The Last of Us has the same problem so many video game adaptations do
The last of us has been widely hailed not only as the “best video game adaptation of all time,” but also as supposedly the easiest way to jump from pixel to frame. And in many ways HBO’s The last of us earned that reputation. Showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann have a keen sense of what to expand on, and each version boasts impressive technical control over location and lighting, making the post-apocalyptic vision seem real. There’s the powerful cast, led by Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, who deliver two career-best performances that have the emotional stopping power of a sawed-off shotgun. Yet despite all that Mazin and Druckmann nailed (and it’s a lot), it’s ironic what HBO is The last of us Most didn’t struggle with the graphics, story, or characters, but with what is most intrinsic to video games: the gameplay.
Sometimes mockingly accused of being an “interactive movie,” the magic of Naughty Dog The last of us was the way it bridged the gap between the cutscenes and the gameplay; it made the movie playable. Starting with the dialogues, this design ethos is felt throughout the game. As Joel and Ellie traverse the post-apocalyptic cities and landscapes, conversations emerge naturally (with a little help from Triangle), creating the compelling illusion that emerges and is real. Elsewhere, key character development moments are routinely seen outside of cutscenes, whether it’s Ellie lounging around at a hotel during a tropical photo op or Joel realizing he’s been caring for her as a father, just as you’re making your way through Idiots fight to save them from cannibals (in the show, Joel gets to this emotional point earlier, as he reveals in conversation with Tommy in episode 6).
But in adapting his own game with Mazin for HBO, Druckmann largely avoids adapting most of the “gameplay” sections of The last of us, they shrink to slivers of screen time. I admire the drive for narrative economy, but as good as HBO The last of us is, it can feel like it was adapted from a YouTube compilation of the game’s incredible cutscenes and bypasses the many stealthy crawls, shootouts, or what you do most: roam. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Druckmann-directed Episode 2, “Infected,” is the notable exception, capturing the spirit of the gameplay in a way most episodes didn’t. Ellie, Joel and Tess explore an overgrown Boston, sharing natural, character-building dialogue as they explore, and ultimately clashing with a series of compelling set pieces that evoke the feeling when you first learned the game about these people.
Photo Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO
Most The last of us doesn’t quite strike that balance, and a comparison of the game’s earliest stages reveals certain customization flaws. In the game, the prologue transitions from the heartbreaking loss of Joel’s daughter Sarah to a post-apocalyptic reality where Joel grips the heat, fires off grisly headshots and suffocates thugs who ripped him off; the contrast of father figure to casual killer is visceral and provocative. Over minutes of gameplay, the player experiences Joel’s descent from a loving, hard-working father into a cold-blooded killing machine. It’s not just him pulling the trigger – you are too. In the HBO series, this section is skipped entirely. I get it; We need Joel to meet Ellie as soon as possible. But as you, the player, guide Joel in getting perfect killshots and navigating the map like Solid Snake, you’ll get to know Joel through your own hands on the controller, closing in on the harrowing past-present story that led Joel to do so Location.
The HBO series mostly handles the gore of gameplay by avoiding it. It’s not just blunting The last of us as a story about violence and where it can come from, but it also changes Joel. His exhausted lethality is seen only occasionally, often in a “nerfed” and more vulnerable form, relying on dialogue to paint a picture of the man rather than creating something we can see and feel for ourselves. By avoiding key moments of Ellie and Joel’s bonding and trauma shown in the gameplay, their dynamic shifts; Instead of a nearly game-long thaw for Joel’s frozen heart to warm up, Joel abruptly switches from being a self-serving mercenary in episodes 2 and 3 to laughing at Ellie’s poop jokes in episode 4; Instead of Ellie witnessing Joel’s repeated carnage, enemies often get the drop on him and he’s unable to fight back. And crucial to where season 2 will take us, by softening Joel in spirit and storyline, the showrunners risk undermining the legacy Joel could pass on to Ellie.
Likewise HBO’s The last of us reveals one of the classic problems with adapting games to film or television – game mechanics are stubbornly challenging to adapt to the cinema. Just look at death. Games are structurally designed to create missions around endless cycles of reincarnation, a pattern of living, dying and respawning in order to repeatedly approach an obstacle and win. Every time we die while firing rounds at rushed infected, we still feel the sting of failure and the thirst for victory, even though progress resets and nothing is truly lost. The genius of The last of us The more we worry about Joel and Ellie’s survival, the more each of our deaths impacts, which is emphasized by the brutal Game Over Screens where Joel or Ellie is killed. What’s at stake should never be developed solely through the ABC plot beats, but rather as we experience it through the gameplay loop.
I was disappointed that Druckmann and Mazin sometimes seem more interested in what they’ve added than what’s already there — of the new cold starts or the two episodes that shift focus, one was celebrated (” Long, long time”) and one with a more muted reception (the DLC-inspired “Left Behind” flashback). These episodes could both have worked for themselves, especially “Long, Long Time” a stunning piece of television. But would a few more character-building episodes have been so bad?
Image: HBO Max
Photo Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO
Photo Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO
And finally the end. It’s among the most famous and important games since 2013, creating a divide between the kind of game that thrives on player choice and the kind that forces you into a character whose choices may not be your own. Joel is not a moral man, and neither are you because of him. In a Brechtian way The last of us thrived on the friction between the “you” playing the game and the subjective “you” inhabiting a character closer to Cormac McCarthy VR than an RPG game. And when Joel — if you — massacre a hospital full of doctors and scientists to save a child who now feels like a daughter, you’re both an innocent bystander and an accomplice, tying the player agency into a moral knot that is unique to the video game medium.
All season I’ve wondered if Mazin and Druckmann had a silver bullet, a magic bullet to make the televised climax work. Up to a point they did. Pascal and Ramsey are sensational, and Ali Abbasis’ skillful direction supports the high emotion. Particularly effective is the choice to accompany Joel’s killing spree with tones of sadness rather than anger, turning a hospital attack into a montage of tragic pathos. Yet I still felt the agony of what could have been, an accumulation of absences and missed opportunities to move on The last of us as a game and not just as a beautiful story. With season 2 confirmed, an adaptation of The Last of Us Part 2 presents an even greater challenge. As a sequel, it’s sparkling, sophisticated, and brilliant, with Druckmann and Co. It further exploits the tension between player and character, prompting you to carry out the ugliest deeds of characters you love to devastating ends. Despite these growing pains between media, HBOs The last of us was nevertheless a noble success. If they think about adapting the gameplay and not just plotting, Season 2 and beyond could only be a triumph.