Video game adaptations don’t have the best track record. Though I must say that I have a pretty good track record of playing video games that get adapted. Included in my limited video game arsenal is The Last of Us, which I played back in 2016. Among those titles this was the one that made the most sense to make into either a film or TV series. The whole reason folks loved this game to begin with is its storytelling and character development. Something that is often missing in games and the filmed media that is developed out of them. I mean, that and the graphics and the shooting of mushroom zombies and military-type bad guys. But mostly the two characters of Joel and Ellie and their whole lone-wolf-and-cub adventure across the post-apocalyptic American wasteland.
There are so many pitfalls one can fall into making a show like this. The first being that there are just a lot of post-apocalyptic dramas out there for folks to consume. Everything from the many, many years of The Walking Dead to The Road to more recent things like Station Eleven and Sweet Tooth. And like a million things in between. So there may be some fatigue — especially coming out of COVID — for these types of end-of-the-world tales. And mindless creatures with mushrooms for brains. I guess. Plus, if you’ve played any of these games, there are very “game-y” things that happen in them. Puzzles that you have to unwind. You know the kind: move this box over there to climb up to a thing to drop a ladder to have the other character climb up to get a boost to do whatever. And then there’s the absolutely insane body count. In The Last of Us video game, for example, I’d put that somewhere in the thousands. Mushroom zombies and humans alike. Joel murders his way across the US. But a TV show full of climbing mechanics and endless murderous violence is probably not one anyone wants to watch. Latter day HBO ain’t in the business of splattering the lens with blood in pursuit of action-based gore porn. Story is still king.
So it makes sense that in the landscape of all the console-based shooters, you convert the one that is known for its story into a TV show heavy with story. They did this by keeping just enough of the game mechanics in there to make the game-heads happy, but also dialed back the murder and mayhem by multiples. In fact, there are very few Infected (the umbrella term of the zombie-like creatures) in the first season at all. This was an obvious choice by the show’s creators. So when our main characters Joe (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) encounter them, it’s a more unique and dangerous-seeming experience. And, for the audience, a more shocking one. Showing them at every turn and having our characters constantly offing them would reduce the power of them in some way. And, honestly, would make for a less interesting watch. So, like some of these other “prestige” zombie shows, we understand that it’s often the people who are the real monsters. That, in fact, it’s the other humans’ desire to endure and survive (to quote the comic book from the show) that puts our protagonists in the greatest peril.
But, unlike the game, Joel doesn’t just mow down every human he sees. There isn’t a string of thousands of dead FEDRA agents in his wake. Because in anything other than a video game, that would make the dude we’re supposed to be rooting for a mass-murdering psychopath. However, even after watching the first season of the series, are we completely sure Joel isn’t a mass-murdering psychopath? I think the jury’s still out on that one. It is, however, made very clear that this organization that is ostensibly the world’s one great hope, The Fireflies, is made up of complete morons. Like grade-A dummies. So bad at their jobs. So bad at doing just about everything. Planning. Fighting. Walking. Literally every decision they make is beyond dumb. They abandon one place and literally leave the location — complete with map — of their new secret lair written on a white board. They leave a child in charge of their stash of weaponry in an abandoned mall without clearing it of mushroom zombies. They get completely wiped out by a low-level car battery dealer. And then again by one dude with a grudge. So many bad decisions by these inept knuckleheads.
What we can say is that this man Joel — scarred by his daughter’s murder at the flashpoint of the start of the end of the world — stalks the new world with a chip on his shoulder and an attitude that every day could be his last. A stance that has hardened his heart to the point where even an ally and “special” friend of several decades like Tess (Anna Torv) barely warrants an iota of warmth and empathy. Or at least any he can outwardly show. This is how this man clearly goes through the world, until he is charged with shuttling 14-year-old Ellie across the country. Granted it takes quite a while for his heart to thaw. For him to, once again, bond with another human to the point where he can say so out loud. And admit to himself that the loss of this person scares him to no end. Enough so that he will do absolutely anything and everything to keep them safe. It’s an obvious transference thing from his dead daughter to this young girl, but this is what humans do.
Besides the main storyline, which is basically a very dangerous road trip, we get some side stories that branch from the main storyline. One that isn’t included in the game is the ballad of Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett). A same-sex love affair at the end of the world. The characters themselves exist in the game, but we spend an entire episode exploring the genesis of their relationship, its rise and its denouement. It is a pretty grand departure from the adventures of Joel and Ellie, but certainly an artistic choice that is praise-worthy for its sensitivity and clarity of purpose. An episode of television that was just so unexpected — especially in a tale based on a hyper-violent video game. There are a bunch of other departures from the game detail-wise, but for the most part it cleaves pretty closely to the game’s overarching narrative and DNA. It is, by far, the most successful of this particular genre that I’ve watched. And certainly the best game adaptation that I can recall. Low bar, of course, but I’m sure there are folks out there really into Sonic the Hedgehog and the many horrible versions of Mortal Combat. For me, though, this is the tops. Now I just have to play Part II (which I’ve owned for years now) before the next season drops in 2025 or whenever.