What “The Last of Us” Could Never Do

What “The Last of Us” Could Never Do

What “The Last of Us” Could Never Do

The HBO series exposed all the limits of video game adaptations.

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When the video game The Last of Us was released in 2013, its creator, Neil Druckmann, said that more than anything else, the game was about love. Recently adapted as an HBO series by Druckmann and screenwriter Craig Mazin (Chernobyl, The Hangover Part II), The Last of Us takes place in a postapocalyptic world in which a gruff Texan war veteran, Joel (Pedro Pascal), escorts a teenage girl, Ellie (Bella Ramsey), across a ravaged, abandoned Midwest teeming with plant life and haunted by extremely dangerous people. Human society has collapsed, decimated by a fungal pandemic that turns its victims into mindless, flesh-eating predators, their features replaced by mushroom-like carapaces as the disease progresses. A few walled cities are governed by the vestiges of the military; outside, in addition to hordes of the “Infected,” are raiders, cannibal cults, and overzealous revolutionaries. But Ellie represents possible salvation: She was bitten but didn’t succumb to the disease, so her body may contain the key to developing a cure.

This is all standard zombie-apocalypse fare; where The Last of Us departs from genre conventions is in its focus on Joel and Ellie’s relationship, which begins with him grudgingly accepting a job to smuggle Ellie out of Boston (he refers to her several times as “cargo”) and ends with him making a horrifying decision in order to preserve her life. The ending parallels the death of Joel’s own daughter, Sarah, at the beginning of the pandemic, shown in the series’ first episode: While fleeing the outbreak, they are stopped by soldiers, whom Joel asks for help. Instead, the soldiers follow orders and open fire on them. At the show’s conclusion, when a threat to Ellie has similar resonance, Joel makes a different choice.

The Last of Us, in its original incarnation, follows a relationship that becomes more loving as the game progresses, but Druckmann’s assertion that the nature of love is at the core of his story is too broad. In a sense, it feels more accurate to say that the original is about making you feel strong, positive, protective emotions during the playtime of a video game, an in-game proxy for love. In this more circumscribed, unorthodox goal, it succeeds; in the HBO series, despite staying close to its source material, the effect fails. Video games translate notoriously poorly to live-action formats, and the limits of the HBO adaptation reveal why; it also indicates what The Last of Us was never capable of doing to begin with.

Much of the structure of narrative film and TV is inherited from theater and literature: We expect primary characters, exposition, build, conflict, resolution. Detail is arranged in a hierarchy of significance, with the important emphasized and the superfluous elided. The primary mode of communicating the characters’ state of mind is language, and focusing the audience’s attention on their faces is helpful, not detrimental, in building pathos and identification.

Video games work within a different set of conventions, many of which are practical. The fundamental building blocks—how a person walks, how a face hangs at rest, how gravity behaves, how an enemy responds when you hit them—require complex coding just to give the illusion of reality. Games rely on a basic set of mechanics—in an action game, they include moving, fighting, and hiding, among others—which are rendered differently from game to game, taking teams of developers years to perfect. (The Last of Us video game took about three years to make, and its sequel was in development for around six years.) Traditional continuity is skewed, too: You try something, and you die; you start over and die again. Some games invent an explanation for why you die so often, but in most games, including The Last of Us, you see yourself killed dozens or hundreds of times before unlocking the one timeline where you survive and reach the story’s end.

Part of the joy of a good video game is seeing how the designers work within or violate these formal constraints; in The Last of Us, you play primarily from Joel’s perspective, but Ellie’s movements and actions are programmed to be helpful enough to strengthen the player’s bond to her, and similar to other horror games, it rewards stealth, retreating, and using ammunition conservatively over going in guns blazing. Still, some patterns are hard to avoid. Video games are most fun when you’re doing something, so if the game’s primary mechanic is fighting, there will be a lot of violence to keep players engaged, and the sections in between can feel like a slog. Good writing and design help smooth the transitions, but games like The Last of Us are inherently circular: introduce a new place and new enemy, fight, win or lose, repeat.

For example, Mazin describes the process of adapting a scene in which Ellie first encounters an antagonist, the cult leader David (Scott Shepherd). In the game, they’re immediately attacked by the Infected. (“You bought a game to play it; you want them to show up so you can do something,” Mazin says.) But in the show, the moment is quieter; the Infected don’t arrive because a horde of zombies appearing in the snowy Colorado wilderness disrupts the suspension of disbelief more palpably in an episode of scripted television than it would in a game. As Mazin puts it, scripted television is “nothing but cutscenes,” the cinematic, non-playable sections of a game where the action in a plot point exceeds what game mechanics can handle.

