HBO’s “The Last of Us” is better than the game

Reading Time: 2 minutes In 2013, “The Last of Us” was touted as one of the greatest stories in gaming history. In 2023, HBO’s television adaptation improves upon its predecessor.

Reading Time: 2 minutes

The Last of Us,” HBO’s newest, critically acclaimed television show, debuted on Jan. 15 of this year. Three days later, my article “‘The Last of Us’ is a perfect adaptation” sang the premiere’s praises for all the wrong reasons.

The previous article celebrated “The Last of Us” and its first episode for its general rigidity and adherence to the source material, the 2013 video game of the same name. I naively hoped that “future installments of the show [would] share the pilot’s philosophy regarding adaptation and showrunning.” The following eight episodes of “The Last of Us” departed from the pilot’s philosophy to fantastic effect, crafting a narrative that was not as good as the game’s — but better.

Episode three, arguably the most compelling and self-contained episode of the season, was lambasted with negative fan reviews on account of its positive portrayal of two gay men throughout. This episode is a marked departure from the game wherein the characters in question were only referenced as being gay very briefly, and the loving relationship portrayed on the show was never seen. Gay and queer stories have been historically neglected in favor of heterosexual stories in film and television; ”The Last of Us” delivers perhaps the most well-crafted gay story ever committed to television, and it departed heavily from the source material to tell it.

It was always short-sighted to assume that a video game could be faithfully adapted to television without major alterations. A game is meant to be played and explored, to be lived in, to deliver a sense of agency to the player. These aspects of the gaming medium necessitate a certain level of action and gameplay. “The Last of Us” would be an incredibly short and unsatisfying game if it was void of action sequences in which the player shoots up rooms of infected or raiders. Television is a drastically different medium to gaming, one that doesn’t require gameplay or gratuitous, repetitive violence.

Significantly, Neil Druckmann, creator of the game, played a massive role in the show’s creation alongside writer and creator Craig Mazin. In the decade since “The Last of Us” was released for the Playstation 3, Druckmann accumulated feedback and criticism of the game; he recognized the faults of the initial narrative and the limitations of video games as a storytelling medium. In this sense, HBO’s “The Last of Us” is not a true adaptation at all. It’s Druckmann’s second draft.

The show’s pilot was fantastic. It told a familiar story beat-for-beat, and many fans were happy. As the show progressed to become less and less familiar, it quickly became clear that no narrative is sacred, that no story is above improvement.