The Last Of Us Didn’t Break The Video Game Adaptation Curse, Because There Never Was One

Posted on January 20, 2023

Welcome to the difficult second album for PRESS START, the weekly video game newsletter from me, probablyoliver. This week, we discuss the ‘curse’ of video game adaptations in the light of HBO’s The Last Of Us, and how actually, maybe video games were to blame all along. Also this week, we ask what’s better, God of War Ragnarök or Elden Ring, Square Enix releases its latest Dragon’em-up and Beyond Good & Evil 2 is still coming…honest.

This post contains spoilers for The Last Of Us, both the first episode of the new HBO show and the game itself. It also contains spoilers for the seminal 2005 movie adaptation of DOOM starring The Rock. You have been warned.

I cried during the premiere episode of HBO’s The Last Of Us, not because of what happened, but rather because I knew it was coming. The opening thirty minutes of Craig Mazin’s incredibly faithful adaptation of Naughty Dog’s magnum opus plays out almost exactly the same as its 2013 source material, with down-trodden dad Joel (Pedro Pascal) going about his business as daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) plans his birthday surprise. For the uninitiated, it’s a touching, if a little trope-y sequence that gives a decent overview of what kind of man Joel is. But for those of us who know how this prologue ends, it’s beyond heart-wrenching. The final moments of the prologue, as Joel is left clinging on to his baby girl as she dies in his arms, is arguably the most affecting scene in video game history, and here it’s brought to life superbly in stunning HD.

HBO’s The Last Of Us is, quite simply, brilliant, and already there’s an argument to be made for it being the best video game adaptation to date. The moments lifted straight from the game are beautifully recreated, and it’s bolstered by phenomenal supplemental material not featured in the game. Such as the scene where Tess (Anna Torv) is accosted by twitchy scumbag gun-runner Robert (Brendan Fletcher) and his goons, Marlene (Merle Dandridge) and the Fireflies coming to the realisation of just how precious and important Ellie (Bella Ramsey) really is and a frankly chilling cold open in which a scientist (John Hannah) discusses the very real possibility of a fungal apocalypse on the set of a 1960s talk show. All of these moments add some impeccable layers to an already brilliant narrative, and it’s where the prestige TV medium shines. We’re no longer forced to remain behind the shoulder of Joel throughout the journey, we can branch off, visit other characters, see different perspectives, and it helps to make this world feel very real, very possible, and very, very frightening.

If The Last Of Us continues on its current trajectory of combining like-for-like moments from the game, along with new snapshots from the perspectives of its deep well of excellent characters, then this could become something very special indeed. I’m excited to visit Bill’s Town, not only for the excellent casting of Bill himself (Nick Offerman) but also to see how they adapt his relationship with Frank, who we only see hanging from a self-made noose at the end of Bill’s story in game. Or we could spend some time with the hunters in Pittsburgh, both before and during their attack on Joel and Ellie and the resulting escape alongside Sam and Henry. Or maybe, just maybe (and I’m not getting my hopes up here), we’ll finally meet Ish, the former fisherman turned safehouse community leader whose story in game is told purely through collectable notes. I’ll admit that when it was first announced, I was incredibly sceptical of how a show like this would work, but after watching the first episode, I can’t wait for the excruciating pain and anguish the next nine weeks are set to put me, and so many of us through.

So there we have it. HBO’s The Last Of Us is good, Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin have saved us, and finally, the curse of video game adaptations has been lifted. But let’s be honest with ourselves now, was there ever even really a curse? Or was it just that video games were never really worth adapting in the first place?

Firstly, to suggest that such a curse exists is laughable, because for the most part, video game adaptations have only ever been as good as their source material. It’s not to say that the games themselves are bad, but when Hollywood decided to turn classic 90s shooter DOOM into a feature length movie in 2005, they should’ve known that the joy of DOOM wasn’t from its rich story, characters or lore. It came from the fact that it’s really a lot of fun to shoot demons in the face. Removing that player agency and instead forcing people to sit on their hands whilst a super-powered Karl Urban launches The Rock into Mars is a lot less fun than the game itself. The same goes for so many adaptations; the Uncharted games were incredible because they allowed their players to live through the pulp fiction fantasy they’d collectively had since first watching Raiders Of The Lost Ark and the film suffered because that agency was gone.

