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‘The Last of Us': Gaming as peak TV

A fan of the game writes about how the HBO show successfully captures its bleak, devastating tone

A still from 'The Last of Us'
A still from 'The Last of Us'

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Keep aside for one second the zombie-like creatures desperate to bite chunks out of your skull for lunch. Or the trigger-happy military officials, the rebel gangs, the nihilistic supervillains. Food and ammo supplies are dwindling, buildings are collapsing. There’s constant fear of death (or worse). At its heart, though, The Last Of Us is a simple story about the unexpected, fragile father-daughter-like bond that develops between Joel and Ellie as they traverse the crumbling landscape of a post-pandemic America. A physically exacting journey and an emotionally devastating one.

Joel is a grump—always snarling, perennially simmering in his bottled-up rage and despair. He almost has smoke coming out of his ears. Now in his 50s, he has seen and done some bad things.

And there’s Ellie. The chosen one. She’s a petulant teenager—innocent, curious, reckless, chipper, belligerent, snappy, scared, all at once. She drives him mad. Her sense of wonder and joy at the world is at odds with Joel’s beaten-down inertia. He’s mentally exhausted; the last thing he wants is to deal with this nonsense.

The new HBO show, adapted from the popular action-survival video game from 2013, takes on the ambitious task of fashioning that world and, more pertinently, the experience of it for TV. Neil Druckmann, of the game studio Naughty Dog, wrote and co-directed the game. He’s on board here too, as creator and writer, alongside Chernobyl’s Craig Mazin.

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I first played the game in mid-2020. We had lockdowns; people on the street were getting squirted with disinfectant from giant cans. The Last Of Us, my introduction to video games, served as an unsettling fantasy parallel to the doom that would soon be upon us in reality. Playing through a pandemic video game as heart-breaking as this one while living through an actual pandemic wasn’t a joyride but it served, in a roundabout way, as catharsis. A place to feed off and direct my own anxieties. It moved me in the way all great art does—left me uncomfortable and tingly, with a slightly heavy feeling in the chest.

I was curious to see how a TV adaptation would ruin those awkward memories of the game. It doesn’t, though. In fact, at roughly the halfway point of the series, it’s fair to say The Last Of Us is an electrifying production. The two protagonists especially, Pedro Pascal as Joel and Bella Ramsey as Ellie, slink into the essence of their characters, recreating the tense but playful odd-couple chemistry effortlessly.

From an initial thawing of the disdain Joel feels towards her, to his developing a paternal affection, the story progresses tenderly, with care. In the fourth episode, when Ellie narrates a goofy pun to Joel right before they fall asleep, he’s surprised—annoyed even—to find he’s trying to suppress his laughter. Till he gives in. Not long after, in a brilliantly shot sequence featuring snipers, blazing buildings, automatic rifles, combat vehicles, dozens of monsters and resistance soldiers, we notice the panic—the blood-curdling fear—on Joel’s face as he tries to protect Ellie from a series of dangers.

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The storyline follows the narrative beats of the original, with cosmetic alterations and digressions to explore character motivations. It has an episodic storytelling format—connected chapters in a merciless road-trip across an America in ruins.

Twenty years ago, in 2003, some kind of worldwide fungal infection turned the world upside down. People are mutating into cannibal freaks—called “Infecteds”—who feast on human flesh and turn you into one of them (“zombies” for all practical purposes). There’s no cure. No vaccine. Entire cities are bombed to curb outbreaks. Anyone who tests positive for the infection is executed by FEDRA, the military dictatorship. Civilians are confined to QZs, quarantine zones, sequestered from the open city. A gang of rebels (or terrorists), the Fireflies, is at war with FEDRA. Another resistance movement, led by Melanie Lynskey as the cold, ruthless Kathleen, has overthrown FEDRA in Kansas City. In one of the most upsetting episodes so far, we spend time with Henry, committed to protecting his younger brother. Sam is all of eight; he’s deaf and communicates in sign language; he’s artistic and full of amazement. Sam is scared; so is Henry. It’s a bleak world.

