Set in a post-apocalyptic world, where a fungal plague has wiped out most of humanity, The Last of Us is one of the most beloved stories in modern gaming. A mix of survival horror and road trip, it's an exploration of familial bonds, generational trauma, survivor's guilt, and forgiveness.
None of these are particularly unique topics, not even for gaming, but in the hands of directors Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann, The Last of Us tapped into something unique for an audience hungry for a change.
In the game, players controlled Joel, a broken and violent man sent to transport human cargo, Ellie, across the country. Over time, after much misery and horror, the two bond over their shared trauma and desire for connection. Ellie in her search answers for things that don't have any. Joel with a longing to fill a hole that can't be filled.
The genius of that experience is that it expanded one of the most hated tropes, the escort mission, into a full-length game, allowing players to grow attached to Ellie in the process. In turn, it created a loop where gamers, like Joel, began to feel possessive of her. What began as protective instincts grew into fierce, ugly ownership, that could only boil over into something toxic.
Ten years later, HBO has its work cut out for them.
The concept of a broken man shepherding the younger generation into something better which he can't take part in was already an old, well-worn concept when The Last of Us first came out. By now, the soles are disintegrating from the mileage.
On top of that, viewing a film is a different kind of engagement from gaming. Where a film presents events that have already taken place, a game is immediate; it is written by the player in their actions. For The Last of Us, those actions became the backbone of the relationship between Ellie and Joel.
In translating the game with almost slavish fidelity, The Last of Us works against itself. It captures the essentials, but it lacks the all-important context that made the original so special. It's never a bad series - but it never distinguishes itself enough to stand on its own.
At least, not in the big picture. Singular episodes showcase a braver, more daring series that this could have become. The third episode, completely devoid of Ellie and Joel, is a particular highlight. In it, Nick Offerman takes the stage as a prepper and doomsday-lover Bill, who has his life turned around by a chance encounter.
It's a stunning work of art. One of the finest hours of TV in years, and so far beyond everything else in The Last of Us that the rest of the series has to work twice as hard just to keep up.
In an interesting twist, game director Druckmann, who guided both The Last of Us and Uncharted to critical acclaim, struggles with his episodes. Even if you ignore the superlative Offerman episode, Druckmann's two directorial features stand out as the least impressive of the bunch.
Again, they're not bad, nothing in the show is bad; but they're, well, like a video game cutscene.
It's reductive, I know, but those who play games and know the storytelling language utilized in them will notice it. The camera placements, the blocking, the way how something feels off. Like you're half-expecting to take control any minute now.
One of the biggest set pieces feels like a boss battle because that's exactly what it is.
Thankfully, the cast deserves nothing but praise. As Joel, Pedro Pascal brings immense gravitas and depth to a complex, terrifying role as a monster grasping at fatherhood. Bella Ramsey is equally mesmerizing as Ellie, never missing a beat with a part that could easily fall into a stereotype.
HBO veteran Anna Torv proves yet again that she's one of the great, unsung heroes of acting. Her part as Tess gives the series a dangerous and unnerving edge as it reminds us how far good people can fall - and how painful any reminder of decency is in a world where compassion gets you killed.
Despite complaints, The Last of Us is a worthwhile, quality series that deserves your time. I just wish it wasn't so reverent of the material, because that kind of devotion makes you blind to faults that are easy to mend.
At its best, the series strikes free from the growing pains that video game adaptations suffer from, and shows how rich and textured Druckmann's world can be. In its lesser moments, The Last of Us reverts back to the same tired fanservice and timidness that has held back game adaptations in the past.
With a second season almost a certainty, one can only hope that next time around, the showrunners feel more confident with what they've created. If that happens, we're in for something truly special.
Right now, it's still one of the best game adaptations ever made.