When Naughty Dog, a first-party developer for Sony, unveiled its gameplay trailer for The Last of Us at E3 2012, it both horrified and awed its audience, ending with a sequence in which one of the protagonists shoots a man in the face from short range - a violent spectacle that prompted some to refer it as, "The shot heard around the world." For its first and only single-player DLC campaign, the renowned developer chose to elaborate on a tidbit of information given by Ellie at the game's end. This brilliant move has given players exactly what was expected from a DLC following such a high caliber game: an emotional cocktail expertly woven between suspenseful encounters, concise writing that challenges even Hollywood films, and environments that feel as if you could step into them and live in the terrible world each represents.
At the end of its parent game, Ellie tells Joel that she was bit and infected along with a friend of hers, Riley. It was a small piece of information, but by elaborating on it, Naughty Dog managed to create an emotional story of friendship, hardship, and, ultimately, loss. Its themes fit perfectly with The Last of Us and the intense emotional roller coaster it led players through, tying the prequel story seamlessly with a more familiar sequence involving Ellie and the gravely injured Joel.
The story is told through a series of flashbacks, which actually works to the game's advantage and shows off Naughty Dog's incredible affinity for creating memorable, screenplay worthy stories as well as their ability to keep their unique brand of gameplay going in perfect balance. As the now much hardened and more determined Ellie searches for medicine and sutures, she is reminded of Riley, the only other person with whom she's ever had any kind of a close relationship, from back when her life was a little more carefree. This allows the severity of her current situation to reflect nicely on the often times whimsical back story the game is focusing on whilst keeping the player engaged and focused as they move through environments and encounters.
As such, the writing and acting are once again superb. Clearly, Naughty Dog didn't slack off due to this being a mere DLC and not a stand-alone game. The similarities and contrasts between flashback Ellie and current Ellie are perfectly balanced, showing how her more innocent self is perfectly capable of developing into the more hardened, skillful girl players have come to know. The character's humor and frailties never come across as contrived or out-of-place in the story or world, and Ashely Johnson does a stand out job acting for her.
On the flip side there's Riley, who is presented as being more capable and of having more ambition than Ellie does. Aspiring to join the Fireflies, her character juggles between a blend of childish innocence and a girl who has probably seen things, and is expected to do things, that a normal 13-year-old would never be exposed to. By characterizing her this way, the developers demonstrate that they know how to bring two very complex and different characters together. It's easy to see how the two get along, but it's also easy to see the problems their differences cause. This is something that is not often seen in video games and is reserved instead for books, film, and stage.
Secondly, gameplay itself hasn't changed much from its parent game, although it still manages to throw in a few novelties. You still move from one location to the next, solving environmental puzzles and engaging enemies, acquiring new weapons along the way and salvaging the scarce supplies that are crafted into various bomb-like weapons and health kits. However, some of the encounters themselves are very original and stand in stark contrast to anything seen in The Last of Us.
For example, there are situations where both hunters and infected are in an area together, not separated by anything, and deciding how to face or evade this threat and when to act is a fresh breather to how these moments usually work. While it's not wholly unfamiliar, it provides a nice variety that proves Naughty Dog still has a few tricks up its sleeve.
Finally, the settings and environments are just as breathtaking as they were in The Last of Us. Immersion isn't difficult at all in Left Behind, and sometimes the settings prove that they have a few twists in them, too. They don't feel contrived, managing to suck the player into their life-like surroundings, filling them with both wonder and despair. Desolate and broken, with nature striving to reclaim the various buildings that once served as shopping outlets for mankind, Left Behind manages to drag you in and play with your emotions using just the world in a way that hearkens back to the loneliness of Team ICO's Shadow of the Colossus. It's a harsh world, but it's also a world that eyes can't deviate from.
Ultimately, Left Behind is the perfect DLC, and one of the best single-player additions for any game in the PS3 library. Piecing together a story that compliments the original game whilst still feeling original is something that few games can manage. Throw in some slight variations on gameplay to keep players engaged as they learn more and more about Ellie and her relationship to Riley and it becomes a DLC that will be remembered for a long time. This is what DLCs should be, and this is the standard that Left Behind has set. It will be interesting to see what gaming's future holds.