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February 17, 2014

On The Last of Us: Left Behind

Okay.  Let’s talk about DLC for a little bit.

I can remember a time when people were excited about the prospect.  Additions to their favorite games?  New content?  For a meager price?  No problem, they said in a united chorus.  But flash forward to the present day, and the mere mention of DLC is enough to make people retch.  These days, DLC doesn’t always mean “adding more”; it means “taking out what should have been in the game in the first place and charging extra for it.”  I guess it’s a way to soften the blow of development expenditures, and to be fair, it DOES feed into that oh-so-identifiable “games as a service” mantra.  Why let people unlock costumes in Street Fighter 4 when you can just make them pay for it later?  Why make Final Fantasy 13-2 a complete game when you can just dish out costumes, sidequests, and an impenetrable “ending” later on?  Who needs loyalty and goodwill when you can just hassle customers for more money?

As you’d expect, I wasn’t exactly excited about DLC for The Last of Us, given my…well, let’s call it “history” with the game.  But my brother -- and presumably every other person on the planet -- was.  So he played through it, and I sat through it.  I’m standing firm on my opinions about the game, but I’ve always felt bad about giving it so much trouble.  I wanted to like it, I really did -- and I wanted to be able to share the popular opinion without looking like some sort of gaming hipster.  So while I wouldn’t play through the DLC myself, I at least owed Naughty Dog a shot at redemption.

The question is, would they earn it?

Spoilers for The Last of Us -- main game and DLC -- ahead.  You might want to ride your horse on out of here if you’re looking to see The Misadventures of Joel Grumpybuns raw.


All right, let me be perfectly upfront.  And let me sum up this post in about three points from the get-go.

1) There is absolutely no justification for buying this DLC.  It’ll only last you a couple of hours -- maybe a little more, depending on how well you handle the final skirmish -- and you can get the full experience just by watching a playthrough on YouTube.  At a full $15, you could download any one of several complete titles that’ll last you much longer.

2) This DLC is pretty much still an extension of the main game -- warts and all -- so those expecting a gameplay overhaul would be better off playing a different game.   That said, Left Behind doesn’t enhance our understanding and appreciation of TLoU; in fact, it makes the main game retroactively worse.  And that’s because…

3) While I wouldn’t say this DLC is 100% successful in what it’s trying to do, it gets much closer to telling the kind of story Naughty Dog probably intended.  Or to put it differently, this DLC is what TLoU should have been from start to finish.


I’m not even joking.  I was sitting there watching my bro play through it, and I was just shaking my damn head and thinking to myself, “Why wasn’t this in the main game?”  It should have been. It really should have been in the main game -- because the fact that it isn’t only highlights the problems with DLC practices at large. 

I wouldn’t say Left Behind is an integral part of the story (what happens in it is pretty much just one foregone conclusion after another), but for what it’s trying to accomplish and what it says about its characters/world, I’m just baffled as to why this section had to get cut out.  You could make the argument that it wasn’t done yet and the devs had deadlines to stick to, but they should have found a way to work this stuff in.  It’s as if they cut key scenes out of a Shakespeare play and expected theater-goers to come back in eight months to fill in the plot holes their absence left.


They can’t even pretend like they didn’t plan to leave out this chunk of the story (giving the title Left Behind a whole new meaning).  Ellie mentions the main chunk of this DLC -- sneaking through a mall with her friend Riley, goofing off, attracting zombies, and Riley biting it -- in a passing conversation.  Why wasn’t it in the main game, given that they slid it into a slot in TLoU’s chronology anyway?  Why would they keep a potentially-interesting event, and a much-needed change of pace, out of gamers’ hands?  Beyond that, why would they leave the other part -- explaining what happened in the time between Joel’s fall on a rebar spike and Ellie rescuing him -- out, considering that it left people wondering for months how she managed to help Joel despite conventional knowledge suggesting it was impossible?  It’s not as if they can use the excuse “to keep player/character focus on Joel”, because they ended up switching to Ellie anyway.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  I don’t understand this industry anymore.

But whatever.  Because once more, you get to play as Ellie.  The way it should have been in the first place.


It is absolutely unreal how big a difference it makes for TLoU when you take Joel Grumpybuns out of the equation.  It’s not even funny how much-improved the game becomes.    It’s been more than half a year since I finished the main game, and I’m having a hard time remembering anything unique or distinct about the character besides his incredible sonar-beard.  If you got something out of him, that’s fine, but for me?  He was a dead-end of a character.  Just a cut above a stand-in, and one that made the people around him (Ellie) worse. 

