The Best Story in The Last of Us Is Also the Most Powerful

It was so good, HBO devoted an entire episode of the TV adaptation to it — with some minor changes.

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Every now and then, when you experience a piece of art, you realize in the moment how much of an impact it will leave on you. You just know, instinctively, that it changed certain aspects of your worldview. There are the blunt visual things, of course — a holy-crap-did-the-robot-just-walk-straight-through-a-jail-cell moment, or even just any fight scene from The Raid sort of epiphany — that will leave you gob-smacked and become your standard of aesthetic excellence.

But there’s also the emotional, story-driven side of things. The type of media whose intrinsic value is so strong, it impacts you in an even more profound way. Perhaps it was something that made you rethink morality in our world or just how much capitalism causes (all?) problems. For me, one of the greatest pieces of media that left such an impact emotionally was The Last of Us: Left Behind.

Developer Naughty Dog hardly needs an introduction. These days, the studio feels inevitable — a true powerhouse of the industry that’s managed to redefine itself at every turn. Naughty Dog is the Green Bay Packers of video games, conjuring up new industry-altering franchises every decade the same way the Packers keep finding new elite quarterbacks. The studio first blew up with that silly marsupial Crash Bandicoot, then graduated to Jak & Daxter, then got a tad bit more mature with the Uncharted series, and then created its magnum opus with The Last of Us.

The latter-most title has been celebrated by many and turned itself into a pop culture behemoth thanks to the success of its HBO adaptation. But the game’s first expansion, the aforementioned Left Behind, a Valentine’s Day release back in 2014, is what sticks out the most. While most DLCs of the time tended to be add-ons that just gave you some extra goodies, Left Behind was very nearly the opposite.

Riley and Ellie in Left Behind.

Naughty Dog

The expansion served as a prequel to the events of the original game, with almost all of its focus on Ellie rather than Joel. It starts in the middle of Last of Us as Ellie scours an abandoned mall in hopes of finding medicine for Joel, but quickly — and remarkably often — transitions to a flashback set before the two main characters ever met.

Left Behind introduces Riley, Ellie’s best buddy back in FEDRA-occupied Boston. Despite being friends, the two aren’t on the absolute best of terms, most of which stemming from Riley’s rather sudden departure from Boston and equally unexpected return as a new member of the rebel Fireflies. So Riley, in her infinite wisdom and love, has an idea for the two to go on an adventure, visiting an abandoned mall and getting into the sort of adolescent fun that is rarely seen in The Last of Us.

What follows is so timeless and perfect that the HBO series dedicated an entire episode to it, with a little extra adage in the form of Ellie’s life in the FEDRA military school she attends. The game, on the other hand, chooses to opt for more environmental storytelling rather than large amounts of exposition. It lets its characters do the bulk of the work.

Ellie and Riley in the HBO adaptation.


The experience of Left Behind is, mainly, one of youthful joy and naivete. From a story that showed us giant mushroom blob monsters and predators masquerading as charitable religious leaders, you find yourself enjoying the simple things. You grin ear-to-ear as you exchange secrets like those nights when you were young playing Truth or Dare and bear witness to our great American scholar Ellie shout “BRICK… F*CKING master!!!” after winning a brick-throwing competition against Riley.

But like many coming-of-age stories, the fun times are just the sugar-coating for some serious developments. Why did Riley leave Ellie alone in the first place? Are the Fireflies truly worth it? How did Ellie become immune? Left Behind gets into all of that.

It also revealed, to my enormous surprise, that Ellie did, indeed, fancy girls and not boys romantically.

I’d be lying if I said the revelation wasn’t a bit startling to me upon my first playthrough a decade ago. At the time, I didn’t have — or, excuse me, know I had — any gay friends. It was something almost entirely absent from my life. I barely even knew what gay meant, and I’m ashamed to say I often used the word to describe things I felt were stupid, particularly in middle school when someone beat me in tetherball or whatever.

Why? Because I heard other people say it, of course, and there was nobody to correct me. But here was this character I’d grown to love over a 10-plus-hour road trip from one of my favorite game developers revealing this aspect of herself. It almost felt like Naughty Dog was issuing a challenge, daring me to change my opinions of a character I loved just because of this one detail. At that point in time, I simply had not really experienced any LGBTQ+ characters or stories before, especially from a mainstream property.

Ellie and Riley have some childish fun in an abandoned mall.

Naughty Dog

Sure, there were characters I loved that had some, let’s say, clues about their sexuality (like Kitty Pryde from X-Men), but never had I confronted it so directly. No buts, ifs, or ways to slither away from this: Ellie was gay. And that realization, I think, changed me for the better. Aside from her being — and still to this day, mind you — one of my favorite fictional characters ever, there was a way in which Naughty Dog executed this reveal that just landed.

It was like a gentle nudge — a tertiary part of a character that wasn’t showcased in the original game — almost as if the game was saying “Oh, yeah! She’s also this, too. And you’re not hurt, are you?”

I wasn’t hurt. It didn’t change my opinions of her in the slightest and, over time, only made me like her more. Should a reveal of this nature have to be gentle? I wish it didn’t, but at the time, I believe that’s what made it most effective.

Naughty Dog took a risk that was hardly seen from mainstream properties at the time.

Naughty Dog

That’s what makes Left Behind so damn special. It hardly felt like a video game, but rather a true experience. This wasn’t just more bad guys for Joel to murder, new cosmetic options and multiplayer maps, or even some cool gadgets and weapons to play with. Instead, Naughty Dog took a risk that was hardly seen from mainstream properties at the time.

For my money, The Last of Us: Left Behind is Naughty Dog’s magnum opus. It reinvented the DLC wheel, delivered a fantastic story, and even managed to make an idiot like myself rethink his personal biases. That’s not just remarkable for video games but for art in general.

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