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

The last of us was widely celebrated as not only the “greatest video game adaptation of all time”, but also the simplest to jump from pixel to image. And, in many ways, HBO The last of us gained that reputation. Showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann have a keen sense of what to expand on, and each version exerts impressive technical control over location and light that makes the post-apocalyptic vision 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 short-barreled shotgun. Yet for all that Mazin and Druckmann got right (and there are many), it’s ironic that HBO The last of us What struggled the most wasn’t the visuals, the story or the characters, but what is most inherent in video games: the gameplay.

Sometimes ironically accused of being an “interactive film”, the magic of Naughty Dog The last of us it was the way it broke down the divide between cutscenes and gameplay; made cinema playable. Starting with the dialogue, this design ethos is felt throughout the game. As Joel and Ellie traverse post-apocalyptic cities and landscapes, conversations happen organically (with a little help from Triangle), creating the persuasive illusion that it’s emergent and real. Elsewhere, key moments of character growth are routinely seen off-screen, whether it’s Ellie heading off on a tropical hotel photo shoot or Joel realizing he’s only cared for her like a father as you fight goons to save her from cannibals (on 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 The last of us, reducing them to fragments of screentime. I admire the drive for the narrative economy, but as good as HBO’s The last of us yeah, it might look like it was adapted from a YouTube compilation of the game’s amazing footage, avoiding the many stealthy crawls, gunfights, 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 fail. Ellie, Joel, and Tess explore a grown-up Boston, sharing natural character-building dialogue as they explore, eventually bumping into a series of fascinating scenarios reminiscent of what it felt like to learn about these people when you first played the game.

Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

the maximum of The last of us doesn’t strike that balance, and comparing the first few sections of the game exposes certain absences in the adaptation. In the game, the prologue transitions from the heartbreaking loss of Joel’s daughter, Sarah, to a post-apocalyptic reality where Joel is on the rampage, firing gruesome shots to the head and choking out thugs who robbed him; the contrast of father figure and casual killer is visceral and provocative. Over the course of minutes of gameplay, the player experiences Joel’s downfall from a loving, hard-working father into a cold-blooded killing machine. It’s not just him pulling the trigger – so are you. In the HBO series, this section is completely ignored. I understand; we need Joel to find Ellie ASAP. But when you, the player, are guiding Joel to make perfect kill shots and navigating the map as 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 here. place.

HBO series mainly deals with the game’s bloodshed by avoiding it. It doesn’t just dull The last of us as a story about violence and where it can come from, but it also changes Joel. His weary lethality is glimpsed only occasionally, usually in a “toned down” and more vulnerable form, relying on dialogue to paint a picture of the man rather than creating something we can see and feel for ourselves. By avoiding key moments of Ellie and Joel’s bonding and trauma shown in gameplay, their dynamic changes; instead of a near-game thaw for Joel’s frozen heart to warm up, Joel abruptly switches from 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 usually attack him and he cannot defend himself. And crucially where Season 2 will take us, by softening Joel in spirit and action, the showrunners risk undermining the legacy Joel can pass on to Ellie.

Likewise, from HBO The last of us exposes one of the classic problems with adapting games for film or television – game mechanics are stubbornly challenging to make into film. Just look at death. Games are structurally designed to build stakes around endless cycles of reincarnation, a pattern of living, dying, and reappearing to repeatedly face an obstacle and win. Therefore, each time we die shooting infected in a hurry, although progress is reset and nothing has really been lost, we still feel the pain 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 it affects each of our deaths, underscored by the brutal on-screen play of Joel or Ellie being killed. What’s at stake was never meant to be projected through ABC plot beats alone, but rather as we experience them through the gameplay loop.

I was disappointed that Druckmann and Mazin sometimes seem more interested in what they’ve added than what’s already there – from the cold new openings or the two episodes that shift focus, one acclaimed (“A Long, Long Time”) and one with a quieter reception (the “Left Behind” DLC-inspired flashback). These episodes could have worked on their own merits, especially “Long, Long Time,” an impressive piece of television. But would a few more character-building episodes have been such a bad thing?

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

Image: HBO Max

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

Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

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

Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

And finally, the ending. It has been among the most famous and important games since 2013, creating a chasm between the kind of games that thrive on player choice and the kind that force 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” who play the game and the subjective “you” who inhabit a character, closer to Cormac McCarthy VR than a game with a necessary role-playing game. And when Joel – when you – slaughter a hospital full of doctors and scientists to save a child who now feels like a daughter, you’re both an innocent bystander and an accomplice, entangling player agency in a moral knot unique to the video game medium.

All season I’ve wondered if Mazin and Druckmann had a silver bullet, a miracle cure to make the climax work as TV. To some extent, they did. Pascal and Ramsey are sensational, and Ali Abbasi’s deft direction sustains the emotion high. Especially effective is the choice to punctuate Joel’s rage with notes of sadness rather than anger, turning an attack on a hospital into a montage of tragic pathos. Yet he still felt the pangs of what could have been, an accumulation of absences and missed opportunities to expand. The last of us like a game instead of just a beautiful story. With the 2nd season confirmed, an adaptation of The last of us part 2 represents an even greater challenge. As a sequel, it’s prickly, demanding, and brilliant, with Druckmann and company. further exploring the tension between player and character by inviting you to enact the ugliest deeds of characters you love to devastating ends. Despite these growing pains among the media, HBO The last of us it was still a noble success. If they remember to adapt the gameplay and not just the plot, Season 2 and beyond could just be a triumph.

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