Even if you’re not a video game player, you might have heard about the just released and highly anticipated television series based on beloved and acclaimed video game The Last of Us.
However, to say video game adaptations are often awful is an understatement. It’s a long running joke just how terrible film and television series based on video games inevitably are. And yet, more adaptations of video games keep being churned out by studios.
From 1993’s Super Mario Bros film which regularly features on lists of the worst films of all time, to the three Lara Croft Tomb Raider films released from 2001 to 2018 – the first of which was given the lowest score possible (“Disaster”) by video game review site? IGN – the list goes on.
Frustratingly, there is no reason for this terrible track record. Video games have long been able to tell exciting, emotional stories with rich worlds and beloved characters. All the ingredients, you would think, needed for a television or film hit.
But the litany of terrible adaptations demonstrate these ingredients have never been properly used.
The Last of Us video game
The Last of Us might be able to break the last three decades’ track record of disastrous adaptations. When the game was released in 2013 for the PlayStation 3, it received unanimous critical and popular acclaim and is considered one of the greatest video games of all time.
The Last of Us is set in a post-apocalyptic United States of America. Human civilisation has collapsed and is contained in quarantined zones after the spread of a highly contagious fungal infection that transforms victims into mindless and aggressive monsters.
Players control Joel, a smuggler who lost his only child during the early stages of the outbreak and is escorting teenager Ellie across the country.
The game’s characters were played by talented voice actors and motion caption technology was used to ensure the characters were believable and well developed.
The emotionally gripping and compelling story and characters won the hearts of video game players, and helped prove video games could tell deep, emotional stories with complex characters.
In a 2013 review, IGN called the game a “masterpiece” with a stellar narrative that never slows down or disappoints, and compared it with Cormac McCarthy’s literary work The Road.
Adaptations and HBO
The success of The Last of Us led to a comic book series, a live reading of parts of the script, downloadable content, a sequel and a remaster and remake of the first game. A film was announced in 2014 before falling through.
When HBO announced in 2020 a television series was in the planning stages, this was met with some scepticism. However, HBO did a lot of things right. One of the original creators of the game, Neil Druckmann, was involved and HBO itself, a network known for premium and compelling content, had the right reputation and values.
The show also cast some highly talented actors in Pedro Pascal as Joel and Bella Ramsey as Ellie.
Of course, talented actors don’t guarantee a fantastic video game adaption, as the casting of Michael Fassbender, Pablo Schreiber and Tom Holland in Assassin’s Creed, Halo and Uncharted illustrate.
Respecting the source material
But what might ensure a successful and well-made video game adaption is just what The Last of Us seems to be using: respect for its video game source material.
The Halo and Uncharted adaptions met with a mixed reception partly due to the changes to their source material. The characters and overall narrative were deemed too dissimilar to their original video game sources, leaving viewers frustrated.
When a video game adaption is trading on the brand and reputation of its source material, not winning over the original fans and players can leave them with few other audiences. And not ensuring the adaptation is respectful and authentic to the source is the fastest way to lose the original fans.
For example, the Halo television series did not cast the original and beloved voice actress from the games for the role of Cortana, a CGI character, on the show before eventually reversing that decision after fan outrage.
The Uncharted and The Last of Us video games were developed by the same studio so they might also have learnt from the first adaptation of their games.
Dialogue from the video games was used in the scripts, and videos on social media have highlighted how similar clips from the show are to scenes in the video games.
Keeping the “soul” of the video games while employing the changes needed to take the story to a different medium was a key aspect of production for Neil Druckmann.
And the early rave reviews for The Last of Us praising everything from the writing to the acting suggest that the curse of horrible video game adaptions might have been not just broken but obliterated.
It makes sense that The Last of Us with its compelling characters and story is just as groundbreaking and acclaimed in another medium.
But decades of terrible video game adaptations highlight how monumental that achievement will be.