I always thought that The Last of Us was an overrated video game. It was good, sure, don't get me wrong. But I never thought that it was the "pinnacle of story-telling in gaming", as many of its biggest fans suggested. To me, it was a good zombie story about the risk of closing ourselves off from each other, which was stapled to a good cover-based shooter. But, to me, the whole always felt like less than the sum of its parts. The gameplay of The Last Of Us was always more about setting a tone than about telling the story. And if your gameplay isn't helping to tell the story, then, as far as I'm concerned, you're not a particularly good example of the interactive video game medium.

So when HBO announced that it would be producing a TV mini-series adapting The Last Of Us, my initial reaction was "why bother?". Like with so many modern remakes, reboots, and adaptations of barely 10-year-old media, I felt like the original is fine, and if you want to watch a Last Of Us movie, you could just hop on YouTube and watch a compilation of all the cutscenes. Honestly, you wouldn't be missing much by ignoring any of the actual game -- let alone by not playing it yourself.

Very little of The Last Of Us' gameplay informed the story in any meaningful way.

Well, HBO's streaming series manages to simultaneously vindicate that feeling, while also showcasing that The Last Of Us does actually benefit from being adapted into the medium that it was always better suited for anyway. The creators of the video game, themselves, in adapting the game, basically cut out all of the actual video game. Virtually nothing that the player ever has to do in The Last of Us was translated to the TV show. It's as if all the actual video game was never really important at all to telling the story. The TV show basically adapts all the cutscenes, telling the same basic story -- sometimes better than the game did -- and without all the meddlesome video game getting in the way.

In the entire 10-episode mini-series, there is [I think] two scenes of our characters having to sneak past infected -- one of which is a flashback. And not a single one of the multitude of scenes in which Joel and Ellie are ambushed by random raiders is adapted at all. Seriously, the characters keep talking about how dangerous it is outside of the quarantined cities because of raiders, but yet we never once see any actual raiders. The closest we come is the ambush by the revolutionaries in Kansas City. Then there are a couple scenes of Joel and Ellie getting ladders or unlocking doors for each other, which was about the only part of the game that ever contributed to the story-telling by reinforcing the relationship and growing inter-dependence of the characters.

Under most circumstances, I would say that adapting a game by cutting out so much of the game would be a "bad thing". In this case, however, it isn't. It might actually be an improvement. I always felt like the bulk of the gameplay in The Last Of Us was just filler anyway. All the actual story -- all the stuff that everybody remembers and loves -- happens outside of the player's control.

The Last Of Us - clickers
The Last Of Us Episode 2, © HBO, Sony Television.
The Last Of Us - ladder
The Last Of Us Episode 9, © HBO, Sony Television.
Very little of The Last Of Us' gameplay was adapted into the TV show.

The growing fungal threat

The TV mini-series doesn't only cut gameplay content out; it also adds quite a bit new story, and changes things here and there. There are a lot of flashbacks to the days before the outbreak, and to the early days of the outbreak. These serve to provide additional characterization for Sarah, in order to make her a more fully-fleshed out character. It also provides backstory regarding the origin of the mutated cordyceps, and why Ellie is immune.

When The Last of Us released back in 2013, the idea of a cordyceps apocalypse was kind of laughable. Fungi can infect insects, but they cannot survive in the warmer bodies of mammals. The worst that humans have to worry about is topical infections like athlete's foot or yeast infections.

However, as the show points out in its opening minutes, there is actual growing concern from infectious disease experts that climate change could actually cause fungi to become a serious infectious hazard to humans. The reason for this is that the rising temperatures of the Earth (due to human-induced climate change) is causing many fungal species to adapt to warmer temperatures. Even just adding a couple extra degrees of temperature tolerance would be enough for certain fungi to survive in the warm-blooded bodies of mammals and cause serious illness. Cordyceps would need a lot more mutation than just a couple extra degrees of temperature tolerance in order for it to become a threat to humans, but other fungi (such as the yeast Candida Auris) have already begun causing serious illness to humans.

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The Last of Us 2 - title

Perspective shifts were used effectively in The Last of Us.

