The Last of Us became one of the best-selling video games of all time, selling over 1.3 million units in its first week and 17 million by April 2018.
Today, it remains one of the most critically acclaimed and highest-grossing video games, and now it’s coming to a television near you.
It has great game play and an amazing storyline that keeps the player enthralled from start to finish, and if you’re preparing to watch it on HBO, upon its expected release in 2023, we’re here to catch you up.
Spoiler Alert! There are no spoilers here. We will not intentionally reveal any plot twists or endings for viewers who have not already played the game. This article is meant only to provide you with HBO Last of Us background, or, if you’ve played, remind you of details you may have forgotten, to prepare yourself for the show.
If you’re wondering “What do I need to know about The Last of Us series?” this article has your answers.
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It’s the Story and the Characters: The Game’s Success of The Last of Us Was Not Due to the Gameplay
Ok…I’m going to take heat for this, but it’s important to get it out of the way early. The Last of Us doesn’t offer a groundbreaking theme. As we’ll cover later in this article, it’s an end-of-the-world narrative. This narrative can be found in TV, games, books, graphic novels… pretty much in every medium.
It’s also not groundbreaking gameplay. This wasn’t some new way of playing a video game. Many games that came before it had similar styles of play and action.
So, what made The Last of Us worthy of “Game of the Year” recognition? What made it the best-selling video of all time at its release? It’s the story and the characters.
If you’re skeptical of video games turned into shows and movies, I completely understand. Too often, studios try to adapt a game that has great success into a great story, with more failure than success.
The difference between other video games and The Last of Us is that the story isn’t just a small part of the game. The story IS the game. The gameplay is simply a way for the player to advance the story and learn more about the characters, the environment, and the mystery of the fungus that led to the decline of humanity.
The Last of Us Is a Pandemic Story
When writing the story, the folks at Naughty Dog obviously had no idea what 2020 would hold for the world. They just happened to write a great pandemic story that was a bit of a forecast of what a pandemic could be like. Obviously, the pandemic in the world of The Last of Us was significantly worse than that of 2020, but it’s definitely a warning of what a pandemic could evolve into.
Should we pay close attention to the lessons about pandemic survival from The Last of Us? Most definitely!
And it is this part of the story that makes it particularly relevant to the viewers of the show in 2023. Perhaps we will be able to relate to the characters, but we will absolutely be able to relate to the pandemic.
The Cordyceps Fungus that Destroys the World in the Last of Us Is Really Real. Really!
Yep, you read that right. The fungus that the pandemic is based on in The Last of Us is actually a real thing. While it doesn’t do any harm to humans (yet?), it is known as the “zombie fungus” because it takes over the brains of insects and controls them.
Given that we’re just opening the world back up after a pandemic caused by a virus scientists have found to affect our brain, The Last of Us feels particularly relevant to the here and now.
The Last of Us Is a Zombie Story Like No Other
…and one of the best zombie stories out there. Along the lines of true classic zombie stories like Night of the Living Dead, The Walking Dead, and World War Z, the infected play a central role in The Last of Us.
But unlike many of the previous stories, the undead in the Last of Us are not one-dimensional, shambling, and/or chomping zombies. Instead, they are continually evolving based on different stages of their infection. The duration of infection impacts how the fungus impacts the host, which also limits or enhances its body in different ways.
This means that survivors must not only identify what type of infected the infected are but also how to deal with them.
As you watch the series, pay close attention to the differences among the undead, including:
- Runners – These are the most recently infected. They are angry and fast. They group together and attack in packs.
- Stalkers – These infected are evolving as the virus takes hold of their brain. Rather than running around angrily, they tend to hide and attack when disturbed.
- Clickers – One of the most frightening of the infected because the infect has robbed them of their sight and they no longer hide. Instead, they use a clicking noise to locate their prey in the same way bats use radar. Just wait. Clickers “clicking” in the dark are going to make your skin crawl.
- Bloaters – As the infection continues to take hold of the infected, they slow down, and the infection causes them to get fatter. These bloaters, however, have grown plates of fungus all over their bodies, causing them to be large, shambling, difficult-to-fight beasts.
It’s going to be exciting to see how HBO brings the various types of infected to life on the big screen and how they showcase the differences in their skills and weaknesses.
Tons of Anti-Heroes in The Last of Us
Everyone knows what a hero is, and everyone knows what a villain is. If you’re not familiar with the concept of the anti-hero, it’s somewhere in the middle. Someone who wants to do good but does bad things, or, alternatively, someone who is bad but does good things. It’s a concept that helps us better understand the gray areas of life; that everything, indeed most things, are not purely good versus evil.
In The Last of Us, there are a TON of anti-heroes. Mostly, people are trying to take care of “their own,” and as a result, sometimes resort to doing bad things to get the job done.
To see some of the various anti-heroes in action, watch organizations like:
- FEDRA – The Federal Disaster Response Agency
- Fireflies – A militia group rebelling against the U.S. government and FEDRA
- A whole host of individuals I won’t go into because I promised no spoilers.
The great thing about The Last of Us is that the story is rarely as simple as good vs evil. It’s all kinds of complex gray in the middle; hence, the need for anti-heroes.
