This past Sunday, The Last of Us aired its season finale. The HBO hit outperformed the network's latest show of a similar scale, House of the Dragon.
But like that Game of Thrones spin-off, The Last of Us also derives its storytelling from another medium — no, not a series of best-selling books, but a groundbreaking video game.
"It's like a family reunion I haven't heard for years. And now it's this worldwide phenomenon," says show executive producer Neil Druckmann. "I mean, the game was incredibly successful. But now it's on another level where I can't avoid it. It's everywhere. It's on commercials on TV, it's people talking about on the street"
Druckmann co-created the 2013 PlayStation game at studio Naughty Dog, and helped bring it to HBO with showrunner Craig Mazin (Chernobyl). Their job was made easier by having celebrated source material to work with.
The promise of video game storytelling
"Some of the greatest storytelling has been in video gaming" says Merle Dandridge, who played the resistance leader Marlene in both the game and the TV show.
Dandridge was among several actors from the original cast that took part in the TV rendition. She's had a long and storied career in video games, with roles that include the iconic Alyx Vance in 2004's Half Life 2. "Not only is [Alyx] a badass, not only is she smart, but she's also cool as hell — somebody I want to hang out with. Back in those days, I didn't know a ton about video game characters, but to have a Black and Asian character represented in the game world, I was like, they see me and they want to put that on the screen. They're interested in broadening the perspective of what is possible in games."
Half Life 2 came after a wave of more story-driven shooting titles that later informed The Last of Us, which also broke ground for representation in its nuanced portrayals of those in the LGBTQ community, as it features several gay love stories. But it took a long time for such cinematic narrative achievements to come to fruition.
Game acting grows up
When video games went mainstream in the 1980s and 90s, controllers only had so many buttons, and software could only carry so much data. That limited not only graphics, but also high-quality audio, let alone professional voice-over.
But as technology advanced and the game industry burgeoned, Hollywood sensed an opportunity. By the early 2000s, it had cashed in on movies based on Super Mario Bros, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Tomb Raider, which sometimes drew large audiences — but failed to capture critical acclaim.
Even as live action adaptations fell short, games themselves became more lifelike. Borrowing technology used in TV and film, digital impressions of real actors performing serious material became more and more common.
"Throughout the history of gaming, there have been wonderful performers," says Troy Baker, a voice actor veteran with over 300 credits, who played main character Joel in The Last of Us series. "I think that the writing has gotten better, and it's not just that we're getting these big Hollywood writers to come in and tell these great stories. It's at the understanding that the story and the game must sync up."
The Last of Us didn't just feature voices from the best in the business: actors also dressed up in high-tech motion capture suits and acted alongside each other.
"I found that on a motion capture stage, and even in a voice booth, that the joy of acting, and the immersive sense of it, could exist very fully in that world of imagination" says Jeffrey Pierce. He played Joel's brother Tommy in the original game, and then joined the show as Perry, a new role devised just for him.
"It's just like being a kid, that everything is in your imagination that they built this entire set out of boxes, and you have a toy gun or something and like you are absolutely in a state of play. Because everyone's in these ridiculous outfits, you just forget about it, and you just focus on the work."
From PlayStation to HBO
Neil Druckmann has said time and time again that the actors surprised him and changed how the characters were written. Over time, these characters ended up in other media, from a comic book, to a live theatrical performance! Now, it's succeeded as a TV adaptation, carried on by different actors.
"I'm hearing Pedro [Pascal] say lines that Troy improvised, and it's just kind of intermixed in [Joel]'s DNA," says Druckmann. "I find this really beautiful that it's like a mixture of Troy, a mixture of Pedro, a mixture of all this stuff that was built at Naughty Dog and rebuilt by this whole new crew, and an amazing cast under the HBO umbrella."
The show also expanded on the original game. In the final episode, we see Ellie's mother — now played by Ashley Johnson, the first actor to portray Ellie. Her performance deepens our knowledge of the setting, along with flashbacks across the world amid the zombie outbreak — scenes that are completely original to the adaptation.
The Last of Us on HBO wrapped up much like the first video game, leaving us to consider the morally questionable actions taken by the characters who manage to survive in their violent and virulent world.
As Druckmann puts it, "We're telling a story about love and loss, which is something that every single person that has lived long enough has experienced."
Hollywood finally seems able to do justice to such video games stories. The popularity of Netflix's Cyberpunk Edgerunners, and Arcane: League of Legends and, alongside The Last of Us, prove that game adaptations have widespread appeal.