To put it a different way, Joel was someone you had to experience TLoU as; Ellie was someone you wanted to experience TLoU with.  Not just because that was the way the game was made -- and let’s not think too hard about the negative connotations there -- but because Ellie was actually allowed to have a presence and a personality.  Granted it wasn’t the most original or glowing personality ever, and Joel did his damnedest to stamp it out until the plot said so, but it was something.  I’d gladly take something over nothing -- though why so many other creators would choose the latter over the former is a question best left to the Sage of Light Rauru.


I need to play that game someday.

With Left Behind, Ellie finally gets a chance to become -- or at least come closer to -- being the character that she was supposed to be, precisely because she’s not getting boxed in by Joel.  In fact, it’s almost as if the reverse happens; Ellie’s friend Riley brings out the best of her, and in her own right is a much more interesting character than Joel OR Ellie.  She’s torn between extremes and paths to follow; she has to decide if she wants to join up with the Fireflies (which she does), but she also wants to be with Ellie, and hold onto that relationship and her past life as tightly as she can -- to the point where she’d risk everything just to take back some missing water guns, or goof off in a mall with Ellie despite it being a ridiculously terrible idea to do so.

It’s worth nothing that despite the name and the game it’s connected to, Left Behind is -- to some extent, at least -- a much sillier and more lighthearted game.  It understands the concepts of highs and lows a lot better than the main game, at least.  The DLC has to pull double-duty to explain two events at once, so it cuts between the past section (Ellie in the mall) and the present (Ellie trying to find first aid for Joel) at set moments.  As you’d expect, the Riley bits have pretty much all of the highs and the Joel bits have plenty of lows -- to the point where the Riley bits are the only reason I’d recommend buying the DLC -- but even then, there’s a much stronger balance in the Riley bits that makes for a more distinct game.


The mall adventures don’t have much in the way of combat -- most notably, there’s an escape sequence near the tail end, and a few button-mashing QTEs -- but they compensate by offering up…well, I guess I can call them “variations”.  Ellie and Riley are in the mall to have one last night of fun before Riley shoves off with the rest of the Fireflies, and they do so with all their might.  They make a game out of throwing bricks at car windows.  They boot up the power so they can ride the merry-go-round, and pose in a photo booth.  They go to a novelty shop and put on goofy masks, and as Ellie (in a wolf mask) you get to do a QTE to do a howl.  They go to an arcade, and while the machines are all busted, Riley goes all game-master on us and narrates a Mortal Kombat match for Ellie’s amusement (complete with clunky-ass MK-style inputs!).

What’s especially weird about Left Behind is that it’s a lot more interactive, so to speak.  Setting aside some inputs you do with your mall shenanigans, you can ask a magic eight-ball -- or a skull variant, at least -- up to eight separate and fairly amusing questions.  Riley passes Ellie a joke book, and you can wander around telling one bad pun after another.  You can accept or decline a drink from Riley, and accepting will show Ellie spitting it all over the place.  Curiously enough, you actually get a chance to ask Riley some questions, a la Mass Effect.  And while all this was shown to me on-screen, I shook my damn head even harder and asked myself, “Seriously, why wasn’t this in the main game?”


What’s in this DLC rings truer than some seventeen hours’ worth of the main game.  By and large, what was in the main game was there to be looked at -- a bunch of museum exhibits to be seen, and not touched, and scream repeatedly “SEE THIS THING?  THIS WAS FROM THE PAST, AND YOU’LL NEVER HAVE IT AGAIN!”  That’s also the case with Left Behind, but it’s a lot more tolerable because even if those things are lost, Ellie and Riley are going out of their way to enjoy them.  Not just pointing them out, but using them to ensure that they have fond memories of one another before their departure.

And as a result, I get the feeling that I’m going to remember more from this DLC eight months on than I will from the main game.  There’s an additional point to Left Behind than there is to the main game: yes, those things from the past might be lost, but those relics -- and the people who remain -- can still be used to enjoy the present, no matter how zombie-riddled it gets.  Ellie and Riley aren’t in it to just “endure and survive”; they’re just two young ladies goofing off and having a good time. 


It’s true that they don’t spend the whole trip just playing around with junk and riding each other, and there is some drama over Riley’s departure (as you’d expect), but they come together a lot better than Ellie and Joel because there’s actual synergy between them.  They’re not standing on opposite ends of a canyon; they’re engaging with one another, because they’re allowed to have an emotional range and respond to one another. 