Of course, older kinds of stories can be similarly formulaic. In 1928, Vladamir Propp published Morphology of the Folktale, analyzing a hundred Russian fairy tales to break them down into a system of narrative functions to explain the genre’s “amazing multiformity, picturesqueness, and color, and on the other hand, its no less striking uniformity, its repetition.” According to Propp’s formula, certain combinations of action and character inevitably lead to others: If a dying person requests the rendering of a service, the hero will eventually acquire a magical item or helper; the hero who is pursued will be rescued. Structuralist readings like this help distill the shared themes and symbols across a culture, and also indicate the function of a story beyond the solitary aesthetic experience of reading (or playing) it.

I found myself reaching for Morphology of the Folktale while trying to understand why I didn’t like the TV adaptation of The Last of Us more. The tools of structuralism feel useful in demystifying the world of media we live in today—a glut of content built on preexisting intellectual property that delivers the same beats and tropes season after season. We’re hearing stories we’ve heard before; we might as well familiarize ourselves with their rules and observe what they do for us. Like Propp’s folk heroes, these stories are full of characters who stay on their rails: A young woman with a talent for magic will be betrayed by an adviser; a grizzled man in hostile circumstances will, against his protests, learn to love again—a story I’m more willing to entertain in a video game if, in the process, I get to kill some zombies too.

Of course, the drawback of reading a piece of media with a structuralist’s close focus is that you can miss outside factors that determine its shape. The Last of Us was released to a market unfriendly to female-led games—it came out about a year before the beginning of Gamergate, a year-long online harassment campaign targeting women in the field, particularly feminist game critics. In an early focus group for The Last of Us, Druckmann says, gamers hated the concept. “They’re like, ‘I have to escort a 14-year-old girl across the country? My sister is 14 and she’s annoying. I don’t want to play a game like that.’” When the sequel was released in 2020, it was immediately targeted by a campaign to damage the game’s performance by giving it one-star reviews on the gaming site Metacritic, with comments complaining, among other things, about “SJW” themes related to its representation of gay and transgender characters.

Druckmann and Naughty Dog, the studio that produces the Last of Us games, have rejected criticism in this vein—despite the focus group’s reactions, production continued with the support of Sony, the game’s publisher, and Druckmann has pushed back on social media against criticism of the sequel’s themes, describing the game as “inherently political.” The same ethos extends to the TV show: In an interview with GQ, Mazin expressed pride at the polarized reaction to the HBO series’ third episode, which expands the backstory of an ornery doomsday prepper named Bill (played in the show by Nick Offerman) into a sentimental gay love story, alternately viewed as profound and maudlin by viewers. “I would much rather have a show that lives off of [ratings of] tens and ones than a show that lives off of fives,” Mazin said.

The Last of Us remains a story about paternal love developed within an industry with a very particular set of mores, particularly around gender and violence. They’re discernible even when the game defines itself against them or has edited them out. In an early version of The Last of Us, for example, the virus only affected women; Ellie was still immune, protected by Joel against entirely female zombies. Druckmann was dissuaded from continuing the project by his female colleagues at Naughty Dog: “It is ultimately a story about the love of a girl,” he recounts them saying, but “the way it’s coming off is you’re having a bunch of women turn into monsters and you’re shooting them in the face.”

Naughty Dog has garnered a reputation for storytelling chops: The New York Times describes the studio’s work as possessing “Hollywood-grade, linear narrative”—more emotional depth, more diverse characters, better writing than the average video game. But in its adaptation, the HBO series reveals the thinness of the original story: Without the scaffolding of the gameplay itself, the world feels strangely lacking in texture, the plot exigencies more bare. The moment when Joel drops his hardened exterior and accepts Ellie as a surrogate daughter, immediately preceded by her attempted sexual assault by a cannibal cultist, made me queasy. Feminist analysis of rape as a narrative shortcut to draw characters closer together, or to humanize an assertive female character, was being published in 2013, when the game first came out; why did the sequence remain basically unchanged in the 2023 series?

Since the game’s original release, the postapocalypse genre has grown up, and we’ve also gained firsthand knowledge of how people react to a pandemic—a thornier and weirder process than you see in the show’s archetypal dystopias. While The Last of Us remains an exceptional video game, much of what set it apart—including context—is lost in translation. In retrospect, the gaps in the show recast its insights as belonging more to the realm of game design than existential truth: clever mechanics that recreate a feeling, but not much new about the thing itself.

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