THE LAST OF US. Why is this game adaptation successful?

What makes “The Last of Us” so great?

Michalina Peruga

23 January 2023

The creators of The Last of Us managed to do what no one else has been able to do before – successfully transfer a computer game to the screen. As of this writing, the series has a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a 9.4 rating on IMDb (out of nearly 50,000 ratings), and overwhelmingly enthusiastic reviews from critics and viewers alike. Importantly, the creators managed to kill two birds with one stone and do the impossible – to delight both gamers and gamers, as well as those who have never heard of The Last of Us.

The series is an adaptation of the popular 2013 game of the same title. The action takes place at a time when a pandemic of a parasitic fungus breaks out in the United States, turning its host into an aggressive monster. The main character is Joel (Pedro Pascal in the series / Troy Baker in the game), who tries to escape from the suburbs of the Texas city of Austin with his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna / Jeffrey Pierce) and daughter Sara (Nico Parker / Hana Hayes). The main plot, however, takes place twenty years later, when Joel is tasked with smuggling 14-year-old Ellie (Bella Ramsey / Ashley Johnson) out of town. The girl is immune – despite being bitten by one of the infected, she did not transform – and may be the key to discovering a vaccine for a terrible infection.

Responsible for the series Neil Druckmann, co-creator of the game itself, and Craig Mazin, writer and creator of the outstanding HBO series Chernobyl, have made an extremely faithful adaptation. The first thirty minutes of the series, the prologue introducing us to the world of the terrifying apocalypse, is an almost exact translation of every scene from the original to the screen. Which does not mean that The Last of Us series is just a secondary, careful copy. The creators abandon what would be unnecessary in a film adaptation, and only add threads that make the series richer. The prologue is extremely emotional and suspenseful, and the supporting plots and characters have been expanded, which would not make sense in the game. The series has no false note, which immediately begs the question: why is the world of cinema mainly known for failed game adaptations? Such films have an average of 25% on Rotten Tomatoes and a rating of 3/10 on Metacritic for critical acclaim. Unfortunately, viewers also do not appreciate this type of production – in their ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, such films have an average of 47%. Has it always been this simple? Have the creators of The Last of Us found the perfect recipe for a “movie-game?

the last of us hbo

When The Last of Us came out in 2013, it was a very unusual game because it was very cinematic. Of course, film and computer games are media that have a lot in common. Just as the reference point for the first researchers and theoreticians of cinema was literature and theater, so for game researchers this reference is of course cinema. Although they differ in the relationship they enter into with the viewer (the passivity of the film versus the interactivity of the game), both the film and the computer game are audiovisual and immersive media that tell a story.

Whether the game is a narrative medium has been a matter of dispute among game scholars. In game theory, two research trends have distinguished themselves: ludological and narratological. The former postulated that, due to its interactivity, the game is a completely different medium from the one known to us so far and should be studied using completely different tools. Narratologists, on the other hand, focus on how games tell stories. Although it is obvious for game scholars today that both approaches can be combined in research, in times of contention The Last of Us would certainly be the favorite game of narratologists and the vexation of ludologists.

Because it’s a very narrative and very cinematic game. The creators of the game from the Naughty Dog studio were inspired by horror and science fiction films, such as Night of the Living Dead, Children of Men or The Road (a film based on McCarthy’s great novel). Druckmann was particularly interested in stories based on interesting, developed characters and relationships between them. So is The Last of Us. In the first part of the game, we move around Joel all the time, but Ellie constantly accompanies him, which creates plenty of opportunities for conversations between the main characters. These, in turn, create a story about the world in which we find ourselves and allow us to build heroes. The game relies heavily on cinematics, in particular cutscenes, i.e. cutscenes. They can be longer than average compared to other games, but thanks to them we have the opportunity to observe the developing relationship between Joel and Ellie, get to know them and other heroes. Few games have characters that are so narratively developed – most often they are at most executors of the player’s commands, a way to achieve goals in the game.

This is why The Last of Us performs so well on screen. A great script, an extensive relationship between the main characters and interesting characters – all this was already in the game, so the creators did not have to create a completely new story, they were satisfied with great source material. In addition, the action in the series is extremely linear, which made it easier for the writers.

A significant factor in the success of the series was the involvement of the game developers in the production. This is not only about Druckmann, but also many employees of the Naughty Dog studio who created the game – concept artists, music creator Gustav Santaolalla or company president Evan Wells, who became the executive producer of the series. Certainly, the large budget did not hurt – several times higher than even the episodes of Game of Thrones. The key to success also lies in the choice of medium – The Last of Us would never have a chance to succeed as a film, which Druckmann tried to do many years earlier with director Sam Raimi. Because of its length, it’s a game made to be a series. Modern times, when long television forms are climbing to the cinematographic peaks, are the perfect time to adapt one of the most popular computer games ever created. The beginning of the series proves that we are dealing with one of the best and most interesting productions of recent years.

Michalina Peruga

Michalina Peruga

Film scholar, art historian and lover of contemporary horror cinema and classic Hollywood cinema, especially film noir and the work of Alfred Hitchcock. In cinema, she loves mixing genres, breaking patterns and looking closely at characters.

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