Even HBO’s The Last of Us can’t fully master the video game adaptation

By Carli Velocci DT in English:

Chances are high that your favorite video game will be made into a movie or TV show.

Thanks in large part to the efforts of PlayStation Productions and the success of films like sonic the hedgehog and TV shows like Arcane, there will only be more adaptations of your favorite video games. We have reached a sort of apex with The Last of Us on HBO, a prestige television version of one of the most famous titles in gaming. It’s got legit stars, a big budget, the showrunner of Chernobyl at the helm, and it’s raking in viewers. Only three episodes have aired at the time of this writing, but it’s already poised for success, both in terms of viewership and critical acclaim.

It’s great for gaming’s reputation as a medium that audiences with no prior knowledge can enjoy one of our most popular games in a way that, so far, generally does a good job of translating its narrative into a small-screen episodic format. . It shows people who haven’t played a single video game that they can tell great stories. For everyone else, the adaptations are still struggling to avoid what makes video games such a compelling storytelling medium: storytelling bolstered by interactivity.

Fight for the power

Ahead of The Last of Us premiere, showrunner Craig Mazin and co-director of The Last of UsNeil Druckmann, made the rounds in the mainstream media touting how it is the “greatest story ever told” in video games and that it will finally break the curse of video game adaptation despite of that has not been the case for about a decade. Much of the focus has been on the narrative, which makes sense because the foundation of the show is built on exact story beats from the game with the promise that it will expand throughout the rest of the season.

In both the video game and the show, The Last of Us it starts with chaos. They put us in the perspective of Sarah, a teenager from Texas who, with her father Joel and her Uncle Tommy, tries to escape what is known as Outbreak Day. The mysterious infection had been building for a while, causing people to act aggressively, and Outbreak Day is when it all boils over. Sarah sees rows of police cars with their sirens blaring and people running around screaming. She gets in the car with Joel and Tommy, and from the back seat of her, we see things escalate, culminating in a literally explosive set piece where several planes fall from the sky.

Bella Ramsey sits across from Anna Torv in The Last of Us.
Liane Hentscher/HBO

In the game, having the player sit in Sarah’s seat instead of Joel’s is one way to immediately take control away from the player. Games are all about control, what you have influence over, what you don’t, and what that means, and taking a literal backseat when the world falls apart conveys how dire the situation outside is. Even when you finally get some control later in the game, you can’t drastically change your situation. The problem is too big and overwhelming for one person to handle. Even if you can break through an infected horde, you haven’t destroyed the epidemic. There will be more threats in the future.

Games are especially effective at conveying this type of terror. Since the player has some semblance of power over the experience, developers can remove interactivity or increase it to elicit different emotional responses. Where The Last of Us games always shone was in producing a somber atmosphere to hang over the story, and it does so by taking agency away from the player during pivotal moments. This opening scene is a great example, so it’s not surprising that the HBO team did a shot-for-shot remake for the adaptation’s pilot episode.

However, what even the best video game adaptations miss, whether due to limitations or ignorance of the medium, is how power dynamics go hand in hand with a game’s narrative. Storytelling in games isn’t just about dialogue or narration. It takes interactive elements into account to tell that story, to get a point across to the player about the world they’ll inhabit for probably dozens of hours. The Last of Us You can copy scenes from the game, but that doesn’t mean that your resonance fully translates.

interactivity solution

The challenge of a great video game adaptation is finding a way to fill in the gaps that appear when you remove the interactive element. That’s a tricky balancing act, as it means directors must find a way to appeal to unfamiliar audiences while paying proper homage to the source material. Incorporating the “playful” aspects of video games is difficult to do, but some adaptations have been able to do it well.

detective pikachu is the gold standard for this. He understands that most people in the audience know how the Pokemon games work and integrate it, whether it’s visual background gags or major plot points regarding Tim not having a partner Pokemon. The Sonic the Hedgehog movies integrate the central element of its gameplay, that the hedgehog runs fast, while also making use of its long-running plot and colorful cast of characters. Sonic has never been about the story of him, but the beats are so set that you can do whatever you want as long as you stick to the basics.

Detective Pikachu in the movie

In the meantime, Arcane goes in the opposite direction and removes almost any reference to the game from League of Legends. Considering the game is almost all gameplay and little narrative minus what you get from character backstories, this was the right move. Viewers still have the joy of seeing familiar faces in an original story. The creators understood that it would be difficult to adapt League of Legends on its own and instead played with other stories it could tell in-universe.

Another way that adaptations have tried to pay homage to the source material is by honing the visual influence with varying degrees of success. The TV show Halo he filmed parts of his Spartan battles from a first-person point of view in an attempt to replicate gameplay (creating some of the only entertaining aspects of the show’s first season). Halo it has a lot of issues stemming from how it crafted its own narrative away from games, and it did poorly with a chosen generic storyline and rifle-in-your-face subtlety, but it also doesn’t understand what made games so beloved in the first place. Halo could never have been a faithful adaptation because it shines in its gameplay, not its narrative or visuals. The show’s team was unable to successfully figure out how to fix that problem in its first season.

In a way, it’s an impossible task for studios and streaming services to replicate. Movies and television are static media that work to capture the imagination and hold its focus, and video games are not. However, adaptation teams can do better to recognize what makes games unique and why they are worth adapting for other audiences. While the mainstream media is starting to catch up with what gamers have known for decades, it’s not enough right now in 2023. We’re still getting adaptations that miss the point.

The medium is capable of combining interactivity, traditional storytelling, gameplay, design, production, art, and everything in between to create a singular work of art that can captivate millions of gamers. And it can go further and expand to other media, if only others understood this.

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