For the most part, video games work because of that player agency, it’s why we love the silent protagonist so much, in Half Life, we don’t just watch Gordon Freeman quietly going about his business in the wake of an alien invasion, instead we become Gordon Freeman, and we live vicariously through his perspective, and experience everything first hand. If Hollywood was ever to get its hands on such a property, there’s no way it could work without mangling the source material until nothing familiar remains, and we already have more than enough decent alien invasion films to see us through without besmirching such a classic.

It’s also not fair to say that video game adaptations haven’t, at times, been very, very good, it’s just that the best ones all tend to work as companion pieces to their source material rather than frame-for-frame retellings. In recent years, Netflix have released three of the best supplementary video game adaptations in Castlevania, Arcane and Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, and all of them work because rather than trying to adapt their respective source materials into a new medium, they instead tell stories alongside their games, allowing existing fans to get deeper into the lore and giving new viewers a reason to play the game as well. It’s the same reason 2019’s Detective Pikachu worked so well. It didn’t get bogged down in recreating the games (which would have been excruciating) and instead told a supplementary story filled to the brim with fanservice, references and a deep love for its source material.

Overall, I’m of the mind that with few exceptions, games should just be left as games, because it’s the player agency, the choices and the journey that makes them so special. Adaptations work when they’re made to go alongside the original rather than replacing or retelling them, in which case, they generally turn out pretty bad. The Last Of Us working as well as it does is a stars-aligning moment, but it’s not lifting any curse, because there was never a curse to begin with.

Maybe I’ve been blinded by hype and the writing’s been on the wall the whole time, but it seems as though Rocksteady’s upcoming Suicide Squad: Kill The Justice League is a dreaded live service game more akin to Crystal Dynamics’ The Avengers than their typical Arkham affair. That’s according to a leaked screenshot from a since-deleted 4Chan post that shows no less than five different currency types and the usual host of by-the-numbers levelling systems. If true, it’s a shame, as I was really starting to get excited for the game itself, especially in the wake of the trailer shown at last months Game Awards confirming it to be Kevin Conroy’s final performance under Batman’s infamous cowl.

Last week came the news that Ubisoft were once again delaying their long-gestating pirate adventure Skull and Bones, and this week they’re doubling down on the fact that Beyond Good & Evil 2 still very much exists and is still very much in active development, at least according to Eurogamer. Despite cancelling seven unannounced projects over the last year, Ubisoft still seem committed to developing a game which recently overtook Duke Nukem Forever as the game with the single longest development period in history. That’s right, whilst 2011’s Duke Nukem Forever took a measly 5,156 days to release from its initial 1997 announcement, Beyond Good & Evil 2 was first revealed in May 2008, a whopping 5,350 days ago. Whatever’s going on with Ubisoft as of late is certainly concerning, and whether we’ll ever see this cult classic sequel remains to be seen, but for now let’s just enjoy the fact that it is still, definitely, without question, absolutely on its way. Honest.

The annual Awesome Games Done Quick speed-running event took place last week, hosting over 150 speed-runs from across the globe, and it’s now been confirmed that the event raised a whopping $2,642,493 for the Prevent Cancer Foundation. AGDQ is always a highlight of the gaming calendar, showcasing some incredibly talented gamers tackling some insanely intricate speed-runs, and this year’s was no different, with the highlight of the week-long event coming when Super Mario Galaxy 2 runner @NotImJhay not only won a four-person race in the Nintendo Wii classic, but also set a new World Record in the process.

RIP Stadia, we hardly knew ye. That’s right, this week Stadia has officially shut down its servers, never to return. Google’s cloud-based video game streaming service was once heralded as the future of video games, offering players a chance to pick-up-and-play from wherever in the world they were, but a poor reception at launch and a lack of games on the service meant the writing was on the wall from early on. Cloud-gaming may still have a bright future ahead of it, with the likes of Xbox and Amazon doubling-down on their own offerings, but for now, let’s just take a moment of silence for another failed Google endeavour.

