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In the third episode of HBO’s The Last of Us, a pair of postapocalyptic travelers search through an abandoned gas station ten miles outside Boston. “No way!” exclaims Ellie (Bella Ramsey), the savvy teenage girl whom gruff smuggler Joel (Pedro Pascal) is tasked with transporting across the country. Most of the population has been infected by a parasitic fungus that transforms its victims into killing machines. But in this brief moment of repose, Ellie spots a relic of a more civilized era. “I had a friend who knew everything about this game,” she tells Joel breathlessly, mashing the buttons of a busted arcade unit for Midway Games’ 1993 fighting game Mortal Kombat II. “There’s this one character named Mileena who takes off her mask and she has monster teeth and then she swallows you whole and barfs out your bones!”
It’s a slyly self-referential moment for The Last of Us, which co-creators Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin have lovingly adapted from developer Naughty Dog’s critically acclaimed 2013 video game. In the game,
Joel is a hard-bitten survivor whose daughter was shot on Outbreak Day; Ellie’s mysterious immunity to the fungus may hold the key to a vaccine. As they make their way west, through bombed-out city blocks and overgrown interstates, past echolocating zombies and desperate human beings like themselves, they begin to regard each other as father and daughter. Widely considered a masterpiece of the video-game form, The Last of Us boasted a story whose strong characters and disturbing moral conflicts had all the makings of a buzzy television drama — so much so that The New Yorker asked in its preview of the series, “Can a Video Game Be Prestige TV?”
The answer is obviously yes. Before it premiered in January, critics had already crowned The Last of Us the best video-game adaptation ever made. In itself, this was no great honor: Outside a few fine kids’ movies, competition for the title has been limited to dreck like Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, or the limp Halo series on Paramount+. Attempts to imitate gameplay directly have yielded almost universally ridiculous results (the nauseating first-person-shooter sequence from Doom lurches to mind). But, really, video-game adaptations have sucked for the same reason many movies suck: low budgets, terrible scripts, and an often comical misunderstanding of their own material. The solitary exception to this rule, until now, was 2021’s Werewolves Within, an amiable horror comedy that, tellingly, bears even less resemblance to the virtual party game on which it is based than 1985’s Clue bears to the board game Clue.
The Last of Us’s showrunners have wisely exchanged action sequences for extended character beats, and thanks to the chemistry between Pascal and Ramsey, the series remains grounded in the deepening relationship between Joel and Ellie. Asked ad nauseam about the curse of the video-game adaptation, Mazin took to replying he had “cheated” by picking the best story the medium had to offer. What he probably meant was he had chosen a title whose actual gameplay, a fine but standard mix of third-person stealth and combat, mostly acted as a system of gates between one narrative sequence and the next. In this sense, HBO’s The Last of Us represents a superb realization of a modest goal: to adapt the narrative of a video game without attempting to adapt the game itself.
It’s worth remembering that this is standard operating procedure for prestige television, which regularly makes a point to bestow literary qualities — realism, lyricism, characterization — onto middling works of genre fiction. (An obvious example is Big Little Lies, elevated from beach read to serious drama by its naturalist approach and moody shots of the ocean.) That this formula should have finally been applied to a video game, and a good one, is a matter less of artistic innovation than of budget. “One of the highest compliments I can pay the show is that I wouldn’t have guessed that Joel and Ellie’s mordant, spiritedly macabre adventures first began in pixelated form,” negged Inkoo Kang in The New Yorker. But the question was never whether The Last of Us would make for compelling television, since anyone who had played it could tell you it basically already was that. The real question, buried in the praise, was why a story with such cinematic ambitions had bothered being a video game to begin with.
To answer it, one would first need to know what a video game is. Despite enjoying a higher level of prestige than ever in their relatively brief history, video games are still reviewed largely for their recreational value — that is to say, as toys. But the chief obstacle to serious criticism is not that we fail to recognize video games can be art, which is usually just a desperate shorthand for “capable of evoking a strong response.” It’s that we presume to know what kind of art they would be. The first is merely a lack of attention; the second is a genuine error of judgment.
Look no further than the broad caricature of video games as “interactive,” a quality that supposedly distinguishes them from more “passive” media like television or the novel. Regarding a long, claustrophobic shot from inside a moving car as Joel flees the zombie outbreak with his daughter, Sarah (Nico Parker), one otherwise admiring critic reproached The Last of Us for aping the interactive format of a game, noting it was “hard to resist the feeling that you should have a controller in your hand to choose which way they should turn next.” Yet in the nearly identical sequence from the game’s prologue, the player is responsible not for the car but just for the in-world virtual camera, which they may swivel uselessly from Sarah’s terrified face to the dark road ahead to a neighbor’s house burning in the distance. Indeed, the feeling of helplessness is the whole point.
