This essay is posted in Opinion.
1. There will be Spoilers for The Last of Us video game, you have been warned.
2. The entirety of the opinion about The Last of Us being served well as a movie is dependent on it being an adaptation of the content of the game. Since no word has yet (as of 3-12-2014) been confirmed about just what the movie would be based upon, the opinion could be rendered null and just an interesting thought experiment if they choose to tell a new, unique story in the universe of the game instead of an adaptation of the game’s content.
Edit 2014-03-13: Neil Druckmann confirmed through IGN that it will be an adaptation of the story in the game, but still no specific details.
3. Some of the concepts discussed in this essay are written about at greater length in my Opinion on the Nature of Narrative in Video Games. I don’t believe you have to have read the other to understand this one, but it does go into greater detail on the concepts described below.
So ‘The Last of Us’ – Naughty Dog’s big, super critically-acclaimed release of 2013 – has been optioned for a movie, and it will be live action. A lot of people heard this news and shrugged: What big game doesn’t get optioned for the big screen these days? A lot of other people heard this news and raged: NO WAY CAN THIS MOVIE LIVE UP TO THE GAME. Still others heard this news and in their secret, hopeful place within their hearts they got excited. By the title of this post it should be self-evident which camp I fall into, and I believe it’s probably the minority opinion for a variety of reasons. So you might as well pull up a chair, smoke a cigarette, and have some beef jerky, ’cause this is going to take a while.
THE LAST OF US – Best Video Game to Movie Adaptation Ever?
Spoilers abound from this point forward for The Last of Us, so you have now been warned twice!
The Last of Us is perhaps the most competent traditional narrative in video games. It paints a clear picture of the beginning of the cordyceps epidemic that leads to the downfall of civilization. It shows a very broken society sprung up in the aftermath, where people like Joel and Tess have become brutal and uncaring of necessity. The opening scene of the game, effectively the movement and interaction tutorial, gives you a good mix of “playing the game” and “watching the story” as you control Joel’s daughter, Sarah, on the night of the epidemic. Even after a cutscene when Sarah is just riding in the backseat of a car, the player is given the ability to shift around the backseat and watch the varying things happening on any side of the car. This little bit of player agency (a player’s capacity for independent action in the game) is important even while setting is still being established from the conversations taking place and the radio chatter. Your gameplay agency (freedom to approach the gameplay how you choose) is just enough to keep you engaged, but is not so intensive that you miss out on the world-building and background being delivered.
The game often continues in a similar vein, mixing between active “playing” and passive “watching”, so that in a general sense you’re often very engaged in both playing the game and experiencing the story.
The story is pretty average, though. Man loses daughter during zombie epidemic, gains surrogate daughter approximately the same age as his daughter when she died all those years ago, surrogate daughter is immune to zombie epidemic, they go on adventure to find doctors and facilities capable of synthesizing an antidote and possibly ending the epidemic. During the adventure the man (Joel) remembers how to love and care for other people, and then the surrogate daughter (Ellie) has to die to get the antidote.
There are several aspects of the story that very much serve only as plot devices or character establishment devices, such as Joel and Tess post-epidemic running around after an arms dealer to exact some vengeance. Ellie being immune to the cordyceps zombie fungus is never satisfactorily explained, and the rebellious organization the Fireflies are a bit limp-wristed and ineffectual as the “bad guys” in the latter portion of the game. It is predictable to a fault because it is following well-established movie narrative cues.
What makes the story work are the main characters Joel and Ellie. Their own characterizations, and their surrogate father/daughter relationship that develops as the story continues, is one of the best emotional arcs I’ve ever seen, in video games or otherwise. The climax of the game mirrors the opening scene flawlessly and shows that Joel has come full circle in his emotional journey as a father and protector. Just at the point when you think it’s going to have a tidy ending, that they’re going to find a way to synthesize an antidote without killing Ellie, and that all will be well in the world, none of that happens. Joel selfishly refuses to let Ellie die because she has become his daughter and he can’t lose her. He rescues her from the doctors and escapes, and when she finally comes out of her drug-induced sleep, he tells a fancy lie to keep her calm: the cure didn’t work, they had dozens of patients immune to the fungus, but they couldn’t replicate it, so they let her go.
Time passes, and in the denouement Ellie has a moment of doubt, survivor’s guilt if you will; she asks Joel point blank if he’s telling the truth about the failed cure, and he flat out lies to her again. There’s this moment where Ellie is searching his face, trying to discern the truth, and her expressions are so wrought with doubt and pain and hope that my heart broke a little bit. In the end she chooses to believe him.
The world is still a ruin. The cordyceps epidemic still rages on. But Joel and Ellie will carve out their little slice of happiness, because what else can they do?
