HBO’s The Last of Us adaptation works best when it apes licensed video games

The Last of Us Season 1 hasn’t even wrapped up yet and already the HBO series is being hailed as a major turning point for video game adaptations. That’s because, unlike previous game-inspired live-action productions, this post-apocalyptic drama – based on Naughty Dog’s 2013 PlayStation 3 release of the same name – has earned widespread critical acclaim. This is especially true of The Last of Us Season 1’s third episode, “Long, Long Time”, which garnered rave reviews for its depiction of the love story between two secondary characters, Bill and Frank.

A lot of this material wasn’t in the original game. It’s the invention of The Last of Us showrunner Craig Mazin, who expands upon (and, ultimately, departs outright) from Bill and Frank’s history as established by the game’s co-directors Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann. In theory, this should make Episode 3 the least satisfying of the season, however, the reverse is true – and it’s also indicative of a trend. To date, the best moments in The Last of Us series are almost exclusively those not directly adapted from the game itself.

This runs counter to how many filmmakers (and fans) think cross-media adaptations are supposed to work. After all, the more you deviate from your source material, the less likely you are to capture its essence, surely? Not necessarily. In fact, there’s an entire subset of adaptations that has found considerable success adhering to this very approach: licensed video games.

These games act as the reverse of the likes of HBO’s The Last of Us, converting a story developed for a passive medium like film or TV into an interactive experience. In most cases, this manifests itself in a very literal way; the player plays through levels modelled on scenes from the movie or TV show in question. And this approach can work (ask anyone familiar with Nintendo 64 classic GoldenEye 007), however, it typically falls flat – simply because thrilling live-action action set pieces don’t always translate to riveting gameplay.

That’s why so many of the best licensed video games over the past few decades – titles such as The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, Alien: Isolation, and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order – focus on recreating the mood and trappings of their respective franchises, not their stories. This frees up the games’ developers to devise a bespoke narrative that still feels true to the film or TV show that inspired it, while also being keyed into the strengths and weaknesses of video games as a medium. They’re working with all the creative tools at their disposal, instead of with one hand tied behind their back.

Unlike direct tie-in titles, this strain of licensed game embraces an inescapable truth: that movies and games are created and consumed in fundamentally different ways. With The Last of Us adaptation, have we finally reached the point where those in charge of video game adaptations accept this fact, too?

It’s impossible to say for certain, however, the overwhelmingly positive reaction to The Last of Us Episode 3 won’t have gone unnoticed in Hollywood. If that means even one filmmaker or studio executive decides to overhaul their in-development video game adaptation to ape the non-literal approach of “Long, Long Time”, we really could be looking at a sea change in how games make the jump to live-action. Anaemic, blow-by-blow recreations of interactive adventures – stripped of so much of their emotional oomph because we’re no longer in the proverbial driver’s seat – will be out, and bold, mythology-expanding tales tailormade for film and TV will be in.

Of course, this approach risks alienating existing fans, many of whom tune into the likes of The Last of Us to see the exploits of original video game protagonists Joel and Ellie, not those of Bill and Frank. Among their number are also purists who see any changes or additions to established continuity as unconscionable, no matter how effectively these canonical deviations play within the context of the adaptation itself. So, some bravery is required; the steadfast conviction that what you’re bolting onto the source material will win over devotees, rather than drive them away in droves.

In short, it’s a gamble, especially given how passionate gamers can be about their favourite franchises. But then, if the history of licensed video games has proven anything, it’s that fans can also be surprisingly adaptable.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

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