It’s another big week of releases coming up as the debut game from ex-Final Fantasy XV developers finally comes to PS5 and PC, one of the scariest games of all time gets the full remake treatment and PlayStation brings its eye-wateringly expensive premium controller to market.

First announced at Sony’s PlayStation 5 Showcase back in June 2020, Luminous Production’s debut title Forspoken has had its fair share of ups and downs over the past two-and-a-half years. But now, after two major delays, a luke-warm demo and the announcement of some pretty hefty PC requirements, Square Enix’s latest Dragon’em-up is finally releasing next Tuesday, January 24th for PS5 and PC. It follows the story of a young woman transported from modern day New York to the dragon-infested fantasy world of Athia along with her, uh, sentient talking bracelet (?). Time will tell whether Forspoken has what it takes to get over its rocky development, but at least it looks like it’ll be absolutely gorgeous.

After a somewhat tepid response both critically and commercially to Striking Distance Studios’ debut game The Callisto Protocol last month, EA will be looking to swoop in and save the day with their big budget remake of 2008’s terrifying Dead Space. Since it was announced, I’ve always found it somewhat strange that Dead Space is getting the remake treatment, especially considering the original still not only holds up, but also remains absolutely spine-chilling. Still, the thought of slicing up necromorphs in stunning 4K is pretty tantalizing, and I can’t wait to get back on board the Ishimura when Dead Space Remake releases for PS5, PC and the Xbox family of consoles on January 27th.

Also next week, PlayStation look to finally join Xbox in the premium controller game as they release the DualSense Edge, an upgraded controller complete with back-paddles, adjustable triggers and the ability to have up to thirty pre-set remappable control schemes. The only drawback, it costs a whopping £209.99 ($199.99)! I’d love to say I’ll be giving a hands-on impression of this new controller when it launches on January 26th, but that price point’s just a little too rich for my blood.

This week’s mail box question comes to us from @_Reecieboy over on Twitter. If you have a question you want answering, feel free to comment below, send me a DM or join the probablyoliver Discord server.

“Elden ring vs God Of War Ragnarök? What is the best game of all time? Can it even be measured or just personal preference?”

Firstly, everything always comes down to personal preference for these types of things. There’s objectively good games (shout-out Tetris) and objectively bad games (shout-out Tetris Worlds) but there’s never going to be an objectively ‘best’ game (except maybe Tetris Effect).

With that in mind, I do think Elden Ring and God Of War Ragnarök are two of the best video games ever to see the light of day, and it’s a fun topic of debate as to which of the two is the ‘better’ game. Both offer incredible combat against behemothic bosses, a tightly-woven narrative steeped in deep history and lore, and both games reward exploration across their vast and brilliantly realised worlds. I’d fully recommend anyone with even a tertiary interest in gaming at least try both of them, as both offer an incredible experience from start to finish, and both of worthy of the immense praise they’ve received since their respective launches.

For me, the more time I spend thinking about it, the more I struggle to decide which of the two I would choose as my own personal best. It would be too easy to say Elden Ring, because whilst I do believe it to be perhaps my favourite video game of all time, Ragnarök offered not only a fantastic gameplay experience, it also transcended the medium with a story far above and beyond what video games typically represent. Ragnarök’s story would be lauded in any medium, and should be witnessed by just about anyone who’s ever struggled with their own sense of being. The story of the strained relationship between Kratos and Atreus is as heart-wrenching, well realised and fleshed out as any Oscar-winning film.

Then there’s Elden Ring, a game which whilst nowhere near as accessible as God Of War, somehow manages to seep into your bloodstream, grabbing you from the offset with its unmatched world design, horrifying enemies and the single greatest opening theme in video game history (that one is objective and I’ll take no further questions on the matter). Last year I put over 200 hours into Elden Ring, and recently I started it all over again, and after I’ve put another 200 hours in, I’ll probably do it once more just for fun. Elden Ring never moved me to tears like Ragnarök did, but also I don’t know that I’ll ever revisit God Of War’s Nine Realms again. I’ll keep booking journeys through the Lands Between until the end of time.

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