I’ve long been of two minds about Neil Druckmann, copresident of the video game studio Naughty Dog and cocreator of The Last of Us.
Druckmann is one of the most dogged visionaries in the recent history of video games. He’s perhaps fought harder than anyone else of his stature, with real skin in the game, to raise the emotional stakes and the critical regard of his chosen art form. Ten years ago, Druckmann and his team at Naughty Dog released The Last of Us, a postapocalyptic survival-horror game containing an uncharacteristically tender and unusually well-written character drama about a ruthless smuggler and his precious cargo, Joel and Ellie, respectively. Naughty Dog remastered The Last of Us in 2014, released a sequel in 2020, and remade the game for current-gen platforms in 2022; and now, at long last, Druckmann and his new creative partner, Craig Mazin, have turned The Last of Us into a mainstream breakthrough for video game adaptations. This propagation of The Last of Us in the past decade has always felt less like the milking of a cash cow and more like the protection of a precious legacy. Druckmann is a cautious creator in an industry that is often shockingly careless in the preservation of its content, even its masterpieces. You need people like him. You’ll foolishly take them for granted.
But Druckmann is also a hostage to the whole notion of prestige. He always seems to be begging the critics of literary fiction, serious cinema, and prestige television to respect him in spite of his chosen medium; he’ll have you know he’s more Cormac McCarthy than Shinji Mikami. Mazin recently told The Verge that he’d always seen “a television show lurking inside that video game trying to get out,” and that’s always been the knock against The Last of Us and its apparent desperation to be anything but a video game. Writing for New York Magazine, Andrea Long Chu recently offered a measured defense of the cinematic aspirations of the original game as a feature, not a bug—this tension in its very form, as “a game that doesn’t want to be one,” being “precisely what made the original game such a compelling study in powerlessness.” It’s an artful thought, though somewhat undermined by Naughty Dog’s other big franchise, Uncharted, also being overly cinematic despite being totally gung ho about the player’s empowerment. This suggests some underlying insecurity—or worse yet, despair—in the outlook that produced both franchises: Naughty Dog and Druckmann don’t think very highly of gaming—a harsh characterization of excellent developers, I know, but that’s my abiding worry—and they would rather reduce my PlayStation to a glorified Blu-ray player.
So, I started watching The Last of Us with some ambivalence. By the third episode, “Long, Long Time,” I’d swung back to my first, favorable impression: Druckmann is one of the most dogged visionaries, etc., etc. But I went into the show with the same questions as everyone else who’d first encountered The Last of Us as a game. (1) The original game played, for better or worse, like a movie or a prestige TV series. Would the prestige TV adaptation “play” like the game? (2) Would the series be good enough to finally dispel the supposed 30-year curse on big-budget video game adaptations? My colleague Ben Lindbergh addressed the second question at the top of the season: “The new show’s specific path to success won’t be easily replicable, simply because The Last of Us isn’t the typical game,” he wrote. The Last of Us, unlike most video games, was more or less written with its own eventual prestige adaptation in mind. The massive success of its first season on HBO is nonetheless illuminating.
The show is true to the game—true to gaming in general, really—in a sense deeper than simply strict adherence to the original plot. In the second episode, “Infected,” Joel, Tess, and Ellie must pass through Boston without arousing the Infected horde that’s blocking the easiest path. They take a detour through a flooded hotel and then a darkened museum with clickers lingering throughout before bracing for an Infected siege at the Massachusetts Statehouse. This is zombie fiction, and nothing I just described is distinctly or inherently video game-y; this sort of survivalist scrambling is a hallmark of the genre in any and every format. And yet, having also played The Last of Us and distinctly remembering this early trek through Boston, I wasn’t just rewatching the story, but also recalling the rhythms of my own trial and error. Sneak past the clickers. Cross the rooftops. Escape the statehouse. Escort Ellie, who can’t swim, through the flooded subway tunnels. Get out of Boston. Turns out The Last of Us, the game, really is a game, fundamentally, under all those cut scenes.
In recent decades, video games have hosted a lively series of debates about the very nature of the medium and the implications for its critical potential. BioShock got gamers thinking about the tension between a player’s agency and a developer’s guardrails. The Last of Us got them extrapolating this tension to comparisons with other media: What if conventionally noninteractive entertainment forms, such as books, movies, and TV, are fundamentally at odds with the interactive context of video games? Joel is a voiced character with a distinct temperament and nonnegotiable objectives in a game that’s doing its best to evoke the conventions of literature and cinema, and even then, his will is contingent on the player, and his personality still leaves a bit of room for role-play. Does Joel sneak or shoot his way out of the Massachusetts Statehouse? It’s up to the player. But this freedom also extends to Druckmann and Mazin in adapting The Last of Us. The show is, in a sense, their own playthrough, no less entertaining to watch despite them hogging the controller and playing without the fear of the game-over screen.
The trouble with answering the second question, about the lifting of the “video game curse,” is that it’s always been a somewhat misguided concern. The success of The Last of Us does at least clarify what’s always been so frustrating about the premise. Video game adaptations got a bad rap for 30 years because they mostly sucked; and they mostly sucked because the studios producing those projects got into the habit of making bad bets on shaky directors. Comic books got Sam Raimi and Christopher Nolan, while video games got Paul W.S. Anderson and Xavier Gens. It’s why the toughest task for Druckmann, recounted in a recent profile in The New Yorker, was finding a suitable director. He ended up choosing Mazin, a longtime fan of the original game. Getting the guy who’d just made Chernobyl to adapt The Last of Us was obviously a good call. Mazin being a longtime fan of The Last of Us was obviously a creative strength. Maybe, as Mazin says, there always was “a television show lurking inside that video game,” and I suppose the game’s design already meeting HBO more than halfway eased the work of adaptation, but the lessons of the show’s success were also lurking for decades in plain sight.
Lindbergh is right though. The Last of Us is an influential game but not a typical one. It’s the height of maturity, I suppose, but in a still very young art form. This medium is still working out what it wants to be when it grows up, and on whose terms. That’s adolescence. That’s your prime.