The first episode of the long-awaited adaptation of “The Last of Us,” a prestige TV zombie story based on a popular video game of the same name, premiered this past weekend on HBO. The critical buzz had been fierce the preceding week and was largely warranted. This will not only be great TV but a genuine cultural moment that will be an integral part of media in this century. The reasons for this are rooted in the technological changes in how we have come to tell stories, which requires a look back at the source material.
Ten years ago, the distinctive video game company Naughty Dog shocked the world with its monster hit “The Last of Us.” This game was built upon its previous blockbuster franchise “Uncharted.” With those three games, all exclusives for the Playstation 3, the studio developed a reputation for immersive storytelling in a radically different way from previous video games. The “Uncharted” games made players feel like Indiana Jones, essentially doing archaeology with machine guns, with stories that played out like epic action films.
But with “The Last of Us,” the studio crafted a much more subdued and contemplative narrative. Instead of an action game, the creative team produced a digital, interactive novel that was capable of both terrifying players and bringing them to tears.
Storytelling has always been part of video games. These stories may have been very simplistic in the early days when a little Italian man is tasked with defeating a gorilla to save a pretty lady, but simple or not, stories have always been a crucial part of gaming. The roleplaying games of the ’90s, in particular, revealed that video games were a medium with immense storytelling potential, but “The Last of Us” is something special. It was a major step forward in the medium, similar to how “Citizen Kane” re-oriented mainstream film structure or how “The Jazz Singer” was the first motion picture to feature a synchronized recorded musical score along with lip-synching and speech.
But “Citizen Kane” and “The Jazz Singer” are really more renowned for technical and stylistic innovation. “The Last of Us” is special not so much for its creation but for its craftsmanship in storytelling. In this way, it’s more like “Casablanca” or “The Godfather.” Anyone who has played it understands this; it is truly unique, not just in the medium of video games but in how stories are told in general.
We are entering an era where long-form TV and video games are essentially replacing literature and film. The entertainment industry is so anxiety-ridden about its future that intellectual property has become a type of god to them. So this adaptation of “The Last of Us” was, like Thanos, inevitable. As soon as players were gripped by the characters of Joel and Ellie, we all knew it was only a matter of time before the story would be adapted to TV or film.
“The Last of Us” is a totally immersive experience. The game’s sheer attention to detail and the constant draw of the narrative leading the player forward provide irrepressible sensations of connectedness with the story. Talk of a film adaptation quickly generated after the game’s initial success, but thankfully that project eventually died; the medium of traditional cinema simply cannot do “The Last of Us” justice. The game’s story takes about 14 hours to complete with virtually no filler; abbreviating it into what would assuredly be a three-hour film would have been a mistake.
Part of the reason “The Last of Us” requires a longer format is the game’s overall mood. It features a dystopian setting where a variation of the Cordyceps fungus (infamous for turning ants into zombies) takes over humans, essentially turning them into zombies. But unlike the more traditional zombie fair of George Romero, the horror isn’t so much due to gore or social commentary but is a Lovecraftian dread that something inhuman, an indifferent organism that’s not even consciously aware of us, is destroying the human race from within. And in the midst of this terror, these intensely relatable characters are struggling to survive, not just trapped in a cabin or shopping mall, but against the backdrop of the country itself.
“The Last of Us” is radically different from previous zombie stories, having more in common with something like Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Where that story was about a father and son navigating North America after a cataclysm, this one features a father who lost his daughter taking care of a girl who lost her father.
In many ways, Romero’s films, and zombie films in general, are about zombies. This is the opposite. Yes, the fungus is what created the situation, but the story is dictated by the characters. This was probably what “The Walking Dead” was trying to accomplish. But, after a while, that show’s consistent disregard for human dignity, and ultimately nihilistic outlook, beat viewers into the ground. The characters felt like pieces of meat, not legitimate centers of action moving the drama forward. “The Last of Us” tells a gripping character drama that is certainly bleak but not hopeless.
It’s a story about life, not death. And while there’s only one episode out so far, the show appears to be attempting to express the same sentiment. The first episode is the length of a theatrical film, and it perfectly sets up everything that will follow.
If this show continues down this path, it will be the first time a video game has been properly adapted into another medium. The “Sonic the Hedgehog” films are fun but forgettable, and almost every other video game movie is a disaster. This will capture the first quarter of 2023’s pop culture landscape and be seen as a turning point from the perspective of future generations.
In a media landscape saturated by Marvel characters and about to see yet another “The Fast and the Furious” movie, it’s refreshing to see something emerge that doesn’t feel solely like intellectual property. “The Last of Us” feels like a great story and is adapted from great source material that just so happens to be a video game.