The last of us has been widely celebrated not only as the “greatest video game adaptation of all time”, but also as the seemingly easiest to jump from pixel to image. And HBOs in many ways The last of us deserved that reputation. Showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann have a good idea of what to expand on, and each version has impressive technical control over location and lighting that makes the post-apocalyptic vision feel real. There’s the strong cast, led by Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, who give two career-best performances that have the emotional stopping power of a sawed-off shotgun. But for anyone who nailed Mazin and Druckmann (and that’s a lot), it’s ironic that HBO’s The last of us what he struggled with the most wasn’t the visuals, the story or the characters, but what is most inherent in video games: the gameplay.
Sometimes mockingly accused of being an “interactive movie,” Naughty Dog’s magic The last of us was the way it bridged the gap between the cutscenes and gameplay; it made the movie playable. Starting with the dialogue, this design ethos is felt throughout the game. As Joel and Ellie traverse the post-apocalyptic cities and landscapes, conversations happen organically (with a little help from Triangle), creating the compelling illusion that emerges and is real. Elsewhere outside of the cutscenes, significant moments of character growth are routinely seen, whether it’s Ellie looking forward to a hotel’s tropical photo shoot or Joel realizing he only cared for her as a father as you fight through goons to save her from cannibals (on the show, Joel gets to this emotional point sooner, as he reveals while talking to Tommy in Episode 6).
But by adapting his own game with Mazin for HBO, Druckmann largely avoids most of the “gameplay” sections of The last of us, reducing them to chunks of screen time. I admire the drive for narrative economics, but as good as HBO’s The last of us can feel like it’s been adapted from a YouTube compilation of the game’s incredible cutscenes, bypassing the game’s many creepy crawls, shootouts, or whatever you do most: walking around. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Druckmann-directed Episode 2, “Infected,” is the notable exception, capturing the spirit of the gameplay in a way most episodes failed to. Exploring an overgrown Boston, Ellie, Joel and Tess share natural, character-building dialogue as they explore, eventually colliding with a series of compelling set pieces that recall the feeling of learning about these people when you first played the game.
The most of The last of us doesn’t quite find that balance, and comparing the earliest parts of the game exposes certain absences in customization. In the game, the prologue transitions from the heartbreaking loss of Joel’s daughter Sarah to a post-apocalyptic reality where Joel has his hands full of fire, firing gruesome shots to the head and suffocating thugs who scammed him; the contrast from father figure to accidental killer is visceral and provocative. Over several minutes of gameplay, the player experiences Joel’s demise from a loving, hard-working father into a cold-blooded killing machine. Not only he pulls the trigger – so do you. In HBO’s series, this part is completely skipped. I understand; we need Joel to meet Ellie ASAP. But when you, the player, guide Joel to get perfect kill shots and navigate the map as Solid Snake, you learn about Joel through your own hands on the controller, deducing the gripping history between past and present that brought Joel to this. place.
Mostly HBO series deals with the bloodshed of the gameplay by avoiding it. This doesn’t just clash The last of us as a story about violence and where it can come from, but it also changes Joel. His jaded lethality is met only occasionally, often in a “nerfed” and more vulnerable form, relying on dialogue to paint a picture of the man rather than create something for us to 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 near game-long thaw for Joel’s frozen heart to warm up, Joel abruptly switches from being a selfish 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 a hold of him and he is unable to defend himself. And crucially to where Season 2 will take us, by softening Joel in spirit and action, the showrunners risk undermining the legacy Joel could pass on to Ellie.
Likewise, HBOs The last of us exposes one of the classic problems of adapting games to film or television: game mechanics are stubbornly challenging to turn into cinema. Just look at death. Games are structurally designed to create stakes around endless cycles of reincarnation, a pattern of living, dying and respawning to repeatedly overcome an obstacle and win. So every time we die firing infected bullets, even though progress resets and nothing is really lost, we still feel the sting of failure and the thirst for victory. The genius of The last of us is that the more we care about Joel and Ellie’s survival, the more impactful each of our deaths becomes, highlighted by the relentless game over screens of Joel or Ellie being killed. What’s at stake was never meant to be designed just by the ABC plot beats, but rather by how we experience them through the gameplay loop.
I was disappointed that sometimes Druckmann and Mazin seem more interested in what they’ve added than what’s already there – from the new cold opens or the two episodes that shift focus, one praised (“Long, Long Time”) and one with a more muted reception (the DLC-inspired flashback “Left Behind”). These episodes could both have worked on their own merits, especially “Long, Long Time” a beautiful piece of television. But would a few more character-building episodes have been so bad?
And finally the end. It’s one of the most famous and important in 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 yours. Joel is not a moral man, and because of him, neither are you. In a Brechtian way The last of us thrived on the friction between the “you” that plays the game and the subjective “you” that inhabits a character, closer to Cormac McCarthy VR than a role-playing game demands. And when Joel – when you – slaughter a hospital of doctors and scientists to save a child who now feels like a daughter, you are both an innocent bystander and an accomplice, leaving the players’ agency in a moral knot that is unique for the video game medium.
All season I’ve wondered if Mazin and Druckmann had a silver bullet, a panacea for making the climax work like TV. To some extent they did. Pascal and Ramsey are sensational, and Ali Abbasi’s deft directing sustains the high emotion. Particularly effective is the choice to score Joel’s rampage with notes of sadness and not anger, turning a hospital attack into a montage of tragic pathos. Yet I still felt the pain of what could have been, an accumulation of absences and missed opportunities to move on The last of us like a game instead of just a nice story. With Season 2 confirmed, an adaptation of The last of us part 2 presents an even greater challenge. As a sequel, it’s prickly, demanding and brilliant, with Druckmann and co. further exploiting the tension between player and character, asking you to pull off the ugliest deeds of characters you love for devastating purposes. Despite these growing pains between mediums, HBOs The last of us was still a noble success. If they think about tweaking the gameplay and not just the plot, season 2 and beyond could well be a triumph.