This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us.
2013’s The Last of Us game has long been praised for offering one of the great narrative experiences in video game history. It has always been easy enough for many gamers to see that experience working in another medium, though many fans were still surprised to see just how good HBO’s The Last of Us series was. It truly is the greatest live-action adaptation of a video game ever, and it may be a long time before anything takes that title away from it.
However, does that mean that The Last of Us actually works better as a show than it did as a video game? That might sound like a sacrilegious suggestion, but keep in mind that even fans of The Last of Us game have long suggested that the title sometimes seemed like a more natural fit for other entertainment mediums. It was the one game most people agreed would make for an excellent movie or show if it was ever put into the right hands. We were just finally fortunate enough to see the material be put into those hands.
As for whether or not The Last of Us series is one of those rare adaptations that actually surpasses its source material…well, here are a few ways to look at that debate.
Why The Last of Us Works as a TV Series
Early into HBO’s The Last of Us series, it became clear that the show’s biggest advantage was the ability to free itself from the gameplay and storytelling confines of its source material.
Even at the time of The Last of Us 2013 release when many were loudly singing the game’s praises, a few dissenting critics argued that the title’s gameplay and storytelling sometimes felt at odds with each other. For some, it was a simple matter of The Last of Us gameplay not feeling as refined, innovative, and enjoyable as the game’s cinematic narrative elements. While The Last of Us offers a much more substantial gameplay experience compared to something like Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, some simply felt that all the game’s shooting, stealth, looting, and crafting just weren’t as compelling as the hands-off story sequences that gameplay led to.
There’s also the always controversial matter of ludonarrative dissonance. An increasingly popular (and often disputed) phrase, ludonarrative dissonance refers to the conflict between a game’s story-based narrative and the story being told by that same game’s gameplay. While The Last of Us Part 2 and Uncharted are usually cited ad the bigger examples of ludonarrative dissonance in action, The Last of Us Part 1 invoked a similar debate. Simply put, some fans and critics felt that The Last of Us’ nearly constant supply of action sequences (nearly every level in the game featured fights against the infected or other humans) was sometimes at odds with the more monumental moments of death, loss, sacrifice, and lingering humanity that the game presented vis its cutscenes and dialog sequences.
There’s a degree to which The Last of Us series inherently benefited from its obvious lack of gameplay. When you don’t have to pit the player against waves of human enemies and infected in order to meet the obligation of having action in your video game, you don’t run the risk of desensitizing them to that violence or making those moments of narrative violence feel at odds with the killing you’ve done to get from “Point A” to “Point B.” Violence in the show sometimes felt more significant to the narrative because there was so much less of it (compared to the games).
I know some will hate to hear this, but what really impressed me about the show was the ways it showed that The Last of Us‘ obligation for gameplay-based violence may have always been an assumed obligation. It turns out that many key sections of the game not only hold up when they’re not “supported” by prolonged action sequences but arguably benefit from being free of those sequences.
Moments like Joel’s decision to torture a man to find out where Ellie has been taken feel slightly more impactful in the show than they did in the game. That incident leaves us to wonder if we’re seeing the real Joel for the first time or if he is starting to snap a bit. Mind you, that’s how that moment was always intended to be presented, but it just lands a little more cleanly when it’s not preceded by ten hours of Joel shooting, stabbing, and burning his way through nameless raiders that look relatively similar to those victims.
I’m not just talking about addition by subtraction when I talk about the ways that the show frees itself from gameplay obligations, though. The show also finds ways to present new material that just wouldn’t have been possible to showcase within the structure of the games.
The most obvious example of that new material is the show’s brilliant third episode which showcases a reimagined version of Frank and Bill’s story. It would have been almost impossible to tell that story in the game. You would have had to rely on extended non-interactive story sequences or uncovered diary entries to get the job done. However, in the show, we simply get to experience Bill and Frank’s excellent adventure without any worries about when we’ll take control of the situation once more.
The same could obviously be said of many shows and movies, but hey, we are talking about the reasons that The Last of Us works better as a show. Besides, the most impressive thing about The Last of Us show is that it runs with so many ideas that feel true to the game without being directly pulled from the game.
The Last of Us show emphasizes worldbuilding in ways that the game didn’t or sometimes simply couldn’t. Scenes like two researchers debating end-of-the-world scenarios during the 1960s or a scientist in Jakarta who is forced to slowly realize that humanity has already passed the point of no return expand upon The Last of Us intimate core narrative.
More importantly, scenes like those expand upon the core narrative elements in ways that don’t overshadow Joel and Ellie’s story. In many ways, The Last of Us show dared to expand the scope of the game’s story by allowing us to look beyond the tunnel vision of Joel and Ellie’s adventure. By doing so, it used those other characters’ stories why Joel and Ellie’s relationship and the choices they eventually make (or don’t make) are impactful for reasons that go beyond how we feel about those characters.
