Everything you need to know before you watch! The Last of Us is one of the most beloved video game franchises of all time. And now following the premiere of the highly anticipated HBO series of the same name, fans are feeling cautiously optimistic that the show might break the video game adaptation curse. There’s been a long history of video games being adapted into film and TV series that were more often bad than good – and never really great. The Last of Us is poised to be the first great video game adaptation by avoiding the pitfalls of its predecessors, and by winning over gamers first.
One of the most beloved video game franchises of all time, The Last of Us, is a harrowing and beautiful story of love, loss, and survival – and now, fans of the game have a whole new way to experience it – with the highly anticipated release of the HBO series of the same name. But they’ve been cautiously optimistic and for good reason.
There’s been a long history of video games being adapted into film and TV series that were more often bad than good – and never really great. On top of this reasonable trepidation, The Last of Us video game franchise has been put in a difficult spot after the release of its second installment – The Last of Us Part 2. While some thought the game was brilliant, others felt it was a huge creative misfire – leaving many wondering if the show itself would be an honest and well-done retelling of the original game or just another disappointment.
JOEL: “If you’ve come this far, then you know what’s out there.” - The Last of Us
Thankfully, after just one, 90-minute premiere episode, it seems like the series could finally break the video game adaptation curse. Lorraine Ali of the LA Times puts The Last of Us in “a league of its own” when it comes to video game adaptations and notes, “There’s tenderness in this hellscape, and the meaningful relationships between characters make us care about them from the first few moments of the show.”
Here’s our take on why The Last of Us is poised to be the first great video game adaptation by avoiding the pitfalls of its predecessors, and by winning over gamers first.
Episode 1 spoilers ahead! Fans of the game have been dazzled by the near-mirror images the show created of the sets and camera angles – but the real feat is how the show has enriched the source material. From the moment HBO’s The Last of Us starts fans of the game can feel that something is different. The first episode begins with a title card over black that reads “1968.” A time we’ve never been to in the game version of The Last of Us. An unspecified, fictional, late night talk show where a host talks to scientists playfully about the potential threat of a pandemic.
EPIDEMIOLOGIST:“A new virus in Madagascar say could be in Chicago in a matter of weeks – we end up with a global pandemic. Pan meaning all, demic meaning sick – the whole world gets sick at once.” - The Last of Us
Those that have played the game know that this disease is what will plague the world of the show.
And in the opening credits – the music that plays is the exact music played over the game’s. While the animation may be different – it gives those that have played an immediate surge of nostalgia and comfort. From the very first scene – the show has succeeded at the delicate balancing act of adding and enriching the story to those who have seen it before and immersing a new audience that is now seeing the story for the first time.
Instead of jumping into the night of Joel’s birthday – we’re given more exposition that helps us understand his character. He’s a hardworking, no-nonsense guy whose charm is pulled out by the warmth of his daughter, Sarah. We follow Sarah throughout the day – scenes that are not present in the game – but help the audience connect with her, undoubtedly to make the impact of her death all the more devastating for first time viewers and longtime gamers.
JOEL: “You’re okay, you’re okay baby I know I know I know” - The Last of Us
Throughout the episode, new and existing audiences alike are treated to original, never-before-seen characters Kim and Lee, a more defined romance between Joel and Tess, and even a twist on the virus itself. Creator Craig Mazin explained the choice to nix the infamous spores from the show, saying, “In the world that we’re creating, if we put spores in the air, it would be pretty clear that they would spread around everywhere and everybody would have to wear a mask all the time and probably everybody would be completely infected by that point. So, we challenged ourselves to come up with an interesting new way for the fungus to spread.”
It’s these subtle differences that have managed to keep fans happy, while also drawing in new audiences – both eager to watch the more layered story unfold.
But will the success of the first episode carry through the series – especially when so many video game adaptations in the past have failed?
Video game franchises have been plagued with bad adaptations for years, from the 1993 Super Mario Brothers movie to 2016’s Assassin’s Creed. Meanwhile – novels, short stories, and comic books have been adapted time and time again into some of our most beloved movies and TV shows of all time. So why is it that when video games are the source material – they seem to flop? Some point to the fact that it’s difficult to turn a player into a viewer. Video games give their players agency – the ability to manipulate the world around them and drive the story. One aspect that The Last of Us game has going for it is the fact that it’s linear. While players can choose how they’ll explore the world laid out for them, they can’t choose the order in which their adventure plays out – and there’s only one ending for everyone.
