Warning: The following contains spoilers for The Last of Us through episode one as well as references to the same story points in the game. Read at your own risk.
HBO’s The Last of Us. Y’all, just when I thought I was out they pulled me back in.
As folks who get the Behind the Scenes know there is a certain show which came close to breaking me. The trust issues I have had for a long, long, while were reinforced with the strength of a rampaging elephant who is just as bitter as I am about how Lovecraft Country shit the bed in its final episode. I was having a hard time convincing myself to do weekly analysis again. The leap of faith needed to dive in to a new show with no guarantee of getting my heart broken was too high.
“I’m not going to do it!” I told myself. “I’m just going to watch the show and if it’s good allow myself to passively enjoy it just like everyone else. Please ignore how I’m already downloading official photos with which to make title cards for any articles.”
I admittedly got as far as not taking notes while I watched so this particular installment is going to be a bit more freeform than my usual. What I’m going to do is touch on the game a bit, what it did well, what the show is doing well, and how these things are meeting in the middle.
I am going to avoid game spoilers for those of you who would like to remain unspoiled for the game. But I will touch on things that happen both in the show and in the game that are more story beats than spoilers. So, for example, if I was talking about the Iron Man movie and an Iron Man game things like there’s a guy named Tony Stark who rescues himself by building an armored suit in a cave with a box of scraps would be considered not spoilery story beats. Who the bad guy is who put Tony in the cave, on the other hand, might be a spoiler.
There’s one thing we will talk about today, though, which is a spoiler but if you’ve seen the first episode of the show you know that spoiler. But just to be on the safe side on the odd chance anybody wants to back out now, it’s about Sarah. So if you truly don’t want to know any spoilers at all feel free to back out now and no hard feelings. Otherwise, let’s jump on in.
(And yes, much like AMC’s Interview With the Vampire, we’re doing “HBO’s The Last of Us” to help differentiate between the show and the game.)
How HBO’s The Last of Us Tells Story So Well
I’m going to put my focus here on the show at first and then flip to talk about the game, but both are going to be in connection to each other.
I want to do the show first, though, because one of the reasons why I finally could not resist writing about the show is that it’s done so freaking well. And around here we appreciate good work. If a show is going to be kind enough to give me a feast of things being done well on almost every level, hell yeah I will take that, grab y’all by the hands, and go “Look! Look what they did! More people need to do that!”
It begins with Craig Mazin, he who is forever followed by the words “the Emmy Award winning creator of Chernobyl” and for damn good reason. Frankly, as someone who is a fan of the game, as soon as I heard Craig Mazin was on board I knew The Last of Us was in good hands.
Craig Mazin both wrote and directed the first episode (with game creator and director Neil Druckmann sharing writing credit) and the strengths he brought to Chernobyl were out in force. Accordingly this is what we’re going to highlight this week as part of why the show is so good, and trust that in subsequent weeks I’ll touch on other things like sets, costuming, cinematography, etc.
Craig Mazin is good at a lot of things but two in particular he brought to both Chernobyl and to HBO’s The Last of Us are: 1) smart storytelling and 2) using that to convey omnipresent dread.
Creating Chernobyl the miniseries brought with it the challenges of how do you explain how an RBMK reactor explodes both within the story and to the audience? And how do you demonstrate the full, ongoing, never before imagined constant horror of the radiation that is all around these people when radiation cannot be seen or heard?
(Unless you see graphite but everyone knows you didn’t see graphite.)
One of the ways Craig Mazin handles the issue of what you don’t see is what you do see. One of the ways he does that is by the use of perspective.
If you want a true deep dive into this I recommend Thomas Flight’s video on why Chernobyl is a masterclass in perspective. But for our purposes we can point to the clear and beautiful example of the time we spend with Sarah.
I’ll get to how the prologue worked in the game in a bit, because that’s its own discussion about why it’s so good. But the game and show had the same goal of using this prologue to get you introduced to the bare bones of the world and getting you to identify with Sarah as someone you cared about.
