Before its gaggles of fungus-infected, flesh-eating berserkers burst their way onto the screen, HBO’s The Last of Us could be easily mistaken for a number of other apocalyptic zombie shows about survivors fighting for their lives. Because it holds up so well as a series, it might not be obvious to viewers unfamiliar with The Last of Us’ origins how Joel, Ellie, and the story of the cordyceps pandemic all began as parts of a blockbuster video game.
Between being so faithful to the game’s story and adding new depth to its characters, it’s no wonder that longtime fans have been quick to call HBO’s show one of the best video game adaptations of all time. But as The Last of Us co-creator Neil Druckmann and series showrunner Craig Mazin see it, one of the biggest reasons their new project works so well is because deep — though perhaps not too deep — down inside, a television show was always hiding within the game and waiting to be brought to life.
“There was a television show lurking inside the video game trying to get out.”
When I caught up with Mazin and Druckmann recently ahead of The Last of Us’ premiere this weekend, the duo were as effusive in their praise of one another as they were excited about the public finally being able to see their long-awaited baby.
Mazin, who was already a fan of The Last of Us when he first got the call about adapting it for television, said that while he was definitely keen on leaning into some of the smaller particulars he’s always loved about the series, he was immediately struck by how easily the game lent itself to translation across mediums.
“We give you a beginning and an end every week,” Mazin said. “And one of the beautiful things about The Last of Us is that Neil, naturally, even though he was creating it for gameplay, he naturally created a story that felt like there were beginnings and ends.”
Similar to the game, The Last of Us follows the pair on their cross-country journey toward a group of people hoping to create a cure for the fungal pandemic. While the show highlights how far they have to travel — often on foot and sometimes through brutal weather — it also features a handful of jumps forward to keep things feeling like they’re moving. As they first began breaking down the show’s story and mapping out the first season’s shape, Mazin said that he increasingly felt like there’d always been “a television show lurking inside that video game trying to get out” because of how episodic the game’s missions already built-in time jumps made it feel.
Though Druckmann agreed with Mazin’s assessment of the game’s missions feeling almost like serialized installments of a story, he also described the game’s structure as being intentionally less even — “a bit messier and a bit looser” by comparison. Druckmann said that for the adaptation, it was important to substitute some of that narrative imbalance for mystery meant to leave you asking questions.
“Then, as a viewer, you get to fill in the blanks like what happened in between these areas,” Druckmann said, referring to back-to-back episodes that take place months apart. “I think that’s some of the fun of cinematic storytelling, and we got to do more of that with the show — some things are subdivided even further than they were in the games, and then you get those jumps that leave you asking ‘wait, what happened between that part and that part?’”
There’s no “right” way to play The Last of Us as you’re guiding Joel and Ellie through ruined cities infested with clickers that come charging where they hear loud noises. Charging in guns blazing is one option that runs the risk of making the game more difficult. But the original The Last of Us also presents using stealth and cleverness as viable ways of surviving, and it was important to Mazin — a self-professed “stealth guy” — that the show’s action reflects a blend of different play styles while also working to help viewers better understand Joel.
“One of the interesting things about stealth in real life is that it’s hard,” Mazin said. “Hard, especially if you are a 55-year-old guy who’s lived through 20 hard years. Our Joel? His knees hurt; his back hurts. He runs with a hitch. Pedro [Pascal] invested a lot of just old pain in Joel’s body that he has to fight through.“
“One of the interesting things about stealth in real life is that it’s hard.”
Mazin and Druckmann said that rather than spotlighting stealth as a mere mechanic, they wanted the show to emphasize stealth as a means of survival because that’s the sort of mindset that Joel, Ellie, and virtually all of The Last of Us’ characters are living with. Along with the show’s overall structure, really conveying just how desperately people are fighting to stay alive are things Druckmann and Mazin both think that HBO’s The Last of Us has gotten right. And they attributed that to their team’s passion both for this specific project and the game that started it all.
“We had people travel across the world — leave other shows so they could be part of this one because they were such big fans of the game,” Druckmann said. “We had essentially an army of people wanting to do right by the game. I think that’s extremely rare and something I don’t take for granted.”