How The Last of Us’s new DLC approaches the prequel problem

Those who played The Last of Us and were sucked into the game found themselves caring about the two protagonists, the veteran survivor Joel and the 13-year old Ellie, the product of an apocalyptic time. So when it came time to create a story-based expansion for the game, Naughty Dog decided to create a prequel, to focus on Ellie’s past to show the tragic relationship that shaped her.

“We wanted to show a side of Ellie before you meet her and has the weight of the world on her,” said The Last of Us game designer Ricky Cambier. “We are giving you a chance to see what it might be like to grow up and have a best friend in a quarantine zone.”

“You don’t know how this relationship gets built, or how important this was to Ellie and why it was so important.” 

There is a particular challenge to creating a prequel, to make something entertaining and intriguing when everyone already knows the outcome. We all know Riley. She’s the friend that Ellie lost. Riley’s tragedy is how Ellie learns she is immune to the zombie fungus, setting the original game in motion.

Cambier said, “You know what happens at the end of this. Ellie has told you exactly that. You know where it’s headed, but you don’t know how you get there. You don’t know how this relationship gets built, or how important this was to Ellie and why it was so important.”

Naughty Dog focused this addition on the relationship between these two girls, the conversations and the playful actions they engage in as they explore the mall. But a sequence in a Halloween store emphasizes that this is more than two girls travelling together. Ellie shakes a plastic skull and asks a question, as if it were a Magic 8-Ball: “Are we going to die today?” The question reminds the player that one of these girls is not long for this world. As a prequel to the original game, the knowledge of the coming death of Riley is ever-present and colors the experience.

Ultimately, the difficulty of presenting a game where the basic plots points are known helped drive the creation of Left Behind. “You create your best work when you are moving through those moments of being uncomfortable,” said Cambier. “When you have to work with certain rules you are now challenged to create and find something new. Rather than shy away from those, we try to find a way to use them.”