Micah Loewinger: You're listening to the On The Media podcast Extra. I'm Micah Loewinger. This week, we're looking at a forthcoming HBO show called The Last of US. It's about two strangers who end up on a perilous journey together as they navigate a zombie-infested post-apocalyptic America.
Speaker 1: If you don't think there's hope for the world, why bother going on?
Speaker 2: Keep going for family.
Speaker 1: I'm not family?
Speaker 2: No, you're cargo.
Micah Loewinger: The show, starring Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsay, is based on a hit video game of the same name. Combine that with the big appetite for doomsday storylines and you'd think this would be a safe bet for HBO, and yet, early reviews of The Last of US have elicited a bit of surprise across the Internet.
Speaker 3: Reviews and reactions for this thing are outstanding.
Speaker 4: Critics are calling it the best video game adaptation ever made. Not that that's saying that much.
Speaker 5: As we all know, video game adaptations have a horrible track record. We have had a couple that have been good. We have not had any that have been great, and the vast majority of them have been absolute garbage.
Micah Loewinger: It's what fans and Hollywood insiders have come to call the video game curse. For instance, last year there was Uncharted, starring Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg, a movie based on a video game series I really love.
Victor Sullivan: Both of you turn your keys clockwise at the same time. Shit Thanks a lot, you almost got me killed.
Nathan Drake: Clockwise, Sully?
Victor Sullivan: Well, it was 50/50, so I made a guess.
Nathan Drake: Clearly.
Micah Loewinger: The Uncharted games were high-octane, but the film was so flat I turned it off halfway through. Then there was the 2021 Mortal Kombat movie, which The Guardian called, "A silly and dated new attempt to transport the classic fighting game to the big screen, and a late-night drunk watch at best."
Speaker 6: Throughout history, different cultures all over the world referenced a great tournament of champions. That dragon marking, I think it's an invitation to fight for something known.
Micah Loewinger: Even Michael Fassbender couldn't save the 2016 Assassin's Creed movie from the video game curse. It earned a whopping 19% on Rotten Tomatoes thanks to its famously cheesy dialogue and convoluted plot.
Speaker 7: Welcome to the Spanish Inquisition.
Craig Mazin: I'm certainly aware of the video game curse. The easy part was that I got the best story ever told in video games in my opinion.
Micah Loewinger: That's Craig Mazin, the showrunner of HBO's The Last of US which premieres on Sunday. In a recent piece for the New Yorker titled Can a Video Game Be Prestige TV?, journalist Alex Barasch spent time with Mazin and his co-creator Neil Druckmann to understand where they think past adaptations have failed and why they believe The Last of US will break the curse. Alex, welcome to the show.
Alex Barasch: Thank you. I'm excited to be here.
Micah Loewinger: All right, let's start with the basics. The Last of US is a video game that came out in 2013 and it broke a lot of records. It was treated at the time as this huge step forward for the industry. A big-budget game that was fun to play and had a genuinely compelling story. In the first week of its sales alone, it sold more than 1.3 million copies worldwide. Then more recently, we got a sequel, The Last of US 2 which was released in 2020, also did really well. What's the premise of this world that developer Naughty Dog built?
Alex Barasch: The Last of US is a game that's set in the wake of this fungal pandemic that renders its victims progressively more monstrous. It's basically a zombie story, but with a lot more depth than the average version of that. You play as Joel, who's a smuggler who's tasked with shepherding this teenage girl called Ellie across America. I think the thing that people really responded to was the strength of those characters and the central narrative that they were saying. You come to care about these people and want to protect Ellie and you get to see also the way that various other people around them have responded to their new circumstances.
Some are trying to fight these repressive authoritarian forces, some are seeking a cure for the fungus, some are creating their own small safe havens and letting everyone else fend for themselves. I think it's a really richly drawn universe and has these characters that you become very invested in, and there are also some striking reversals over the course of the game. After you've been protecting Ellie for hours and she's been along for the journey with you, there's a point when Joel is critically wounded, and then you actually become her.
Micah Loewinger: It's an incredibly realized post-apocalyptic world that I think stacks up against some of the best modern post-apocalyptic novels and films, and in some ways, the game was made like a film. It featured high-profile actors who were filmed on a set. The cutscenes that we see in the game look computer generated, but they're based on real movement from actors.
