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K7 Media

How did The Last of Us break the curse of video game adaptations?

It’s safe to say that video games do not have the best reputation as source material for live action entertainment. From the very first time a game was turned into a movie – with 1993’s notorious Super Mario Bros movie, starring a clearly bemused Bob Hoskins as Nintendo’s moustachioed mascot – the notion that games make for terrible passive entertainment has endured.

The occasional project slipped through to commercial success – Angelina Jolie in two Tomb Raider movies in the early 2000s, Milla Jovovich headlining seven Resident Evil films – but these were profitable without attracting any critical acclaim.

Thanks to their costly fantastical settings and action-oriented concepts, it took TV a while to be able to tackle video games as a narrative source but very quickly it has proven more capable of translating IP from controllers to couch viewing. Paramount’s Halo series, released in March 2022 and based on the hit Xbox franchise, didn’t quite set the world alight but nor was it greeted with the scorn that met most big screen translations of games.

HBO’s The Last of Us is therefore arguably the first adaptation to truly overcome that stigma, proving to not just be a ratings smash but also a critical darling. Starring Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, it takes place in a near-future where Earth has been ravaged by a fungal virus that transforms its hosts into mutated monsters known as “clickers”.

The series features plentiful action and suspense, but also lots of delicately observed character drama, both between its leads – who form an uneasy surrogate father-daughter relationship through adversity – but also with its supporting cast. Most notably, the third episode of the nine-episode first season focused almost entirely on two new characters, a gay couple played by Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett, who face up to their mortality together in a storyline that left viewers sharing damp-eyed praise all over social media.

What may surprise some non-gamers is that those characters were not invented for the show, and their emotional story plays out identically in the original The Last of Us video game, developed by Santa Monica studio Naughty Dog and published by Sony in 2013. And this is a large part of the reason why The Last of Us worked so well on television: the game was already a wonderfully written linear narrative, as ripe for adaptation as any novel. Indeed, long before the TV show was even being pitched, fans were editing together the cinematic story scenes from the game to make an ad hoc CGI movie. Even with the gameplay removed – all the sneaking and fighting and puzzle solving – the character-driven story came through loud and clear.

The big problem facing previous adaptations was that gaming has not typically been a narrative-led medium. Games have had stories for a long time, but for the most part they existed only to add context and purpose to the player’s actions. Stripped of that interaction, the plots and characters often became lifeless tropes. It’s not that games had poor stories, but that their stories were constructed for a very different purpose and told in such a different way that literal adaptations were bound to struggle – at least until the overtly cinematic The Last of Us came along.

The show had other benefits in its favour, of course. It launched just as Pedro Pascal’s career was hitting A-list status, following breakout roles in Netflix drama Narcos and Game of Thrones. The concept was also a relatively easy sell to non-gaming audiences, sharing enough thematic similarities with The Walking Dead just as that show was entering its commercial dotage and fans were looking for a new dystopian drama fix with horror overtones.

All of which suggests that The Last of Us may be a “lightning in a bottle” scenario; the right property at the right time with the right star. Certainly, all eyes will be on Amazon’s upcoming show based on the Fallout games. That’s a very different proposition – a sprawling open post-apocalyptic sandbox in which players create their own character and find their own adventures. It lacks the pre-baked story and clear characters of The Last of Us, but maybe now the curse of the game adaptation has been broken, that freedom to tell television stories in an already-developed world will be an advantage.

And there are other signs that linear media is finding new ways to tell gaming stories, as the first generation of gamers from the 1970s and 1980s ascends into executive positions with a greater understanding of, and affinity for, gaming as a creative medium in its own right. After years of watching their brands get mangled by out-of-touch movie producers, major publishers such as Ubisoft, Activision-Blizzard and Sony have set up specialist internal divisions to shepherd their IP into film and television more faithfully.

It’s also encouraging to see that new and upcoming projects in this space are moving away from standard action, sci-fi and fantasy pitches. Apple+ TV has just scored a surprise hit with a narrative film based on the outlandish story behind iconic Soviet puzzle game Tetris, while Sony has Gran Turismo, an upcoming Top Gun-esque sports drama based on a real life program which took expert players of the driving simulation of the same name and trained them as actual race drivers.

There will, of course, be winners and losers from the inevitable slew of game-based TV shows and films that follow the success of The Last of Us, but compared to just a few years ago it’s already looking like declaring “game over” on this source of new stories would be very premature.

Dan Whitehead

Dan Whitehead has been covering TV and video games for over fifteen years, both as an entertainment journalist and as an industry consultant.