Can “The Last of Us” Break the Curse of Bad Video-Game Adaptations?

Mazin noted, “Doom is also a perfect example of something that you don’t actually need to adapt. There’s nothing there that you can’t generate on your own—”“Other than the name Doom, and marketing,” Druckmann cut in.“That’s the thing,” Mazin said. “If what the property is giving you is a name and a built-in thing, you’re basically

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Mazin noted, “Doom is also a perfect example of something that you don’t actually need to adapt. There’s nothing there that you can’t generate on your own—”

“Other than the name Doom, and marketing,” Druckmann cut in.

“That’s the thing,” Mazin said. “If what the property is giving you is a name and a built-in thing, you’re basically setting yourself up for disaster, because the fans will be, like, ‘Where’s my fucking thing?’ and everybody else will be, like, ‘What’s Doom?’ And then you’re in trouble.”

“Seems like we overslept.”

Cartoon by Victoria Roberts

“The Last of Us,” they believed, would be different. “Hopefully, this will put that video-game curse to bed,” Druckmann said.

Mazin laughed and shook his head. “I’m telling you—it’s gonna make it worse.”

In 2srcsrc1, a Japanese developer released Ico, a minimalist puzzle-based game about a boy and a girl escaping a castle. Though the title sold modestly, it has since achieved cult status; the horror auteur Guillermo del Toro has hailed it as a masterpiece. The player character, the boy, has been locked away by superstitious villagers because of his monstrous appearance. His companion, Yorda, is a princess fleeing an attempt on her life. The actions available to the player are limited but evocative: when you reach out to Yorda to catch her as she falls, the controller vibrates to mimic the tug of her hand. The game’s climax left Druckmann, then a student, transfixed. “You’ve been playing for hours, helping this almost helpless princess,” he recalled. “And then this bridge is opening in such a way that you’re going to die, so you have to turn back and jump to her—and all of a sudden, she reaches out, and she catches you.” Ico had imposed strict rules and then broken them, to great emotional effect.

Druckmann recounted the experience when I met him in Santa Monica at the headquarters of Naughty Dog, the studio behind The Last of Us. Dressed in joggers and a T-shirt, he offered me a tour, showing off the gaming-magazine covers on the walls. Now forty-four, he’d first arrived there nearly twenty years earlier, as an intern. Born in Tel Aviv and raised in the West Bank, he’d immigrated to Miami with his family when he was ten. At Florida State University, he’d started as a criminology major—a precursor, he thought, to an eventual career as a thriller writer—but a computer-science course set him on a different path. After joining Naughty Dog, as a coder, he studied screenplays, sketched out game levels by hand, and petitioned Evan Wells—then his boss, now his co-president—for a spot on the design team. Druckmann believed games could elicit emotions that no other art form could, and he’d played some, mainly indies, that proved it. But, in the early two-thousands, mainstream publishers seemed fixated on spectacle. He saw Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men” while working on a game called Uncharted, and, he remembered, “It made me angry.” The film, a relationship-driven thriller, stood in stark contrast to the “over-the-top sci-fi” being offered by major game developers: “I was, like, Why does nobody in games tell a story like this?”

Uncharted 2, the first game that Druckmann both co-wrote and designed, was deemed a breakthrough. The Times called it the first action-adventure story to outclass its Hollywood counterparts, declaring, “No game yet has provided a more genuinely cinematic entertainment experience.” It sold well and cemented Naughty Dog’s reputation; suddenly, the studio could afford to pursue two projects at once. After struggling to reboot an older franchise, Druckmann proposed an alternative project: a post-apocalyptic drama that he’d been quietly nursing for years.

