The Last of Us: American Dreams Spills Little About Ellie’s History
Filling in the back stories of video game narratives has become big business in the last decade or two, with lots of supplemental material appearing in the periphery of game releases to entice players to spend a few more bucks.
One thing that games do exceedingly well is build huge worlds, in which it’s possible for multiple stories to take place. The idea of immersive narratives can mean that fans of a game get very invested, and might seek out novels, movies and comic books that further expand on game stories — often with mixed results.
One of the biggest story driven games of the year, The Last of Us, leaves ample room for extra material that can further flesh out the world in which it takes place, and the backstories of its protagonist characters. The Last of Us: American Dreams, a four-part comic book arc from Dark Horse Comics, looks to do exactly that, focusing on what happened to the non-player character Ellie in the near past before she meets up with player character Joel.
Where “American Dreams” breaks down — and it does, rather quickly — is in telling a story in the game world that actually sheds light on that world, or on the characters players care about. The comics might show a little bit of what happened to Ellie before the events of the game, but it’s utterly lacking in showing us anything new about her as a person. What we end up with is an origin story of sorts for Ellie, which explains how she came to meet certain characters — information no one really needs. And it fails to give us any information that we might want, like deeper looks into who Ellie is or what life in the Boston Quarantine Zone might actually be like.
“American Dreams” starts with Ellie’s transfer to the military academy in the Boston Quarantine Zone, which is where she was more or less up until the events of The Last of Us. Ellie’s some degree younger in the comic than in the game, and perhaps more reserved than her foul-mouthed future self. She sees her life laid out before her: School, mandatory military service, and not much else. An existence of taking orders seems to be all she has to look forward to.
It’s at the academy that Ellie meets Riley, another girl who carries a rebellious spirit and who teaches Ellie a few things about life in the QZ. Astute players of The Last of Us will remember Ellie mentioning Riley at the end of the game: this is the girl with whom Ellie was bit by the infected just before the start of the game’s events. Ellie survived; Riley didn’t.
“American Dreams” tells the story of how Ellie and Riley meet and become friends, but not much else of substance. Riley herself is an engaging character, bent on escaping the military academy to join the paramilitary resistance group known as the Fireflies, and the narrative is generally concerned with the girls’ friendship. There are a few insights to be gleaned, or that are at least implied, about Ellie’s development as a person because of her friendship with Riley, but they’re fairly minor. Riley is more outspoken and adventurous than Ellie, and it stands to reason that Riley’s influence helps bring about the character players interact with in the game. Okay, uh … great.
What “American Dreams” doesn’t show is the story of Ellie’s infection or Riley’s death, although it seems to feint like it might. Instead, the narrative is pretty thin in terms of information that really links strongly with the game’s story. Ellie meets Riley, a character who never appears in the game: hijinks ensue; we briefly see the Fireflies and get a sense that they’re not all they’re cracked up to be (which is apparent when playing the game, too); and the comic ends.
So despite four books and the license for The Last of Us, “American Dreams” doesn’t really ever end up expanding much on the story at all. Maybe that’s a result of what these tie-in stories are like — after all, the comic can’t go too far in revealing information that’s in the game because of spoilers, it can’t upstage the game, and it can’t provide readers with anything story-wise that might make them decide to skip the game. That’s a recipe for a pretty thin story, really, and that’s exactly what “American Dreams” ends up being — although it manages to be otherwise engaging and carry a few horror-styled thrills, not unlike The Last of Us itself.
If you’re a die-hard fan of The Last of Us and its story, well — “American Dreams” is more of it, and does have a few moments. There’s a little more of both Ellie and the world of the infected to dive into here, and the comics are relatively cheap: you can snag all four in digital form for less than $15.
But most players, even those who really enjoyed The Last of Us, won’t find much in the comics that really justifies the expense unless they’re also big comic book fans. There’s precious little new information or insight available in their pages, and there are many much more interesting stories in the game itself.