Alex Barasch: Yes, that's right. They use motion capture. They were directing these performances, and you really do feel that cinematic quality in the game, and I think that's what has made it so uniquely suited to a television adaptation.
Micah Loewinger: In your most recent piece in The New Yorker titled Can a Video Game Be Prestige TV?, you allude to the fact that there's a pretty rocky history when it comes to trying to adapt hugely popular video game franchises for film and TV. Lovingly, fans and creators online have referred to this as the video game curse.
Alex Barasch: Basically, for three decades now, Hollywood has been trying to translate game stories and almost every attempt has failed. To my mind, I think there's a twofold challenge there, which is that you're taking stories from games into a passive medium and into a linear medium. A lot of these games what people enjoy about them is the act of play, the mechanics of it. When you're playing Assassin's Creed, you're having a great time sneaking around and trying to avoid detection or exploring this richly drawn historical world, but what you have when you actually bring it to the screen is just the story which is this incredibly convoluted SciFi justification for why you get to do those things in the game.
The other problem is linear storytelling. One of the big things in games is player choice and player agency and branching paths and narratives that can take different tracks depending on what you decide as the player. When you translate something to a linear medium, you need to make the decision, okay, are we aligning with these people or those people? Is the protagonist going to romance this love interest or this love interest? At every step that you take, every decision you make is alienating the player who took the other path.
It becomes very difficult to take the thing that they loved and replicate it on screen in a way that is both enjoyable for the fans and legible to people who have no idea about the source material.
Micah Loewinger: In your piece, you point out a few different variations of the curse. Let's start with the first example, the 1993 film based on the Super Mario Bros franchise.
Alex Barasch: Yes. This one was, I think, safe to say, fairly catastrophic. To set the stage, they had every reason to believe that this could work because the game on which it was based had already sold tens of millions of copies. It was wildly popular. Mario was incredibly recognizable to kids around the world.
Speaker 8: Mario brought his plumbing. No leak too small.
Alex Barasch: They really were ready to go on and make this Hollywood's first big venture into this arena, but what happened was there was a sort of embarrassment about the source material. There was an attempt to distance it from the source material, the tagline. They're protesting too much. It's this ain't no game. There's really this emphasis on trying to make it work for both sides and in doing so, pleasing neither.
You have, in the game, it's set in the Mushroom Kingdom and you have Mario and his brother rescuing this princess, and in the movie, they made them handymen from Brooklyn, they made the Princess Daisy into an archeology student at NYU, and then they created this incredibly convoluted reason for them to go into a parallel universe where it turns out she's actually the princess. You just lose people because there's no dramatic tension or plot that you can really follow.
Micah Loewinger: There's really not a strong story in Super Mario Bros.
Alex Barasch: Right.
Micah Loewinger: Then there's the fact that it's not clear that the people who made the film really cared about the game. The film star, who was a British actor who played Mario, later said it was, "The worst thing I've ever done. It was an effing nightmare." Part of that might have to do with the fact that when he was cast, he didn't even know who Mario was. In fact, he told a journalist this later in an interview.
Bob Hoskins: I didn't even know it was a game. It was my kids that told me. They said, "What's your next film?" I said, "I'm doing Super Mario Brother." "Oh, that's the game." "What?" "Yes, and this is you," and I saw this thing jumping up and down and I thought, "I used to play King Lear."
Micah Loewinger: I guess we could put that in the category of cynical attempts to make a buck off of a game while not honoring the source material in, I guess, a loving way, even though this was a challenging one, and then you have film adaptations that are maybe too much like the game.
Alex Barasch: Yes, probably the best example of that is Doom, which was a 2005 adaptation of the original first-person shooter essentially.
Speaker 9: Oh, there's something behind me, isn't there?
Alex Barasch: It was immensely popular and it tried to replicate the mechanics of the game in a way that just does not work at all in a passive medium. The climax of the film, you have this crazy first-person shooter sequence that took them months to plan, weeks to shoot, and it's totally illegible. It's like the camera is looking through the perspective of the main character and you just see his gun at the edge of the screen, and you are running around through his perspective and whipping around in different directions and shooting down enemies. It's just not dramatically interesting at all.
