LOS ANGELES — In the HBO series “The Last of Us,” a fungal infection has taken over Earth, rendering the United States an apocalyptic landscape protagonists Joel and Ellie need to traverse. Fans unfamiliar with the video game, from which the series was adapted, might assume this is just another zombie show packed with action and gore.
However, the story and the characters have subverted expectations and received praise from all corners. “The Last of Us,” whose first season concluded Sunday, has not only won over gamers with high expectations, but also people who don’t play video games. The series premiere drew 4.7 million viewers in the U.S., based on Nielsen and HBO data, making for HBO’s second-largest debut, behind “House of the Dragon.” HBO said the finale drew a series high of 8.2 million people, despite airing against the Oscars.
“No one could have anticipated this, this reaction and how positive it’s been and how broad it’s been in its reach,” said Neil Druckmann, Naughty Dog co-president and the creator and writer of the video game, whose critically acclaimed first installment was released on Playstation 3 a decade ago.
“And to see a whole bunch of new people connecting with these characters … and hearing how they interpret the material and what they like or not like, it’s just been really fascinating to me,” said Druckmann, who was also the co-creator, writer and an executive producer on the show.
The show explores relatable themes like coming of age, grief, finding hope and parenthood. It’s not all about zombies — the Infected create the conflict, but aren’t the only antagonists, for there are worse and scarier things lurking in this apocalypse. The emotional plot and complex characters have resonated with fans outside the traditional genres the series fits into.
“I’m actually kind of afraid of horror and zombie things and whatnot. Normally, I wouldn’t watch that type of show,” said Victoria Jin, a 24-year-old law student.
Jin never played the game but started watching the show with friends; what made her stay invested was the third episode, which explores the relationship between survivalist Bill (Nick Offerman) and his partner Frank (Murray Bartlett). The standout episode told a story of love and hope in a grim world.
“It’s the drama, there’s a lot of heartbreak, there’s human emotion and relationships, and that definitely is what keeps me coming back to it,” Jin said. “And just like, come on, Pedro Pascal. I feel like that should be enough of a draw on itself.”
The performances haven’t gone unnoticed by fans, who are already speculating about Emmy nominations for both Pascal and Bella Ramsey, who plays Ellie (between his character Joel and his role on Disney Plus’ “The Mandalorian,” Pascal has become the internet’s favorite dad).
The show’s plot is simple, but the key to its success is complex characters, explained avid gamer, writer and filmmaker Michael Tucker.
“I think, because it’s focused on those character arcs and relationships, and how the story world puts pressure to force those forward, those things are really accessible and universal,” said Tucker, the creator of the YouTube channel Lessons from the Screenplay.
The television format allows the plot and characters to develop slowly, unlike a movie. With a video game played for hours, that length helps the viewers develop empathy toward the characters.
Video games being recognized as a form of storytelling isn’t new. Kim Shay, 26, isn’t a gamer, but she saw social media buzz around the video game years before the HBO series was even announced. She watched full playthrough videos of the game on YouTube and was immediately captivated by the story.
“The storytelling is immaculate on that game,” Shay said.
Video game adaptations are turning heads in Hollywood. Netflix has had success with its own video game adaptations, “Arcane,” adapted from the online game “League of Legends,” and “Castlevania,” adapted from a gothic horror action-adventure video game series of the same name. But at the same time, others have flopped.
Creating a successful adaptation isn’t as simple as recreating the game shot for shot. But having the game’s creators involved in the project was something that made “The Last of Us” special. While Druckmann played a big role in the series, voice actors from the video game acted on the show as well — including Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, who voiced Joel and Ellie in the game. Creators need to have an open mind on what stays and what changes, Druckmann said.
What added to the success of the show was the natural partnership between him and showrunner Craig Mazin. In initial conversations, Druckmann could see that Mazin was a fan of “The Last of Us” and took the story seriously.
“He’s played multiple times and thought about these characters, the relationships and what they mean. And clearly it had a profound impact on him,” Druckmann said.
As Hollywood looks toward more video games, Druckmann emphasizes that the love and hard work that goes into a video game should still be the main priority to its creators.
“It’s my love for video games, it’s paramount,” said Druckmann. “The stuff that’s exciting to me is we’re always trying to do something new, because the language of what a video game story can be, is broader than any other medium.”