The first episode of The Last of Us was a strange viewing experience for someone who knows the game so well. It was fiercely loyal in places, right down to Sarah saying she sells hardcore drugs and even mimicking specific shots. There were also some changes, both in terms of the characters – Joel is more developed as a single father and former marine, Riley is name-dropped, Tess is in a relationship with Joel, Sarah lacks her adorable drawl – and the structure. We see far more of Sarah before her death (a great decision that establishes her thematic importance), a flashback that explains the virus (as my colleague Eric Switzer argues, a less sensible decision), and there are a handful of other changes necessitated by the change in medium. But it feels like we're all just waiting for one specific Easter Egg.
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The first episode was also interesting for its length. It's 82 minutes long, and the point at which it ends is less than 82 minutes into the original game. The whole series is approximately ten hours, while the game itself is around 15, so that's five hours to shave off. Add to that Riley's presence, meaning an extra three hours for that, and the fact episode three apparently expands on Bill's story, and you're looking at having to halve the game to make it all fit. Trimming the bulk of that is cutting elongated sections of gameplay, as well the fact the TV show won't repeat the same goddamn Bloater section over and over because Joel keeps dying, nor will it display the pause menu for a solid 15 minutes while you make a cup of tea to calm down. Joel is playing on Grounded – one death and he's kaput. Plus, think of the time we'll save not having to crouch behind rubble to craft more equipment! I already miss the show’s distinct lack of crab-walking.
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However, the further we get into the show, the more of the game is going to be truncated or, more likely, cut altogether. Fighting swarm after swarm of zombie or human enemy gives the game a good cadence, but they're not all needed narratively. It's the thematically important ones, like when Joel asks Ellie to keep lookout with the rifle, or the major set pieces, like the aforementioned Bloater, that will survive the transition to television. The problem is the gameplay is too ingrained, and I wonder if this will start to disrupt the story.
The first episode had some subtle and rewarding Easter Eggs. As an adaptation of one of the most popular video games of all time, there was always going to be some fan service, and I have decided to lean into it. We see Sarah and Joel watch Curtis and Viper 2, which is the perfect way to celebrate the game. This is taken from a conversation between Ellie and Dina in TLOU2, but even without that knowledge, the scene has heart because it shows Joel and Sarah bonding as father and daughter. But future ones may be more obvious.
Crafting cannot be done in the same slow, repetitive way as the game, but undoubtedly Joel will make something from scissors and tape at some point, with one of the central duo commenting on it. Ellie's inability to swim is not only a minor obstacle, but a major irritant in the game, and it too will get a mention – although here there is narrative value, as TLOU2 sees Joel teaching her how to swim, resulting in the magnificent museum chapter. Then there's the wood and the ladders.
Oh, the wood and the ladders. These two items underline, more than anything else, that The Last of Us is a video game. Throughout your adventure, Joel and Ellie will be seemingly trapped in a place. But fear not! Hark, a conveniently placed ladder! Whenever you get stuck, there is always a ladder to get up high, or a plank of wood to traverse gaps – you just have to find it. Like combat sections, these give the gameplay a cadence and, while they could be frustrating, they were necessary to ensure players had something to do while travelling and learning more of the story. However, they aren't needed in a TV show. A plank once, to show Ellie in a precarious position? Maybe, but even then it feels like a distracting nod rather than the best way to tell the story.
The Last of Us has opened strong and many of its more powerful plot beats are still to come, not to mention Ellie starts out very guarded and grows into a central player as the story goes on. There are a lot of reasons to think the show will only grow from here, but I hope it isn't sidetracked by constantly referencing the video game. It doesn't need ladders to be faithful.