Not every match can be played. Over the course of 25 years of gaming critiques, I’ve played a scary number, though there will always be gaps in the big names. But when it comes to The last of usIt was a very thoughtful choice on my part.
PS4 A copy of the ever-revamped game—my first chance to play it, since I’ve never owned a PS3—It came out in July 2014At a time when my wife was six months pregnant with a son, we went through years of struggling to conceive. Being a fan of both zombie novels and shooters, I was excited to play the game, so I checked it out. It didn’t start well. This was a pretty miserable era for match openers, the absolute pinnacle of games’ pathological need to endlessly take controls away from players, and you didn’t earn my love with that. Pretend you’ve got control, but just puppeteer you in the next scene. But then, I pulled the bait and switch.
Everyone knew it was a game about a father and a girl trying to survive a zombie apocalypse, and the game begins with a father and his daughter, which allows you to feel safe, and… well, you probably know the next part. I found the narrative resolution to be not only blunt, but actively malevolent. We don’t spend almost any time figuring out who Sarah is, but for a couple of obvious leads (straight out of Joss Whedon’s school of character creation), we only watch her bleed to death in order to prove her father’s emotional motives. I just lazily manipulated, trying to win every emotional resonance with the most outrageous cases of depersonalization. With my son only a few months away, I had a bigger reaction than I would have otherwise, and just walked away. no thanks.
I never forgave her, and I still think I’m right about that. cooling It’s rarely seen in the broad spectrum of media (hell, I just watched X-Men: Apocalypse For the first time last night, and Wonderful Is he guilty of the same), but creating a character with no narrative purpose other than death always gets at the bottom of my creeps. in The last of usIt was much worse, because of the ugly decision to play like Sarah. You move it around the house, then see the ensuing chaos from her perspective. We’re in the back of the car with her as the toy drives us through the streets of madness, ensuring she’s communicated to us exclusively through a child’s eyes. After that, she is incapacitated, and we pass it off as Joel. And then, of course, she was brutally murdered. It’s gross.
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So that’s all I knew of the game before watching the first episode of the HBO show. It’s telling how differently it’s all handled.
Firstly, Sarah is significantly older. In the game, she’s a pre-teen, a child. In the show, she’s played by an 18-year-old, and clearly pitched in her mid-teens. Neither is great, neither is an easy watch, but there’s still a difference. Secondly, and enormously importantly, the show takes twice as long to reach this scene as the game. For TV viewers, it’s 30 minutes in; in the game, it’s just 15 minutes. We get to spend twice as long with the show’s Sarah, and while that certainly gives us much longer to like her (and she’s vastly more likable, too), it also makes her feel far less disposable. She’s a person we’ve gotten to know over the length of a third of a movie, rather than a little child we’ve seen speak a handful of lines, only there to quickly die.
It also helps that Pedro Pascal is a vastly better actor than Troy “McClure” Baker, allowing all the preceding moments to feel more meaningful, and the eventual death more pertinent. Baker’s Joel is a bland, emotionless nothing-man in those first 15 minutes, while Pascal’s is a witty, engaging father. A lot more is earned, and that makes a big difference.
So how about the rest, then? The remaining 50 minutes from the perspective of, a) not knowing what happens next, and b) not needing to compare every moment to how it was portrayed ten years ago. It was fine…
So here’s my problem: I feel like I’ve already seen this particular episode so many times before, from the 1970s onward. I’ve seen it in, to name a few, The Walking Dead, and Survivors, and Black Summer, and Z Nation, and The Andromeda Strain, and Day of the Triffids, and Falling Skies, and The Stand, and Jericho, and most recently, Resident Evil. And god knows how many more. Clearly, in many of those cases, it was a lot worse (hello, Jericho), but the structure remains the same: There’s an apocalypse, a really weirdly large number of humans survive it, and now everyone’s in their color-coded group. There are the people trying to create a new (always fascist) government or police force, the ragtag and widespread rebels trying to bring them down (with their graffiti symbol), and then a yet-unseen but more threatening group called The Raiders or somesuch. They all fight each other, and our hardy band of outcasts who fit in with none of them try their best to survive it all.
Of all genres, post-apocalyptic television appears so exceptionally trapped within a format, as if anything else is inconceivable. God forbid we see things from, say, the perspective of those trying to form the new ruling bodies. Colony got the closest to this, I suppose, but then couldn’t resist also becoming about the rebellion group trying to bring them down. It would be like if all science fiction had to be set on an abandoned colony ship, with three warring factions, and never, ever about anything else.
It’s probably not fair to level all this at The Last Of Us, given its requirement to be near-identical to the game, itself derivative of the genre. But ho boy, this first episode doesn’t make any moves to distinguish itself.
It’s all superbly shot and acted, no question, and it’s great seeing Pedro Pascal playing the Mandolorian but with facial expressions. (He’s just swapped a baby Yoda for a similarly petulant human child.) Anna Torv was especially good, playing Tess, a character I know nothing about, and given my experience of female characters in this fiction, worry for immediately. But the total of it felt like less than its parts. Sure, this first 80-minute episode had a lot of heavy lifting to do, a lot of worldbuilding responsibility, but when that could all have been achieved by holding up a poster for The Walking Dead and saying, “Like this, but with fungus,” I certainly wanted for more.
I don’t think it helped that I liked Sarah so much more than I like Ellie. Not knowing the game, I’ve no idea if this is deliberate, although given Game-Sarah’s two or three sentences before she’s killed for our motivational pleasure, it’s hard to imagine a player would have room for comparison. Here, Show-Sarah is so utterly likable, while nu-daughter-figure Ellie (having grown up in what I assume was abject misery) is a brat, and after an episode, I feel no emotional investment in her at all, while I certainly did for her prior counterpart.
I assume those who played the game, who spent hours with Ellie, loved her through all she likely goes through, are able to very quickly transfer all of that onto the television character. I imagine people being aghast at my uninterest in her from this episode, if they’ve done so. But I think it’s also likely worth knowing that the show doesn’t earn any of it (yet) by its own means. Her figuring out the radio code, I think, was meant to be a winsome moment, but it just portrayed her as smug. Smuggy smug-pants I call her.
I’m definitely going to keep watching, although it’s hard to give the program enormous credit for this. I’m a post-apocalyptic fiction junkie, and watched every episode of the execrable Jericho too. But this is clearly a good show, boosted by great performances, and a budget that allows fantastic money shots like that closing view of the collapsed city. What it’s not, and here I guess we have to blame the game, is an original idea, and I worry that it’s come along 50 years too late.
Correction, 1/17/23, 2:15 p.m. ET: This post previously misstated the month and year of The Last of Us’ initial release. It came out in June, 2013. The PS4 version referenced came out in July 2014. Kotaku regrets the error.