Roger Ebert once said that movies “are like a machine that generates empathy,” and that’s a beautiful thing. He also once said that video games “can never be art,” and this wasn’t as well-received. In fact, his opinion had a profound impact on the rather excitable population of those who play games. For so long, they’ve desired outside recognition, for someone to proclaim that these things were no longer toys. Finally, in 2013, they got The Last of Us. Sure, there was Super Metroid, Half-Life 2, Shadow of the Colossus, but The Last of Us was cinema. It was well-written, well-acted, and closer to Breaking Bad than Call of Duty. It won countless perfect scores and awards for Game of the Year. Empire magazine called it “gaming’s Citizen Kane moment.” HBO is turning it into a TV show!

In January of next year, the gamers will finally have their day, provided the hallowed mainstream audience – the outside recognition – bothers to show up. Are they gonna want to watch the show if they haven’t played the game? Do you have to play the game? Well, the answer to that question starts out simply enough: “Absolutely not!” before it gets complicated.

Even for Naughty Dog, the acclaimed studio behind The Last of Us, this was a fresh start. It wasn’t connected to an established universe like their Uncharted franchise, which would ring in its second sequel before The Last of Us released. There’s no lore, no backstory that can’t be artfully integrated into the show’s exposition. It’s a very simple setup: as the player, you control a man named Joel for most of the game, a smuggler in the zombie post-apocalypse. His daughter died twenty years ago, during the outbreak, and at the start of the game, he’s tasked with escorting a young girl across the country, as she may be the key to ending the plague. No lifestream crystals or cyborg supersoldiers. Instead, the casting of Pedro Pascal has already pointed people in the right direction: this is a story about fatherhood.

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‘The Last of Us’ Is Working with Simple but Effective Themes

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Image via Naughty Dog

The complicated part of the answer lies in how this theme is expressed by the game’s interactivity. It isn’t too much of a spoiler to say that part of the challenge for Joel, aside from fighting off zombies and bandits, is how much the young girl, Ellie, reminds him of his daughter. The player is made to understand this not just by cutscenes, which appear to be faithfully adapted in the show, but by the experience of play. Naughty Dog has long been accused of making movies, where gameplay takes a back seat to an on-rails, cinematic rollercoaster, but gameplay in The Last of Us is deliberate.

A third-person stealth game, the player navigates Joel through environments dotted by enemies, like dormant zombies and the roving Clickers, these eyeless, horrific creatures with an enhanced sense of hearing. The player has to make choices about how to approach these situations, calculating strategy against available resources. It’s a kind of survivalist simulator, conditioning patience instead of a shooter twitch reflex, which would have no practical use in such a devastated world.

Joel and Ellie encounter survivors who, whether friendly or hostile, put faces to this post-apocalypse. A late-game plot development challenges the player to accept that the bandits they’ve been murdering for hours are simply the opposing side of an amoral struggle. The whole game has been a meditation on perspective, something inherently limited by the control of a single on-screen avatar. It’s during this plot development that player control actually jumps to a different character, making for the game’s most heart-wrenching chapter.

All of this empathy is channeled into what can’t exactly be described as a “twist,” but maybe a turn? Toward the end of the game, Joel learns key information about Ellie’s relationship to the potential cure, and he makes a dramatic decision. It’s at this moment that the game asserts itself, revealing a cold-blooded but fascinating purpose. Even the zombie setting, already tired by 2013, is entirely justified. What had been a surprisingly compelling drama suddenly sharpens to a devastating point: this is a story – an experience – about understanding the bad guy. Maybe the worst guy. He does something so terribly wrong, and we agree with him. It’s a magic trick.

Like So Many Before It, HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ Is No Guarantee

Joel and Ellie hiding in the dark in the HBO series 'The Last of Us'

Even the surest bets can sometimes disappoint. Who could’ve predicted, in 2014, what Game of Thrones would look like in 2019? The state of the Last of Us adaptation is as good as anyone could ever hope, being overseen by the original game director Neil Druckmann and the creator of HBO’s brilliant Chernobyl, Craig Mazin. The amazing cast looks great in the trailers, and the show’s supported by a huge platform. If, however, against all odds, it disappoints, viewers could potentially be turned off from the brand, and from the game. That’s a worst-case scenario. So the complete answer to our question is, “Yes, please play The Last of Us, so that no matter what happens with the TV show, you’ll have had that unforgettable experience.”

Fortunately, The Last of Us is eminently accessible. Its original release on the PlayStation 3 was followed by a remaster on the PlayStation 4 in 2014. Earlier this year, a full-blown remake was released for the PlayStation 5, entitled The Last of Us Part I, with respect to the 2020 sequel. Despite updating an already very modern game, the remake won plaudits for accessibility options, like descriptive audio and haptic feedback. This title is clearly a big deal for Sony, who make up at least two of the five production companies on the show: Sony Pictures Television and PlayStation Productions. They want everyone to experience The Last of Us, and for good reason.

It’s difficult to say if the television adaptation will be able to translate the experience of play to a non-interactive medium, or even if the first season will cover the entire first game and include Joel’s big decision. Such a creative misstep would make for an incomplete story and confuse viewers. On the other hand, the show could be a great success and draw a new wave of interest to the source material. At that moment, you’ll be standing there, leaning against the wall, arms folded, and you can say, “Oh, I played the game. It was a work of art.”

HBO’s The Last of Us premieres January 15 on HBO and HBO Max.


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