HBO’s The Last of Us: Designed for the Average Viewer but an Absolute Pleasure for Fans of the Game



Ellie and Joel from the video game The Last of Us as seen in poster art of the game. Their counterparts in the HBOMax show are played by Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey

“Mankind has been at war with the virus from the start. Sometimes, millions of people die. … But in the end, we always win. [However] there are some fungi who seek not to kill… but  to control. True, fungi cannot survive if its host’s internal temperature is over 94 degrees. And currently, there are no reasons for fungi to evolve…. But what if that were to change? …  There are no treatments for this. No preventatives, no cures. They don’t exist. It’s not even possible to make them. So if that happens? We lose.”  – Dr. Schoenheiss, from The Last of Us, speaking at a press conference from before the fictional pandemic.

The Last of Us takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting, 20 years in the future where a fungal disease has turned most of the world into zombies and people are left to deal with the fallout. The protagonist, Joel, is a Desert Storm vet who lived in Texas with his daughter Sarah before the outbreak. After surviving for 20 years after the outbreak that began in 2003, Joel meets Tess, a smuggler, and a young girl named Ellie.

The show is based off of the 2013 PlayStation game The Last of Us, where there’s a 20 year time skip to 2033. In this zombie-thriller-survival-resource-management game, we follow the main characters on their journey in the apocalypse.

The question of whether or not an HBO Max series is a good show is a complicated one. Yes, it is a great show, however, the faithfulness to the game is questionable in some areas and a couple of the characters are not well represented. As a result, the show feels just a little off for someone who has played the game and was watching for a game-accurate adaptation of the source material.

The show, while based on the game, takes creative liberty in its approach to tackling the themes first introduced in the game. For example, one of the first missions in the game is to find Bill in his town which in the game takes a couple of hours, revealing what life is like outside of the ruined cities. This gameplay period gives the viewer time to understand the world being built and will set the precedent for the horrors of the zombie infestation.

However, in the HBO series, many of the game storylines are skipped or altered to fit the show’s format. For example, in the game, Bill and Frank’s character arc is a minor detail that doesn’t take up more than a short dialogue scene.  However, in the HBO series, their dynamic takes up an entire standalone “breather” episode. This couple’s backstory is completely unique to the show, and, while it makes for a wonderful episode, it was completely out of creative left field in terms of content. Overall, however, these snippets of unique details, while different from the game, do not particularly stray from the source material. The same story beats are hit and the characters still experience the same outcomes to events that happen in the game.

In an attempt to create a hit show, this was probably the right thing to do. A viewer unfamiliar with the source material would be discouraged from viewing if they had a bunch of background information shoved down their throats. Instead, the show focuses on the emotions that the characters experience, which leads to a more empathetic feeling from the audience. The viewing experience replicates playing the game because of the filming techniques used. For example, a major gameplay loop is feeling like you are not meant to win, constantly being low on resources, dying in one shot from many of the enemies, and sneaking around for 20 min to get through an area. The show brings this in-game reality to life with many scenes taking place in silence as the characters make their way about as quietly as they can.

Amazing actors like Pedro Pascal (famously from The Mandalorian on Disney+) as the main character Joel and Nick Offerman (Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation) as Bill, as well as lesser known actors like Bella Ramsey (from Game of Thrones) as Ellie, bring the game’s characters to life. Ramsey portrays what it’s like to have been a child who grew up outside of the bounds of normal parenting by delivering every curse word as though it was her native tongue. The viewer gets a true sense of the differences between a person who lived prior to the outbreak versus after it started.

If you’ve played the game, enjoy thrillers, like Pedro Pascal, or like emotional and grounding viewing experiences, I highly recommend The Last of Us, now streaming on HBO Max.