Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Rae, but if you watch Bitcast, you may have heard me referred to as “sardonisms” any time Ains brought up whatever my latest question or discussion point was. My hobbies include asking bizarre questions, failing to finish video games, and reading. Lots of reading. In fact, while I am without a doubt the least seasoned gamer you’ve ever seen write for this website, in pure story I’m so seasoned that if you put me on a grill, I’d blacken, Cajun style, in under a minute. I’ve read and written stories my entire life, since long before I discovered just how intricate a story video games can tell.
It’s that immersion in stories that makes me look at the upcoming Last of Us HBO show with no small amount of skepticism and concern. Every reference to it as a “video game adaptation” makes me physically cringe. Bookworms have been down this road many a time (shout-out to comic fans who have been down it even more in recent years), and the word “adaptation” gives me no small amount of wariness. Because there’s one very simple, inescapable fact about adaptations:
When you change the medium used to tell a story, you lose something.
There’s no way around this, either. It’s automatic. Each medium that tells a story has something that no other medium has, but it also lacks something that other types of media have. Book-to-movie adaptations will never have the immediacy of the POV character’s thoughts. Novelizations of video games, even ones specifically hired to be faithful recreations, will never have the interaction of the games themselves. Comic books taken to the big screen lose some of their imagination purely in the act of moving them, gaining a solidity that strips readers’ ability to determine the voices and movements for themselves. (Plus, movies are notoriously bad at keeping people hopping on their toes all week waiting for the next “issue.” Hard to keep hopping for years.)
The end result is that even a beat for beat adaptation will never be the same experience. The trick isn’t to focus on trying to recreate the original medium. It’s to accept what you lose and to enhance the story with what you gain from the new medium. The Last Of Us, when it debuts, will lose the immediacy and interactivity of a video game. The job of the show creators is to find what they couldn’t do in the original medium and use that to tell the story.
Some things make me hopeful. That New Yorker article that went viral for Craig Mazin’s “pixels dying” faux pas started out talking about his enthrallment with the story of The Last Of Us. It mentions how he and Druckmann actively refused to let the script involve too much of Joel ducking and weaving with a close-up camera to mimic the game, which might have gotten a physical sigh of relief from me.
But then… Well, then there’s the “pixels dying” line. Then there’s the focus on “video game adaptation,” and since I was a non-gamer until about a decade ago and have been a “gamer” since, I feel confident saying that any focus on this show as a “video game adaptation” will weaken it and potentially destroy it.
The very comments about Joel ducking and weaving illustrate my hesitation perfectly. It’s something a non-gamer thinks belongs in a “video game adaptation.” It’s the creation of a mind that has never gone through the sections of a game where you duck and weave and has never watched another person do the same (watching someone play a game in the arcade while you wait for them to lose, already, so you can take a turn doesn’t count).
Video games have qualities and elements that other media don’t. But they also have a set of rules and expectations that people who don’t play them don’t know and tend to fundamentally misunderstand. Much like comics, video games are expected to have lots of action, some cheesy dialogue, and probably a bad guy at the end, unless it’s a racing game or something. That’s why the talk of this upcoming “video game adaptation” makes me uneasy. It’s bad enough that those things haven’t translated well to the screen in the past. They’re also fundamentally counter to the beauty of The Last Of Us: a story where there are no good guys, no bad guys, just people, trying their best to get through a world that none of us would want to live in. There are no super-soldiers, no magic, very little cheesy dialogue, and even characters you might kill without hesitation (I… get very protective of Ellie) are still people who you understand are just doing the best they can with the garbage hand they got dealt.
I think, and hope, that, for the most part, the showrunners get that. Because this show can be amazing if it spends less time thinking about the game from which it’s adapting and more time focusing on the show it’s adapting to, and if, instead of trying to replicate wandering monsters and half-stealth sequences, it focuses on what a video game can’t do. Games have to balance between gameplay and cutscenes; a TV show is continuous storytelling. There’s suspense to be found in being able to cut away from the action and zoom in on the emotion without the combat ending. There’s power in being able to draw out a scene without it taking away from the primary (gameplay) experience. There’s entertainment in being able to interrupt a scene that would be gameplay to have a silly misstep or gag without depending on the player to mess up, or annoying them because they didn’t.
But there’s absolutely no suspense, or power, or entertainment, in turning The Last Of Us into an amateur war movie with scenes of Joel ducking and weaving. And there’s no surer way to destroy what should be a pretty amazing show than to try to impose what a video game is or “should be” onto a TV show that will never be either.