by Christopher Cruz
There were many people who questioned the need for an adaptation of the modern PlayStation classic The Last of Us. It was already considered one of the most cinematic games ever made. This begs the question: what else could it bring as a television series – or even worse, what would the game have to sacrifice for a film adaptation?
To all appearances, possible fears have been proven wrong. The pilot was critically acclaimed and HBO’s second-best new series premiere in a decade. And the film adaptation is getting more popular every week. Not only is this a huge relief for fans, it’s also a testament to the loving work that series creator Craig Mazin and game developer Neil Druckmann have put into this. Their extraordinary dedication and fidelity to the source material has resulted in an experience that is highly satisfying for both gamers and casual audiences.
Nevertheless, the series and the game are not the same in all respects. Now that we’re well into the first third of season one, it’s clear that some of the most magical experiences come from seeing where the show deviates from the game – and often improves on it. Let’s take a look at the biggest changes in the first few episodes.
1. Tendrils instead of spores
If there’s one thing viewers know about zombies, it’s that they bite. In both versions of the world of The Last of Us, a human can be infected by vicious bites and scratches from Cordyceps-infested individuals – provided they are not utterly torn apart by them. However, one of the persistent threats in video games doesn’t make the jump to HBO: fungal spores. Right at the start of the game, players have to sneak through densely clouded areas where Cordyceps spores are floating in the air. In addition to conventional bites, these are the main source of infection for humans. This makes perfect sense for a game: it creates scenarios in which the player is forced to take things slowly because of the restricted view.
So why the change? Well, one of the biggest problems with game adaptations is translating the imagery into a more cinematic language for viewing rather than playing. In the game, characters don respirators whenever they encounter a spore. However, in a television series, even transparent masks can affect a character’s expression and an actor’s ability to convey emotion. The irony, of course, is that lead actor Pedro Pascal has already made a name for himself as the mask-wearing Mandalorian in the Star Wars spinoff of the same name. So why pigeonhole him when he’s one of the show’s most dynamic actors? And already the asbestos-like clouds have disappeared. Notably, they are replaced by sentient, spaghetti-like mushroom tendrils that protrude from the mouths of the infected hosts, providing some of the most sinister visuals in the second episode.
2. Fungal beings think alike
The next big change in the Cordyceps threat is how the fungi take root in their hosts and in the world. While many expected that the origin of the outbreak would remain a mystery, episode two surprisingly reveals it: the fungal cells found their way into common foods like flour and sugar around the world, and in a single weekend of carbohydrate-gorging humanity, the entire planet. Global connectivity allowed the pandemic to spread and thrive.
There is no indication in the game that the Cordyceps mushrooms have overarching consciousness, but one scene shows them responding to stimuli like a swarm. In addition, there is now a network of mycelium burrowing through the human hosts (corpses’ skin giving way to a furry, mold-like down) and the soil. One false step on a mycelial root can put the infected on alert from miles away. This creates a sense of terror that (fortunately) didn’t exist in the game. However, Druckmann now wishes that he would have placed it there as well. In the official podcast of the show he said, “That’s one of the ideas that Craig came up with when he was doing his research and I was like, ‘Wait, that would be good gameplay.'”
But fear not, there won’t be any cheesy “kill the leader, kill them all” deus ex machina phrases. From what we know about the game and the series’ commitment, saving humanity in the final act won’t be that easy.
3. New Perspectives
The greatest strength of the series compared to the game is its inherent ability to switch perspectives. Not tied to interactivity, the creators of the series can skillfully switch between the perspective of Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie Williams (Bella Ramsey) and that of other characters who previously adapted to their interactions with the protagonists and the player’s point of view were bound.
In the show, several characters can be introduced or humanized in surprising ways – starting with the organization FEDRA, which plays a more passive role in the game. Similar to the Cordyceps, they are a constant threat and a deadly obstacle in the various quarantine zones. However, much of their horror is portrayed through grim exploration of abandoned military zones and tragic journal entries. The pilot introduces a FEDRA guard named Lee, who regularly buys pills from smuggler Joel and gives him an ominous warning before meeting a grisly end in a key scene. It’s a small role, but it shows the toll this world takes on even its Gestapo-esque foot soldiers. Because Lee is just another broken person who copes with his everyday life on the edge of the abyss. This is a stark contrast to the game, in which not a single member of FEDRA is humanized, although much more time is spent on their enemies, the Fireflies.
