you’re sneaking around the mall fighting with water guns for bragging rights.
I’ve become fascinated with developers experimenting with the medium that’s been long overdue for maturity and subtlety. Though the action side of Left Behind remains tense and taut, it’s the quiet, introspective coming–of–age story that surprises, giving audiences a glimpse into the untouched potential of video games.