clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why ‘The Last of Us’ Was Uniquely Suited to Lift the Video Game Adaptation Curse

After years of subpar live-action adaptations of game IP, the quality, prestige trappings, and mainstream reach of HBO’s acclaimed new series make it a precedent-setting tentpole for the industry

HBO/Sony Entertainment/Ringer illustration

In 2015, a YouTuber named Grant Voegtle crafted a roughly five-hour tribute to his favorite video game, 2013’s The Last of Us. He turned off the title’s already minimal heads-up display, eliminating the targeting reticles, ammo counts, and other icons that serve as on-screen signifiers of an interactive medium. He manipulated the camera as much as he could to capture scenes from more artistic angles, cut down the combat to focus on the story, and played sequences over and over to produce the most streamlined and least janky footage. The result, culled from hundreds of hours of playing and editing, was a seven-part series he dubbed a “cinematic playthrough”—a look at The Last of Us that reflected the conventions of film (and prestige TV) even more closely than the game itself. One of his goals, he explained in a teaser, was to share the game’s engrossing story with “people who have never played The Last of Us before and perhaps even people who aren’t gamers.”

Voegtle’s series, which went well beyond a basic compilation of cut scenes or story sequences, garnered widespread coverage from the gaming press and hundreds of thousands of views. It also earned praise from the official Twitter account of The Last of Us developer Naughty Dog and from creative director Neil Druckmann, who tweeted a link to the trailer along with the message, “Who needs a movie? fantastic work, @grantvoegtle !” Naughty Dog was so wowed by Voegtle’s work that the studio hired him. A few years after that call-up, he was credited as a video editor on the 2020 sequel, The Last of Us Part II.

If you watch Voegtle’s series from start to finish, as I recently did, years after my own playthrough of Joel and Ellie’s cross-country odyssey, you can see why The Last of Us was well suited to become the first great live-action adaptation of a video game—a distinction that the HBO show, which premieres on Sunday, has already laid claim to after receiving sterling advance reviews this week. “This isn’t always going to look like a movie or a television series because my tools are limited,” Voegtle warned in 2015. Yet despite those limitations and the original game’s nearly decade-old graphics, his series is still riveting—and so is the series coming to TV this weekend, which enlists and benefits from far less limited tools, in terms of both budget and creative freedom.

I invoke Voegtle not to ask (even jokingly, à la Druckmann’s old tweet), “Who needs a TV show?” Nor should he suggest that the adaptation’s greatness was a gimme. No matter how strong the source material is, making art is hard, as is satisfying sky-high fan expectations. However, the idea that an amateur YouTube auteur’s solo passion project could provide such a compelling proof of concept for an episodic scripted series suggests that the ingredients of a great show are as intertwined with the game as the mutated Cordyceps fungus is with its victim’s brainstem. For HBO’s The Last of Us to be bad would have taken a series of significant unforced errors.

Admittedly, many prior video game adaptations that weren’t as well tailored to TV to begin with have fallen prey to such self-sabotage. But the latest and greatest attempt to successfully translate a game to another on-screen medium sidestepped every potential pitfall, just like Joel and Ellie silently sneaking around one of the game’s (and show’s) fungal monstrosities. The critical—and soon, almost certainly, popular—acclaim generated by HBO’s The Last of Us should establish beyond any doubt that a live-action adaptation of a video game can be an award winner and a huge hit, announcing to an industry that’s already all-in on video game intellectual property that the so-called curse of video game movies and shows has been lifted. While the ways in which The Last of Us succeeds are indicative of broader trends that, as I noted almost two years ago (and again last year), had already made conditions more conducive to quality adaptations long before The Last of Us, the new show’s specific path to success won’t be easily replicable, simply because The Last of Us isn’t the typical game.

Released on the PlayStation 3 in June 2013, remastered for the PS4 the following year, and fully updated for a PS5 remake published last year, The Last of Us has never really receded from gamers’ (and game makers’) minds. Widely lauded as a masterpiece in 2013, the post-apocalyptic two-hander about the cost of violence, the value of found family, and the tension between trauma and hope has loomed large ever since, chiefly on the strength of its narrative and core characters, which rank among the most emotionally hard-hitting in the history of the medium. (Even if it is a bit bombastic to call the game an “open-and-shut case” for “the greatest story that has ever been told in video games” or to label it “the best video game story ever—not by a little, but by a lot,” as adaptation cocreator and cowriter Craig Mazin has.)