The series continues this trend by taking a peek behind the veil of the local militia and robbers in episode four, as the teaser trailer reveals. There’s also a big change in episode three, but we’ll get to that.
The most important thing about all of this is not only the great storytelling – especially for gamers – but also that the viewers get to see alternative perspectives beyond that of Ellie and Joel. It’s a world of gray morals and the shift in audience empathy and perspective will be crucial to the future of the series.
4. Fewer corners and edges
Despite the numerous moments of dark beauty, The Last of Us games are notoriously harrowing experiences. These can be ruthless, as viewers saw in the first few episodes of the series. No one is safe, and to their credit, the creators don’t shy away from doing so. Instead, they’ve taken the liberty of toning down some of the characters in a way that doesn’t revel in the misery, but instead delights in the poignant moments.
Starting with Joel. It is made clear up front that he is a wicked man, or at least a man capable of very wicked things. Aside from one act of violence, this is conveyed mostly through dialogue and his relationship with his partner Tess (Anna Torv), who is more tender and overtly romantic than in the game. Speaking of Tess, she too is shown in a softer light. Though clearly capable of killing, she acts with deliberation – she decides under what conditions she will let Joel loose on Robert, his former partner. In the game, after a long chase, she decides Robert’s fate with a dispassionate headshot.
By the time Joel and Tess reach the outskirts of Boston, they’ll have killed a dozen or so people — by hand, brick, blade, or pistol, all under the player’s direction. The sad fact is that gamers are desensitized to—in fact, they expect—this kind of violence, and what works in this medium doesn’t necessarily work on television. By nine o’clock Sunday night, Joel would feel more like a serial killer than a lost man.
Finally, there is Joel’s desperate search for his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna). In-game, the two became estranged years ago — and not on friendly terms. In the series, they have only been out of contact for seven weeks. His main motivation is to get a car battery from Robert (originally an ammo dump in the game) and travel to Wyoming to find him. Speaking of the battery…
5. Welcome to Bill’s town
The strongest revision of the original story is in episode three, “Long, Long Time”. It’s one of the most beautifully executed episodes on television in recent years, largely focusing on the year-long romance between grumpy survivor Bill (Nick Offerman) and his warmer partner Frank (Murray Bartlett). Nobody expected HBO to fit a 75-minute indie romance into the first act of a zombie survival show. But here it is now and the result is great.
Right at the start there are some big differences because Frank is alive. At least for a while. In the game, players only interact with Bill, whose insufferable bitterness is present from the moment he appears on the scene and decapitates a clicker (a development of the infected zombies) with a machete. From then on, he becomes a companion and policeman in several chapters, most notably when Joel calls in a favor to find the car battery. Bill spends most of his time teasing Joel and arguing with Ellie, who immediately hates him. He advises Joel to break up with her because attachments are the only thing in this world that kills you faster than a clicker. This occurs when the player eventually finds the corpse of Frank who has hanged himself – up to this point Bill had only scornfully referred to him as a dreamer. His farewell letter belies the romantic relationship between the two. It only becomes clear when the player hands Bill the letter and sees him visibly flinch and choke back his tears.
When the game was released in 2013, it seemed progressive, even though it only hinted at the existence of a gay couple – especially since they didn’t fit the obvious stereotypes. Despite this, it still played on the throwback “bury your gays” imagery of cruelly killing queer characters to make the world a better place. Although the series’ story of Bill and Frank also ends in suicide, the depiction of a happy and healthy queer romance spanning fifteen years is a quantum leap over the game. Simply portraying queerness on television isn’t breakthrough, but for a series that many expected to be as superficial as the video game, its dedication to human storytelling is admirable. Queerness is an integral part of The Last of Us (the game), and drawing on that for the series is a thematically honest move.
Translated from the American, first published on rollingstone.com