The show does this by keeping us in Sarah’s perspective from the moment we meet her until the moment she dies. This does more than mirror the gameplay, which again I’ll get to. It makes it so that we are Sarah. What she experiences, we experience. What she sees, we see.
Except… we see things she doesn’t see. And that’s where that creeping dread comes in.
On the surface Sarah provides us the classic zombie apocalypse tropes. Overheard news stories about Bad Things Happening with just enough vague details that they stay safely on the side of foreshadowing and not flat out telling us what’s going on. Vehicles with sirens going full blast and speeding off to places we know not where. Animals acting just a tiny bit off.
We’ve all seen this before if we’ve seen apocalypse stories. There’s nothing new here.
But what takes the show to the next level - that Craig Mazin smart storytelling touch - is that we see what Sarah doesn’t see. Which is that, if you pay close attention, there is a lot more going on that Sarah doesn’t notice. Not obvious. There’s no blinking neon sign going “This! Notice this! This is a thing!” But it’s there, oh boy is it there.
For instance, if you don’t get too distracted by things Sarah is distracted by, like the woman in the shop frantically trying to close up and get Sarah out of there, you’ll notice that the people who were outside when Sarah arrived at the shop aren’t there any more when she leaves. Something happened, something big, but not only does Sarah not know what is happening she’s not even aware that it’s happening. She doesn’t even know enough yet to ask the right questions, like whether she should maybe check the news when she gets home.
And the show? It’s not going to lampshade it for you. The gathering of people by the food trucks is very obvious when Sarah gets off the bus. However, when she leaves the store, the food truck area is now way over on the far right side of the screen. Sarah even turns toward the left of the screen, drawing your attention away from it. It’s up to you to notice those people are gone and that they left fast enough that all of their food is still on the tables. This is the beauty of using perspective in visual storytelling and, as Thomas Flight’s video demonstrates with Chernobyl, Craig Mazin does not put this in his shows by accident. (With of course a shout out here to cinematographer Ksenia Sereda who also worked on Chernobyl and is responsible for things like shot framing).
I’m going to skip ahead a bit to another example of the smart storytelling, HBO’s The Last of Us’s own version of how do you explain how an RBMK reactor explodes both to the characters and to the audience. In this case, how do you explain the infection? Who is infected? How do you know? How quickly does the infection spread? Who's even responsible for taking care of all this?
These are all things which could be done in any number of ways. Someone could simply have a monologue to give the exposition. There could be an instructional video (which, per Craig Mazin and Neal Druckmann, was the original idea for the opener of episode one instead of the talk show scene they had instead. I’ll link to the podcast where they talked about that down in Lagniappe.) We could follow the rule that is a classic for a reason: show, don’t tell.
HBO’s The Last of Us opts for showing instead of telling. But “show don’t tell” is good. What HBO’s The Last of Us does is great. Namely, it rarely gives us a single piece of information.
Let’s talk about the scene with the infected kid. There’s a twenty year time jump here. There is a lot to unpack for the audience. Craig Mazin gets it done fairly quickly and efficiently by having every piece of information be a multi-tasker. This starts to get a little Into the Spider-Verse in terms of being able to unpack it all, but just to pick one thread let’s look at what we learn about FEDRA at the same time we’re being shown how an infection test works and how long infection needs to take hold.
FEDRA is a government organization. They are in charge of the safety of the city. One of their responsibilities is preventing the spread of infection. However, they do not have black and white thinking about this. When the boy appears, while they suspect he could be infected, he is not shot on site as he walks up to the wall. Instead they bring him in, gently secure him to a wheelchair, and humanely test and then take care of him.
At which point his body is unceremoniously dumped into a fire with the rest.