They’re allowed to be happy, and sad, and afraid, and angry, and concerned for one another, and attached to one another -- and from start to finish -- because they’re on equal ground.  Because they’re willing to LIVE, not just survive.  They’re closer to each other than Ellie and Joel will ever be.  No matter what TLoU or its inevitable sequels try to tell us, I don’t buy into the relationship the entire game is built upon.  But I buy into this one. 

I’ve never been a fourteen-year-old girl -- as far as I know -- but what’s in Left Behind should suffice.



Oh yeah, Ellie and Riley kiss in this.  Caught me by surprise...and I suspect this is going to spark a looooooooooooooooot of image searches.

Don’t think that I’m giving Left Behind a pass, though.  Like I said, I wouldn’t recommend a purchase, because -- like the core game -- there’s not enough game in this game.  The interactions between Ellie and Riley are much more interesting, but the tradeoff is that it all comes off as something you’re better off watching instead of playing.  There’s interactivity, but in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t make for compelling gameplay; that is, it slips even further toward being a movie instead of a game.  The Riley sections are more or less just interactive cutscenes where you walk from one area to the next, and some bells and whistles will go whizz-bang before your eyes to dupe you into thinking you’ve done something special…unless of course the game just switches to a pre-baked, non-interactive cutscene. 

Then again, the alternative is to play through the game in the Joel bits.  And it’s exactly as you remember it; bump around cluttered areas looking for items.  Instant-kill zombies from behind, and since every exit makes a huge racket when you use it you have to kill every zombie in a room .  Kill a human enemy in front of a door and hide, then kill every guy that comes to investigate until you’ve got a pile of bodies.  Try to climb up/across something, and -- oh no!  It fell down and took you with it!  What an unprecedented turn of events that would be if it hadn’t appeared a hundred times in the main game and roughly ten trillion times in Uncharted


It’s tiresome stuff, and not in the good way; the only real variation comes at the very end when you have to fight about a dozen guys scattered around -- but not so randomly that they won’t be in the perfect positions to spot you no matter where you move -- and only learn what to do through repeated deaths.  Oh, and did I mention there’s a time limit, because otherwise they find Joel and kill him?  Riveting stuff, to be sure.  If there was one character I was desperate to save, it was a man who spent at least half his game as an insufferable bearded plank of wood.     

Thankfully, the number of skirmishes in this DLC is mercifully low, and I am glad Ellie isn’t carrying a verifiable arsenal on her back.  But once more, where the game really hamstrings itself -- besides the gameplay, of course -- is with the story, and the context surrounding it.  Again, why do these people go around not wearing any protective gear in a zombie-infested world, or act like these apparently-lethal spores can just be strolled through without a second thought?  Ellie might be immune, but now she’s covered in the very thing that ensures the spread of the zombie virus.  Are we just not supposed to give a damn about that, even if she’s treating Joel while utterly filthy in blood, sweat, and spores? 


Setting that aside, why are these gunmen going out of their way to hunt Ellie and Joel?  Given that they’ve long since established themselves as killers, why not leave them alone?  If they’re absolutely certain that those two are murderers out to ruin their precarious peace, why not stay on guard on their home turf and wait for the pair to come to them?  That way, if they DO come they have a better chance of spotting them; if they DON’T come, then those are both bullets and lives saved.  It makes no sense from a story aspect, because once more the gameplay conventions are interfering with our understanding of logic and real-life scenarios.

Those are, admittedly, just things you can consider nitpicks.  But the game-breaker -- the thing that keeps Left Behind from being the story it could be -- is because I don’t get the sense that things are happening because of a natural progression.  They’re happening because the plot, and its noose-dangling gameplay, are demanding it.  The question that this game (and plenty of other zombie-related stories, The Walking Dead well among them) needs to answer is “where are the zombies coming from when it’s time for action?”  And it hasn’t. 


The abilities of the main enemies are inconsistent, and create some major contrivances.  You’re telling me that Ellie roaring as loud as she can, smashing windows with her pal, and flipping on the power in the mall doesn’t summon a horde, but playing music (that clubs you over the head with its symbolism) does?  And where are they coming from in droves?  How could Ellie and Riley have run into no zombies over the course of what has to be several hours despite exploring a mall almost from corner to corner, but in the span of a scene change there’s a gang of them that’s got them on the run?  Where did they come from?  How did they zero in on their location?  How did they get the doors open, or figure out how to use the stairs?  Do they even have the brains to understand things like object permanence?  Do they have the muscular strength and density to climb up a box, let alone overpower someone?