The Last of Us Is a Bit of a Buddy Road Trip Story
I’m about to make a bit of an odd comparison, so bear with me, but if you step back and think about the story as a whole. The Last of Us is kind of a road trip gone crazy. UNLIKE the Griswold family in the movie National Lampoon’s Vacation, Joel and Ellie embark on a short trip that turns into a long road trip. Much LIKE the Griswold family, Joel and Ellie encounter all kinds of twists and turns on their extended trip across the United States.
Maybe it’s more like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles… only with zombies.
It’s not all zombies and rival gangs, though. There is beautiful scenery, interactions with nature that are simply stunning, road trip reading and music, and some history lessons along the way.
Yes, it’s dark at times. But it’s also fun and playful in its own right. There are times that the road trip story is scary and frightening, but there are also times when it is carefree and playful. That’s what makes it such a good story.
The Last of Us Is a Story of Sacrifice
One of the consistent themes that winds its way through the story is one of sacrifice – and whether the characters are willing to “give all” for something greater than themselves. Because sacrifice is such an important part of experience the story, I’m not going to dive deep into it for fear of ruining any experience you might have watching the show.
As you watch the series, pay close attention to themes of sacrifice that include:
- Sacrificing yourself for those you love
- Sacrificing your life for the benefit of humanity as a whole
- Sacrificing your needs for those of others
The Last of Us Is a Story of Survival and Adaptation
The most fundamental element of the story of The Last of Us is one of survival. Not just individual survival, but the survival of humanity as a whole.
With survival, though, often comes the worst of humanity. We find those characters who choose to survive with no thought for the lives of others – true villains who will do anything to anyone to ensure that they (and theirs) survive.
In total juxtaposition to that human need to survive there are AMAZING showcases of how the natural world survives when human expansion is halted. The scenery and animal interactions in the story are a testament to the fact that life on earth would likely thrive if humans were absent.
As you watch the series, pay close attention to how the earth adapts to a drastic decrease in human activity, including:
- Nature’s “retaking” of the world and how it impacts the stability of structures that we consider permanent, like skyscrapers and bridges.
- The changing of wildlife like animals and plants as humans stop encroaching on their territories.
- What happens to animals that were brought to the United States from elsewhere to live in our zoos when we are no longer their caretakers.
Most Importantly – The Last of Us Is a Story of Love
Not in any traditional “rom-com” romantic love sense. The themes of love throughout the story are multi-dimensional, and they are borne from trust, understanding, and family. Throughout the storyline, we are shown that love truly comes in all forms.
It comes in the form of lost love, family love, and even young love.
As you watch the series, pay close attention to the relationship dynamics between:
- Joel and Ellie (obviously)
- Joel and Tess
- Ellie and Riley
- Joel and Tommy
- Henry and Sam
- Bill and Frank
The HBO Series Will Expand on The Last of Us Story
As far as I can tell from information shared during the filming of the series, HBO is expanding the story to include new characters and locations. For instance, via Instagram, HBO indicated that it had cast Murray Bartlett as Frank, a character that was mentioned in the game, but never actually brought onto the screen for the player to see or other characters to interact with.
Additionally, it appears that HBO is adding new locations for the characters in the series to visit. In a few photos there is a newspaper box from the Kansas City Star. It’s interesting because Joel and Ellie never visit Kansas City in the game, but it looks like much of the activity that was set in Pittsburgh in the game will actually be set in Kansas City in the show.
It’s not clear yet why the change was made from Pittsburgh to Kansas City, surely something to do with shooting location availability, but it should not deter from the narrative and plot points much.
The Actors in The Last of Us HBO Series Have Some Seriously Big Shoes to Fill
If the characters and the story were what led to the game’s success, then it will be the actors who bring that story and the characters to life. In the game, Troy Baker (playing Joel) and Ashley Johnson (playing Ellie), directed by Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann, were able to bring a dynamic to the two characters that was simply amazing.
Many of us who played the game (often multiple times) didn’t skip the cut scenes. Instead, we re-watched them and analyzed them. We would purposefully allow the characters to stand idle just so we could hear Ashley voice another of Ellie’s puns.
Who Are the Characters in The Last of Us on HBO?
The two most important characters are Ellie and Joel. Actors Bella Ramsey (playing Ellie) and Pedro Pascal (playing Joel) are going to have to be on their A-Game to ensure that the dynamic between the two characters is captured effectively for the screen. Luckily, Druckmann is producing and writing for the show, alongside Gustavo Santaolalla, who is producing the series and also worked on the game.
In other words, the creators of the story are shepherding the creation of the series. This should help ensure that the character dynamic remains front-and-center as the show is filmed.
Ultimately, there is much to look forward to in this upcoming show, and I think I might just have to play the game through again in eager anticipation. All signs point to this show being a huge success, a win for gamers who have been sorely disappointed by film and show adaptations of our favorite games.
I hope you enjoyed my background on The Last of Us and how it relates to the upcoming HBO series.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the game if you’ve played, or on the upcoming show. Leave a comment in the section below!