WRD Weekly Roundup: Left Behind and The Last Of Us TV show

Hello everyone, and welcome back to the Wild Roe Deer Weekly Roundup, now only one day late! Well, we on The Wild Roe Deer blog pride ourselves on our staunch commitment to quality over quantity, which is why this post was delayed, and it definitely had nothing to do with me forgetting to write it until Monday morning. Anyway, this week hasn’t been anything I’d call exciting as far as games go. Rather, it’s simply been the calm before the storm that is the Spring 2020 release window. There are some huge games coming out in the next few weeks that I cannot wait to get my hands on, like Ori and the Will of the Wisps dropping in a couple days (and early impressions are overwhelmingly positive from what I hear), Doom Eternal providing the demon-slaying content on March 20th, and Persona 5 Royal giving me a reason to return to game and actually try and beat it this time. We’ve got a really exciting few months ahead of us and I’m confident we’ll get to enjoy some of the generation’s best games very soon.

WARNING: this next bit has some heavy mid-game spoilers for The Last Of Us, so if you somehow haven’t played it, I recommend skipping over this section of the post and for god’s sake PLAY THE GAME YOU FOOL

But enough of what could be! Let’s talk about what is, like how Left Behind, the critically acclaimed DLC companion game to Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us, is really fucking good. The story takes place in the time skip between the main game’s Fall and Winter segments, depicting a panicked Ellie desperately trying to scrounge up some medicine to save Joel from bleeding out after his near-fatal injury. You navigate this small abandoned shopping centre, encountering both infected and human enemies along your way. However, the more notable aspect of this DLC is the prequel story breaking up the high-stakes present day section, which is the events leading up to the fateful bite that set this game’s plot in motion. In the past segment, you get to meet Riley, Ellie’s closest friend in the Boston quarantine zone, and gradually learn about their recent falling out, why it happened, and how the two of them really feel about each other. I’m just gonna come out and say it: I adore Left Behind. Perhaps I’m biased because The Last Of Us is quite literally my favourite video game, but I truly believe this quaint little two-hour experience manages to achieve so much in such a limited time. It really feels like a microchasm of what made the main game work so well: fantastic writing, strong pacing, tone and atmosphere, and phenomenal performances.

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I think the team at Naughty Dog recognised that two of the aspects of their previous game that people connected with so heavily, myself included, were the stellar environmental storytelling and the character interactions. Releasing this, they made the entire Riley segment completely void of all combat encounters, opting instead for a complete focus on exploration and dialogue. This was, in my opinion, a really clever decision, since it works well as a palette cleanser between the tense life-or-death stakes of the present day section, and it provides an experience wholly unique from the main game. One of the key components of the story in The Last Of Us is the blossoming relationship between Joel and Ellie, and while much of that development comes in scripted story moments, I think the player’s bond to Ellie is strengthened in a more organic sense by the life-threatening situations they’re both forced to overcome. Entering a tough gunfight and surviving by the skin of your teeth alongside Ellie causes you to grow together through your experiences, and I highly doubt the story of The Last Of Us would be nearly as effective without these combat segments. Left Behind, however, is depicting a strong friendship that already exists, so putting the characters in deadly situations wouldn’t do anything to bolster that aspect of their characters. Knowing this, the Naughty Dog decided the narrative would be a lot stronger if they simply focused all their efforts into exploring this relationship, and the game is better for it. However, I think it stills work since the player has the freedom to interact with this side of the game as much as they want. You can choose to search for optional dialogue, extra activities like the photo booth or the carousel, providing that key sense of player agency that makes gaming such a strong medium, while also definitively telling one story. Of course, all of this would be pointless if not for the exceptional writing and directing talents of Neil Druckmann, whose commitment to show-don’t-tell storytelling is stronger than ever.