You're like, "What am I watching here?" There were various points throughout the film where they're pausing for applause almost. There's a moment when Dwayne Johnson finds one of the guns from the game and there's just this 360, minute-long, dramatic pan, and you're seeing him pick up the gun for the first time like, "Hell, yes." If you've not played the game and you've not seen that gun, you're like, "What are we watching here? Why have you paused the action and brought it to an absolute halt so that we can look at this big weapon?"
Micah Loewinger: You mentioned Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, which goes to show that these flops are not because there isn't star power or big budgets. When you spoke with Craig Mazin, the showrunner of HBO's The Last of Us, the forthcoming TV show, he's also one of the creators of the Chernobyl series, he made it clear that he had thought a lot about the curse when working on The Last of Us. He told you about another category of misfire adaptations using the example of Halo, the sci-fi series, and the Tomb Raider movies.
Alex Barasch: Yes, Mazin is steeped in this genre, I would say. He pointed out that a lot of video games are, in fact, already derivative of movies, so when you bring them back into the medium where they're story formula originated, you're getting an echo of an echo. It all pales in comparison to the original. You have Tomb Raider is basically a gender-flipped Indiana Jones. Some people have argued that Lara Croft was made a woman specifically to avoid those allegations, and Halo borrowed really heavily from Aliens.
Micah Loewinger: I love the sentence in your piece quote, "Returning to the medium where such story formulas had originated was like running text through Google Translate and back. Each iteration came out more garbled than the last." What's interesting about the Lara Croft and Tomb Raider movies, and then also the Resident Evil movies that are based on the hugely popular horror video games is that they were commercially successful despite being totally panned by critics.
Alex Barasch: Yes, to my mind, the test is whether you can serve two audiences; the fans and the uninitiated. There are some of these entries in the genre that have become cult classics or embraced as camp, but in a lot of cases, they're leaning very heavily on the knowledge that you have already as a player of the game. Without that, they're either dolly-competent action movies or totally incomprehensible, and the stakes are just not there at all.
With something like Resident Evil, when you play the original games, even though they're decades old, they're still scary because you have a baseline level of investment in surviving to the next area and progressing yourself and not getting killed, but when you take that into a film and the characters are just these thinly-sketched ciphers, you don't really have any reason to care about whether they get molded by zombies or not. All of the action and the energy and the tension goes out of it completely.
Micah Loewinger: Just to protect our Twitter mentions for the next month, can we at least acknowledge that The Last of Us is not, technically speaking, the first video game adaptation to "do it right"?
Alex Barasch: Yes, absolutely. I think it is the exception to the rule, but it is not the only one by any stretch. The one that I've found the most effective is actually an animated Netflix show called Arcane, which is very loosely based on League of Legends, but part of what made it work, I think there are two factors. First of all, it's not a one-to-one adaptation. It basically just took characters from the game and built a separate narrative around them rather than trying to replicate the experience of play. It's also animated and I think that, in general, animation has been much more successful in this arena than live-action which is where we see all of these goofy misfires.
Micah Loewinger: I guess a lot of this just comes down to taste and how you define success when talking about the video game curse. I guess what we're getting at with the last of us and the hype around it is that here we're going to have a show, so the gaming press has told us this week, by the way, it's all on the headlines, that's going to hit the sweet spot. It's going to satisfy the fans of the game while presenting a compelling cinematic universe and most importantly, something artistic, something that will be taken seriously in the way we expect from an HBO show that will excite critics and non-gamers. Do you think this show is going to pull it off?
Alex Barasch: I do. I spent time with the team as they worked, and I've seen what they have, and I think there are a lot of really distinctive elements. First of all, the source material, as we talked about, is inherently cinematic. Also, the people involved are conversant in both mediums. They care a lot about the game, but they're also not afraid to take risks and make changes where that will strengthen the story.
I think there are a lot of adaptations that veer to one extreme or the other, where they're either dismissive of the games and they say, "Oh, we can do it better" and they change too much, or they're slavishly devoted to the fans and they're afraid of alienating them, and they won't change anything, and there are things that don't work in TV or film that do work in games, and then you end up with something messy and incoherent. I feel like they have struck the right balance here in a way that will do something we've not seen before.
