"The quality of the writing—particularly of the relationship between Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey)—made what could have been a run-of-the-mill shooter stand out." Image: HBO/Warner Media

The first of us

HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ realises that there’s narrative potential in video games—although it can, and does, do things differently
February 27, 2023

They finally made a good TV show out of a video game. It took many gruelling attempts in both television and film, ranging from bad (Halo) to extremely bad (Assassin’s Creed), but you can understand why they kept on trying: video games are a big-money business and being able to syphon off some of the interest from an existing fan base is catnip to producers.

And it has led us, now, to HBO’s The Last of Us, based on the 2013 video game of the same name. A great TV show and also, for many people, a conundrum. Which, they ask, is better: the TV show or the game? And therefore: which medium is better? 

I reckon these are wrong-headed questions. The mistake so many video game adaptors seem to have made in the past is their choice of games: bombastic, action-driven, full of set-pieces. Sure, these adaptations might end up looking good, but they’re not going to have any kind of emotional resonance, because the games behind them didn’t have that either.

In fact, it used to be thought, by some, that video game narratives didn’t need to cohere in the same way as literature or television because they were merely a vehicle for gameplay: something simply to distract the player from the truth that all they were really doing was clicking buttons and scoring points.

Until recently, that is. The Last of Us works as a television show because the game was among the first to take narrative seriously. It depicts a world some 20 years after the rapid emergence of a highly contagious and incurable fungal infection that zombifies human beings, a pandemic that brings the world to an immediate and grisly halt. We follow Joel (Pedro Pascal), a man hardened by the death of his daughter in the chaos of the outbreak, as he escorts Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a young girl who appears to be immune to infection, to a clinic where doctors want to examine her in the hope of finding a cure. 

It’s a familiar framework: a journey to undertake; some classic zombie perils to overcome; and a post-apocalyptic landscape of burnt-out cars and overgrown highways to traverse. But the quality of the writing, particularly of the relationship between Joel and Ellie, made what could have been a run-of-the-mill shooter stand out. Narrative felt like a focus, rather than an afterthought. 

That said—even with games such as Red Dead Redemption 2 and Disco Elysium following The Last of Us—video gaming’s narrative potential is still struggling to emerge from its infancy. There are a number of reasons for this: among them that attention to narrative experimentation has played second fiddle to development in graphics. There will always be a large number of consumers who want to see the whites of the eyes in increased definition when shooting somebody in the head in Call of Duty, rather than learn about the childhood trauma of the character holding the gun.

Besides, video games are becoming so broad a genre that it’s sort of facile even to refer to “video games” so sweepingly. Recently, a friend and I spent an evening playing What Remains of Edith Finch. By which I mean, I clicked the odd button while we read and watched a story that was so moving that we were both in tears by the end. This experience shares almost nothing with hammering through several rounds of Tekken—which we would also have had a great time doing, but a pretty dissimilar one. 

Sometimes people ask why someone interested in narrative would write a video game instead of a TV show, a book or a film (disclaimer: as it happens, I’ve written both a game and a book and so feel somewhat qualified to field this question). There’s an answer, I’d say, in the two versions of The Last of Us—and not because of their similarities.

The TV show allows for less close focus on the two protagonists and therefore a richer view of the world. Look at the third episode, for instance, which takes two minor characters from the video game, Bill and Frank, and develops their story in ways that the fundamentally linear form of the game could not have accommodated. The video game, meanwhile, allows the player to feel a sense of achievement in moving through the narrative that reflects, to some extent, what the characters are feeling.

One medium is not, to my mind, a better way to tell a story than the other. They’re just different.