The Last of Us is such a great game because it emulates the dramatic structure of film (the Holy Grail sought after by studios such as Quantic Dream, Naughty Dog’s heavy-handed sibling). It proves once and for all that a video game can provide drama on the same level of film without spoofing itself. There’s not one cheap scare, one piece of cheesy dialogue (that’s not an examination of the struggle between Ellie the girl and Ellie the grown-up-too-soon), or melodrama in its bones. Instead, the drama is drawn out through Ellie and Joel’s growing bond.
The game is a study in character, with the simplest plot to carry the players along. Naughty Dog points their spotlight at their characters and says, “Look, these are people.” By the end of the game, you’ve stopped thinking of Ellie and Joel as video game characters altogether. They’re archetypes, don’t get me wrong, but you’ve put enough of yourself in these characters that they linger in your mind long after the game is over. This is executed most wonderfully by the nuance of the ending of the game: Ellie “agreeing” to Joel’s lie about the Fireflies before fading to black. It’s the moment’s hesitation, a final look of hopelessness (or is it hope — the fact that we’re even arguing about it is an accomplishment for video game storytelling in itself), that keeps the memory of these characters alive.
Which is all the more impressive when you consider The Last of Us’ simple linear narrative. There aren’t any flashbacks — until Left Behind, which feels like a self-contained short story in itself, following its own rules of storytelling. And the game doesn’t depend on big cinematic cuts full of exposition to get the story across. Instead, the insular story is told through in-game dialogue between the main characters, or even more clever, they react to their environments. Joel will mumble a thread of sad words after gazing at a picture of a family in an abandoned home. Ellie wishes she still had the freedom to be a kid when reading comic books or pretending to play in an arcade. Thanks to the sparse storytelling, we’re left to fill in the blanks of their lives — Joel and Ellie’s survivor’s guilt and their inability to protect those they cared about most. We deal with their inner turmoil with only surface details to guide us — Ellie’s joke book (her struggle to continue being a kid and the loss of her best friend Riley), for example. The subtleties make these characters come to life. Naughty Dog’s one and only risk: straying away from the norm — video game as escapism.
No, I don’t think The Last of Us movie is a good idea. Not because it doesn’t lend itself well to the big screen, but because it’s redundant. The Last of Us is the closest a video game has ever come to a serious film while still maintaining its gaming essence. Earlier, I mentioned Quantic Dream because, in their maniacal quest to innovate, they have taken the less subtle approach to emulating the film experience by selling interactive movies as games — Beyond: Two Souls (which I loved) is the epitome of this.
What will an actual film adaptation of The Last of Us accomplish? Not much. It’s fanfare on par with the Warcraft movie. These are movies produced because the big Hollywood guys know they will make money. With a franchise this big, you make it and fans will come. And don’t get me wrong, I’m riding the hype wave with the best of them. I’ll take more of The Last of Us however I can get it.
This isn’t about whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea. Because it’s a fool-proof idea, as long as Neil Druckmann, the game’s creative director and the film’s screenwriter, stays true to the world he’s built, and Sam Raimi and the Hollywood execs don’t fuck with it. Making a movie out of a video game that emulates movies is the next logical evolutionary step — The Last of Us reaches its true form.
But it cheapens everything The Last of Us has strived for: a game birthed from films — stitching together the tropes and dramatic cues of the form — doesn’t need to be turned into a film.
By design, The Last of Us doesn’t have an original bone in its body. It’s safe in terms of narrative, a pastiche of tropes like something out of Pynchon novel or a Boyle film. Tell me what moment in The Last of Us actually surprised you. Was it when Joel’s daughter died in the middle of the zombie outbreak (the loss of a loved one as a story’s emotional center)? When Joel was forced to take another child (an infected one — damn, look at that cycle) into his care 20 years later? Or when Joel was hurt, leaving Ellie to fend for herself (coming-of-age story)? Or finally, when the Fireflies are revealed to be the REAL bad guys (every zombie/postapocalyptic film I can think of features a human as the true antagonist no matter how many monsters are outside waiting to bite your head off).
The Last of Us is an exercise in narrative (to prove that it can be done), as much an original postapocalyptic narrative as Shrek is an original fairytale. The game recreates genre set pieces we know — getting attacked by bandits, being forced to separate, etc. — and stitches them into something at once recognizable and iconic. The Last of Us as a narrative does not exist beyond its parts.
I can imagine the Naughty Dog guys sitting around discussing moments in different movies (The Road was among the many films that inspired the game) that might lend themselves to their brand of games. They took every piece that worked and fit them together like a jigsaw puzzle, wrapping “narrative” around its edges. Hideo Kojima did the same thing with the infamous Metal Gear Solid 2, only he took the meta approach — recreating his first Metal Gear Solid game and spoofing it, effectively lifting the veil on the memetic nature of the game. There is no Metal Gear Solid 2 in a narrative sense.
Naughty Dog has a history of using cinematic experience to inform their games. Uncharted 2, which also won ALL of the awards, perfectly emulates classic adventure films — the treasure, exotic lands, not-so-useless damsel, wise old man, double agents, and larger-than-life hero. Uncharted 2 is the best Indiana Jones game you’ll ever play down to the iconic outfit that hasn’t changed 3 stories later. Oh, and the Uncharted series is also getting a film adaptation.
The developer even goes as far as giving their characters the likeness of actors who are famous for portraying the respective roles said characters play in The Last of Us. During early promotion, Joel looked a lot like Viggo Mortensen (your Cormac McCarthy alarms should be blaring right now) and Ellie looked a lot MORE like Ellen Page (basically stole her name, too). And don’t forget they hired an Oscar-winning composer to write the game’s score. Naughty Dog couldn’t have made this game feel MORE like a movie if they had bashed us on the head with a picket sign that read “Doesn’t this game look JUST like a movie?”
The Last of Us won every gaming award known to man and Cordycep, and rightfully so. Someone said on the internet (I can’t recall who) that if there were an Oscar for best video game of the year, The Last of Us would undoubtedly win. I doubt he/she said it by accident.
This is not about whether The Last of Us movie will suck or not or whether it’ll bring anything new to the table. There is a larger issue. It’s obvious that the gaming industry (still largely viewed as a plaything instead of art) in some way feels it needs to emulate what films do. It’s interesting since films have done nothing but stab its younger sibling in the back, one terrible video game film adaptation at a time, inadvertently justifying the art community’s bad attitude towards the form. But just when The Last of Us gets film right without having to lose its true essence (it’s a video game), Naughty Dog tosses their beloved game to the dogs to become just like the rest.
The Hollywoodization of video games is, well, a dangerous game. Why does film have to be the end-all legitimizing art form? Why can’t the art form (in this case, video games) just be the art form?