It’s a powerful moment, it’s a selfish moment. Joel and Ellie are so fully realized as human beings with flaws and desires that even though I hate Joel in the moment he keeps the world from potentially healing, I absolutely understand his human need to hold onto the one he loves, in spite of the greater good. Joel completely takes the choice away from Ellie, because in his heart he knows that Ellie would have sacrificed herself for even the chance that the epidemic could end.
The Last of Us is a powerful, complex story weighed down by some unfortunate aspects.
It deserves to be experienced rather than played because:
1. The gameplay mechanics of stealthing around and shooting people are often at odds with the tone of the story. On top of that, there are several moments in the game where you are dropped into an arena style fight, or forced to find a key card to open a door, and the game loses a lot of its emotional and narrative momentum in order to “just be a video game” for a bit. Even though I had an absolute blast sneaking around like a stealthy, old, curmudgeonly ninja, I recognize that the story and the emotion do not play well with the gameplay mechanics. If the game were to suddenly be a visual novel, letting the “game” aspects take a backseat to the narrative, I’d be okay with that. If the game were to suddenly be made into a live action movie, removing every bit of interactivity altogether, I don’t think anything would be lost in the translation but potentially could gain a lot.
There are moments when it’s very important that you have control of Joel or Ellie during the action of the scene. In my essay on the Nature of Narrative in Video Games, I talk about how having control helps the player to form emotional bonds with the fictional characters in the game. But also as mentioned in that essay, this is most effective when it’s about player choice, or the Illusion of Choice. In the moments when you control Joel or Ellie in such a way that you will, by the nature of you being in control, form a closer bond, there is no alternate choice to be made, no alternate path. Your gameplay agency is granted, but your story agency (a player’s capacity for independent choice in the narrative) is still completely locked off. You cannot affect the outcome of the story or even the way you feel about the outcome of the story by your actions in the game. By this alone there is little reason to have control during these moments. If you can remove the combat because it doesn’t add to the story, is in fact detrimental to the cohesion of the narrative by the fact that it does not gel with the story, and if you can reason away the emotional strengthening of the critical control moments because of story agency still being locked away, then it stands to reason that The Last of Us might be better served as a completely non-interactive experience.
2. Because a screenplay for the video game already exists, and because we already know about the aspects of the world and the story that were just plot or character devices, a screenplay for a movie version could be tweaked and changed to fix the elements that didn’t work, removing most of the actiony gameplay segments, combining side characters and tightening the narrative. A movie version could correct all of the problems that the story had to have because it was weighed down with the baggage of an interactive story and “gameplay” elements.
In short, it already wanted to be a strong story all around. Making it into a movie could give them the opportunity to let it transcend the stigma of “game story” and be a really good story compared to any entertainment medium.
3. There has never been a good enough story in a video game that translating it into a movie wouldn’t require some massive amount of retooling just to make it work. The Last of Us is probably the best chance we have to get a really good video game to movie adaptation. Can it elevate a video game story by entering another medium? I think it can and I don’t begrudge anyone for attempting it. Do I think it will? Probably not, but as I said up top, in the secret, hopeful place in my heart, I really want it to.
4. (This was in response to suggestions that the movie version would somehow be diluted in order to make it reach the widest audience possible, and that even if it were a good adaptation it would be redundant to the experience of the game.):
I don’t think there’s going to be any significant dilution of product in translating this to film to bring it to a larger audience. I don’t say wider audience. Larger. There’s already a pre-existing market for this kind of storytelling in movies. It’s post-apocalyptic dystopian, it’s pseudo-zombie, it’s an extremely human experience, it’s visceral and brutal, it’s passionate and real, it’s selfish and desperate. They could do something really great with a film version, and I don’t believe it will be redundant unless they try to make it as direct a translation as they can. This is 100% an opinion, and is guarded optimism.
Now, I want to play my own devil’s advocate for a minute. The movie is being done by Screen Gems, a subsidiary of Sony Pictures. Screen Gems has done some decent flicks, but they’ve also done the Resident Evil adaptations to film, and their modus operandi is apparently “films that fall between the wide-release films traditionally developed and distributed by Columbia Pictures and those released by Sony Pictures Classics.” So they make more niche productions, some successful, some not. That’s not cause to be too troubled right off the bat.
But then Neil Druckmann is writing the script. He was the Game Creative Director for the game, but his capacity to write a compelling script for a completely non-interactive medium is questionable and untested.
And then at the same time, Screen Gems is working with Sam Raimi’s production company, Ghost House Pictures. Those unfamiliar with Sam Raimi and his production company should note that, while he and his company have produced some very good television and movies (Evil Dead remake, Legend of the Seeker), their productions typically have more camp and insanity than what The Last of Us can really stand and still be the beautifully dark tale that it is.
I remain cautiously optimistic, but it’s a very thin line at the moment, verging on rampant concern.