|Developed by:||Naughty Dog|
For the uninitiated, it must be tempting to to label all videogames as a toy, something your grandson or nephew plays with. Certainly we have all seen the headlines branding the latest GTA a ‘murder simulator’ or heard Gran dismissing the medium as a blood drenched, violent escape.
But gamers understand that, when they’re done right, videogames offer an art form up there with the worthiest of Oscar winning films or indie favourite. If Uncharted delivered the type of nuanced, character driven popcorn fodder that Michael Bay could only dream of, Journey drew us into a world of largely silence, manipulating our emotions through subtle reveal and clever pacing.
The Last of Us meanwhile has an immediate parallel in The Walking Dead, a show that has long since lost its way. Ellie and Joel’s relationship is at the core of the story, the narrative built around exploring their development as they scavenge from the remnants of a broken world, the violence when it comes underlining the deadly threat that exists in a lawless world.
To Left Behind then. An offshoot from the main story, at just a couple of hours in length we have no right to expect much beyond a surface level look at one of the characters, perhaps a chance to relive some of the main game’s greatest hits. What we get instead is a stunning slice of arthouse gaming.
We start midway through Joel and Ellie’s adventure, picking up at a pivotal moment as Ellie is forced to forage on her own, facing down both infected and hunters. The world is as we left it; cold, hard and broken but Ellie has been crafted, like the very weapons she wields, into a resourceful and dangerous foe. As she hunts for her quarry so she is hunted, her lithe movement an able substitute for Joel’s more aggressive approach as she stealths her way through a pack of malevolent foes.
Broadly speaking, the action in these scenes is unchanged from the main game but there are subtle differences. Ellie lacks the frontal assault weapons that Joel may wield, relying more on sneaking up behind enemies and making copious use of the bow and arrow. For such a short lived experience, firefights are intense with a large number of enemies packed into a small environment, interspersed with the occasional puzzle to be solved. But Ellie is a resourceful girl, evidenced as you sling a brick through a broken window, catching the attention of a hunter whilst also drawing a pack of infected to inspect the noise, the ensuing battle eliminating most of the threat in a shower of bullets and blood, the survivors easy pickings for our nimble heroine.
But this is only half the story. For whilst the Ellie we encounter with Joel may be battle hardened, we now have the opportunity to experience life before this journey, a life of relative safety and order within the confines of a military patrolled compound. Here we meet Riley, recent Firefly convert and Ellie’s best friend. Clearly these two share a deep history, one that is both explored and hinted at as the story progresses.
Heading out for one last trip down memory lane, the girls explore an abandoned shopping mall. We laugh with them as they root through the costume shop that was kitted out for Halloween, smile with them as they muck around in the photo booth, groan along as Ellie unleashes puns that make your ears bleed and…no, I’m not spoiling that one for you.
It is jarring to start with. Your natural inclination is to speed or creep through areas, constantly on the lookout for danger. But soon it becomes apparent that the fun to be found here is in stopping to enjoy the moment, finding moments of joy in the bleak grey of this scarred world. Finding life from lifelessness.
It is joyous and liberating, the juxtaposition with Ellie and Joel’s adventure stark and exacerbated as the story cuts back and forth between the two narrative strands, one serene and joyous, one cruel and filled with death around every corner. The ending of each tale will not come as a shock to those who have completed the main game but nonetheless when the moment comes, it packs a punch that both elevates and deflates in equal measure.
This is storytelling. This is art. This is gaming.