Although HBOs The last of us largely retains the story and lore of the original gameit rarely seems interested in tweaking the things most players spend time doing while playing The last of us. By prioritizing the game’s story over depicting specific gameplay mechanics, there’s a tension told through the original’s button action that isn’t realized in the show. Television is non-interactive and it seems that the creative goals of this show were to focus strictly on the characters and overall plot, avoiding what could be seen as gimmicks in order to create a more culturally acceptable kind of ‘prestige’. ‘ reach. tell a story. But without recreating certain scenes and unwillingness to try and tailor the story the game tells through the objects in its world and the gritty, unforgiving ingenuity the characters must rely on to survive, a whole side of The last of us is simply not there. The story has been modified, but not necessarily the game.
The last of us video game definitely falls under the category “action game”, but does so through a survival horror lens that dramatically slows that action down to a crawl. When tension is high, especially during combat encounters, every footstep taken, bullet loaded, and decision made is made under threat of death and failure. The last of us requires players to think quickly not only about what items and weapons they have on hand, but what they could hypothetically acquire through a relatively fast-paced, up-to-date crafting system that involves Joel and Ellie using bottles, rags, gunpowder, sharp objects and the like.
But unlike other video game adaptations such as Paramount’s Halo TV program, The last of us seems very uninterested in the story the original told through its gritty gameplay. Maybe that’s the secret sauce so far, but maybe it’s also a missed opportunity: games tell entire stories through what you do, not just through what you see and hear.
It was pass the second episode that something on the screen triggered a reaction I knew very well from the countless hours I spent playing The last of us: The pressure and fear of painfully reloading a revolver, one damn bullet at a time while a murderous creature breathes down your neck. And yet it was fleeting, and the show doesn’t feel like it wants to hang there for too long.
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This happens in a scene that directly parallels events in the game: Ellie, Joel and Tess must move through an old, abandoned museum filled with clickers. As in the lore of the gamethese are people in an advanced stage of infection who can no longer see but instead roam around making, you guessed it, clicking noises that provide a sort of echolocation.
In this scene, Joel hides from the direct view of a clicker, holding a flashlight between his head and left shoulder. He carefully empties the spent bullets into his hand. Considering we’ve just seen a clicker take notice of the group after a silent gasp from Ellie, it’s clear that dropping a piece of metal would be a deadly mistake. Joel stuffs the empty rounds into his left pocket before fishing new rounds out of his right pocket. It feels awkward, dangerous, tense. And for anyone who has played the game, it feels familiar.
As I watched, I caught myself saying – as I do when I’m playing the game and out of ammo – “Jesus, load the goddamn gun, please.” The tension I felt here was almost palpable, as I’ve been trained to react to this kind of tension, not just look, with a similar awkward struggle that Joel has both times on screen. But I’m sure this moment has also translated to those who haven’t played the game. You probably felt the urge “reload, reload, please reload” in your soul.
In the game, your character (usually Joel) navigates their inventory by pressing the directional pad and using different face buttons depending on what you’re trying to do. This sums up what it’s like to dig through your backpack or pockets. While you can improve the speed at which you craft or equip weapons, this thrill is quite central to the horror and action, and it’s hard to imagine the game without it. Aside from the scene I just mentioned, and a moment in a later episode when it looks like the camera moves to a quasi-over-the-shoulder perspective as Joel fires a gun, the show mostly sticks to standard prestige TV framing of its action and zombie drama.
Consider the way action was portrayed in the television adaptation of the first-person shooter Halo. (Let’s ignore all the dramatic deviations serialized from his lore and the very, uh, weird things that happened narratively; that’s not the point now. I want to emphasize explicitly how the show adapts the story told Halo‘s gameplay.) Not only does the camera literally flip to a first-person perspective at times, but even the action we see on screen matches what we’re doing in the game.
This caused some of Halo the show’s best moments: Characters throw grenades before encountering an enemy, bounce it off enemies to lower their shields and finish the job, just like in the game. Fall damage isn’t a thing as we see Master Chief and other Spartans jumping from orbit to a planet without any issues; take this off in one Halo game often feels very powerful, and so do these action sequences. Even the relatively high jump height of Halo game characters are communicated during these action sequences. The show often watches the game play out when it could have just offered standard TV gun action.
Even if you’ve never had one Halo game, the super soldier fantasy of the action is probably well communicated on screen. And if you’ve played any of the games, it feels known. Halo the TV show was interested in telling a very different sequence of events with its world and lore, but it was quite committed to translating the action we know from the games into the new medium.
In The last of us, the absence of similar scenes alters the tension present in the source material. The classic “mash the square button to break the glass” sequence at the start of the game after Joel and Tommy’s pickup flips during the breakout is one such example. The dilemma of having to get from but also not necessarily wanting to go out with all the zombies is central to that scene. With repeated blows on the glass as a passing moment, the looming break of violence into more violence, we are on the edge of our seats and often press the button. The show doesn’t replicate this feeling, it doesn’t To adjust This feeling. In the show, Joel just grabs Sarah and exits the truck. Similar moments of intense, button-pressing or precise aiming gameplay are a matter of life or death; but this is not fully translated into the TV show. A later action sequence that delivers one of the game’s most striking and desperate visuals is also oddly missing from the series.
But it’s not just the action that is portrayed in a different way. The objects used to make things, the act of making, and the level of ingenuity these characters have had to develop in this fallen world are not actually depicted or conveyed in the TV show. The last of us‘s game objects, in their raw, processed, out-of-time place and use, are important to the tone of the game.
Just as the infected humans of the show and game bear a twisted resemblance to their former selves, so does the environment of The last of us feel like a sad echo of the world that once was. Objects once designed for other purposes now need to be reconsidered, used in crafting, or moved to navigate terrain that was once accessible to humans but now presents obstacles. Objects once made for a completely different use must be given a new purpose in order to survive at the last moment. A brick in it The last of us morphs from an object and symbol of construction into one of destruction as you use it to smash open a clicker’s head, the brick crumbling to dust as you do.
Desperation can be conveyed in the show by a character grabbing a random pipe to wield, but the barbarity and complete sense of wielding a baseball bat with scissors tapped around it – a standard crafted weapon in the game – never happens here. No one reaches for a used Coke bottle and some rags to make a serviceable but flawed muffler. The shocking reality of seeing objects torn from their pre-outbreak use and how people have had to develop radically different relationships with the physical world just doesn’t make it into the show. Aside from the emotional states of the characters, this was an important part of conveying the desperation, brutality, and need to survive in The last of usworld. Players develop an instinctive reflex to “look for supplies” when entering a room. The need to adapt quickly, deploy different MacGyverisms, and survive is part of the story of The last of usalthough the TV show largely ignores this.
The last of us is a pretty good, entertaining TV show with real moments of greatness. But given how cinematic the game already was, and how the show largely revises those scenes, it feels almost as impressive as an acoustic rendition of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters;” notable if done particularly well, but it was already halfway through the original. The last of us wants to claim the prize as finally breaking the curse of video game modifications, but when the time comes, it will have done so without modifying the actual game portion of the video game.