When it comes to the character of Ellie, Left Behind offers a unique perspective on the coming of age narrative. It is a core theme of the game and offers a lens for the player to better understand Ellie’s character.
Left Behind is a small game that packs a big punch. Through the interweaving stories of the day Ellie was bitten and the day Joel was brutally injured at the University, we get to see how Ellie becomes the character we know and love from the base game, The Last of Us. A lot of this has to do with Left Behind being a subtle coming of age story that depicts Ellie’s gradual radicalization after being an apathetic onlooker for most of her life.
The coming of age story depicts a child making the transition into adulthood. Examples of this type of story include To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Malcolm in the Middle, and Stand By Me…just to name a few. Coming of age stories do not aim to literally represent the moment a child becomes an adult because this is a long transitional period of one’s life. Rather, coming of age represents moments in time when a child’s view of the world is changed, and it transforms their viewpoint because of this. Left Behind explores coming of age by contrasting two different timelines: Ellie before she was bitten and Ellie afterwards, traveling with Joel.
When we meet Ellie in Left Behind, she is living at a military boarding school. Although it is the character we know and love, she is different. In her interactions with Riley, Ellie is revealed to be more naive and unsure of herself than in the base game. Although she is breaking the rules by sneaking out, she is clearly uncomfortable with doing so and is consistently weary of authority despite her mockery of it at later points in the game. Ellie is not content with the world but doesn’t stand up to the powers that be. Sure she gets into trouble, but it never goes beyond a slap on the wrist (or in this case, the confiscation of water guns).
Left Behind is concerned with illustrating Ellie and Riley’s innocence in a world where childhood hardly exists as we understand it. The girls spend their time in the mall playing games, riding the carousel, trying on Halloween masks, and taking pictures in a photo booth. They shoot each other with water guns and then point guns at infected. This is contrasted with Ellie’s other storyline which also takes place in a mall but under very different circumstances. Ellie is no longer on a care-free adventure with her friend but on a quest for survival at all costs.
Coming of age in this world feels a lot different than we normally understand it. In the earlier example, Stand By Me, main character Gordie grapples with coming of age when he and his friends find a dead body in the woods. But in The Last of Us and Left Behind, death and mutilated bodies are commonplace. Children are not shielded from violence but prepared to face it. They attend military academies and are recruited into the rebel militia known as the Fireflies.
Early in the story, it is revealed that Riley has become a Firefly. Ellie presses her, wondering why she joined up with the group in the first place. As they make their way through the mall, Riley avoids Ellie’s questions. Instead, she jokes around with her by scaring her with a vampire mask or pulling out a joke book.
As the game continues, she later reveals that she has to leave the city of Boston because she has been assigned to another group in a different city. This revelation completely alters their friendship. Not only is Riley becoming a militant Firefly, but committing to it and taking decisive action. On top of this, Riley leaving means that she will be leaving Ellie in a world where every person Ellie has loved has left her in some capacity. Grappling with this feels too difficult and so the girls decide to make up for a while by playing with water guns.
Then we arrive at the iconic scene of the game. Riley turns on Etta James’ I Got You Babe and the girls dance atop a glass display case. The camera zooms out as they dance amidst the overgrown, disheveled mall. It is a beautiful and effective shot, one of my favorites in the game. Ellie stops dancing and whispers to Riley, “Don’t go.” Riley proceeds to rip off her Firefly pendant and the girls kiss, just before being ambushed by infected.
We all know how this ends. The girls run but are unable to make their way to safety. They are bitten and this can only end in tragedy. As they sit in the morning sunlight, Riley goes over their options. At her suggestion that they fight, Ellie asks, “fight for what?” Riley then gives a moving speech and reflects that they can fight for the moments they get to spend with one another. Her speech overlays a scene of Ellie in the present day, with Joel hitched on a sled, about to brave the winter winds. Though it happens off screen, we know the true ending to this story. Riley dies and Ellie learns she is immune. She will never get those moments with Riley back. Her death marks a distinct turning point for Ellie.
This is the moment that changes Ellie forever, the coming of age moment. It isn’t just that she was bitten and survived. At the ending moments of this game, Ellie has no concept of the idea that she could walk away from this unscathed. She expected to die along with her best friend and love interest. This is brought up at the end of The Last of Us. Since that day, Ellie has been waiting for her turn to die and it never happens. People are constantly dying beside her. She had made it all that way to the Firefly hospital, only to leave with nothing but empty words from Joel.
It isn’t merely the fact that Ellie was bitten that she sees the world differently, though that is certainly a part of it. Ellie changes because she now has a reason to fight. At the start of the game, Ellie is skeptical of Riley’s involvement with the Fireflies and wonders why she would get involved at all. By the end, Ellie loses her. The infection takes her.
Riley’s final on screen words encourage Ellie to fight. Her death is the crux of Ellie’s entire worldview from this point forward. It isn’t enough that she survived. She survived without Riley. This is a moment that shows Ellie the cruelty of this world. She has to continue fighting, for Riley’s sake. And if she can, she wants to be used to find a cure so that people can survive next time.
When Joel is injured, Ellie does all that she can to keep him alive. Just as with Riley, Ellie explores an abandoned mall except now she is alone. There is no warm glow from the carousel but only white snow and bitter cold. She is fighting to keep Joel alive in a way she could not keep Riley alive. It can be assumed that these memories haunt her everyday and at the same time keep her going.
Left Behind is a beautiful coming of age story that takes Ellie from a silent bystander to an active fighter. It is a subtle tale of radicalization and one that captures the nuances of what it means to grow up in a pandemic that has destroyed the world.
- Naughty Dog. The Last of Us: Left Behind. Sony Interactive Entertainment. PS3/PS4. 2014.