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HBO’s Last of Us opening twist improves on the game, but only a little bit

The Last of Us episode 1 makes the same mistakes as the game

Sarah (Nico Parker) sticking her hand in a sprinkler as she walks by Photo: Shane Harvey/HBO

For many, the opening of The Last of Us was a landmark moment for games: a deeply human and emotional moment of grief and tragedy, all expressed in the short 15 minutes of the game’s tutorial. For others, myself included, it missed the mark entirely. It felt more like a hacky faux-prestige TV show than it was a landmark emotional achievement. While it was certainly different from other video games at the time, the opening was still stifled by a tired idea, a violent twist, and so much blatantly manipulative sentimentality that it left the whole thing feeling false.

But now that the series has made the jump to actual prestige TV, with its new adaptation on HBO, creators Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin have taken the opportunity to go back to the drawing board and improve on the original opening — even if it keeps some of its issues in its new context.

[Ed. note: This story contains spoilers for The Last of Us game and the first episode of the series.]

The first Last of Us game begins with a prologue, introducing the main character Joel on the morning the outbreak began. But the game’s version of this scene puts us in control (for video game tutorial reasons) of Sarah, Joel’s daughter, who will ultimately die by the end of the sequence. That kind of origin story is an obvious way to open the game: The unexpected murder of Sarah has the glow of a surprise, and the prologue ultimately offers critical insight into Joel’s character, explaining his specific brand of haunted, brooding survivor.

What makes this sequence worse is its sense of inevitability. Just about anyone who stepped into the game likely knew that it was about playing as Joel, while he protects a completely different young girl than his daughter. It leaves the player staring down the barrel of a senseless, overly plotted-out death in a way that feels cheap rather than earned.

Joel talking to Ellie in a screenshot of The Last of Us game Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Computer Entertainment

This sequence is frustratingly representative of how the original game deals with death throughout. In cutscenes and big story moments like the opening, death serves as a blunt instrument of trauma, a gut-punch designed to make you care about the plot and characters. Meanwhile, during the action gameplay, the violence of Joel’s shootouts and stealth-kills becomes so watered down that killing barely means anything at all. With all this killing in between emotional moments, things like the prologue start to feel as flippant as shooting a nameless Firefly.

Thankfully, the show, in this and many other ways, spotlights the issues with the game’s manipulative opening. Sarah (played in the HBO series by Nico Parker) is in full focus in episode 1, the hour allowing Mazin and Druckmann to flesh out her relationship with Joel. Sarah is a vital part of Joel’s (Pedro Pascal) connection to the world, making sure he acknowledges things like birthdays or meal times (or at least trying to). While she lacks dimension, expanding Sarah’s role in the story and her importance to Joel at least nods to her being a meaningful person worth caring about — for Joel and for the viewer.

The bad news is that the show, in its faithfulness to the flaws of the game, doesn’t manage to go beyond these vague gestures. The prologue in HBO’s series still finds Sarah dying in the same frustrating and unfulfilling way. A soldier still takes his aim, and the young girl still dies in Joel’s arms.

It’s a moment that speaks to the grander impulses of the story — how danger is often those around us, or those who are supposed to be in control of the situation, and how caring for someone hurts more than anything — but without much characterization, it’s Sarah who’s left paying the price. The show remains so deeply committed to its style of direct adaptation that even the death itself feels nearly as flippant in the show as it does in the game — something the rest of the series is very careful not to do. Without giving too much away, the moment-to-moment killing Joel does has been toned way down, grounding his character in a way the game, and its gameplay, can’t.

Later on in the series, The Last of Us proves that it’s willing to take its time and give the game’s vague sketches of tragic victims room to become fully realized characters. It’s just a shame that Joel’s daughter didn’t get afforded the same care.

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