And that is one thread in which we have now been given volumes of lore, connection, attitude, impact, and so on. It also leaves you with some fairly heavy questions like… do we like these guys? Because the way they keep the citizens of the Quarantine Zone in line is kinda not great but on the other hand they were still nice to the kid when they didn’t have to be. But then they dump his body like it’s nothing so… are they the baddies?
Which gets even more wonderfully complex when we meet the Fireflies, who are the enemies of FEDRA. We know a lot about FEDRA now. Because FEDRA was so richly established, a single piece of information like “Fireflies hate FEDRA” unlocks just as much information because presumably anything FEDRA is, the Fireflies aren’t. This then gets more layered when we find out things like the Fireflies had Ellie literally chained up in a room for weeks. And I’m going to avoid anything remotely like spoilers here so I’m not going to answer a question like should we be rooting for FEDRA or the Fireflies (or if that’s even the question to ask given that we’ve barely scratched the surface of the story). I’m just going to say that if you think it’s a coincidence that we met FEDRA and the Fireflies via their treatment of possibly infected children my response is to point out there’s also two scenes of Joel killing someone in front of a little girl and remind you that Craig Mazin knows what the word "parallel" means.
As we pull the smart storytelling camera out further we get more and more into possibly spoiler territory so I want to be cautious. What I will say, though, is notice how the show uses this technique of giving multiple pieces of information to not telegraph that they’re telling you something that will actually be important later. For example, when Ellie figures out the radio code we get tons of information: Joel does business with two guys who live far enough that they have to communicate by radio, it’s probably illegal business which is why they have a code, and because we haven’t seen these guys yet this is clearly foreshadowing that we probably will see them. Ellie finding the information in the first place, noticing the puzzle of it, and figuring out how to trick Joel into giving her the answer also gives us a great deal of information about how Ellie relates to people, her world, and how intelligent and clever she is. Again, very little screentime is given to this but it’s a lot of information.
And, because it’s a lot of information and information that comes with obvious foreshadowing, it can trick the audience’s mind into thinking that’s all we need to know. But, of course, by the end of the episode we discover another key piece of information: those guys are in trouble.
So, to that end, if that’s one example of the show teaching you things now to teach you more things later, just imagine how much else is going on in those small details you might not have realized yet?
Is it any wonder I was in raptures about how good this was? This, people! Do this!
Bliss. Now let’s talk about the game a little bit.
How the Prologue to The Last of Us Game Informs the TV Show
Again I promise I’ll avoid spoilers here other than the story beats the show has already covered, but this includes the part where Sarah dies.
If you feel up for it, it’s worth it to watch the prologue how it happens in game. This video does that for you by walking you through it as if you were watching a movie. But it does make sure to stop to show all the things the game wanted the players to interact with and learn from. It’s about fifteen minutes long and if you wanted to pop that open in another tag, watch, and then come back here that’s a-okay by me. Or you can watch it after we’re done talking. I’ll link to some other playthroughs in Lagniappe for you as well.
One of the reasons why The Last of Us the game became so famous is that it has a level of storytelling not commonly seen in games of its type. To be clear, it’s not the only game to do this and my friend Len Maessen, a games reporter, has already touched on this over in her own newsletter if you’re interested in that topic. (Don’t let the Dutch throw you, Google Translate handles it fine.) But The Last of Us is notable for it. And part of why it’s notable for it is the way it teaches the audience what the game is about.
In video games, the first thing you encounter is typically the tutorial level. It’s so called because this is usually when the game teaches you the game. How do you walk? Run? Jump? Pick a lock? Reload a weapon? And so on. That is because in video games this is the information they want you to have first. There may or may not be some lore to go along with it but the focus is on the game play.
In The Last of Us’s prologue, however, there isn’t so much about the gameplay. The Last of Us is a survival game, so important things to know are how to heal, how to find and use weapons, how to hide from enemies, and so on. None of that is in the opener. Instead what you learn, mechanics-wise, is how to move, how to interact with items, and how to observe.