Now, the game will add another major laurel to its legacy by spawning an adaptation that stands as the first completely unqualified win for its kind—not an animated show (like Castlevania, Arcane, or Cyberpunk: Edgerunners); not a show about games that doesn’t directly adapt one (like Mythic Quest, Players, or Dead Pixels); not a project pitched toward kids (like Pokémon Detective Pikachu, Sonic the Hedgehog, or Sonic the Hedgehog 2); and not a limited release (Werewolves Within), a box-office force that flopped with critics (Uncharted), or a gaming-adjacent hit that’s technically based on books (The Witcher).

I’ve been writing about the perils and potential of video game adaptations for The Ringer since the debuts of the Assassin’s Creed movie (bad!) and Netflix’s Castlevania series (good!), and the deservedly downtrodden reputation of video game adaptations dates back decades. The Last of Us being the project to end all doubts about the prospect of a great game adaptation was somewhat predictable. (“This seems like what we’ve been waiting for,” I wrote about the then-planned movie version of The Last of Us in 2014, when much more waiting still lay ahead of us.) Even so, its quality, coupled with its prestige trappings and mainstream reach, make it a precedent-setting tentpole.

Let’s quickly list the ways previous video game adaptations have gone wrong and how The Last of Us—based on the critical consensus and the four episodes I’ve seen—neatly avoids them.

First and foremost, the project was well chosen. Most of the games that have gotten adaptations are the ones with the biggest names (and, by extension, studios hope, the biggest built-in audiences). But big-name games often tend to have franchise roots dating back to the medium’s formative years, when storytelling in video games was less developed and prioritized. The likes of Street Fighter, Doom, Alone in the Dark, and Need for Speed, among the many foundational games that spawned stinkers at the multiplex, weren’t really ripe for translation to a noninteractive medium because their interactivity was their almost sole selling point.

Video game stories don’t always have to be—or even seek to be—captivating in stand-alone form because good gameplay can carry the product. In a movie or TV show, it can’t. Too often, the titles tapped for adaptation originated in an era when telling sophisticated stand-alone stories usually wasn’t the goal and would have been difficult to achieve even if it had been, given the technological limitations of the time. That doesn’t mean a showrunner or moviemaker couldn’t craft a rich narrative using those sources as inspiration, but they’d have to supply most of the story themselves. Could Neill Blomkamp’s Gran Turismo movie, to name another PlayStation-associated adaptation slated for this year, be great too? Sure. If it is, though, it won’t be because it borrowed a great story from the racing games.

The Last of Us is almost 10 years old, but even so, it’s one of the newest games to have gotten a live-action TV or movie adaptation. It hails from a time when increased storage space, high-definition graphics, motion capture, and other advances under the hood—along with the maturation, proliferation, and diversification of the people playing and making games—permitted more of an emphasis on story, a trend that The Last of Us both piggybacked on and helped propel. And it’s not just that The Last of Us comes from a more story-forward period. It’s also the way its story is set up. Some games with good stories are still challenging to adapt because player choice occupies such a central role in their narratives. The Last of Us, by contrast, is extremely linear: Its characters can’t be customized, players can’t choose the order to tackle its levels, and there’s only one ending. Although different players can choose how thoroughly to explore or whether to emphasize stealth or violence, everyone’s exposure to the story is close to the same.

That’s not an inherently good or bad thing, though some of the game’s few detractors argued that The Last of Us was more of a movie or prestige TV show grafted onto a game than it was a title whose story drew its power from the medium’s uniquely interactive qualities. (Games with more emergent or branching narratives can be just as satisfying as those that employ The Last of Us–style storytelling.) Regardless of the gameplay implications, though, a linear narrative certainly simplifies the task of a screenwriter. And the consciously cinematic aesthetic of The Last of Us—whose foundational influences included Night of the Living Dead, Children of Men, and No Country for Old Men (as well as literary references, such as The Road)—made it perfect for repackaging and made it more palatable to a crowd that could be inclined to discount the virtues of video games. (A New Yorker feature from December, in a curious aside, describes the game as “a character study that includes Phoebe Waller-Bridge among its admirers,” as if its artistic credentials needed to be burnished by the endorsement of someone celebrated for her work in TV and film.)

Some games that take cues from movies may seem like weak pastiches when they’ve been converted into movies themselves, but The Last of Us was well written enough for the adaptation to hold its own, even on the more competitive narrative turf of TV. Which brings us to the second key to success: The Last of Us was adapted to a TV show, not a movie, which wasn’t always the plan.