Some have long argued that The Last of Us’ masterful narrative felt like it belonged to some other medium than gaming. While I don’t think that’s entirely true (more on that in a bit), it’s truly astonishing to see not just how well The Last of Us’ major story beats work in another medium but the many ways another medium can make those beats ring out louder than ever. Free from the constraints of its source, The Last of Us series expertly retells the key parts of that game’s astonishing story and finds ample room to share a few additional stories that are very much worth telling. That’s pretty much the most you could ask from an adaptation.
Why The Last of Us Works as a Game
We’ve talked about some of the things The Last of Us show was able to accomplish by freeing itself of the confines of the game. However, there are at least as many things that The Last of Us game accomplished that can’t easily be replicated in another medium. Somewhere near the top of that list is how the game builds the relationship between Joel and Ellie.
Those who try to argue that many of The Last of Us best moments are found in its cutscenes often forget (or choose to ignore) the many interactive sequences in that game that advance Joel and Ellie’s relationship. Yes, those sequences feature incredible dialog exchanges not seen in the cutscenes, but they also build the Joel and Ellie relationship (the most crucial element of The Last of Us experience) via often overlooked interactions.
You have to remember that there was a time when the very idea of an “escort mission” was considered to be one of the worst things that a game could make you endure. Yet, The Last of Us is essentially one big escort mission, and it’s among the most praised games ever. At the beginning of The Last of Us, you may slightly resent Ellie’s presence in the same ways that you may slightly resent other video game characters you were previously asked to escort. Eventually, though, she will wear you down and force you to open your heart up. That’s largely because you start to realize that she’s not just this helpless person you’ve been tasked to escort; she’s a partner in your journey.
Essentially, you personally go through the same emotional journey that Joel eventually goes through. In a medium that so often finds motivation in the idea of personal failure (whether that’s dying or missing an objective), The Last of Us shines in the ways it makes you derive your motivation from the fear of failing Ellie. Every setback (whether it’s delivered through narrative or gameplay) makes you feel as close to her as those amazing bad puns she keeps delivering.
Even if The Last of Us show had focused more on Joel and Ellie and less on some of those aforementioned side stories (which would have honestly been a mistake), it just couldn’t have replicated the bond between Joel and Ellie that grows over the course of the game. You often feel closest to those who share your struggles, and, even on its easiest difficulty modes, The Last of Us makes Joel, Ellie, and you struggle. Every missed shot, every blindside attack, and every scrounged shiv contributes to the growth of that relationship.
There’s also the matter of the infected. I’m not one of those viewers who cried when The Last of Us series cut scenes involving the infected or simply featured fewer infected than what we saw in the games. The Last of Us wasn’t a zombie apocalypse fantasy like Days Gone. The infected are a vital piece of The Last of Us formula, but much like those who watch The Sopranos and skip the therapist scenes, those who played The Last of Us and saw it as a “Dads vs. Zombies” simulator may have missed a few subtleties along the way.
However, I do think that The Last of Us game did a slightly better job of utilizing the infected as a concept and storytelling device. Once again, the difference can be attributed to the unique gameplay experience of battling (or avoiding) the infected.
Actually, if escort missions weren’t the most hated video game trope at the time that The Last of Us debuted in 2013, then unnecessary stealth sections may very well have been. Yet, the stealth sequences in The Last of Us that required you to either quietly dispatch the infected or simply sneak around them were consistently engaging and undeniably terrifying. There is horror throughout The Last of Us, but the more traditional horror that you experience while fighting the infected is very much a big part of what made the original game stand out from other traditionally cinematic video game experiences.
While I’m not necessarily opposed to the changes The Last of Us show made to the infected’s behaviors and origins, I do feel like some of those changes were made to combat the fact that it was always going to be difficult to make them as frightening in the series as they were in the game. More importantly, I think that there is a bit of bliss in the ignorance of the original developers of The Last of Us Part 1 not knowing what that game’s legacy would be or where the series would end up going.
In that game, the infected and humans are treated as relatively equal threats and relatively equal members of the world. In The Last of Us Part 2 and HBO’s The Last of Us, more emphasis is clearly placed on humanity’s moral and physical conflicts. Are many of those moral and physical conflicts worth emphasizing and arguably the best parts of those stories? Absolutely. Yet, there were times when it felt like The Last of Us Part 1 did a better job of playing with its full deck by emphasizing the constant danger of the infected in the ways that it did.
