Prestige TV can’t beat the experience of playing Last of Us

A man and a teenage girl survey the wreckage of a plane in a field, from afar.
Joel and Ellie’s relationship is the cornerstone of The Last of Us. | WarnerMedia

What The Last of Us on HBO misses — that the video game gets right.

Prestige TV has finally come for video games. On paper, this is good news. The prestige TV treatment boils down to a rubric of extravagant thoughtfulness — more money for more considered details and more A-list performances — and shows like Severance, Andor, and Succession have served up some of the most gripping and provocative mass-market storytelling as a result.

So why not be jazzed about HBO’s The Last of Us, right? A beloved video game gets adapted by the only television network most would trust to do it justice. And it looks like great TV. The first several episodes positively sprout with craft. Much of the chatter surrounding the show has evaluated it according to those precepts, creating a kind of circular logic in which it seems self-evident that showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann managed to coax a tropey video game premise to its fullest expression.

Because The Last of Us harbored prestige aspirations as a game, the thinking goes, it must benefit from further prestigification. Our obsession with well-produced episodic TV has tuned our aesthetic antennae to a cluster of frequencies the format can reliably deliver: deep characterization, ambiguous moral concerns, and plots that don’t pander or shrink away from their consequences. Those are fine qualities, literary and probing, but they’re not the end-all be-all. The problem is, millions of newcomers will watch The Last of Us under the assumption that it’s the best, richest version of its source material.

But the show is missing something — the thing that took root in me like a cordyceps when I played the game for the first time. I want that for you. I’m not asking that you experience The Last of Us as I did, late at night in my friend Bram’s one-bedroom apartment, stoned out of my gourd, mashing buttons and shrieking falsettoes. But I do think you should play it, if you haven’t already, and I pity the viewers for whom The Last of Us will amount to, at most, a beautiful version of something they’ve already seen.

Both show and game concern a simple, mythic story: some 20 years after a fungal parasite has zombified most of the globe, hardened survivor Joel must deliver Ellie, a young teenager blessed (or cursed) with immunity, to a rebel outfit called the Fireflies, who may or may not possess the knowhow to harvest a cure. Needless to say, allies die, the goalposts keep shifting, and the plan’s very validity remains in question throughout. Against that backdrop, Joel and Ellie (played on TV by Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey) form a bond stronger than blood.

The strength of the story is wholly dependent on how you feel about its two main characters. The game’s special trick is that it doesn’t need to convince you of their relationship, because it gives you custody over it.

Take the events at Bill’s compound, which highlight two very different approaches. The show, operating from the prestige TV owner’s manual, must imagine Bill (Nick Offerman) as a fully realized human person, and basically succeeds. The only caveats are that Joel and Ellie are relegated to the episode’s margins and that Bill’s most colorful characteristic — his practical knowledge of shockingly sophisticated booby traps — is presented as a funny quirk, on par with his capable wine pairings.

In the game, Bill and his traps are part of the same bravura set piece: a series of close calls in which Joel increasingly relies on Ellie. On your way to meet Bill you stumble, as Joel, into a snare trap that hoists you 10 feet into the air upside down, your POV flipped. As Ellie attempts to cut you loose, a wave of infected appear. You’re out of reach — but she’s not. They sprint to her. Your heart in your ears, you force yourself to adjust to this new position and dispatch the fungified threats to your surrogate daughter with a wobbly 9mm.

Those five minutes make a masterclass of the game’s major modes: improvisation, disorientation, and dread. They also hint at an advantage inherent to the medium. In the game, Ellie’s survival is structural: you literally can’t go on without her. In the show, you merely expect her not to die. Death is the hallmark of any honest tour through post-apocalyptic America, and the game knows how to leverage it in ways the show cannot. There are, to be sure, dozens of deftly written and consistently grim cutscenes over the game’s roughly 15-hour runtime. But so much of its lingering power transmits through lightly scripted gameplay, and the constant low-grade suspense elicited any time you point Joel’s flashlight or pull his trigger. Even moments of relative peace or boredom feel freighted with anticipation, like when you rummage through a drawer for supplies and find a letter instead, or when you gingerly step through the rubble of a bombed-out metro station.

The game engages your brain, but it’s more interested in working your spinal cord. It uses story as scaffolding, building Potemkin villages of characters that offer just enough context to get buy-in from your viscera. The friends and enemies you encounter do have backstories, abridged versions of which are written in notes, memos, and ephemera scattered across the wreckage. You can search, if you care to, for shards of evidence from the shattered “why” of a given level — and Joel and Ellie’s frequent chitchat, which veers from witty to expository, helps fill in the blanks. But explanation and justification are not among the game’s top priorities. Early on, before her immunity is revealed, Ellie tells Joel not to inquire about her situation. “Honestly,” he replies, “the best part of my job is I don’t gotta know why.” The game’s mechanics make that true.

It’s no small feat. In 2007 the video game designer Clint Hocking coined the term “ludonarrative dissonance” to describe the friction, found in most blockbuster titles, between the mechanics of minute-to-minute gameplay and the guiding structure of a game’s story — say, the way other characters seem completely unaffected by the number of runaway murders you commit between cutscenes.

By rendering cordyceps-ridden America as properly Hobbesian, the game skirts the brunt of that charge. And by anchoring the experience in Joel’s protection of Ellie at all costs, it gives thematic cover to an extremely pessimistic story. Unlike some video games, you do not get to choose how The Last of Us plays out. Joel’s increasingly reckless amorality — and the bodies he leaves in his wake — is your only destination. Your complicity is the game’s most immersive element: when Ellie is the only thing that matters, it’s only right that you should compromise everything else.

Prestige TV, on the other hand, requires a good-faith exploration of every nook and cranny. Its basic instinct is to color in. So when we watch Melanie Lynskey as show-created resistance leader Kathleen execute an OB-GYN, for instance, we expect some further shading. But the world of The Last of Us can only bear so much scrutiny, and killing doctors, however useful a shorthand for character development, seems ill-advised in zombieland, even when you’re trying to dismantle the remains of the US military. When Kathleen directs her commandos to abandon their posts and converge on Henry (Lamar Johnson)’s location, it undermines the presumptive discipline required to overthrow FEDRA in the first place. (In the chaotic sequence that follows, Joel’s clutch sniper fire feels a lot more triumphant when you’re the one taking the shots.)

The TV adaptation will continue to pile this kind of weight on the game’s narrative buttresses — earnest investigations into systems and motives that strain the whole premise. It may well lead to rollicking, heartbreaking TV whose busted seams and flyaway threads are easy to ignore — but it likely won’t achieve the compositional harmony of the game.

The show does enjoy one big advantage over the game: accessibility. For $15.99 per month, the show is available on every screen with an internet connection; for now, the game is restricted to PlayStation consoles at a cost of $69.99. As passive entertainment, the show invites a more inclusive audience; as interactive software, the game is built atop a higher barrier to entry. But a recent remake, The Last of Us Part I, added new features to support disabled players, and a PC version is projected for release in March. If you’re not a video game person, it may just change your mind.

As the player, you’ll fight to preserve Joel and Ellie chapter after chapter, killing after killing, each failure providing a clue to a possible future in which you both endure. The Last of Us proves what gameplay can do in the service of characters, premise, and plot: its gauntlet of death will make you feel more alive.

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