It’s become increasingly clear that TV is a more natural home than the big screen for many game adaptations, thanks to TV’s allowances for length and in-depth world building and its episodic format, which mirrors the mission-centric structures of most video games. The Last of Us is a roughly 15-hour game. Subtract much of the fighting, foraging, and crafting (as well as the dying, reloading, and not knowing where to go), and you’d still be left with enough material to make even James Cameron quail. It’s just too much for one movie, as Druckmann discovered when he tried to cram it all into a single script for a film that Sam Raimi was attached to direct. (“It was an impossible task,” Druckmann told The Hollywood Reporter.) The story would have needed to be abridged, and probably bastardized, in blockbuster-film form, but a well-funded nine-episode season affords enough screen time for the full scope of the game, and the gradual evolution of the Joel-Ellie relationship, to be realized. Thanks to the economic and creative calculus of the streaming wars, what might have been unmanageable as a movie has become makeable on TV.

Speaking of Druckmann: It’s no coincidence that one of the first game adaptations to completely capture its source material’s appeal was cocreated and cowritten by the writer and codirector of the game, with additional guidance from Naughty Dog’s art team and a score partly written by game composer Gustavo Santaolalla. The third downfall of game adaptations that The Last of Us skirts is the tendency for those TV shows and movies to be made by people who have little love for, understanding of, or even familiarity with the games, with next to no input or oversight by the creators who know those works intimately.

Historically, that disconnect has sometimes stemmed from an age gap between the people playing and creating games and the people helming or approving projects at movie studios or TV networks. To some extent, that still applies: HBO Chairman and CEO Casey Bloys, who greenlighted the show, told THR that he hasn’t played a video game since 1982’s Smurf: Rescue in Gargamel’s Castle on ColecoVision. But in Mazin—the Emmy-winning creator of Chernobyl, a longtime fan of The Last of Us, and a committed gamer who also served as a writer, actor, and consulting producer on Mythic Quest and cowrote the upcoming Borderlands movie—Druckmann found a kindred spirit who was similarly conversant with the language of games. And in HBO, Naughty Dog found a producing partner unlike would-be The Last of Us movie producer Screen Gems, which according to Druckmann, had pushed for the film to be bigger, “sexier,” and more action packed, along the lines of World War Z. Naughty Dog retained much more creative control over The Last of Us than it did over the muddled mess that Uncharted turned into, and it’s tough to beat a Sunday-night slot on HBO as a signifier of quality.

“Everything that we do comes out of respect for the game,” Mazin told TheWrap, and it shows. However, Mazin and Druckmann didn’t let that love stop them from making judicious additions and tweaks. Which takes us to the fourth and final factor behind how fulfilling HBO’s version of The Last of Us is: The series is faithful, but not to a fault. How closely a video game adaptation should hew to the original remains a source of some controversy: Carbon copies risk redundancy and boredom (it’s more fun to play a first-person shooter than to watch one), but straying too far from established traditions and canon can make fans feel betrayed or render the revamped property almost unrecognizable.

The Last of Us strikes the right balance. The overall arc of the season is the same as the game’s, and many scenes, set pieces, and lines of dialogue are pulled directly from the original. But the adaptation’s creators take a little more time to flesh out the backstories of some of the supporting players in Joel and Ellie’s odyssey, and those additional details lead to some of the season’s most memorable moments. Changes range from enriching to unobtrusive, and though the video game versions of the iconic core characters feel real, there’s something to be said for seeing their steps retraced by non-polygonal people.

Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey rise to the difficult task of re-creating the cherished characters that Troy Baker, Ashley Johnson, and Naughty Dog’s overworked animators initially brought to life, and Nick Offerman, Melanie Lynskey, Murray Bartlett, and others round out a universally capable cast. The creators of The Last of Us had the rare opportunity to make a compelling adaptation just by trimming down some elements of an existing classic and slightly supplementing others. They were wise enough to recruit great talent and largely get out of a great game’s way, but they didn’t treat the original as a static, unalterable text. (The longer and less traditionally structured The Last of Us Part II, which the series will likely adapt in its second season, may require even more massaging.)

There’s a certain sort of fan who may reject the TV series because, say, Pascal might not grow as bushy of a beard as the digital Joel, or because the series is set 10 years earlier than the game, or because some aspects of the infected are moderately reimagined. For those sticklers for slavish re-creation, there’s always the “cinematic playthrough” on YouTube. But the point of that playthrough was to spread the gospel of The Last of Us to a wider audience than the game could command. HBO’s show is about to achieve that—not only for The Last of Us, but potentially for all of the long-mistreated medium’s huddled masses that are yearning to be IP.

“This everything you were hoping for?” Joel asks Ellie in the game as they gaze across a cityscape, echoing an earlier exchange.

“It’s got its ups and downs,” she says. “But you can’t deny the view.” For the next nine Sundays, HBO viewers will be saying something similar—with an emphasis on the ups—whether they loved The Last of Us already or they’re learning to love it now.