It’s tempting to say Left Behind achieves as much with its storytelling in two hours as the main game does in 15, but I’m convinced that our earlier investment in Ellie has much to do with its emotional potency. It’s daring in ways The Last of Us’ story perhaps isn’t, but then it doesn’t have the burden of needing to justify a $60 outlay. With different expectations on its shoulders, Naughty Dog has a little more wiggle room, more space to experiment within, and it capitalises on that freedom quite brilliantly.
The campaign lays much of the groundwork, with mechanics subtly repurposed: you throw bricks for a bit of escapist vandalism rather than to distract clickers, and pull the trigger to shoot water guns instead of pistols and rifles. With the focus shifted away from combat for the most part (its occasional presence here is a timely reminder of the stakes we’re dealing with) Naughty Dog lets you mooch around at your own pace, packing its environments with more objects to examine and remark upon. Often you’re just pressing triangle to make Ellie talk, but when the dialogue is this good, who cares? It’s essentially an accelerated coming-of-age tale, played out in near real-time, and it’s heart-rending to see these two friends giggling like kids in a world that’s made them grow up before they were really ready to. I struggle to think of a game that has captured the nuances of teenage friendship quite as well – and as efficiently – as this does.
It culminates in a truly wonderful moment, where the capabilities of new technology are responsible for evoking the simpler pleasures of the old. What amounts to an extended quick-time event playing out over a static camera shot is somehow one of the most moving sequences I’ve ever encountered in a game. The disappointment when it subsequently reverts to type is hard to shake, but in its own way, the climactic violence earns its place in the story, too. We need to see how horrible the world has become to truly empathise with Ellie’s plight; to make those fleeting moments of calm – and of companionship – all the more precious.