The new HBO show, adapted from the popular action-survival video game from 2013, takes on the ambitious task of fashioning that world for TV
The new HBO show, adapted from the popular action-survival video game from 2013, takes on the ambitious task of fashioning that world for TV

In a prologue, we get a glimpse of Joel’s life before the outbreak, through the eyes of his teenage daughter Sarah—played with dynamism and warmth by Nico Parker—who shares a fond, collegial relationship with him. Joel, Sarah and Tommy, his never-do-well brother, attempt to escape the bedlam upon “Outbreak Day” but she’s gunned down by a soldier. He’s living with that loss.

So when Joel and Tess, alluded to as his friend-in-arms/paramour/hook-up buddy, are tasked with taking Ellie across the country by the Fireflies, he’s hesitant. What’s the deal? Is she some special nepo-baby with an influential dad? The reason, in fact, is that Ellie appears to be immune to the infection. She got bitten by an Infected but nothing happened to her. She could well be the key to a vaccine.

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By definition, a show like this will have two kinds of viewers. There are the casual watchers, unfamiliar with the game, for whom this is a visually impressive and elaborate apocalyptic drama series with all the airs of “prestige TV”. The desolate feel is highlighted, with abandoned, half-destroyed skyscrapers, underground safehouses, dungeon-like spaces, weeds and mould, fungus growing everywhere, a general sense of decay. The writing has emotional heft; the sci-fi is confined to the margins for long periods for the sake of character development. Everything is, as on the best shows, often very dark.

And then there are the gamers. It’s natural to develop a strange, almost co-dependent relationship with video games. The Last Of Us is touted as one of the great PlayStation games, as much for its gameplay as its ability to tell a profound story of grief and affection. The music, the graphics, the experience, the sound design, the understanding of its characters.

Gaming is an immersive experience. You not only spend time with the characters but also literally embody them. You aren’t merely receiving or consuming. There’s something to achieve, to move towards. When you play as Joel and are surrounded by grotesque “clicker” monsters with supersonic hearing, you are no longer you. You are Joel, switching to stealth mode to tiptoe around the room in fear, counting how many bullets you have left, making sure Ellie is safe. A strong bond develops between the gamer and the characters.

To recreate that emotional heft is no easy task. The thing is: Everyone knows you don’t mess with gamers. Especially with a game like this one, which has fostered such a devoted (loud and aggressive) following. Gamers are capable of inflicting deep psychological damage when things aren’t quite the way they would like them to be (the second part of this game, released in 2020, provoked a colossal meltdown in parts of the gaming community for being supposedly “too woke”).

That, more than anything else, is where the show shines. It’s a faithful adaptation but it’s not exactly a literal scene-by-scene recreation. Nor is it an unnecessary departure that uses the game as a jumping off point. Really, it’s a companion piece. An accentuation. It sidesteps the gameplay of the video game at times, some of the action sequences that players get stuck on, to dive deeper into the characters. The writers realise that the limitations of the gaming format mean that simplistic storytelling can often be most effective; for TV, the additional layers they get to add work as an expansion. The show understands the world it exists in and lets us stay there.

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Because, really, playing video games is about spending time within that mood. An atmosphere is created and you marinate in it for days or weeks. The story’s underlying sense of moodiness and ambience lingers. Its sci-fi horror elements—the infected monsters and all the rest—do make frequent appearances but it’s the foreboding, the looming fear, that drives much of the narrative. The horror is felt as much as it’s seen.

The Last Of Us seems to have a seesaw rhythm—loud, then soft, almost silent; bright and dark; constricted, then sprawling. Gradual, then sudden. Respite followed by terror followed by relief followed by distress. It excels in those half-spaces, where the unsaid is left hanging in the air, the atmosphere of menace and horror perpetually skulking, hidden behind the next door you open.

Akhil Sood is a Delhi-based writer.

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