Been there, done that

There are some gamers who seem to seek validation from some game that they spent dozens of hours on being adapted for cinema or TV. Is it because Roger Ebert put down our hobby decades ago when he was still with us? (Okay, to be fair, a certain someone who shall remain me had some definite opinions on Ebert’s verdict at the time and wrote an article in response that got translated into Italian and published; at this point I wouldn’t understand that article if I tried to read it.) So, when HBO announced a few years ago that it’d bought the rights to adapt the bestselling game The Last of Us: hey, how much more validation can you get? The network that ushered in the Golden Age of Television with modern classics such as The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood – and, more than that, the series runner would be Craig Mazin, whose outstanding miniseries Chernobyl had made people forget that he’d written the third and fourth instalment in the Scary Movie series.

I’ve played The Last of Us twice, its sequel once, and I can definitely see the attraction. The games created by the developer Naughty Dog are clearly inspired in part by so-called ‘prestige television’. They have a similar kind of feel, both in terms of the aesthetics and writing, and they have similar thematic ambitions. They’re games that want to be about something, and I’d say that they succeed in this (though perhaps not quite as much as their most rabid fans need to believe). Though, apart from their nuanced characters and insistence on ambiguity (and, yes, their great production values), they are also games in which you spend dozens of hours inflicting violence on (shush, don’t call them zombies!) human beings infected by Cordyceps fungi and turned into mindless killing machines, lest they inflict violence on you – which arguably makes it difficult to uphold the ambition for narrative nuance throughout.

I was curious when HBO announced that it’d turn The Last of Us into a TV series: I don’t have much of an opinion on whether games should be adapted into other media, but it’s not like I think they shouldn’t be. Clearly, adaptation can be creatively bankrupt, and it often is, especially when the main drive behind it is, “Hey, people liked this book/comic/game/film/TV series/plastic toy/breakfast cereal, they’re certain to buy a lunch box based on it, right?” But at the same time, all artistic creation is adaptation. Nothing is created out of thin air. Artists and storytellers take material and transform it. And certainly, when translating a story from one medium into another, while some things fall by the wayside, other dimensions can be gained. Adaptation is always an act of interpretation, and as such it can add new layers to the story that’s being told. Though I kept asking myself one question: if a game already tells its story in ways that are fairly similar to a certain medium, it might be easier to adapt that game to that particular medium, but what is the point? What does turning The Last of Us into television bring to the table?

I guess one answer to this question is this: playing a game and enjoying its world, its characters and their stories, can be difficult to share with partners, friends and family who don’t much play video games. My wife’s seen me play through The Last of Us, but it’s not like she sat next to me and watched the entire experience while I was killing infected with shotguns, Molotov cocktails and improvised shivs (and thank God for that). Whenever we enjoy a story and characters, it’s not unusual that we want to share them with people we care about. I was curious to see how she’d react to this particular story. And yes, I was also curious to see not only how HBO would adapt a video game, and this game in particular: gameplay translated directly into a non-interactive medium would be deadeningly dull – sneaking through perilous environments and picking off infected for half an hour without a single line of dialogue can be exciting, even fun, but it doesn’t make for good TV.

We’re only two episodes into the series, so I don’t want to talk too much about HBO’s adaptation before I’ve seen more of it, at least the first season that has been announced to cover the same ground as the original The Last of Us. (The game’s sequel will probably be told in another couple of seasons, but the first game and season tell a story that stands up on its own.) What I found fascinating so far, though, is this: watching the live-action adaptation The Last of Us makes for a strange, uncanny experience. We were watching episode 2, and the main characters – grizzled, cynical Joel (Pedro Pascal), snarky Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and desperate Tess (Anna Torv) – make their way through the desolate ruins of a hotel, its walls mouldy, its floor covered in several inches of swampy water. And the strong thought that was in my mind was this: I’ve been there.

I expect the scene had been shot on a sound stage rather than in an actual, existing hotel. Even if it was closely based on an existing hotel, it wouldn’t be one that I’ve spent a single night at. But my reaction wasn’t: I’ve seen this before, on the screen while playing The Last of Us. The sensation felt like seeing a place in a film that you’ve actually been to, it had that unrealness of seeing your home town in a random scene of a random film, and knowing that where Juliette Binoche or Ryan Reynolds are standing in the movie you’re watching, you’ve stood there, you’ve walked across that street. My sensation of watching these first two episodes was often one of intense, uncanny déjà vu.

Should this have been as much of a surprise to me? There is obviously a difference between being in a place and playing a game set in a place. And in its original game format, The Last of Us is what is called a third-person game, i.e. you don’t see things through your character’s eyes, you steer the character while you’re watching them do things – on a screen, much like you might watch characters in a film or on TV. And yet, my frequent thoughts were that I’d been there, I’d gone up those stairs, I’d looked out over the city from this rooftop. I hadn’t expected the sense of identification with the characters I’d played and the actions of theirs that I’d prompted by pushing this button and pressing that stick in a certain direction to be this tangible, even years later.

At the same time, I felt an odd, distracting kind of disconnect. In part it’s perhaps exactly because I’d originally controlled these characters through these environments, and now no manipulation of a controller would make them do anything other than what they were scripted to do – but it was also that I’d watched Joel and Ellie for dozens of hours, travelling through those places, saying many of those lines (or ones similar enough for the difference not to matter all that much) – and wearing those clothes, which felt especially weird. In adapting The Last of Us and creating props and costumes, HBO had generally decided not to reinvent the wheel: if Joel wears this kind of shirt and that sort of pants, he can wear them in the series as well. Naughty Dog’s art department has already delivered work as good as the artists HBO can afford, the series can well follow the same visual template, down to t-shirts and sneakers and backpacks. But I’d played Joel and Ellie for a long time, and those people on screen looked similar enough, but they weren’t them. They were actors playing the real Joel and Ellie – though what does that even mean when you’re talking about video games? And the actors were wearing the right clothes, which gave me the sense of watching some highly accomplished, carefully designed cosplay version of The Last of Us. It’s an imitation, but it’s not identical, and getting all the details just so only amplified the small differences. No doubt, both Pascal and Ramsey are well cast and do a great job with the characters – but there is an uncanny valley effect to watching them playing these parts, when I was so familiar with the originals, and when I felt an emotional connection to those originals because I had played them.

Because Naughty Dog’s 2013 game follows the conventions of cinema and prestige TV so closely, right down to the look and feel of props, costumes and individual locations, the uncanny valley effect is more strongly felt. It’s whenever HBO’s The Last of Us takes a breather from the game’s script and shows us something entirely different, that it starts to feel more like its own thing rather than a highly accomplished act of imitation. I’m curious to see the rest of the season, but I am hoping that I’ll be able to shake that strange sense of déjà vu, because it is thoroughly distracting. I suspect I’d not feel this nearly as strongly if I was watching a looser, and perhaps also a less accomplished, video game adaptation, something like Uncharted (also a movie version of a Naughty Dog game, though one that sticks much less closely to the original) or either of the Tomb Raider versions. It is ironic that it is arguably the most polished, well-made video game adaptation to date that may be resisting me the most – because the people making it recognised the ways in which the original game had already done their work for them. No need to reinvent the wheel… even if that wheel was originally digital and reacted to your gamepad inputs, right?

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