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That’s about all I wanna say on this game, but I do want to touch on the decision to make Ellie an unambiguously gay character, and why it’s a decision that fills me with warmth and hope. I remember back when I first started delving into gaming discourse, I came across one video that critiqued this aspect of the story as being too obvious, and a desperate attempt at self-importance from Naughty Dog following their previous game’s huge critical success. They cite Bill’s character as the superior way to handle this subject matter, since it’s merely implied as opposed to being outright stated. However, in my opinion, that’s a tremendously cynical way of looking at the situation, and it completely ignores artistic intent. Bill never makes clear his relationship with his partner Frank, not because the game was exercising subtlety since it’s the more effective form of storytelling, but because that’s just the kind of character Bill is. He’s a man that’s exceptionally neurotic, completely untrusting of others and exists behind a hundred layers of emotional walls. It wouldn’t make sense for him to outright state, “THIS IS MY BOYFRIEND FRANK” because presumably he would be worried that information could be used against him. What makes the truth behind their relationship clear is Bill’s reaction to seeing Frank’s corpse, and that’s all achieved through performance. It’s perfect FOR THAT CHARACTER, but Ellie is nothing like that. She’s a high-energy, sarcastic girl who will absolutely let you know what she thinks about a situation. The moment where she kisses Riley is exactly what Ellie would do in that moment. It’s true to the character, just as Bill’s stubborn commitment to emotional invulnerability is true to him. In my opinion, this aspect of Ellie’s character is handled with a wonderful sensitivity, while still remaining wholly honest, which is why Neil Druckmann’s writing is so powerful. Also, it goes without saying, but having the main character of your massive blockbuster video game destined to sell millions of copies be an out gay character is really exciting, especially in a world where mainstream Hollywood films are yet to achieve that with even minor side characters. It gives me hope that video games will continue in this positive direction, in spite of all the fucking idiots that complain about politics in games or whatever. To sum up everything I just said: play the game.

OKAY, spoiler bit is over, you may now resume your reading.

One of the more exciting stories to grace our eyeballs this week was the announcement that HBO are developing a The Last Of Us TV show, with Neil Druckmann and Chernobyl writer Craig Mazin at the helm. This news came as a shock to basically everyone on a number of levels. Firstly, this all but confirmed that the Sam Raimi-produced movie adaptation that was in development is dead and buried. Secondly, adapting video games into movies has always been the norm, so seeing a television adaptation is surprising to say the least. Thirdly, and perhaps most bizarrely, the writer and creative director of The Last Of Us game is set as one of the lead writers, which is almost unheard of in the realm of game adaptations. Normally, the issue people have with video game movies is how divorced they feel from the source material, clearly made by people who don’t really understand what made those original games special. That new Sonic the Hedgehog movie stinks of this exact problem, although I’ve got to admit, I still don’t get why Sonic is popular so maybe this was an impossible task. Having the man who conceived the game working on the adaptation is, if nothing else, encouraging.

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On a slightly different note, I’ve never understood why more video game TV shows haven’t been made already, since the format makes so much more sense for them. Video games are traditionally segmented into levels or stages, which is surprisingly similar to the episodic nature of television. The Last Of Us in particular is structured in an episodic manner, with the story being separated by the different seasons across a year. One of my worries when it came to the upcoming movie was the fear that all of the beautiful pacing of the game’s story would be unceremoniously squashed into two short hours. As a TV show, however, a lot more time can be dedicated to fleshing out the characters and the world, much like the many hours you’d spend in a game. Of course, I’d rather the show tells a different story to that of Joel and Ellie, but if they’re going to explore these characters properly, it ought to be over the course of many hours to fit the game’s slower, quieter pace.

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I realise now that I don’t have all that much more to say about this particular story, other than that I hope it’s good and lives up to the source material. I prefer video games as a medium for storytelling, but television has its own strengths, and HBO have an incredibly strong track record for quality output (game of thrones who), so I’m confident they can pull it off. All they have to do is cast Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Joel and Kaitlyn Dever as Ellie and I’ll be happy OKAY GOODNIGHT.