The Last of Us game is a visceral experience that emphasizes the word “experience.” You can hear about its brilliance from others, you can watch the cutscenes, and you can obviously watch the incredible adaptation. Ultimately, though, it’s something that was designed to be experienced for yourself, and it’s ultimately pretty hard to replicate what you get from sitting down with the game and seeing it through.
Does The Last of Us Work Better as a TV Series or as a Game?
The obvious answer to this question is “both the TV show and game do certain things well and succeed on their own terms.” It’s the safe answer, but it’s also true. It’s probably a little easier to convince someone who played the game to watch the show than someone who only watched the show to play the game, but both deserved to be part of The Last of Us’ overall legacy.
If I’m forced to make a choice, though, I’d sooner argue that The Last of Us worked at least a little better as a video game.
You could certainly make the argument that the weakest element of The Last of Us game is its overall gameplay. Its shooting sections are often awkward (if intentionally so), its stealth sections can be frustrating, and even though its crafting mechanics are minimal, they could certainly be just annoying enough for those who despise such mechanics outright. I’d argue that The Last of Us Part 1 remake does an excellent job of smoothing some of those rough edges (and it offers much more generous difficulty options), but The Last of Us has never been considered the peak of gameplay design.
Yet, it’s not fair to say that The Last of Us is somehow better without its gameplay or that you’re only playing for the major story beats. Maybe The Last of Us isn’t a paragon of gameplay design or gameplay through storytelling, but it’s a testament to the power of participation.
The Last of Us has always been at least a little underrated in the ways that it generates a constant sense of tension. Everything from firefights and stealth sequences to resource gathering and inventory management emphasizes the consequences of failure. In turn, those consequences enhance nearly everything The Last of Us is often praised for.
Joel’s worries about not being good enough to protect Ellie are enhanced by his struggles to hold a weapon steadily or reload a gun in time. Joel and Ellie’s relationship is enhanced as much through the times when they have to help each other cross a flooded room filled with lingering infected as it is by any straight-ahead dialog sequence. The constant reminders that resources are scarce in this world sell that “shoot-on-sight” mentality that leads to so many human vs. human action sequences.
While those action sequences are occasionally accused of contradicting the game’s narrative themes, I actually find that The Last of Us Part 2 suffers more from that issue than the original game did. For instance, the scene where Joel shoots his way through the Firefly hospital to get to Ellie in The Last of Us Part 1 is meant to resemble every other shootout in the game. It’s supposed to make you realize that all of those other people you killed in previous sections probably had motivations that were as valid and compelling as the Fireflies you’re killing now. Not everyone got that message, but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t there from the beginning.
If I’m picking nits, I did feel that the show sometimes worked too hard to ensure those messages weren’t missed. Some of that can be attributed to the change in medium and the storytelling differences that come with those changes, but there were times when I felt like the show was strangely trying to “correct” the original game in ways that weren’t always necessary. Yes, The Last of Us Part 2 addressed certain themes more directly than its predecessor did, but it’s not like those themes weren’t in the original game. The original game just approached them in a slightly different (and sometimes more subtle) way.
For the most part, though, my biggest disappointment with the show (relatively speaking) is that it gave us tastes of what a version of The Last of Us completely reimagined for television could be like but wasn’t able (or willing) to fully commit to that idea.
The show and game share many of the same incredible moments (the opening, the Left Behind story, the ending), but I was surprised to find how many of the show’s best moments were unique to the show. In fact, the quality of the show’s third episode (which featured that reimagined Bill and Frank storyline) kind of dragged some of the series’ subsequent episodes down for me a bit. That episode was such a stunning, beautiful, and poignant example of television storytelling that deviated from the source material while staying true to the spirit of that material. Greedily, I wanted more of that. Moving from an episode like that to a series of episodes that tried to follow the games much more closely (and weren’t always able to do so) felt surprisingly jarring.
Going into the show, I was worried that it wouldn’t follow the game closely enough. When I saw that episode, though, I grew to trust the creative team’s abilities so much that I almost wish they had created a show of their own that was more in the style of The Last of Us rather than a somewhat stricter adaptation of the source material. Something similar to what HBO did with their Watchmen series, perhaps. We’ll almost certainly see more of that in future seasons of the series that we’ve already been told will change and expand upon the second Last of Us game in numerous ways, but this first season would have sometimes benefited from being allowed to be more of its own thing.
That’s ultimately what I think this debate comes down to. The Last of Us show does an incredible job of translating The Last of Us game into another medium and sharing that story with new audiences. However, those times when it felt like it wanted to break free of that source material and take full advantage of the unique attributes of its medium kind of make you appreciate how The Last of Us is such an incredible piece of video game storytelling despite the fact that so many have argued that The Last of Us’ best elements have little to do with its video game qualities.