So… not much of a tutorial, right? 15 minutes in and you don’t even find out there’s workbenches to upgrade your gear! Useless information, right? Except…
The Last of Us isn’t really a survival stealth game. Yeah, those are the game mechanics. That’s the stuff you do in the world. But that’s not why you’re in the world. Thus, the fact that the prologue doesn’t teach you the survival mechanics yet and instead focuses on the story is the tutorial.
The story is important. The characters are important. The details are important.
In fact, the few game mechanics you get taught are there to enhance that experience. One of the things The Last of Us was known for was using the game part of the game to pull the player into the story. The way the prologue does this is by having you play as Sarah, and then as Joel.
When the prologue starts you the player don’t do anything except watch the scenes unfold until Sarah wakes up in her bed. It’s only when she wakes up that you are Sarah. A 13 year old who doesn’t know what’s going on and is only half awake as she’s trying to figure out what the heck is happening. You’re responsible for moving her around, trying to notice things, and put the pieces together. As you go from the events of Sarah waking up to Sarah in the truck with Joel and Tommy, the game has made you feel what it’s like to be a young girl in her pajamas and bare feet, too small and vulnerable to do anything except look around and do whatever her dad tells her to do.
When you’re in the truck you’re still Sarah, and because you’re controlling her you see what she sees. Did Tommy just drive past something you needed to know? Well if you weren’t looking in that direction too bad, you didn’t see it. Were you looking in the right direction? Are you sure? What’s going on? What are you supposed to be doing???
This continues until the accident. At that point the game switches you over to Joel. As on the show, Joel is separated from Tommy, Joel has no weapons, and though he’s capable in a fight this is rendered moot because he has to carry a hurt Sarah in his arms.
Think about how this feels to the player. They’ve just spent a significant amount of time as Sarah. In fact, just as HBO’s The Last of Us did, the game tricked many people into thinking Sarah was the protagonist. So much so that there’s even a moment that multiple gamers go through when they play. The “Oh shit, that’s not the girl on the box” moment. Because in the game graphics of 2013, Sarah with her short bleached looking blond hair and Ellie with her longer red hair didn’t look that much different. Yes, absolutely different if you put the two pictures side by side. But when you’re playing the game and haven’t looked at the box art in a while it becomes “Guy who is clearly Joel with a little girl who probably grows her hair out and stops dying it when the apocalypse occurs.” Because clearly Sarah’s meant to be the protagonist, right?
Except… you start playing as Joel. And you are now the father trying to protect his daughter who you know is fragile and vulnerable because two seconds ago you were her. You know how easily Sarah could die. And you’ve identified with Sarah by being her, so you want to keep her alive! Just as Joel wants to keep her alive!
So you go through the dangers and there Sarah is in your arms with her hurt leg and you get out into that open area with the infected person chasing you and you’re trying to run out into that darkness and this is so scary, it’s awful, but it’s got to be okay, right? You’re going to find safety and everything will be fine. Because of course you will since Sarah’s the girl…
Oh shit. Sarah’s not the girl on the box, is she?
And then you see the soldier.
And that is what the prologue teaches you. That is the real tutorial. It’s not zombies, or stealth, or how you make a shiv. It’s who are you, how vulnerable are you, and what’s going to happen when you learn to care about people.
The game did it perfectly, the show’s doing it perfectly. We’re in for a good ride.
As always, things that don’t fit anywhere else:
- As you can imagine, there’s a lot of shout outs to the game. Bat-eared viewers have already identified things like the sound of the backpack zipper being exactly as it was in the game. Similarly if the squeak Sarah lets out when she’s shot isn’t the same audio of Hana Hayes from the game I’ll eat my hat.
- I don’t want to get into examples and risk spoilers for the game, so suffice it to say that I loved the changes they made to create tension for people who know the game. Put in the most general, spoiler-free way possible, one example is there’s enough differences with the neighbors that while game players know something will happen, they lose the ability to predict exactly what.
