How Left Behind’s use of portraits reinforced underlying themes
Just like the main game it expands upon, The Last of Us: Left Behind left players like me to dwell on the qualities of the experience. When I say “qualities,” I’m not talking about the technical qualities. Don’t get me wrong — from a technical view, the DLC is near flawless and damn impressive. But that’s not why I’m writing this; there’s a huge deal of fine-tuning that was put forth in the storyline. These characters, sequence of events, and themes are all products of the careful craftsmanship. This type of attention to detail is easy to recognize, but sometimes also easy to miss.
Keza MacDonald of IGN had a brilliant write-up on the significance of Left Behind. There is yet again another push forward in narrative that keeps the player at a personal level. MacDonald’s article covers the themes of adolescence and friendship that emerges from the story.
In my review, I mention the contrast between companionship and loneliness. When I first booted up Left Behind, I expected to only play the events that focused on Ellie and Riley. What I got was more than that. Ellie’s struggle by her lonesome is chained and contrasted intricately with her adventure at the mall with Riley.
What I found worth mentioning as I was playing was the subtle attention to pictures. There’s a lonely body of a pharmacist who got locked away in the American Princess store. Along with the pharmacy key he had with him, there was a pre-apocalypse photo booth printout of him and his significant other. Flipping the image over revealed an intimate note: “Think about me while I’m off. I’ll be missing you, but not too much. – Laura.” Little is shown and said, but somehow I see the full picture: a portrait of a once happy couple that’s no more. Ellie and Riley’s amusing outing is juxtaposed with this when they come across a ShareSnap photo booth. It’s a touching segment to see the two take silly and animated shots together. The booth’s printer was out of order, leaving their moment to be seized by memory.
As Ellie struggles onward, she comes across remnants of a helicopter crew – their bodies found segregated from one another. Notes and audio logs provide more insight to the drama that unfolded with the crew. We first learn about the helicopter accident and then the tragic sacrifice they had to endure with one of their crew members. As the story unfolds, we discover the desperation and fall out of the crew’s camaraderie. It isn’t until later when Ellie finds the corpse of Captain Regan. With her is a picture of the crew with the writing: “To the coolest Captain around! Here’s to another fine year. HAPPY B-DAY!”
Chuck Palahniuk wrote in his novel Lullaby, “The trick to forgetting the big picture is to look at everything close-up.” The pharmacist in the American Princess store was just another casualty among millions in the post-apocalyptic world. A closer look reveals part of his story, his image, and his relationship that he had while he was alive. The helicopter crew was just another group of survivors who did what they had to do to survive. A closer look at the picture of Captain Regan’s unit shows us the other side to the crew. Before all of this, they were companions who looked out for each other and considered one another family.
Throwing back to MacDonald’s write-up, part of Left Behind is about maintaining friendships when there’s so much change going on. At one point, Ellie climbs through a breached ceiling and finds herself in a photo studio. The significance of pictures hit me once I looked around the studio. Here are more portraits of people –casualties of the post-infected world. There are family portraits and pictures of couples in the studio. It settles in the idea of how many personal struggles there are outside of the experiences of the pharmacist and Regan’s crew.
Our attention is never explicitly drawn towards the pictures on the walls, but I’ve got this feeling where I think Naughty Dog wanted us to notice them. It contributes ever so subtly to the threatening world that The Last of Us takes place in. Part of that technique to build the world with such small details nearly becomes artistic in its own right. This is a developer known for its narrative talent; they achieve it through script execution and subliminal nuances that allow the player to engross themselves even further.
It’s rare to have a game with a unique, meaningful focus on themes and story. That’s what sets Left Behind apart from everything else. We’re able to dissect the narrative and find things worth sharing. The thoughts and depth to The Last of Us lore is almost on the level of a film with merit. To have titles like Gone Home and The Last of Us is a breath of fresh air in the industry and I have hopes that both will pave way for a new approach on video game storytelling.