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

The last of us it has been widely hailed as not only the “greatest video game adaptation of all time”, but also ostensibly the easiest to go from pixel to image. And in many ways, HBO The last of us earned 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 setting and lighting that makes the post-apocalyptic vision feel real. There’s the strong cast, led by Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, who deliver two of the best performances of their careers that have the emotional stopping power of a sawed-off shotgun. Yet for all that Mazin and Druckmann nailed (and it’s a lot), it’s ironic about HBO. The last of us What he struggled the most were not the images, the story or the characters, but the most inherent thing in video games: the gameplay.

Sometimes mockingly accused of being an “interactive movie,” Naughty Dog’s magic The last of us it was the way it broke the divide between cutscenes and gameplay; made the cinematic playable. Starting with the dialogue, this design ethos is felt throughout the game. As Joel and Ellie traverse cities and post-apocalyptic landscapes, conversations happen organically (with a little help from Triangle), creating the compelling illusion that is emergent and real. Elsewhere, key moments of the character’s growth are routinely seen out-of-scenes, whether it’s Ellie enjoying herself at a tropical hotel photo shoot or Joel realizing he cares for her only like a father. while fighting thugs to save her from cannibals (in the show, Joel gets to this emotional point earlier, as revealed when he talks to Tommy in episode 6).

But by adapting his own game with Mazin for HBO, Druckmann largely avoids adapting most of the “game” sections of The last of us, reducing them to slivers of screen time. I admire the drive for narrative economy, but just as good as HBO’s. The last of us Which is to say, it might look like it was adapted from a YouTube compilation of the game’s incredible cutscenes, sidestepping the game’s many stealthy crawls, gunfights, or what you do most: walk around. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Druckmann-directed Episode 2 “Infected” is the notable exception, capturing the spirit of the game in a way most episodes didn’t. Ellie, Joel, and Tess explore an overgrown Boston, sharing natural, character-building dialogue as they explore, eventually colliding with a series of fascinating set pieces reminiscent of the feeling of learning about these people when you first played the game. .

Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

most of The last of us it doesn’t strike that balance, and comparing the early sections of the game exposes certain gaps in the adaptation. In the game, the prologue transitions from the heartbreaking loss of Joel’s daughter Sarah to a post-apocalyptic reality in which Joel heats up, firing grisly headshots and choking the thugs who ripped him off; the contrast from father figure to casual assassin is visceral and provocative. During minutes of game time, the player experiences Joel’s fall from a loving, hard-working father to a cold-blooded killing machine. It’s not just him pulling the trigger, you too. In the HBO series, this section is omitted entirely. I understand; We need Joel to meet with Ellie as soon as possible. But when you, the player, are guiding Joel to make perfect shots and navigate the map as Solid Snake, you’re learning about Joel through your bare hands on the controller, inferring the harrowing story between past and present that brought Joel to this. place.

HBO series mostly He handles the game’s bloodshed by avoiding it. This not only stands out The last of us like a story about violence and where it can come from, but it also changes Joel. The jaded lethality of him is only occasionally glimpsed, often in a “nerfed” and more vulnerable form, relying on dialogue to paint a picture of the man rather than create something we can see and feel for ourselves. By avoiding major moments of Ellie and Joel’s bond and trauma shown in the game, their dynamic changes; Instead of a near-game thaw to warm Joel’s frozen heart, 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, he is often dropped by enemies and he is unable to fight back. And, crucial to where Season 2 will take us, by watering down Joel in spirit and action, the showrunners risk undermining the legacy Joel could pass on to Ellie.

In addition, HBO The last of us it exposes one of the classic problems with adapting games to film or television: game mechanics are stubbornly difficult to turn into movies. Just look at death. The games are structurally designed to create stakes around endless cycles of reincarnation, a pattern of living, dying, and respawning in order to repeatedly face an obstacle and win. So every time we die firing rounds at infected, even though progress is reset and nothing has really been lost, we still feel the sting of failure and the thirst for victory. the genius of The last of us it’s that the more we worry about Joel and Ellie’s survival, the more it affects each of our deaths, emphasized by the brutal on-screen gameplay of Joel or Ellie being killed. The Stakes were never meant to be designed through ABC plot beats alone, but rather how we experience them through the gameplay loop.

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

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

Image: HBOMax

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

Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

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

Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO

And finally, the end. It’s one of the most famous and important games since 2013, creating a chasm between the kind of game that thrives on player choice and the kind that forces you into a character whose choices may not be your own. Joel is not a moral man, and through him, neither are you. In a Brechtian way, The last of us it thrived on the friction between the “you” playing the game and the subjective “you” inhabiting a character, closer to Cormac McCarthy VR than a game that requires role-playing. And when Joel, when you, massacre a hospital of doctors and scientists to save a girl who now feels like a daughter, you are both innocent bystander and complicit, entangling the player’s agency in a unique moral knot in the middle of the videogames.

All season long, I’ve wondered if Mazin and Druckmann had a silver bullet, a miracle cure to make the climax work like it did on TV. To some extent, they did. Pascal and Ramsey are sensational, and Ali Abbasi’s deft directing underpins the great emotion. Especially effective is the choice to punctuate Joel’s rampage with notes of sadness rather than rage, transforming a hospital assault into a montage of tragic pathos. Yet I still felt the pangs of what might 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 season 2 confirmed, an adaptation of the last of us part 2 poses an even greater challenge. As a sequel, it’s prickly, demanding and brilliant, with Druckmann and company. further exploiting the tension between player and character, inviting you to enact the ugliest actions of the 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 be a triumph.

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