Spoiler alert: This article contains spoilers for Episodes 1 and 2 of The Last of Us.
For any avid gamers who were skeptical about another live-action adaptation of a popular video game, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that The Last of Us on HBO is as good as it is. The new series is based on the critically acclaimed PlayStation game released by Naughty Dog back in 2013. The show has earned a 97 percent critics' approval rating and a 96 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, with many praising the show's reverence of the source material in adapting it to the small screen.
The plot points and characters thus far emulate much of the original game, with many shots almost being lovingly crafted copies of the cutscenes. However, the show has also taken many creative liberties in world-building to expand on the mythology that the game initially established.
How does the Last of Us show compare to the video game? We break down some of the biggest storytelling differences and also speak with the production designer on drawing from the game to create the show's look.
'The Last of Us': the show vs. the video game
The series follows Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal), a rugged and emotionally damaged survivor within a post-apocalytic United States ravaged by a contagious fungal infection that turns victims into mindless monsters. As a reputable black market smuggler, he is eventually tasked with escorting a young and violent teenager named Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across the country in the hopes that her immunity to the virus could translate into a vaccine.
The series is nearly identical to the narrative of the original video game. In the midst of the initial outbreak, Joel tries to escape with his injured daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) and his younger brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) only to suffer tragedy when Sarah is killed by a military soldier. Twenty years pass and Joel tries to survive in a quarantine zone in Boston after the virus decimated the country. Rebel leader Marlene (Merle Dandridge) tasks him with protecting Ellie in exchange for weapons.
However, even the initial pilot took steps to make the world of The Last of Us even bigger than the game initially laid out. For instance, Sarah's character is greatly expanded. The show depicts Sarah's day-to-day as a average girl who has a good relationship with her dad, gets distracted at school, and doesn't enjoy having to spend time with her elderly neighbors.
According to a behind-the-scenes look, series co-creator Craig Mazin specifically wanted Sarah to play a bigger role in the pilot.
"It was important for us to present the audience with a Sarah [who] we felt we could follow for the rest of the series," Craig stated. "She's almost the protagonist until disaster strikes."
Sarah's death drastically affects Joel well into the future in both the game and the show. However, that lingering trauma is presented in different ways between both mediums. In the game, Joel is initially distant from Ellie to avoid developing the same fatherly attachment he had with Sarah.
While he still has that distance from Ellie in the show, he is more visibly traumatized by Sarah's death in the present day. Toward the end of Episode 1, Joel and his partner Tess (Anna Torv) attempt to escape the quarantine zone with Ellie when they are confronted by a heavily armed guard. When the guard holds them at gunpoint and threatens to gun Ellie down, Joel's memories of Sarah's death resurface and his PTSD causes him to lunge at the guard and beat him to death.
Episode 2 features more similarities and differences between the two mediums. Scenes like Ellie's first visit to a hotel — abandoned and flooded though it may be — and Tess's sacrifice at the Boston State House still emulate moments from the game. But the show takes the mythology a step further with a cold open that explains the origins of the virus in detail, something that the game only briefly touched upon.
The production designer used concept art and in-game shots to re-create scenes from the source material.
In terms of the narrative, the show went to great lengths to include elements in the show that might not have been possible to portray in the game while still maintaining its original drama and essence. On that same note, the show also designed several elaborate sets to re-create some of the game's more iconic areas and visual elements.
Distractify sat down with production designer John Paino, who worked closely with series creator Neil Druckmann in using the game as a reference point.
"I played the game a little bit, [but] I was aware of [it] mostly through the beautiful concept art that was done for it," John revealed. "It reminded me of concept art that we would do for a film. It was very cinematic [and] had real attention to light and realism."
While he didn't have the time to complete the game, plenty of it was used as inspiration for the show's sets and filming locations.
"The show is designed to some degree, but we extrapolate from that design and we incorporate it into the physical real world," John continued. "Our job was to follow the game with the scripts, but we certainly go off game scripts quite a bit and we're developing things and really just making them. We're actually finding them and making them."
However, there was also a concerted effort to make sure that the show preserved the sense of gritty realism and visceral depth that The Last of Us is known for. To that end, John says that they used as few special effects as possible.
"Craig and Neil wanted everything to be real, so we don't have people walking through a green screen," John admits. "So we actually have to build those sets, dress those locations, so they can go through and physically interact with things."
Subsequently, special care and attention were given to finding locations all throughout Canada that could serve as realistic settings. John also mentioned the challenges that the crew faced in making things look 20 years abandoned in the midst of a post-apocalyptic Cordyceps outbreak. Essentially, John and the crew created an "alternative history" where everything stopped working, and worked hard to make sure the show looked like that.
Will the second game be included in the 'Last of Us' show?
The series has taken steps to both respect the source material and tell a unique story to some great results. But will the show be able to dip into The Last of Us Part II in its run?
The follow-up to The Last of Us was released on the PlayStation 4 in 2020. The story could easily take up some space within the show, but will the second game be included?
As far as we can tell, plans are being made to do so. Just ... not in the first season.
The Hollywood Reporter speculated in an interview with Craig and Neil Druckmann that the first season will at least cover the first game during its run. What's more, they reportedly implied that Season 2 would indeed dip into Part II, though they gave no official confirmation.
The Last of Us was already an emotional and compelling story on the PlayStation 3, and the series recognizes that significance in adapting it. But the HBO series offers so much extra nuance and world-building on top of an already stellar narrative that even longtime fans of the game can draw new experiences from the show.
New episodes of The Last of Us premiere Sundays at 9 p.m. EST on HBO.