The Last of Us has the same problem so many video game adaptations do

Last of Us has been widely celebrated not only as the “best video game adaptation of all time,” but also as the ostensibly simplest to jump from pixel to picture. And in many ways, HBO’s Last of UsThat reputation has been earned. Neil Druckmann, Craig Mazin, and Neil Druckmann are keen observers of the future and have developed a unique technical understanding over location and lighting that allows for post-apocalyptic dreams to feel more real. There’s the strong cast, led by Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, giving two career-best performances that have the emotional stopping power of a sawed-off shotgun. Yet, for all Mazin and Druckmann nailed (and it’s a lot), it’s ironic the thing HBO’s Last of Us struggled with most wasn’t the visuals, story, or characters, it was what’s most inherent in video games: the gameplay.

Sometimes derisively accused of being an “interactive movie,” the magic of Naughty Dog’s Last of Us The way that it blurred the lines between gameplay and cutscenes made cinematic viewing possible. The game’s design ethos can be felt throughout, beginning with the dialogue. As Joel and Ellie traverse the post-apocalyptic cities and landscapes, conversations happen organically (with a bit of help from Triangle), creating the persuasive illusion that’s emergent and real. Elsewhere, key moments of character growth are routinely seen outside cutscenes, whether it’s Ellie geeking out at a hotel’s tropical photo op or Joel realizing he cared for her as a father only while you’re fighting through goons to save her from cannibals (in the show, Joel gets to this emotional point earlier, as he reveals when talking to Tommy in episode 6).

But in adapting his own game with Mazin for HBO, Druckmann largely avoids adapting most of the “gameplay” sections of Last of UsThese were reduced to small bits of screentime. I admire the drive for narrative economy, but as good as HBO’s Last of Us is, it can feel like it was adapted from a YouTube compilation of the game’s incredible cutscenes, sidestepping the game’s many stealthy crawls, shootouts, or the thing 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 didn’t. Ellie and Joel explore a overgrown Boston with Tess, while sharing character-building dialogue. Finally, they collide in a series riveting set pieces, which recalls how it felt to learn about the people you were playing the game.

Joel (Pedro Pascal), Tess (Anna Torv), and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) stand at the top of a small staircase  of a hotel lobby that has been flooded

Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

Most people are satisfied with the following: Last of Us doesn’t quite strike that balance, and comparing the game’s earliest sections exposes certain absences in adaptation. In the game, the prologue transitions from the heartbreaking loss of Joel’s daughter Sarah into a post-apocalyptic reality where Joel’s packing heat, firing off grisly headshots, and choking out thugs who ripped him off; the contrast from paternal figure to casual killer is visceral and provocative. Over minutes of game time, the player experiences Joel’s downfall from a loving, hardworking dad into a cold-blooded killing machine. It’s not only him pulling the trigger — you are too. In HBO’s series, this section is entirely skipped over. It’s understandable. We need Joel and Ellie to get there as soon as possible. But when you, the player, are guiding Joel to make perfect kill shots and navigating the map like Solid Snake, you’re learning about Joel through your own hands on the controller, inferring the harrowing history between past and present that brought Joel to this place.

HBO’s series mostly handles the gameplay’s bloodshed by avoiding it. It also blunts the gameplay’s bloodshed. Last of Us It is a story about violence, and how it comes from. But it also transforms Joel. His jaded lethality is only occasionally glimpsed, often in a “nerfed” and more vulnerable form, relying on dialogue to paint a picture of the man instead of creating something we can see and feel for ourselves. By avoiding important 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 shifts from self-interested mercenary in episodes 2 and 3 to laughing at Ellie’s poop jokes in episode 4; rather than Ellie witnessing Joel’s repeated carnage, enemies often get the drop on him and he can’t defend himself. Importantly, season 2’s showrunners are risking to undercut the legacy Joel could leave Ellie.

Likewise, HBO’s 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. The structure of games is designed to make stakes about endless cycles of reincarnation. This allows for endless rounds of win-win situations, where you can repeatedly attack an obstacle while still winning. We still feel the pain of defeat and hunger for victory every time we go to our deaths, firing shots at the infected. This is the genius of Last of Us is that the more we care about Joel and Ellie’s survival, the more affecting each of our deaths becomes, emphasized by the brutal game over screens of Joel or Ellie getting killed. What’s at stake was never meant to be engineered through the A-B-C plot beats alone, but rather how we experience them through the gameplay loop.

I was disappointed that Druckmann and Mazin sometimes seem more interested in what they’ve added rather than what’s already there — from the new cold opens or the two episodes that shift focus, one acclaimed (“Long, Long Time”) and one with a more muted reception (the DLC-inspired flashback “Left Behind”). These episodes both could have worked on their own merits, especially “Long, Long Time,” It’s a wonderful piece of television. Would a few more episodes of character building have been a problem?

Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett) eat strawberries as the sun sets in The Last of Us

Image Credit: Max

Ellie (Bella Ramsey) sitting on a carousel horse and talking to Riley (Storm Reid)

Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

Joel lifts Ellie to his shoulder from a hospital operating table in a scene from HBO’s The Last of Us.

Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

Finally, we have the ending. This ending is one of the most important and well-known in video games. It creates a gap between the game that rewards player choices and the type that makes you choose a character that might be less than yours. Joel is not moral, but you can learn from him. In a Brechtian way, 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 a game with role-playing required. And when Joel — when you — massacres 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, tangling up player agency in a moral knot unique to the video game medium.

All season long, I’ve wondered if Mazin and Druckmann had a silver bullet, a miracle cure to make the climax work as TV. They did, to a certain extent. Pascal and Ramsey are sensational, and Ali Abbasi’s dexterous direction supports the high emotion. Especially effective is the choice to score Joel’s rampage with notes of sorrow and not rage, transforming a hospital assault into a montage of tragic pathos. Yet, I still felt the pangs of what could’ve been, an accumulation of absences and missed opportunities to expand on Last of UsAs a video game and not just as a beautiful tale. A second season has been confirmed. Part 2 of “The Last of Us” The challenge is even greater. As a sequel it’s prickly, demanding, and brilliant, with Druckmann and co. exploiting the tension between player and character further, bidding you to act out the ugliest deeds of characters you love toward devastating ends. Despite these growing pains between mediums, HBO’s Last of UsStill, it was a worthy success. Season 2 and beyond may be even more successful if they can adapt the gameplay, not only the plot.

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