I'm a fairly outspoken critic of the first Last of Us. I felt that the gameplay was fairly shallow (though very well-produced), and focused too strongly on the zombie apocalypse plot at the expense of the surrogate father-daughter story that was being told. The best and most memorable moments were the opening scene in which you play as the scared 10-year-old girl as the zombie apocalypse breaks out, and the part where Joel and Ellie pet the giraffe. And maybe the very end where Joel confronts the doctors in the operating room, for those 40% of us who actually completed the game. And the only enemy encounter that was actually good and meaningful was the one-on-one cat-and-mouse boss fight with the cannibal David in the burning restaurant. Those sequences make up the emotional linchpins of the game and are genuinely moving moments of humanity [or inhumanity], and the perspective shifts that reinforce or contextualize those moments are -- dare I say -- artistic! But then 90% of the actual game that you play is rote cover-based shooting separated by stealth-lite and the occasional "puzzle" that never gets much more complicated than propping a ladder up against a wall.

For being a game about a grieving father eventually finding meaning in a surrogate daughter, it never really let the player act out the interactions between the characters. She was invisible to enemies in stealth and mostly took care of herself in combat. She lacked an upgrade tree and didn't really improve her combat or stealth abilities much over the course of the game, so there was also no ludic development of her character, and the player never feels like you are teaching her how to survive, or doing any of the surrogate father stuff that the game is supposed to be about.

So yeah ... overrated... Still good! But like a 7 instead of a 10 out of 10. "Sacrilege!" I know.

The companion isn't the sole focus of the narrative this time around.

This time, however, the relation between the player character and your NPC companion(s) is not the core of the story. This game is not about the character interactions that the player has no control over; this game is about the violence that the player absolutely has total control over! Ellie and Dina's relationship is the B plot behind the revenge plot, and gets further relegated to a C or D plot in the second half of the game. They're already friends/lovers before the game even begins, so there isn't much in the way of building a relationship. In fact, Ellie's story this time around seems to be more about how being a moody, self-absorbed teenager just pushes Ellie away from the people who care about her. It's more a game about being anti-social, which fits much better with both games' core gameplay.

Cycle of Violence

Now, I cannot talk about the artistic merit of the game without talking about the back half of the campaign. Naughty Dog may have embargoed publications from reviewing the second half of the game, but I'm not going to let that stop me from talking about it. Naughty Dog has no place telling critics or reviewers what they can and cannot tell consumers about the game. I'm personally not offended by the second half of the game like some other people are (I think it's the better half of the game, and Naughty Dog is lucky that I'm going to talk about it, because otherwise the game is a D-). I am, however, offended by Naughty Dog thinking they can impose a muzzle order on reviewers, even if it genuinely was in the interest of "not spoiling the game" (as opposed to just trying to hide a controversial element of design that might turn off some consumers). So yeah, I'm going to try to avoid specific spoilers of major plot developments, but this review will contain minor or moderate spoilers about the overall structure of the game.

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The Last of Us - banner

Are you as sick of zombies as I am? They're everywhere. Perhaps the real zombie apocalypse won't be caused by radiation or a genetically-engineered plague; it will be caused by media corporations drowning our brains in zombie entertainment until we all go crazy and start eating each other.

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Fungus zombies

OK, sure, the creatures in Naughty Dog's latest adventure game, The Last of Us, aren't actually "zombies", they are humans infected with a fictionalized variation of Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis. But they're functionally the same thing. The "infected", as they are known as in the game, are mindless, mutated monsters that shamble around and eat any human they become aware of. And if they bite you, you become infected and the fungus takes over your brain, turns your flesh into spore-producing tendrils, and makes you a cannibal.

Cordyceps-infected ant Cordyceps-infected moth Last of Us - Cordyceps-infected human
[LEFT] An ant infected with cordyceps.
[CENTER] A moth infected with cordyceps.
[RIGHT] A human infected with cordyceps, as depicted in The Last of Us.

The game takes place 20 years after the sudden outbreak of the human cordyceps infection that leads to the death of the protagonist's daughter. Society has collapsed into ruin, with the surviving 40% of people (including the protagonist, Joel) concentrated in quarantined ghettos in the remains of major cities. Joel is working as a smuggler, bringing food, weapons, and supplies into the Boston quarantine zone to be sold on the black market, and he is tasked with escorting a young girl, named Ellie, to a research lab out west. Ellie is unique in that she seems to be immune to the cordyceps infection. She was bitten weeks ago, and has suffered nothing more than some ugly skin lesions near the bite; whereas, everyone else begins to turn into a zombie within hours of being infected. This, of course, makes her survival paramount, and Joel must do whatever it takes to ensure her safe arrival at the lab so that the researchers can hopefully study her to find a cure or vaccine.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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