A nature documentary had introduced Druckmann to Cordyceps, a genus of fungus that infects ants, hijacking their brains; in The Last of Us, a mutated strain does the same to people. Joel, a single dad from Texas, loses his daughter in the initial chaos of the outbreak. Twenty years later, hardened by her death and working as a smuggler in a quarantine zone in Boston, he’s thrown together with Ellie, a scrappy, sweary teen-ager who seems to be immune to the fungus. As they travel across the country, she evinces childlike curiosity, asking questions that Joel can’t—or doesn’t want to—answer. What began as an alliance of convenience deepens into an almost familial bond. For Druckmann, the surrogate aspect had been key to the conceit: the two start as strangers in part so that “the player has the same relationship to Ellie as Joel does.” The game’s length allows for their dynamic to change gradually, with Joel developing a protectiveness toward Ellie that—in his mind, and in some players’—justifies amoral acts on her behalf. To heighten that feeling, Druckmann borrowed the twist that had struck him in Ico, and took it further. When incapacitated as Joel, players wouldn’t just be helped by Ellie; they would become her. Occupying Ellie’s body feels different, and requires a shift in strategy. She’s more capable of quick, quiet movements, but she’s also comparatively fragile. An attack that Joel could withstand would flatten her.

Druckmann’s own daughter was born during the game’s development. The intensity of his emotions as a new father helped shape The Last of Us, which became, he said, an exploration of a charged question: “How far will the unconditional love a parent feels for their child go?”

It was an unusual animating impulse for an action game. Uncharted 2, though ambitious, had stuck to a recognizable template: bravura set pieces, quippy dialogue. “Working on Uncharted, it was, ‘How do we crank it to eleven?’ ” Druckmann recalled. “The brainstorms were, ‘O.K., here’s a helicopter that shoots a bunch of missiles at this building, the building is collapsing while you’re in it, and you’re shooting a bunch of bad guys. How do we make that playable?’ ” With The Last of Us, “it was always, ‘What’s the least we need to do to communicate this moment?’ ” The result was a blockbuster-budget game with an indie feel.

In 2src13, the year The Last of Us was released, the industry was dominated by “open-world” role-playing franchises, such as The Elder Scrolls and Grand Theft Auto, which allowed players to pursue only the quests that interested them and to choose whom they killed, romanced, or rescued. Some featured branching narratives, enabling gamers’ actions to influence the plot. But endless possibilities came at a cost: they turned protagonists into mere ciphers. The creator of BioShock, another story-rich game from that era, later said that he’d been pushed by higher-ups to replace the troubling, ambiguous finale he’d devised with a stark moral fork in the road; the player’s choices would yield one of two endings, one “good” and one “bad.” Druckmann was urged to do the same and refused. There were decisions he knew Joel—a man capable of both tenderness and terrible violence—would never make. “If the player can jump in and be, like, ‘No, you’re gonna make this choice,’ I’m, like, ‘Now we kind of broke that character,’ ” he said.

At the time, the staunchly linear storytelling of The Last of Us seemed risky and almost retrograde. Its protagonist wasn’t a customizable avatar onto whom players could project their whims; although they could find inventive ways to survive, they couldn’t change the fates of the characters around them. But, as reviews poured in, it became clear that critics respected the strength of its narrative—including a climactic, polarizing choice that, in keeping with Druckmann’s philosophy, wasn’t a choice at all. The game, which went on to win a raft of awards, sold upward of a million copies in its first week.

Although Sony executives were eager to capitalize on the success of The Last of Us, urging Druckmann to “picture it on the big screen,” Naughty Dog’s history with adaptations had been troubled. In 2srcsrc8, when Uncharted was optioned, the studio had ceded considerable creative control; the script spent more than a decade passing through the hands of seven directors and twice as many writers before entering production. “At some point, I think we just said, ‘You guys run with it, because we can’t keep investing time in this,’ ” Druckmann told me. The final version, which mixed and matched four games’ worth of characters and set pieces, was jumbled and inert. Druckmann politely called the movie “fun”—but when the rights were being negotiated for “The Last of Us” he went so far as to make sure that certain plot points were included in the deal. “I helped create Uncharted, but it didn’t come from me the way that The Last of Us did,” he said. “If a bad version of The Last of Us comes out, it will crush me.”

