At what point do we say “enough’s enough?”
That’s a question I find myself asking after the first full-length trailer for HBO’s The Last of Us series was released on September 26th. Quickly, people went nuts, proclaiming how great it looked and comparing it positively to the 2013 action-adventure game upon which it’s based. Me, though? I felt bored.
When the show premieres on HBO Max and Crave sometime in 2023, it will, effectively, be the fourth time this post-apocalyptic story about grizzled survivor Joel and plucky teenager Ellie is being told. Once in 2013 when the game debuted on PS3, a second time one year later on PS4, and a third earlier this month with a PS5 remake. That’s to say nothing of the fact that PS5 owners are straight-up given the PS4 remaster, easily playable via backward compatibility, through PS Plus at no additional cost. Four times in 10 years!
And don’t get me wrong, I love The Last of Us. Both the first game and its more polarizing sequel are two of my all-time favourites, and I’ve been enamoured with developer Naughty Dog’s works for most of my life. But there comes a time when seeing the same characters doing the exact same things just isn’t exciting to me, and I’m honestly confused why more people don’t feel the same.
Anecdotally, much of the conversation I’ve seen in my circle has been about how the show stacks up to the game. Even when HBO showed the first-ever footage from the show last month, people were losing their minds over beat-for-beat reenactments of key moments from the game, like Sarah’s death at the beginning or Joel and Ellie’s fight towards the end. With the most recent trailer, they’re doing the same, eagerly making side-by-side comparisons and beaming over the similarities. I even saw someone I know say that so much of the trailer looks like it was “pulled directly from the game” as if it’s some sort of crowning achievement. Many of the people I know who said things like this have played the game many times, too. I just don’t get it.
I’ve had two colleagues make the argument that this allows them to “share that experience” with friends and family who don’t play games. On some level, I suppose that’s fair, even if I do have fond memories of playing the original The Last of Us at a friend’s house and having his non-gamer mum enjoy the story passively as we went through it. But I do think you can’t truly share the experience because gaming is an inherently interactive medium. No matter how faithfully the story is recreated, narrative is just one of many elements in a game, and you lose a lot of that in a TV adaptation.
It also seems to ignore the fact that The Last of Us’ core “weary survivor protects a young child” story, while a leap forward for storytelling in gaming in 2013, was hardly novel on the whole. Only through the framework of a game was it elevated enough to feel fresh — a time-old yarn told in a unique way. It also seems to assume that the only way to capture what one loves about The Last of Us‘ story is through a near-identical retelling, as if a talented creator couldn’t find success in other approaches. And how will audiences who have seen, say, The Walking Dead or Children of Men or Logan or The Mandalorian even read The Road respond to the HBO series? Time will tell.
“…it’s when I see people say they’re crying over seeing the same shots from the game in a short live-action trailer that I get legitimately puzzled.”
But beyond that, I still see these same fans extremely excited for themselves. It’s one thing to be hyped to show The Last of Us to a mother or friend, but why are you so happy, personally, just to see all of these things that remind you of the game? You can say you’re glad to have the series for your non-gamer peeps, but your visceral reaction to 1:1 trailer shots shows how much you’re getting out of it, too. That’s what confuses me.
It’s like everyone’s only here to do the Leonardo DiCaprio Once Upon a Time in Hollywood “pointing at the screen” meme. The way the trailer carefully picks familiar beats from the game to the point of even reusing the same Hank Williams song just feels so cynical and manipulative, but people are feasting on it. Sure, some things in the show will be different, like Melanie Lynskey (Yellowjackets) playing a new rebel leader character, but on the whole, this will be the same Joel and Ellie story, yet again.
To be clear, I don’t begrudge people for being excited. We all have things that do that for us, and that’s fine! I would never tell someone they’re wrong for looking forward to something like HBO’s The Last of Us. What’s more, the show seems well-made so far (reportedly, Canada’s largest TV production ever) and the cast (especially Pedro Pascal) and co-writers Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and Neil Druckmann (The Last of Us writer/director) are certainly talented. There’s certainly no reason to expect the show will be bad.
But it’s when I see people say they’re crying over seeing the same shots from the game in a short live-action trailer that I get legitimately puzzled. I’m not ashamed to admit I balled over many moments in Final Fantasy VII Remake, especially the opening CG trailer, itself a recreation of the one from the original PlayStation game. I think crying over art, games included, is meaningful and even healthy. The difference there, though, is that FFVII Remake is a dramatic reimagining of my favourite game of all time, nearly 25 years later — not just in terms of narrative, but gameplay, visuals, music and overall design as well.
And I totally understand the appeal of the warm comfort of familiarity, and so if I ever crave that, I can simply go back to the original Final Fantasy VII on pretty much any modern platform. But with The Last of Us, I see the same people paying full price for a remake that adds nothing substantive outside of accessibility and mere weeks later raving over the prospect of seeing that all again soon in a TV show. (Note: disabled people now being able to play the game is wonderful — I’m referring to the people who have always been able to play The Last of Us.) I even had someone tell me they’d gladly experience the story “over and over” while admitting he’s already played through the remake 2.5 times. They’re not content to just replay the readily available original game or its remaster if they’re longing to revisit this story.
And so I return to the question I posed at the beginning of this rant: when do we call it a day on The Last of Us? Since we’re clearly not ever getting a Final Fantasy VII Remake-style subversive spin on Joel and Ellie’s story, at one point will you be happy to move on from these two? When people continue to be uncritically accepting of the same thing, and we’ve heard reports that PlayStation boss Jim Ryan is so risk-averse, I can’t help but lament the message this all sends. When PlayStation sees how people continue to devour all of this, where will it end? Will we get a PS5 re-re-re-release of the original The Last of Us? What about a remake of The Last of Us Part II? When the show inevitably does well, will we get a second season that also re-tells Part II? Will we get additional seasons to let Druckmann realize every scrapped game idea? Will you enthusiastically turn up for all of these other hypothetical retreads?
“If you’re excited about HBO’s The Last of Us, I don’t want to take that away from you. I wish I could be, too.”
It’s especially disappointing to me because it doesn’t feel like it has to be this way. Nostalgia obviously sells, but projects like Final Fantasy VII Remake show how you can strike a fine balance between fanservice and meaningful iteration. Even beyond that, I look at adaptations like last year’s Arcane and the recently released Cyberpunk: Edgerunners. Both were fresh and original takes on League of Legends and Cyberpunk 2077, offering plenty for fans and newcomers alike.
Rather than try to mould a particular game’s story into a TV show, these were first conceived as TV shows and made full use of the medium’s unique strengths. Even something like the surprisingly decent Sonic the Hedgehog movies mixed an original “found family” story with beats from the games. And even if PlayStation (understandably) wants to keep returning to the lucrative world of The Last of Us instead of doing something new entirely, couldn’t we at least get different characters and stories in that setting? Hell, even the seemingly neverending The Walking Dead has branched out with several spin-offs that aren’t all about the same central characters.
If you’re excited about HBO’s The Last of Us, I don’t want to take that away from you. I wish I could be, too. But after a certain point, I don’t need to keep seeing Joel and Ellie, especially when little is being done to make trips back to that world feel any different. Ironically, the “endure and survive” catchphrase from the original The Last of Us has proven rather prophetic. The same story will come at us, again and again and again, and all we can do is “endure and survive.”
Image credit: PlayStation