A Conversation about the Conversation about Videogame Adaptations
Hopefully we've heard The Last of ItPhotos courtesy of HBO Games Features The Last of Us
In case you were (somehow) unaware, there is now a The Last of Us TV show, and according to our review, it’s pretty good. HBO—a company currently being dismantled by CEO David Zaslav—put a lot of faith in Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin and Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann; $100 million worth of ads blitzed Snapchat, YouTube, and satellite channels alike, and HBO Max created a “The Last of Us Collection” weeks before the January 15 premiere. Based on the 2013 PlayStation 3 (and 2014 PlayStation 4 and 2022 PlayStation 5) game, The Last of Us follows Joel (loner daddy Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) on their journey across a mushroom infected post-apocalyptic America.
A heart-wrenching narrative about parenthood and loss grounded in realism, there seemed to be no better game to adapt than this; in fact, it was previously optioned by Screen Gems in 2014 to become a film before spending years in development hell. On the surface, there’s nothing inherently wrong or worrying about the show: it seemingly has high quality special effects, plans to thoughtfully expand the narrative, and bring one of gaming’s most beloved stories to a wide audience. It seems to share the high production values HBO is known for, and despite everything that’s happened with the Discovery merger, HBO remains the most prestigious name in TV. And yet I’m already feeling exhausted by The Last of Us. My issue lies not with the quality of the HBO show, but with the conversation surrounding it.
With each and every new TV or film adaptation of a videogame announced—I swear a new one pops up everyotherweek—industry pundits debate the possibility of success in the face of so many previous failures. Bad adaptations—such as the reviled Doom, Assassin’s Creed and Resident Evil movies—fundamentally misunderstood their intellectual property for the sake of a general audience, turning survival horror into non-stop action and historical fiction into dull melodrama, because they believed that was what the people wanted to see in a movie. In the face of seemingly endless maladaptations, fans and critics are weary and wary of any new project, pointing to the “videogame movie curse” as reason enough to not try.
Somehow, 2022’s acclaimed anime Cyberpunk: Edgerunners or box-office smash Sonic the Hedgehog 2 are viewed as the exceptions that prove the rule. Sure, adaptations can be good sometimes, but that rarely happens, so it’s better to remain bitter and skeptical until proven wrong. It’s a protectionist viewpoint, one that continues to pit gamers against creatives on the battleground of social media.
It wasn’t long before Mazin found himself at the center of one of these skrimishes. Smelling blood in the water after his interview with Empire, fans pounced. His statement spread across Twitter like wildfire: “They didn’t shoot anything out of their eyeballs. They were just people. And that, in and of itself, is remarkably rare in games.” The anger was validated; in the same interview, Mazin admitted to never experiencing strong emotions within any of the videogames he played between 1977 and The Last of Us.
With the floodgates open, fans proceeded to take more Mazin quotes out of context—this time from a lengthy New Yorker profile —complaining that his belief that digital “pixelated” violence is inherently less impactful than filmed violence diminished their experiences and feelings.
Blood was boiling, and fans were arming themselves yet again to battle the stupid producer who knew nothing of videogames and only sought to besmirch the medium while making a quick buck. And to top it all off, here’s the headline of the New Yorker profile in question: “Can a Video Game Be Prestige TV?”
Rather than engaging in this meaningless cycle of resentment and misquotes, I’d like to respond with a question of my own: Why can’t a videogame be prestige TV? Plays, novels, and films have been adapted into award-winning TV shows for decades, but they’ve also been adapted into bad ones, too. People might ask Netflix to stop making bad adaptations of YA books, but that doesn’t keep them from churning out another one by the next week. Translating stories from one medium to another is no simple task, especially when that means taking away the player agency that defines videogames as a whole.
Good games aren’t bleeps and bloops on a screen, meaningless pixels that emulate something that could be made elsewhere. They are evocative, immersive experiences that exist, like any worthwhile artform, on a spectrum of intention. Being a relatively new medium, videogames are still unfairly maligned, dismissed as toys for children or mindless entertainment rather than interactive art that aims to emotionally affect the player. Even Mazin finds himself using doublespeak on the medium, claiming many videogames are “already derivative of movies” before praising the open-world adventure of Skyrim for doing something “untranslatable.”
Nowadays, with the blockbuster success of single narrative adventures—nearly all of Sony’s first-party exclusives have a planned adaptation of some sort—the lines between videogames and films/TV shows is blurring. Advances in motion capture technology help make performances and animations more lifelike than ever, leading to an increase in scripted moments where players put down the controller and simply watch. Some developers mimic the film industry to much acclaim, such as Sony Santa Monica’s lauded use of the one shot camera technique in God of War (2018); others, like The Quarry creators Supermassive Games or Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, attempt to bring interactivity and choice into the filmic medium, albeit with much more mixed results. Just because something works well in a film, doesn’t mean it will in a videogame, and just because something works well in a videogame, doesn’t mean it will in a film.
Under the right creative direction, these properties can not only be adapted well, but also be in conversation with their source material, highlighting new facets of the experience that simply didn’t fit within the confines of the videogame medium. There should be room for multiple retellings of a narrative without resorting to reactionary shitslinging and name-calling. At the same time, there should also be an understanding that not every property needs to be adapted. Videogames shouldn’t all have to strive to be cinematic, story-driven narratives to be treated with respect; videogame films and TV shows shouldn’t all have to be prestige art to be considered worthwhile creations. If art entertains you, makes you laugh or cry or feel something, then it has absolutely justified its creation.
Good stories—ones that move you deeply and change your view of the world, ones that fill you with the warmth of entertainment on a cold night and tuck themselves away inside your heart—can come from any medium. Narrative, tone, theme, mood: these are not merely words from your AP Lit class, they are the essence of art, the immutable properties that must be retained for it to keep its identity. Mazin admits to choosing The Last of Us not because it was cinematic, grounded in realism, or ripe with mature themes, but because it was “always a story where the story comes first.” And that alone makes me excited to watch.
Mik Deitz is a freelance writer and former Paste intern. They inhale stories in videogames, films, TV and books, and have never finished God of War (2018). Yell at or compliment them on Twitter @dietdeitz.