Once Mazin and Druckmann set to work, in early 2src2src, the biggest question they faced was when to deviate from the source material. Some dialogue was transposed wholesale. But Druckmann also found freedom in the ability to “unplug” from Joel and Ellie’s perspectives—something that the game, with its reliance on immersion, had never allowed. Whereas players could piece together what had happened to the rest of the world only through hearsay and environmental clues, the show could venture beyond America and move freely through time, showing characters’ lives before disaster struck. Crucially, however, the adaptation would retain the picaresque structure of the original, in which players progress from area to area, each with its own side characters and ways of life. What had been a standard convention in gaming would give the series a strikingly distinctive feel: rather than sticking with an ensemble, each episode would build a new world, only to blow it up.

The shift to television also enabled a different approach to violence. Druckmann had always intended for the game’s brutality to be distressing rather than titillating, but, in a medium where killing is a primary mode of engagement, players can become inured to the cost. As Mazin explained, “When you’re playing a section, you’re killing people, and when you die you get sent back to the checkpoint. All those people are back, moving around in the same way.” At a certain point, they read as obstacles, not as human beings. In the show, such encounters would carry more weight: “Watching a person die, I think, ought to be much different than watching pixels die.”

In the game, Joel is near-superhuman, both because play demands it and in order to make the unexpected switch between the action hero and his charge more subversive. But Mazin told Druckmann that the Joel of the series needed to be less resilient. “We had a conversation about the toll Joel’s life would have had on him physically,” Druckmann recalled. “So, he’s hard of hearing on one side because of a gunshot. His knees hurt every time he stands up.” Mazin, who is fifty-one, said, “I guess there’s a tone where Tom Cruise can do anything. But I like my middle-aged people middle-aged.”

The onset of the covid-19 pandemic underscored the need for a more grounded approach to cataclysm. “If the world ends, everybody imagines that we all become the Road Warrior,” Mazin told me. “We do not! Nobody’s wearing those spiked leather clothes. People actually attempt, as best they can, to find what they used to have amid the insanity of their new condition.”

In July, 2src21, the series entered production, in Calgary, with Pedro Pascal as Joel and Bella Ramsey as Ellie. Mazin, an entertainer by nature, was a chameleon on set, equally at ease making bro-ish small talk with the grips and singing show tunes with the costumer. Druckmann, by contrast, was quiet and focussed, often pausing to consider his options between takes. He had years of experience directing video games, but, in his native medium, the player, not the creator, dictated the camera angles; now it was his job to guide the viewer’s eye. Although he found the process exhilarating, after months of shuttling back and forth to Calgary, he was struggling to fulfill his obligations to Naughty Dog. Feeling confident in Mazin, he decided to return to L.A. and advise from afar. He told me, “Sometimes you have to hand your kid over to someone else and say, ‘I trust you to take care of my kid, because I gotta tend to this other thing. Please don’t fuck it up.’ ”

In our conversations, Druckmann spoke enthusiastically about cinematic figures such as the director David Fincher and the composer Carter Burwell, but he’d found that people in Hollywood rarely had the same passion for games as he himself had for film. Often, he said, they expressed outright disdain. The first thing that struck Druckmann about Mazin was that he was conversant in both mediums. “He could talk circles around most gamers,” Druckmann recalled. The men both prized character relationships above all else. Equally important, Mazin seemed well equipped to handle executives and to settle creative differences. “Craig can be very charming, even when he’s saying no,” Druckmann explained.

Mazin, the son of New York City public-school teachers, graduated from Princeton with a science degree—then drove to L.A. against their wishes, determined to get into the entertainment industry. One of his first big breaks, “Scary Movie 3,” proved to be a nightmare: Bob Weinstein, its producer, called at all hours and showed up on set unannounced, adding and changing scenes. Mazin became known as a writer of parody films and crude comedies that performed well at the box office but received largely negative reviews. He also worked regularly as a script doctor. Though such emergency operations could be thrilling, he said, “I started feeling the tension of being better than the things I was working on.” His decades in features taught him to be protective of story and particular about execution. “The purest process is the writing,” Mazin told me. “Everything that comes after that is corrosive.”

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