For many, the opening of The last of us was a milestone for games: a deeply human and emotional moment of sadness and tragedy, all expressed in the short 15-minute game tutorial. For others, myself included, it completely missed the mark. It felt more like a hacky faux prestige TV show than it was a groundbreaking emotional achievement. While it was certainly different from other video games at the time, the opening was still stifled by a tired idea, a violent twist, and so much obviously manipulative sentimentality that the whole thing felt wrong.
But now that the series has made the leap to real prestige TV with its new adaptation on HBO, creators Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin have jumped at the opportunity to go back to the drawing board and improve on the original opening — albeit with some keeps his problems in his new context.
[Ed. note: This story contains spoilers for The Last of Us game and the first episode of the series.]
The first last of us The game begins with a prologue that introduces the main character, Joel, on the morning the outbreak began. But the game version of this scene gives us control (for video game tutorial reasons) of Sarah, Joel’s daughter, who will ultimately die at the end of the sequence. That sort of origin story is an obvious way to open the game: Sarah’s unexpected murder has a sparkle of surprise, and the prologue finally offers a critical look at Joel’s character, explaining his specific brand of haunted, brooding survivor.
But while the scene is objectively sad, that doesn’t make it interesting. Playing as Sarah may have taught players the basics of The last of us‘ gameplay in a straightforward and stress-free environment, but it was also a casually gruesome way of adding tragedy to a story. Rather than actually developing a character, the game’s writers relied on shorthand; we have an obligation to feel compassion, for a dead child is a dead child.
What makes this sequence even worse is its sense of inevitability. Almost everyone who got into the game probably knew that it involved playing as Joel while protecting a very different young girl than his daughter. It leaves the player staring down the course of a pointless, overly planned death in a way that feels cheap rather than deserved.
This sequence is frustratingly representative of how the original game dealt with death throughout. In cutscenes and big story moments like the opening, death serves as a blunt instrument of trauma, a punch to the pit of the stomach designed to make you care about the plot and the characters. During the action gameplay, the violence of Joel’s gunfights and stealth kills is so diluted that the killing hardly means anything anymore. With all the killing in between emotional moments, things like the prologue feel so frivolous, like shooting at a nameless firefly.
Thankfully, in this and many other ways, the show sheds light on the problems with the game’s manipulative opening. Sarah (played by Nico Parker on the HBO series) takes center stage in episode 1, the hour Mazin and Druckmann flesh out their relationship with Joel. Sarah is an important part of Joel’s (Pedro Pascal) connection to the world, making sure he honors things like birthdays or meal times (or at least tries to). While she lacks dimension, the expansion of Sarah’s role in the story and her importance to Joel at least suggests that she is a meaningful person worth caring about – for Joel and for the viewer.
The bad news is that the show, in its allegiance to the game’s shortcomings, fails to go beyond these vague gestures. In the HBO series prologue, Sarah still dies in the same frustrating and unfulfilling way. A soldier is still aiming and the young girl is still dying in Joel’s arms.
It’s a moment that speaks to the larger pulses of the story — how dangerous often are those around us, or those who should be in control of the situation, and how caring for someone hurts more than anything — but without much characterization Sarah paying the price. The show remains so committed to its direct-adaptation style that even Death itself feels almost as reckless on the show as it does in the game – something the rest of the series very carefully doesn’t do. Without giving too much away, the moment-to-moment killing that Joel does has been heavily toned down and grounded his character in a way that the game and its gameplay can’t.
later in the series, The last of us proves it’s willing to take its time and give space to the game’s vague sketches of tragic sacrifices to become fully realized characters. It’s just a shame Joel’s daughter wasn’t given the same care.