- This is common knowledge so not spoilery, but in the game one of the vectors of the infection is spores released by the fungus. They got rid of that for the show and replaced it with tendrils (what was coming out of the grandmother’s mouth) which I think is a good idea. First, as many have already pointed out, in the game the spores meant that the characters had to wear gas masks which isn’t a huge detriment in a video game but is when you have live actors in front of a camera. Second, I liked how it made it more clear who could be infected. The prologue’s already throwing enough information at you, it doesn’t need there to be confusion about things like is Sarah going to turn into a zombie in the backseat.
- As always, I do not comment on child actors, good or bad, even when said actors are currently 19 years old as Bella Ramsey is. It’s just my thing about how I think kids should be allowed to be kids and not see people commenting on them on the internet, especially if they’re bad. Which means I don’t talk about them when they’re good either since if I talk about how amazing Child Actor A is but never mention Child Actor B over in another show, it becomes obvious by omission that Child Actor B wasn’t that great, you know? So don’t take my lack of talking about Nico Parker or Bella Ramsey as anything but a reflection of their ages. (Though I will say boy howdy does Nico look like her mom.)
- Another thing I can’t give many specifics on because of spoilers, but I will say there were a few moments that were aiming it to the cheap seats a bit more than I cared for. One non-spoilery example I can give is the flashback to Sarah they gave before Joel killed the soldier. Like c’mon. It’s a huge part of the story. We haven’t forgotten it and Pedro Pascal is a strong enough actor that he didn’t need the help letting us know what Joel was thinking.
- (That being said there’s not an insignificant amount of people who think “Did you notice the opening credits look like the spread of the fungus?” is an astute observation so maybe I’m aiming a little too high for what the general audience will understand. Still. I would’ve cut that flashback out and other similar telegraphed moments if I could. No I won’t tell you what those were.)
- I liked the way the talk show opening gave plausible buy-in to the concept of the impact of a fungal infection with small baby steps like what ergot does, and how yeah it might not happen now given the way that they can’t survive high temperatures but what about if they had to evolve because of global warming? I also liked how setting it in the 1960s added to that sense of background dread Craig Mazin is so good at. Here’s this threat that’s been known by some people for quite a while… and knowing about it didn’t matter.
- While I get why they put the credits after the talk show, ultimately I feel putting them after Sarah’s death, as the game does, is the better way to go. The audience needs the breather there much more than before. Plus it helps with the buy-in to the twenty year jump.
- I didn’t focus much on the non-director related details, but shout out to props for things like the fungus looking display in the clock store and the birthday card on Sarah’s desk which was the same one as the game.
- As with Chernobyl, there’s a companion podcast to the show. It’s hosted by Troy Baker, who played Joel, and has Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann. The first episode is out. It has great details about the making of the show, the storytelling, and so on. It has spoilers for the episode itself but nothing that will ruin you for anything from the future.
- I love The Last of Us but I absolutely suck at stealth games. My version of stealth is “If I kill all the witnesses that achieves the same goal of no one being able to say they saw me.” This doesn’t work in a survival game like The Last of Us where you have to conserve your bullets carefully. Thus I love watching other people play the game and do so repeatedly. Especially to see them hit that “Oh shit - “ moment in the prologue.
- To that end, if you’re looking for a good playthrough to watch I recommend Lil Indigestion’s. He’s got a writing background and does an amazing job of picking up on every aspect of the story being told and why it’s good storytelling, which is helpful for appreciating all the work that was put in to the game.
- Another good one to watch is the Definitive Playthrough, which features Troy Baker, Nolan North, and a rotating guest cast of people who were involved with the game. It’s absolutely horrible if you want to see the game, I would point you back to Lil Indigestion for that, but in terms of behind the scenes information about the game it is a treasure trove. This is also where I get that clip of Troy talking about how much a voice actor can convey in a scene that I repeatedly use as a reference for why voice acting is so much more than saying lines on a page.
And that’s it for now! Yep, folks, we’re doing this! See you next week!