It’s not possible to play every game. Over 25 years of games criticism, I’ve played a frightening number, although there will always be big-name gaps. But when it comes to The Last of Us, it was a very deliberate choice on my part.
The first version of the ever-remade game came out in July 2014, at a point when my wife was six months pregnant with a son we’d gone through years of struggles to conceive. I was excited to play the game, being a fan of both zombie fiction and shooters, so I checked it out. It didn’t start well. 2014 was a pretty miserable time for game openings, the absolute peak of a pathological need for games to endlessly take away controls from players, and it didn’t win my love with this. Pretending you were given control, but just puppeteering you to the next cutscene. But then, it pulled its bait-and-switch.
Everyone knew it was a game about a dad and a girl trying to survive a zombie apocalypse, and the game starts off with a dad and his daughter, letting you feel safe, and…well you likely know the next bit. I found the narrative decision to be not just crass, but actively spiteful. We spend almost no time finding out who Sarah is, but for a couple of sassy one-liners (straight from the Joss Whedon school of character establishment), only to have us watch her bleed to death in order to establish her father’s emotional motivations. It felt lazily manipulative, trying to earn all its emotional resonance with the most egregious case of fridging a character. With my own kid just a handful of months away, I had a bigger reaction than I likely otherwise would, and just walked away. Nah, nope, no thanks.
I never really forgave it, and I still think I’m right about it. Fridging is hardly rare in the broad spectrum of media (hell, I just watched X-Men: Apocalypse for the first time last night, and wow is it guilty of the same), but creating a character who has no narrative purpose other than to die always sticks deep in my craw. In The Last of Us, it was so significantly worse, because of the ugly decision to have you play as Sarah. You move her around the house, and then see the ensuing chaos from her perspective. We’re in the back of the car with her as the game drives us through the manic streets, ensuring this is exclusively delivered to us through the child’s eyes. Following that, she’s then rendered helpless, and we’re carrying her as Joel. And then, of course, she’s brutally killed. It’s gross.
So that’s all I knew of the game before watching the first episode of the HBO show. It’s telling how differently it’s all handled.
Firstly, Sarah is significantly older. In the game, she’s a pre-teen, a child. In the show, she’s played by an 18-year-old, and clearly pitched in her mid-teens. Neither is great, neither is an easy watch, but there’s still a difference. Secondly, and enormously importantly, the show takes twice as long to reach this scene as the game. For TV viewers, it’s 30 minutes in; in the game, it’s just 15 minutes. We get to spend twice as long with the show’s Sarah, and while that certainly gives us much longer to like her (and she’s vastly more likable, too), it also makes her feel far less disposable. She’s a person we’ve gotten to know over the length of a third of a movie, rather than a little child we’ve seen speak a handful of lines, only there to quickly die.
It also helps that Pedro Pascal is a vastly better actor than Troy “McClure” Baker, allowing all the preceding moments to feel more meaningful, and the eventual death more pertinent. Baker’s Joel is a bland, emotionless nothing-man in those first 15 minutes, while Pascal’s is a witty, engaging father. A lot more is earned, and that makes a big difference.
So how about the rest, then? The remaining 50 minutes from the perspective of, a) not knowing what happens next, and b) not needing to compare every moment to how it was portrayed ten years ago. It was fine…
So here’s my problem: I feel like I’ve already seen this particular episode so many times before, from the 1970s onward. I’ve seen it in, to name a few, The Walking Dead, and Survivors, and Black Summer, and Z Nation, and The Andromeda Strain, and Day of the Triffids, and Falling Skies, and The Stand, and Jericho, and most recently, Resident Evil. And god knows how many more. Clearly, in many of those cases, it was a lot worse (hello, Jericho), but the structure remains the same: There’s an apocalypse, a really weirdly large number of humans survive it, and now everyone’s in their color-coded group. There are the people trying to create a new (always fascist) government or police force, the ragtag and widespread rebels trying to bring them down (with their graffiti symbol), and then a yet-unseen but more threatening group called The Raiders or somesuch. They all fight each other, and our hardy band of outcasts who fit in with none of them try their best to survive it all.
Of all genres, post-apocalyptic television appears so exceptionally trapped within a format, as if anything else is inconceivable. God forbid we see things from, say, the perspective of those trying to form the new ruling bodies. Colony got the closest to this, I suppose, but then couldn’t resist also becoming about the rebellion group trying to bring them down. It would be like if all science fiction had to be set on an abandoned colony ship, with three warring factions, and never, ever about anything else.
It’s probably not fair to level all this at The Last Of Us, given its requirement to be near-identical to the game, itself derivative of the genre. But ho boy, this first episode doesn’t make any moves to distinguish itself.
It’s all superbly shot and acted, no question, and it’s great seeing Pedro Pascal playing the Mandolorian but with facial expressions. (He’s just swapped a baby Yoda for a similarly petulant human child.) Anna Torv was especially good, playing Tess, a character I know nothing about, and given my experience of female characters in this fiction, worry for immediately. But the total of it felt like less than its parts. Sure, this first 80-minute episode had a lot of heavy lifting to do, a lot of worldbuilding responsibility, but when that could all have been achieved by holding up a poster for The Walking Dead and saying, “Like this, but with fungus,” I certainly wanted for more.
I don’t think it helped that I liked Sarah so much more than I like Ellie. Not knowing the game, I’ve no idea if this is deliberate, although given Game-Sarah’s two or three sentences before she’s killed for our motivational pleasure, it’s hard to imagine a player would have room for comparison. Here, Show-Sarah is so utterly likable, while nu-daughter-figure Ellie (having grown up in what I assume was abject misery) is a brat, and after an episode, I feel no emotional investment in her at all, while I certainly did for her prior counterpart.
I assume those who played the game, who spent hours with Ellie, loved her through all she likely goes through, are able to very quickly transfer all of that onto the television character. I imagine people being aghast at my uninterest in her from this episode, if they’ve done so. But I think it’s also likely worth knowing that the show doesn’t earn any of it (yet) by its own means. Her figuring out the radio code, I think, was meant to be a winsome moment, but it just portrayed her as smug. Smuggy smug-pants I call her.
I’m definitely going to keep watching, although it’s hard to give the program enormous credit for this. I’m a post-apocalyptic fiction junkie, and watched every episode of the execrable Jericho too. But this is clearly a good show, boosted by great performances, and a budget that allows fantastic money shots like that closing view of the collapsed city. What it’s not, and here I guess we have to blame the game, is an original idea, and I worry that it’s come along 50 years too late.