It's game over for the so-called video game curse, as Sky Atlantic's The Last Of Us — launching on 16 January — is a masterpiece, like its source material.
When PlayStation developer Naughty Dog released The Last of Us back in 2013, it seemed like an impassioned riposte to Roger Ebert’s claim that video games “can never be art”.
Visually stunning and maturely written, it was a compelling, character-driven epic that elevated storytelling to heights rarely seen in the gaming medium, even if the story itself — Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with added zombies — wasn’t entirely unique. The Last of Us is usually cited when debating whether games can be just as good as films and shows, so when HBO first announced that they would be adapting it for TV, the anticipation (and expectations) reached a fever pitch.
Set in a post-apocalyptic America, The Last of Us follows Joel Miller (Pedro Pascal), a smuggler & black market dealer tasked with escorting 14-year old Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across the States. 20 years prior, a worldwide epidemic caused by a mutated fungus obliterated human civilisation.
Watch a trailer for The Last Of Us
Zombie-like creatures labelled the “Infected” roam the Earth, while remnants of the population try to survive in oppressive militarised quarantine zones. Those two decades have hardened Joel. He's become desensitised by his surroundings after suffering a terrible loss on the night of the outbreak.
At first, Joel is reluctant to embrace his travelling companion and sees her as nothing more than “special cargo”. In turn, Ellie is apprehensive of this grouch who’s supposed to be her protector throughout their journey.
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Over time, their arduous road trip across a bandit and beast riddled country forges a strong bond between the pair. Despite Joel’s jaded scepticism, he grows fonder of Ellie’s innocent enthusiasm and her determination to see their mission out. Their travails from one dangerous situation to the next only strengthens their collective resolve, and you can’t help but be fully immersed into their burgeoning relationship.
Already familiar with each other due to their work on Game of Thrones, Pascal and Ramsey have an undeniable chemistry that serves as The Last of Us’ emotional core. Given what Joel’s been through, Pascal plays him with a bitter sadness that emanates through your screen.
It’s devastatingly clear that he’s been struggling to contain the sorrow that’s consumed him for years. On the other hand, Ramsey has a ball as the brash Ellie, who begins her adventure as a precocious teenager still getting to grips with the outside world.
Over time, we see her slowly realise the horrors around them, with one particular incident (in the season’s terrific penultimate episode) scarring her worldview and forcing her to grow up faster than she had ever hoped. Enhanced by two-time Oscar-winner (and original game composer) Gustavo Santaolalla’s stirring score, it’s hard not to feel moved whenever they share a tender moment.
The Last of Us’ central plot was already good enough to be an HBO series, but it helps that Chernobyl showrunner Craig Mazin has experience navigating through tragedy and the toll it has on the human psyche.
Alongside the game’s creator Neil Druckmann, they manage to succeed where so many adaptations failed: by expanding on its source material while remaining faithful to it. From the jump, we get an insight into how a city’s populace is affected by breaking news of a potential plague, and the backstories of some memorable side characters are further fleshed out — with an early episode sure to subvert any expectations you may have of the show.
Though the visceral violence synonymous with the game is dialled down here, devoted fans will still appreciate the similarities between the two iterations in dialogue, tone, and dramatic focus.
That radical deviation is a stark reminder that The Last of Us was never about the monsters that took over the world, but how people would be affected by such a cataclysmic event. It’s a heart-rending tale that zooms in on grief and how it pushes people to do terrible things in dire circumstances. By the season finale, it becomes painfully apparent that grey morality is the predominant ethos of this unforgiving universe, and you’re left to ponder whether you’d make the same decisions as our tragic heroes.
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For the longest time, attempts to alchemise games for the big and small screen have resulted in a slew of mediocre offerings. Aside from Detective Pikachu and the Sonic the Hedgehog films, live-action adaptations from Street Fighter to Resident Evil have been met with mockery and derision.
However, The Last of Us’ complex, emotionally-wrenching story was always ideal for a season of television. Cynical fans and critics with a deep love of the game’s lore won’t be disappointed, and what was once a groundbreaking PlayStation game could very well become HBO’s next huge hit.
The Last of Us will be available from 16 January on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW with an Entertainment Membership for just £9.99.
Watch a trailer.