The mistake here, common enough even among those literate in video games, is the breezy conflation of interactivity with control, as if the simple fact of player choice were any surer guarantee of efficacy than the existence of choice in real life. It’s true you can’t alter the content of a television show just by watching it, but too great an emphasis on this will obscure the fact that the same is true of many video games. The Last of Us has sometimes been called an “interactive movie” by fans and detractors alike — a faintly damning term that implies, ironically, a dearth of consequential interaction between players and the game. And it’s true: As a game about difficult moral choices, it gives the player none. There are no plot decisions, no dialogue options; there is no open world. The weight of choice is felt instead during the mundane task of inventory management, where every bullet and clean rag is precious. Meanwhile, Joel is Joel, violent and gentle, and players cannot overrule his decisions short of turning off the game and going outside to play.
To an extent, The Last of Us was an outlier by design, one that left a choice-shaped hole in player experience that reflected Joel’s uncompromising commitment to protecting Ellie. Yet even in the most liberal of narrative video games, the majority of choices available to players are either cosmetic or mechanical. The classic example is a suit of armor that increases the computing number associated with one’s defense while also lending a desirable visual panache. These things matter deeply to how a game plays: Gamers were so appalled by the clothing system of Cyberpunk 2077, in which combat bonuses could be reaped only by rocking truly hideous pieces of streetwear, that developer CD Projekt RED later added an option for players to stick with one acceptable outfit without falling behind in their armor class. But none of this had any effect on the game’s narrative, which despite its many branching plotlines, romance options, and endings was still just one story that could be told only a finite number of ways. There is a big difference, in other words, between mere customization and true narrative control — if such a thing even exists.
A video game, then, is emphatically not a story you get to change; in its most elemental form, it is not a story at all. The highly visual aspect of video games can mask the fact that, as computer programs, they are naturally far more abstract than film or television. In Left Behind, a short companion to The Last of Us released in 2014, Ellie’s best friend Riley takes her to a deserted mall in Boston, where she shows Ellie an arcade cabinet for a Mortal Kombat–style fighting game. The unit is long dead, but at her friend’s insistence, Ellie closes her eyes and slams the buttons while Riley describes a round of gleefully gory combat. It’s an ingenious comment on the nature of video games: The narration is all but divorced from the gameplay, a mini-game in which the player may press their own buttons in order to help Ellie’s imaginary avatar “defeat” her equally imaginary opponent. But the actual game takes place only inside Ellie’s mind, her delighted face illuminated by the static glow of the defunct machine.
The lesson here is that, even in longform-narrative video games like The Last of Us, no predetermined relation exists between gameplay, as a real-time system of potential inputs and outputs, and traditional film elements like character, narration, or image. In theory, if one happened to strike the right buttons at the right time, one could play through a video game in its entirety without a single thought to what was transpiring onscreen, like a monkey typing out Shakespeare. The long-standing appeal of Mortal Kombat II, for instance, was that it really could be played by blindly mashing the buttons, with the game smoothly converting even the most anarchic style of play into a potentially deadly flurry of punches and kicks.
This doesn’t mean video games shouldn’t tell stories, a pseudo-formalist position occasionally staked out by sour game-studies types, any more than cinema should limit its focus to the passage of light through a lens. The resistance of gameplay to being narrativized, and of stories to being gamified — what game bloggers sometimes call “ludonarrative dissonance” — can never be eliminated, only managed; the first question for any narrative video game is therefore how it plans to forge this formal contradiction into a compelling aesthetic experience. In fact, many of the most interesting video games tend to amplify ludo-narrative dissonance, allowing form to poke stylishly through the envelope of narrative content. Valve’s puzzle-platformer Portal famously ends by revealing the protagonist is trapped in a gamelike research facility run by a homicidal computer whose sardonic directions the player must disobey to escape. Here was a darkly comic acknowledgment that a life wholly composed of jumping, shooting, and pushing boxes around — the life of many video-game characters — would in the real world be nothing short of torture.
