The Last of Us is coming to HBO in just a week’s time, and will be the highest profile adaptation of a video game we’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, many of those involved seem ashamed to admit it spawned from gaming in the first place.
Reviews have been stellar, and it will likely attract millions of viewers, but I wish there was less of a stigma regarding the source material. Executive producer Craig Mazin seems to think video games are still an archaic artform dictated by minute pixels and an absence of storytelling, despite the fact he has spent several years adapting one that made history by imbuing these very pixels with real human emotion and tragedy the show seeks to emulate.
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Speaking to the New Yorker in a feature titled ‘Can A Video Game Be Prestige TV?’ Mazin talks about taking a lowly piece of media like The Last of Us and elevating it to a more deserving platform, like it was always destined to be a lesser experience in dire need of refinement. This remains a common perspective, with video games apparently yet to prove themselves when stacked against films and television despite making more money and dominating large parts of the cultural zeitgeist. Triple-A blockbusters having an obsession with emulating the grandeur of television and film doesn’t help matters either, practically asking outsiders to consider our best and brightest as pale imitators of existing successes.
Why wouldn’t a network view something like The Last of Us and believe it could be made better through traditional means? Especially if their misguided and isolated view of gaming believes we’ve yet to discover fire or figure out people cry when they get sad. A quote from Mazin solidifies this, even if I think gamers are already taking some parts of it much too far instead of considering exactly where it stems from: “When you’re playing… when you die you get sent back to the checkpoint. All those people [enemies] are back, moving around in the same way". He later added that “watching a person die, I think, ought to be much different than watching pixels die.”
Mazin either hasn’t played a video game since 1997, or hasn’t played them at all, and that detachment is fuelling the fires of rage across the internet as we fear this adaptation will fundamentally misunderstand what makes The Last of Us so great. There is likely too much talent behind this thing for it to land squarely in the pits of mediocrity, but that doesn’t mean it won’t disrespect or fail to acknowledge the small touches we love so much. Spores have already been removed, and thus a handful of moments that mean so much, and who knows what else HBO will nip and tuck in service of storytelling. And while it might have the budget and star power to stand out as a flagship adaptation, it will be far from the first great one.
Hollywood has been making films and shows out of video games for decades, taking what’s popular across the interactive medium and bastardising them. There are cases where this works out for the better, or the name recognition or brand is used to create something so detached from the source material that you struggle to think about how it was spawned in the first place. You can call the Super Mario Bros. movie a cult classic all you like, but it isn’t good. It’s only in recent years the tide has truly begun to turn, and for HBO to ignore those steps forward borders on ignorance. But when the majority of examples are Uwe Boll films and an incomprehensible number of Resident Evil sequels, of course you’d come to such a conclusion. Video games are all about violence, guns, and pixels, with The Last of Us being a rare exception ready to leave its siblings behind. But I beg you, cast your net further.
In the past few years alone we’ve had Detective Pikachu, Sonic 1 & 2, Arcane, Castlevania, Cyberpunk 2077: Edgerunners, and Cuphead, and so many others I’m likely missing. Of course, stinkers like the misguided Resident Evil series remain, but more often than not, the arrival of streaming services and greater proliferation of video games into the world has allowed more knowledgeable and thoughtful adaptations to shine through, ones that often don’t seek to adapt, but instead reimagine or create entirely new stories and characters in worlds that already exist. You shouldn’t need prior knowledge to enjoy a fresh dive into a fictional world, nor additional context to indulge in a side story. Edgerunners was such a success because anyone could watch it and appreciate 2077’s universe as a beautiful dystopia with a cast of characters fully independent of the game that inspired them.
Games exist outside of films and television, but that doesn’t mean they can’t build upon and complement one another in the same way. Figuring out that simple correlation has allowed adaptations to blossom, yet The Last of Us seemingly takes all those lessons on board while simultaneously pulling us back to the very beginning. We must recreate and eclipse what came before instead of standing alongside it, and that’s a big problem. We can’t even use the excuse of an outsider’s perspective, with Neil Druckmann credited as co-creator despite bringing the game to life in the first place. One of the biggest games in the world should be cause for innovation, not continuous replication of a story that remains generic at its core.
HBO could set a new benchmark with The Last of Us, allegedly breaking the curse of bad video game adaptations despite the creative force behind it actively reinforcing that stigma in the first place. Video games have been shining bright across other mediums for years now, the loudest voices in the room just don’t know where to look or have chosen to ignore them. It discounts the achievements of shows like Arcane and Edgerunners while also putting Naughty Dog on a pedestal it no longer benefits from occupying. Yet we also play a role in perpetuating this cycle, and I fear we’ll continue to repeat the same mistakes again and again until I’m assembling the same critique when another adaptation like this comes around.