Micah Loewinger: For me, it was the horror element that made the game so fun and so engrossing. I'm so excited to see these monsters depicted in the show. Can you tell us a little bit about the real-world cordyceps that were the inspiration for some of the zombies in the game and the show?
Alex Barasch: Absolutely. Cordyceps is a fungus that actually exists. In nature, it hijacks the brains of ants and then commandeers their bodies, and in The Last of Us, it does the same to people. Essentially, when you're initially infected, you still appear human, but as the infection progresses, you look more and more alien in appearance, and at a certain point, the mesenterial filaments get into the brain and then erupt, and you have these fungal blooms on the tops of the heads of these creatures. As it continues yet further, these plates come all of their bodies and they become these just monsters, really.
They've always had this very visually distinctive design, but in the game, you are seeing them in these flashes. You're in these quick brutal confrontations, you're not really lingering on them, and in the show, you really have time to appreciate this alien beauty. It is this strange biological body horror, and there's a sense that there is a human being underneath all of that.
Micah Loewinger: Some of the infected lose the ability to see, and in the process, they gain almost hypersensitivity to sound. In the show and in the game, they make this clicking sound like [clicks] and they're using this echo location to hear their surroundings. It makes it chilling, you have to sneak around to not get their attention. It creates, I think, one of the most horrific uses of sound design in a video game.
Alex Barasch: The clicking noise that you just made, that is like sense memory, fight or flight. [chuckles] It is a very potent element of the horror in the game. Actually, what happened was, as Neil Druckmann was working on another game, he and his directing partner who had been batting ideas back and forth saw this nature documentary Planet Earth, and in that, they learned about cordyceps.
David Attenborough: Like something out of science fiction.
Alex Barasch: Which is this fungus that, in the real world, hijacks the brains and commanders the bodies of ants.
David Attenborough: The fruiting body of the cordyceps erupts from the ant's head.
Alex Barasch: In The Last of Us, it does the same to people.
Micah Loewinger: I have mixed feelings about this whole project because I loved the game, I thought it was a really memorable story. I am going to watch this show the moment it goes up on HBO Max. On the other hand, I'm a little down on this era of Hollywood where it feels like everything is a recycle, a reboot. I don't know, should we be excited about video game stories getting the popular recognition that they deserve in Hollywood, or should we lament the fact that this is yet another potentially successful example of just unimaginative mining of IP that's already popular?
Alex Barasch: It does speak to the state of Hollywood and this desperate scramble for IP. They've already pillaged comics and also tried to pillage games to varying degrees of success. I think the thing that's interesting here is that games themselves have become a rival to Hollywood. Last year, there was this survey from Deloitte that founded that among all the countries they surveyed, Gen Z respondents ranked video games as their favorite entertainment over and above television, film, every other medium. In 2019, Netflix was telling its shareholders that they compete with and lose to Fortnite, the Battle Royal game, more than HBO.
You're seeing the way this manifests in the industry right now. Netflix acquired an indie gaming studio, one that I quite like and I worry for their fate. Netflix alone has announced a dozen adaptations from Sonic Prime to BioShock. Basically, every streamer or studio out there is trying a version of this. I think a lot of them will also be failures. It's very possible they will not learn the lessons of what makes The Last of Us function in a way that past attempts have not. I don't know that this is the ideal ecosystem, but my hope is that we will get some interesting work out of it regardless.
Micah Loewinger: It's funny because I was going to ask you whether these film adaptations will encourage more people to play video games, but it's almost as if you're describing a world where the scales are tipped on the other side, where the TV studios are like, "Please stop playing video games and just watch our streaming services."
Alex Barasch: Right. It could go both ways. It would be great if people explored games as a result of being exposed to these stories in a different medium in the one they're more comfortable with. Obviously, there is this barrier to entry in terms of buying the console and learning to play, but I think there are great stories in that realm and I hope that people find them as a result.
Micah Loewinger: Alex, thank you very much.
Alex Barasch: Thank you.
Micah Loewinger: Alex Barasch is an editor and writer at The New Yorker. His latest piece is titled Can a Video Game Be Prestige TV? That's it for the podcast Extra. Tune into the big show on Friday to hear Brooke investigate all the hype around artificial intelligence. If you haven't already, head over to onthemedia.org to sign up for our famous newsletter. See you.
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