It is not possible to play every game. In over 25 years of criticizing games I’ve played a terrifying number, although there will always be big gaps. But when it comes down to it The last of usit was a very conscious choice on my part.
The first version of the ever-remade game came out in July 2014, at a time when my wife was six months pregnant with a son we’d struggled to conceive for years. I was excited to play the game as I’m a fan of both zombie fiction and shooters so I gave it a try. It didn’t start well. 2014 was a pretty miserable time for game openings, the absolute pinnacle of a pathological need for games to endlessly take control of players, and it didn’t win my love with this one. Pretending you’ve gotten control but just puppeting you to the next cutscene. But then it pulled its bait-and-switch.
Everyone knew it was a game about a dad and a girl trying to survive a zombie apocalypse, and the game starts with a dad and his daughter, which makes you feel safe, and…well, you probably know the following . I found the narrative decision not only crass, but actively hateful. We spend next to no time trying to figure out who Sarah is, save for a few sassy one-liners (straight from the Joss Whedon school of character building), only to have us watch her bleed to death to establish her father’s emotional motivations . It felt lazily manipulative, trying to earn all its emotional resonance with the most egregious case of a character chilling. With my own child just a few months away, I had a bigger reaction than I probably otherwise would, and just walked away. No, no, no thanks.
I’ve never really forgiven it, and I still think I’m right about it. Cooling is hardly rare in the broad spectrum of media (hell, I just looked X-Men: Apocalypse for the first time last night, and Wow is it guilty of the same thing), but creating a character who has no narrative purpose other than to die always sticks deep in my jitters. In The last of usit was so much worse, because of the ugly decision to let you play as Sarah. You move her around the house and see the ensuing chaos from her perspective. We sit in the back of the car with her as the game drives us through the manic streets, making sure to deliver this to us exclusively through the child’s eyes. Then she is rendered helpless and we carry her as Joel. And then, of course, she is brutally murdered. It is dirty.
So that’s all I knew about the game before watching the first episode of the HBO show. It tells how differently it is all handled.
First, Sarah is significantly older. In the game, she is a pre-teen, a child. In the show, she is played by an 18-year-old and she was clearly in her mid-teens. Neither is great nor an easy watch, but there is still a difference. Second, and this is hugely important, the show takes twice as long to get to this scene as the game does. For TV viewers, it’s 30 minutes; in the game it is only 15 minutes. We get to spend twice as long with Sarah on the show, and while that certainly gives us a lot longer to like her (and she’s a lot more likeable, too), it also makes her feel a lot less disposable. She’s a person we’ve gotten to know for a third of a movie, rather than a little kid we’ve watched speak a handful of lines, only to die there quickly.
It also helps that Pedro Pascal is a much better actor than Troy “McClure” Baker, making all the previous moments feel more meaningful and the eventual death more relevant. Baker’s Joel is a dull, emotionless nothing man in those first 15 minutes, while Pascal’s is a witty, engaging dad. Much more is earned, and that makes a big difference.
What about the rest then? The remaining 50 minutes from the perspective of a) not knowing what happens next, and b) not having to compare every moment to how it was portrayed ten years ago. It was fine…
So here’s my problem: I feel like I’ve seen this particular episode so many times, since the 1970s. I’ve seen it, just to name a few, The living Deadand Survivorsand Black summerand Z nationand The Andromeda tribeand Day of the Triffidsand Falling skyand The scoreand Jerichoand most recently resident evil. And god knows how much more. It was clear that in many of those cases it was much worse (hello, Jericho), but the structure remains the same: there is an apocalypse, a very strangely large number of people survive, and now everyone is in their color-coded group. There are the people trying to create a new (always fascist) government or police force, the ragtag and widespread rebels trying to take them down (with their graffiti symbol), and then an even more unseen but more menacing group called The Raiders of something like that. . They all fight each other, and our hardened band of outcasts who don’t match any of them do their best to survive it all.
Of all genres, post-apocalyptic television seems so exceptionally captured in a format, as if everything else is unthinkable. God forbid we see things from, say, the perspective of those who are trying to form the new ruling bodies. Colony came closest to this I think, but then couldn’t resist also going over the rebel group that tried to take them down. It would be like all science fiction is set on an abandoned colony ship, with three warring factions, and never, ever about anything else.
It’s probably not fair to even out all of this The last of us, given the requirement to be nearly identical to the game, itself derived from the genre. But hey boy, this first episode doesn’t make any moves to stand out.
It’s all superbly shot and acted, no doubt, and it’s great to see Pedro Pascal play the Mandolorian, but with facial expressions. (He just traded a baby Yoda for a similarly petulant human child.) Anna Torv was particularly good, playing Tess, a character I know nothing about, and given my experience with female characters in this fiction, I’m immediately concerned. But the whole felt like less than the parts. Sure, this first 80-minute episode had a lot of heavy lifting to do, a lot of world-building responsibility, but when all of that could have been accomplished by holding up a poster for The living Dead and saying, “So, but with mold,” I certainly wanted more.
I don’t think it helped that I liked Sarah so much more than Ellie. Not knowing the game, I have no idea if this is intentional, though given Game-Sarah’s two or three sentences before she gets killed off for our motivational pleasure, it’s hard to imagine any player would have room for comparison. Here Show-Sarah is so freaking lovable while now-daughter figure Ellie (raised in what I assume was terrible misery) is a brat, and after an episode I feel no emotional investment in her at all, when I certainly did for her earlier counterpart .
I guess those who’ve played the game, who’ve spent hours with Ellie, loved her through everything she’s probably going through, are able to transfer that all very quickly to the television character. I imagine people are appalled at my lack of interest in her from this episode onwards, if they have at all. But I think it’s probably also worth knowing that the show isn’t earning any of it on its own (yet). Her figuring out the radio code, I think, was meant to be an endearing moment, but it just painted her as smug. Smug pants I call her.
I’ll definitely keep watching, although it’s hard to give the program huge credit for this. I’m a post-apocalyptic fiction junkie and have watched every episode of the ghastly Jericho at. But this is clearly a good show, boosted by great performances and a budget that allows for fantastic cash shots, like that last image of the collapsed city. What it isn’t, and here I think we should blame the game, is a original idea, and I’m afraid it came 50 years too late.