What I’m getting at here is that -- given how easily zombies can be dispatched in the main game -- I get the sense that the only time they’re really perceivable as a threat is when they’re screaming and there’s mood-setting music pumping in the background.  More to the point, I get the sense that the only time these people have a reason to be wary of zombies is when their stupidity leads them straight into Tight Spot City.  Riley and Ellie really should have known not to play their music out loud, or at least had the sense to seal the doors beforehand.  You could argue that they were just being dumb kids with no foresight, or got sloppy because they were in the throes of passion, but Riley ends up getting bitten and killed off because of one bad move.  No, it’s worse than that; she gets killed off because one zombie just so happens to bite her.  Just one stinking zombie, popping up after a chase sequence.  Just one zombie that pops in from off-screen, so we have no idea where it came from.

Naughty Dog, do you -- do your zombies know how to teleport?  Are they ninjas?


But you know what?  When all’s said and done, I can’t bring myself to hate Left Behind.  What I CAN do is be completely and thoroughly pissed off over the fact that it’s not just a cross-section of what made TLoU such a flawed game, but how Naughty Dog continues to miss the point, however retroactively.  Left Behind comes closer to being what TLoU should have been.  That much is obvious to me, no matter how much people might approve of the core game.  No matter how much I wish I could share their opinions.  I’m not going to say they’re wrong, but they ARE wrong if they think this is a flawless game.

Rather than try to give us something with at least the potential to be something unique -- two young friends finding something to live for in their bold new world -- it falls back on the safe bet so it can rake in those awards and consumer dollars.  Instead of trying something new, and trying to impart at least a potentially-fresh message on players, it decides to just say the same message over and over again while drilling less-than-stellar combat into player skulls while trying to sell a go-nowhere relationship between a man and his would-be daughter.


The worst part about it is that when all’s said and done, despite whatever good intentions Naughty Dog might have had -- setting aside money-grabbing practices -- Left Behind ends up being exactly what Ellie once spoke against: it’s all for nothing.  I would assume that not everyone who played TLoU, even if they are dedicated fans, will buy the DLC.  So on that note, this important, perspective-changing  piece of the story, will go unnoticed by plenty of gamers. 

But even if they do take the plunge, what’s the payoff?  Riley’s dead, and her final message propelling others (Ellie especially) to have hope and fight has been overwritten by Joel and the “endure and survive” mantra.  We can’t count on him to appreciate the world as-is, because the only thing that could get him to ease up was the sight of some wild giraffes.  Left Behind fills in a gap that didn’t need to be there in the first place -- but despite that, it’s only a token effort at best.  It’s a flashback that informs, but has no bearing on what’s to come.  No fruit to bear.

It makes me wonder: if Naughty Dog is so hell-bent on getting it backwards -- if they want to make the good stuff a mere extra and the bad stuff the main attraction -- then why the hell wouldn’t it be for nothing?


And there you have it.  Let the records show that I can be fair, but I have low tolerance for shenanigans.  As it should be.  Now then, what’s my reward for putting myself through this again?  Can I do a post on something cool?  Maybe something on Kamen Rider, perhaps?  There’s plenty of good stuff I can say about that.  Let’s have a look and see what else is on the to-do list.


Oh, fuck you, me!

3 comments:

  1. "I am the reason Naughty Dog made Last of Us. I liked Jak and Daxter, Jak II, and Jak III."



    Well there's your problem. You should have sung praises about Jak X: Combat Racing so as to appease the gaming gods! That would have stopped The Last of Us from happening!


    I admit that I don't know much about the Jak games, since I didn't have a PS2 until somewhere around the time after Jak 3 came out. But that really is an interesting (if harrowing) look at the series; I never would have guessed that there were so many parallels between that and TLoU. Makes me wonder if The Misadventures of Joel Grumpybuns was Naughty Dog's dream game -- the sort of thing they always wanted to make, and most of the other stuff was either practice or a way to build consumer loyalty. It's possible, if you're the optimistic sort...even if they botched it.


    The other alternative is that TLoU is the game that it is because of pressures from the industry. I was thinking about mentioning this in the post (even if I kind of implied it), but I didn't want to play THAT CARD or be THAT GUY. But I guess I might as well say it now: I can't shake the feeling that Left Behind is the extra stuff because Naughty Dog was afraid of what would happen if they didn't have a gruff white male as the player character. Everything seems to point to Ellie being the protagonist -- or at least getting the role she deserved -- but for some reason we have to play as a guy who we're not supposed to care about nearly as much as Ellie...so the question is, why is he there in the first place?