JOEL: “Why didn’t you just hang back like I told you to?”
ELLIE: “Well, you’re glad I didn’t, right?” - The Last of Us
When examining video game adaptation failures, others point to the fact that video games themselves are already so influenced by film and television – with some of the best franchises being heralded for “feeling like you’re in a movie”. So when there’s an attempt to turn that cinematic video game essentially back into a film – it ends up feeling like more unoriginal Hollywood fodder. Naughty Dog, the video game company that created The Last of Us ran into this issue with its other tent-pole franchise turned movie,
Uncharted. The game borrows a lot of its story and thematic elements from Indiana Jones, and people love it for that very reason. But its big screen adaptation left fans and critics alike feeling like it was just a lesser version of superior adventure films.
The game itself is so expertly cinematic – it was heralded as one of the first video games to truly feel like you were playing a movie. Uncharted 2’s train sequence is widely known as one of the most thrilling moments in video game history because it had never been done so well before. By comparison, if you see a train sequence in a film, it’s been done so many times before – it’s nearly impossible to stand out.
“There’s a coupler safety latch. It can only be released from underneath the car.” - The Commuter
Another issue with Uncharted that video game adaptations often run into was its casting. From the moment Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg were cast as Nate and Sully, fans were disappointed, and rightfully so. It was immediately clear that the film was focusing on billable stars more than it was on casting people who were true to the essence of the original characters.
Max Payne had a similar problem when they cast Mila Kunis as Russian hitwoman Mona Sax. While all of these actors are talented in their own right, their casting showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the source material that bled into the rest of the production. Max Payne the game was inspired by John Woo films – but the movie was more of a derivative pseudo noir – which ultimately fell flat.
So many of these adaptations seem to miss what made the original so great – and that could have to do with the fact that no one from the game is involved in its creation. Video games are often so expansive that it’s impossible to pack all of a franchise’s lore into a single film or limited series. And with so many niche games made for specific pockets of the gaming community, gamers can become gatekeepers of these beloved franchises. So it should be no surprise that video game adaptations produced with such little investment or care, created for audiences that care a lot, bomb time and time again.
HBO’s The Last of Us has been a different beast entirely – with the creator of the first and second game, Neil Druckmann, behind the project from the start. The show’s cast even includes Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson – the original voice actors of the games – in roles more essential than just cameos. The series stays true to the game by following its two central characters, Joel and Ellie – played by Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey. The pair trek across a desolate United States in a post-apocalyptic world, where a deadly fungal infection has turned most of society into zombie-like creatures.
Joel is a brutal man, hardened by the loss of his daughter and twenty years of living in lawless chaos. Ellie on the other hand is a young girl born after the outbreak. She has no concept of what life was like before, so we get to see this new life through her eyes – experiencing what it would be like to be born into a world destroyed.
Given the success of shows like The Walking Dead and Station Eleven – the post-apocalyptic source material that The Last of Us provides already gives it mass appeal for viewers who may not have played the game. But what makes The Last of Us unique is its focus on Joel and Ellie – as opposed to a group of survivors. And at its core, that’s what the game has always been about – the compelling nature of those two characters and their relationship. Grantland’s Tom Bissell wrote – after playing the game for the first time in 2013 – “The Last of Us does a supremely fine job of bearing down into the minds of its desperate protagonists — never have video-game eyes seemed so rich with conflicted emotions.”
Thanks to Joel and Ellie’s deeply fleshed out character arcs in the game – The Last of Us TV series has a pair of protagonists that viewers can’t wait to keep watching. HBO’s The Last of Us could be the first truly great video game adaptation – thanks to its ability to build off of the original instead of just being a carbon copy. The show – which truly feels like a love letter to its fans – seems to realize exactly what to change – and what not to – to avoid compromising the original vision for the franchise. If the rest of the season plays out like episode one did, The Last of Us will secure itself as the template for how to make great video game adaptations in the future.