The Last of Us - HBO Max

There’s an argument to be made that the story and performances from the original The Last of Us video game are some of the strongest narrative portrayals in all of video games. But I think you might have a harder time trying to make a case for the moment-to-moment gameplay mechanics as being some of the best that video games have to offer — especially now in the 2020s.

Watching the first three episodes of the new HBO The Last of Us series has put into stark contrast how good the presentation and characterizations of the video game were, while also how perfunctory the gameplay mechanics actually were.

A lot has changed in the story of Joel and Ellie in the first three episodes of the The Last of Us series compared to their adventure in the video game. Some of this was necessary to streamline the story, to flesh out the world and events leading up to the outbreak, and to cut down on the sheer amount of violence and gore the show would need to incorporate to be completely faithful to the source material. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that Joel in the show is far less of a murderous dick — at least based on what we’ve been shown thus far (although a darkness is definitely alluded to). 

The Last of Us - HBO Max

Overall, I don’t have any problems with these changes, or with the resulting new-ish version of the well-worn story. In fact, I welcome it. If I had to sit through the original story but in show form, having played through the first game a number of times, I don’t know if I would’ve made it past the pilot. But in changing the story to help focus the narrative, it really highlights just how good the story and characters were and still are, but also how much of the game is just action-filler to either pad out the runtime (“gamers” sure do like to have runtimes justify their dollars spent), or simply just to make the experience feel more “gamey” and less like those filthy, filthy walking simulators. 

I personally never really minded the amount of action and shooting involved in The Last of Us. After all, I play games to shoot stuff more often than not. But my interest definitely wanes the more times I play through The Last of Us, especially during those requisite video-game-ass-video-game moments of having to defend one’s position from an onslaught of enemies while also waiting for another character to do something extremely slowly while also having to manage your resources until the invisible timer runs out and the heart-pumping music stops.

The thing is, while watching the first three episodes of The Last of Us, which were incredibly gripping, taut and moved at what felt like a blistering clip, I was rarely reminded of the more action-focused parts of the game and instead felt like I was watching a YouTube mashup of all of the game’s cutscenes. And sure, this is probably a natural result of the limited amount of action on screen, but also because those sections of the game, while fun, aren’t the most gripping or even memorable parts of the game — at least for me. 

The Last of Us - HBO Max

In fact, it wasn’t until maybe halfway through the second episode of the show — when Joel, Tess, and Ellie are attempting to traverse through the Bostonian Museum — when I finally thought, “Now this feels like the game.” It’s a very brief moment, too, as Joel is regrouping with Ellie after having been separated by the first real Clicker-clickers presented in the show. Joel and Ellie are trying to avoid being detected and both are crouching behind a display case in one of the museum rooms, using it for cover while a clicker shambles about unaware in the background. And that was it.

Yup, the first time this show felt like the game it’s based on, at least to me, is that maybe-30-second clip of them crouching behind cover while trying not to make noise. Anyone reading this who has played The Last of Us I’m sure can attest that this is what you end up doing for a majority of the game (while not simply watching cutscenes): going balls-to-the-wall during a set-piece moment or walking around while the characters talk, and learn to love. Oh, and of course while also not moving ladders to and fro, or pushing Ellie on floating pallets of wood.

To be fair, it was an exciting moment, seeing a real video-game-ass moment rendered in reality by real, great actors (the clicker performers are spot on). But it was gone in an instant and I was just back to watching (and enjoying) the pretty cutscenes brought to life. Which, again, I have no problem with. 

The Last of Us - HBO Max

But I think this highlights to me why The Last of Us has always been a game perfect for a live-action adaptation, while also being an average game as far as the gameplay is concerned. If you asked fans of the game what their favorite moments are, I think most people will talk about the character moments and the story as a whole — although the overall visceral and nerve-racking nature of the gameplay will no doubt spring to mind as well.

And with the recent release of The Last of Us Part I, the remake of the original game (or maybe it was a remake of the remaster of the original game…), I think the idea was that the show would fuel a new generation of people who hadn’t played the game and were only aware of TLoU from this wildly popular TV series, who would in turn seek out the game to see how it stacks up against the show.

I can imagine there might be a good deal of those folks who are immediately sucked in by the crackerjack opening segment, which requires little heavy lifting on the part of the player. But as soon as the game kicks things into video-game-ass high-gear — right around when Joel and Tess are hunting down the guns (not a car battery) that were stolen out from under them, through those crate-filled arenas with all of the slow, plodding stealth and (unless they fixed this) that huge circular reticle for aiming Joel’s gun that I always hated — there might be a precipitous dip in the number of these new converts who will push deeper into the game.

In fact, Sony and Naughty Dog might be wise to patch in a “TV Show” setting that, although probably wouldn’t reshape the narrative to make it more closely resemble the beats as depicted in the show, could at least decrease the amount of action to the point where even if it shaves off 25% of the play time, might be a more easily digestible launching pad so that any subsequent playthroughs could be set to the original amount of mayhem to offer a challenge the second time through. But that’s just my two cents.

The Last of Us - HBO Max

At the end of the day, both The Last of Us the TV show and The Last of Us Part I (or any of the other versions of the original video game) are incredible works of art and offer a lot to love and get lost in. But I feel like the show arguably does the game a disservice by taking the more beloved and hard-hitting elements and leaving the chaff on the cutting room floor. Unfortunately, that chaff makes up a wealth of the video-game version’s experience.

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