Sometimes, all it takes is six words to ruin a good thing. “Adapted from the hit video game.” When it comes to film and TV, there are few phrases more ominous. And yet, since the early days of gaming, ill-fated live-action adaptations have kept popping up. Occasionally, the efforts have lived on in infamy: think of Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo’s bafflingly misconceived Super Mario Bros. (1993). Or the gaudy, incomprehensible Assassin’s Creed (2016). Or Hitman – a game so nice, they adapted it twice (both times with truly execrable results). So when it was announced that HBO would be adapting The Last of Us, one of the most acclaimed video games ever made, into a new big budget TV series, it’s fair to say that even the most diehard fans had reason for trepidation.
On the surface, The Last of Us – a gritty post-apocalyptic road narrative about a jaded, grief-stricken smuggler (played in the TV show by Pedro Pascal) and his teenage ward (Bella Ramsey) – is the perfect source material for an upmarket genre series. If critics were to be believed, the 2013 game, originally released on PlayStation 3, was already halfway to being a prestige TV programme anyway, such was the strength of its story, script and motion-captured performances. Sure enough, HBO’s series, debuting this weekend on Sky Atlantic in the UK, has proved dogmatically faithful to the original games, lifting whole sequences of dialogue and staging many of its scenes in a similar fashion. To say it is the best video game adaptation ever made seems like damning with faint praise, but it is also indisputably true. In his four-star review, Nick Hilton describes it as “undoubtedly a new landmark in the seemingly impossible task of adapting video games”. This is a proper TV show, a well-made, gripping drama with the potential to reel in a substantial audience of gamers and non-gamers alike. The great “curse” may have been lifted.
Why is it that video games tend to make for such crummy adaptations? There are a few obvious reasons. The first of these is structure. Almost all video games are constructed around what’s referred to as a “gameplay loop” – a set of actions that are repeated over and over: the essence of the game. Even story-centric games like The Last of Us are constructed around this idea of a loop. Go to an area, sneak around, kill some enemies, move on. Repeat. Films and TV series, on the other hand, are built around not loops but the opposite – journeys, or arcs. A good story needs more than just reiteration. (Of course, narrative-centric games like The Last of Us do have story arcs, but they are conveyed principally through non-playable cutscenes.)
The unique appeal of video games, as well, is that they live in the perennial second person. Unlike films or TV shows, games give the player agency – or at least the illusion of agency. There is no way of really translating this to the passive mediums of film or television. Historically, many video game adaptations have struggled because their characters were conceived around this idea of “playability”. The Mario brothers; Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft; Hitman’s nameless Agent 47. These are not characters designed with personality in mind. They are, or at least were in the beginning, simply empty, colourful vessels for the player to manipulate. Not people, but marionettes. This is one problem The Last of Us doesn’t have. Indeed, for fans of the game, the task was actually about preserving the depth and humanity of the existing characters.
In the early days of game-to-film adaptations, back when video games were primarily thought of as a children’s pastime, they were often made by people with only a loose understanding of the medium itself. (Again, we return to the nadir of Super Mario Bros.) Now, this isn’t always the case. For instance, a key reason fans of Netflix’s The Witcher adaptation have been so enamoured with Henry Cavill’s lead performance was the fact that he was a vocal and sincere fan of the games that inspired it. The Last of Us has similarly made clear its reverence for the source material – the game’s original writer Neil Druckmann co-created and co-wrote the series alongside Chernobyl’s Craig Mazin.
It may be too early to call it a sea change. Even if you look back over the past year, there’s been a glut of shoddy live-action game adaptations released, from Uncharted to Resident Evil to Sonic the Hedgehog 2. It may be that The Last of Us is just an anomaly, the exception that proves a time-tested rule. But you never know – who’s to say it’s not a sign of things to come? Maybe the limit is closer to the sky than we thought.