To return to our initial question, then: It’s true that The Last of Us often resembles a game that doesn’t want to be one. But this tension, which the television adaptation is at pains to relieve, is precisely what made the original game such a compelling study in powerlessness. Its protagonist, after all, also doesn’t want to be one. In early cutscenes, Joel is vehemently opposed to becoming Ellie’s keeper, his fatherly grief masked as stony pragmatism; when gameplay resumes, players may feel they are pushing Joel forward against his will, overriding his reluctance with their own desire to progress in the game. Even as Joel softens to his precocious young charge, The Last of Us gives players meager few opportunities to make their Joel stronger or faster: a slight increase in his health bar, perhaps, or a new gun whose bullets are rarer than usual. Instead, the same ludic architecture that at first makes players to do things Joel doesn’t want to do — linear level design, few upgrades, scarce resources — slowly comes to reflect Joel’s terrifyingly limited ability to protect Ellie.
What The Last of Us does let you do, as often as you would like, is die. In itself, this is unremarkable. The need for a death mechanic is almost as old as video games themselves. “Finish him,” a voice booms in the HBO series as Riley (Storm Reid), playing as the bone-barfing Mileena, bests Ellie in a fully functional game of Mortal Kombat II. “Do not finish me!” Ellie yells, but soon the girls are slotting in more quarters, bribing death with pocket change. The arcade industry’s pay-to-stay-alive system, which in its golden age brought in as much as $8 billion a year in quarters alone, faded with the rise of home consoles, where player death usually just meant respawning at the last checkpoint. Today, many video-game protagonists are zombies after a fashion, their bodies hijacked by an alien intelligence with crude control over their motor systems and an unlimited ability to resurrect. The studio behind last year’s role-playing game Elden Ring has built its entire punishing aesthetic around death, giving players a single nerve-racking chance to return to the site of their demise to collect lost experience points. Recent games like Hades or Deathloop have integrated this concept on a narrative level, not only providing canonical explanations for why exactly the player keeps coming back to life but also using this de facto immortality as an opportunity for character development. (“I guess you want to die again?” purrs your ex-girlfriend in Hades after murdering you for the eighth or ninth time.)
What distinguishes The Last of Us is the way the player character dies. In the series, Pascal’s soulful Joel is keenly aware of his own mortality — his bad knees, his hearing loss. But in the video game, Joel actually does die over and over. Each time, the game snatches back control of the camera, forcing players to watch as he is shot, stabbed, burned alive, beaten with a lead pipe; as shrieking zombies gouge out his eyes, snap his jaw apart, rip glistening red sinew from his neck. These cutscenes, animated with a gruesome realism far more disturbing than the blood-and-guts approach typical to the genre, often have the quality of jump scares, pouncing just as the player thinks they’re safe. As in most games, Joel’s deaths are shunted off into a noncanonical universe; the player retakes control of Joel at the latest checkpoint, and he has no memory of his latest fatality. But the player does, and this visceral sense of Joel’s death — something that, speaking strictly from the narrative point of view, never happens — comes to define their relationship to both Joel and the game as a whole.
Players thus experience two Joels: the Joel presented in the story, a powerful father figure propelled to heroic heights by grief and love, and the version of Joel controlled by the player, a terrified man with poor aim, little endurance, and a perilously high mortality rate. As many viewers have already joked, no amount of fidelity will allow the HBO show to capture the frustration of watching Joel be repeatedly eviscerated by the same zombie. Druckmann has said the game was designed to give players the same protective relationship to Ellie that Joel develops, and this is true, in a sense: Ellie can die in just as grisly a fashion as Joel if the player misses a window to rescue her. “That’s why men like you and me are here,” a fellow survivor tells Joel in the show, urging him to give his life meaning by finding someone to keep safe. For Joel, this person is Ellie; but for the player, this person is Joel, and when he is gravely wounded late in the game, player control will shockingly pass to Ellie, who must now protect her protector in the most brutal stretch of gameplay yet.
This was the game’s masterstroke. Form erupts into content, the player’s ludic relationship to Joel at last given narrative flesh in the person of Ellie, whose bitter determination to keep Joel alive leads to a horrific loss of innocence from which — as players of The Last of Us Part II already know — she may never recover. Here, we may rightly speak of interactivity: One may care about a character on television, but one must care for a character in a video game. In fact, The Last of Us suggested that care, by definition, means choosing to have no choice, holding onto another person so tightly their survival becomes an inescapable necessity. Of course, a TV show may treat these themes too, and the adaptation acquits itself admirably; the point is not that a video game, like other art forms, can show us something about love, but that love, at its most monstrous, can have the unyielding structure of a video game. This only a video game can teach. That’s not a knock on the HBO show, which has genuinely demonstrated that you may adapt a video game for television by taking its story and swallowing it whole. But you’ll still have to spit out the bones.
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