    There was an article on the now-defunct Penny Arcade Report a while back that suggested that the reason games are so rigid in their practices (gruff white males all day EVERY DAY!) is because the devs behind them aren't diverse in the slightest. No women, no different ethnic groups, and now they've aged enough to reach a point in their lives where suddenly they do/have to/should care about the presence of children in their lives and the world at large. Given BioShock Infinite and (to a lesser extent) Telltale's Walking Dead, I wonder if that's true. But TLoU doubles down by being crippled by triple-A expectations. I can't in good faith buy into the hype/praise of the game, because in my eyes it's still just the same old, same old with more sad guitars, hollow worlds trying and failing to have meaning, and attempts at being emotional just because there's a girl who looks saaaaaaaaaaaaaaad in virtually every piece of promotional art.


    So basically, TLoU strikes me as a game that's for Naughty Dog, but just so happens to be a game for others because of the usual big-budget trappings.


    ...You know, I was going to ask if you were all right over on your end, given how much volcanic rage erupted in this comment of yours. And I was going to ask if you needed to, I don't know, look at a picture of a cute puppy to cheer up. But now I'm seriously starting to sympathize with you. And now I need a picture of a cute puppy.


    In summation, fuck this game.

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  2. ...Yeah. Your hatred for The Last of Us is much greater than mine to Persona 4 [Golden]. It's only comparable due to how much we groan, moan, and want to hurt ourselves over an over-bloated "masterpiece" seen by the vast majority of the planet.

    Okay, nevermind. It's practically the same. *mutters* God I hate that overblown -

    Anywho. Back on topic.

    The only time DLC ripped me off was Mass Effect 3's $15 Omega. I still play it since I feel obligated to do a galaxy-wide victory lap on each save file (aka 100% completion - minus multiplayer), but it should've been $7. It was just not worth that much. I'll get to it eventually on my blog, but I know the problems it has is far different from Left Behind. At least you had relatively nice things to say about Left Behind.

    As for The Last of Us, I still won't buy this game. I just won't. You gave me plenty of reasons to just not bother with it. This game will not change my mind on zombie-apocalypse plots, the generic video game protagonist I will forever bitch about until change happens, and unlikeable characters overall. But I think I'm beating a dead horse by this point. On the other hand, I can say Naughty Dog is not a developer I should think fondly of for this generation. Not even my free copy of Uncharted 3 convinced me that this company is worth my time. It has too much of the Call of Duty paint job to make me find anything worthwhile beyond it.



    And sheesh, this game. I wonder once we get out of this stagnating phase of our culture's lifespan and we'll call ourselves out for the late 2000s to early 2010s' borefest. The infection just needs to stop. If I see one more buzz-cut, brown-haired, buff, muscular, gruff caucasian straight male toting a gun -


    And if the new Robocop fits most of this criteria, expect a nuclear explosion on the eastern seaboard.

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  3. That's probably a fair assumption on the whole TLoU vs. P4G front. To be fair, that's only because my rage -- once unleashed -- is a great and terrible thing. Seriously, people have assumed (perhaps rightly) that I would make an excellent berserker. I'm not in any rush to prove them right, but it could happen one day. One dark day, indeed...


    If nothing else, I'm thankful that Left Behind at least TRIED to be the game that, you know, THE ACTUAL GAME SHOULD HAVE BEEN IN THE FIRST PLACE. Maybe Naughty Dog -- and plenty of other devs -- aren't interested in trying to push the boundaries of games, storytelling, gameplay or otherwise. For now, at least. But maybe there's a chance that people will play LEft Behind, realize the key differences between that and TLoU, and realize that there's more that can be offered.


    Among TLoU's maelstrom of problems, there's one thing I hope people take away from the DLC. People need to understand that being dark is not having an absence of joy or hope or levity. Those aren't immature things. Those are things that make life more honest, more colorful, and more worthwhile -- be it in the real world or fiction. But then again, if people understood that more readily, then my brother wouldn't have dragged me kicking and screaming to see RoboCop and I would have done a post on The Lego Movie instead.


    So yeah, look forward to that. Gruff white males all day, EVERY DAY -- only this time, with ARMOR and MORE GUNS!


    ...Can you tell I'm not happy about RoboCop?

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