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Why 'The Last of Us' is HBO's Second Most Successful Show in More Than a Dozen Years

The series has broken the video game adaption curse, crossing over from niche game storytelling to a larger part of the nerd culture zeitgeist.

It’s been five weeks since “The Last of Us,” the TV adaptation of the 2013 hit PlayStation game of the same name, premiered on HBO. In those five weeks, the show has brought millions of people to tears, become a hit sensation across social media and, in many ways, emerged as the next big TV series to cross over from niche game storytelling to a larger part of the nerd culture zeitgeist.

Since its debut, the show’s pilot episode, “When You’re Lost in the Darkness,” has amassed more than 18 million viewers. On its opening night, that episode debuted with 4.7 million viewers — second behind only “House of the Dragon” as HBO’s biggest debut in the past 13 years, even eclipsing “Game of Thrones” itself.

The second episode of “The Last of Us,” titled “Infected,” had HBO’s largest episode one to episode two viewership jump ever—notching 5.7 million viewers, an increase of 22 percent from the previous week.

The show has become appointment television, and anecdotally, it has come up in my casual conversations with strangers and acquaintances more in the past five weeks than any other recent gaming adaption of note.

There has been a lot of discussion about if “The Last of Us” has broken the video game adaption curse—it has—but not as much discussion as to why and how crucial that achievement is for the video game industry moving forward.

“The Last of Us” represents the best of gaming storytelling. When the game released in 2013 on the PlayStation 3 to much success, it felt like a very specific generational change to gaming as we know.

Finally, video game technology had reached a point where it could tell immersive stories like never before, with beautifully animated cinematics swapping interchangeably with interactive, but still graphically breathtaking gameplay. In the previous generation, of the Xbox, the PlayStation 2 and the GameCube, storytelling was often sacrificed for graphical power—or, vice versa, storytelling and engrossing moments overpowered the presentation.

“The Last of Us” blended those lines like never before, and it’s why it has continued, even after nearly a decade since it hit shelves, to be one of gaming’s best-selling titles with two remasters, one for the PlayStation 4 and another for the PlayStation 5 and PC. As of December 2022, “The Last of Us” and “The Last of Us Part II” had sold more than 37 million copies.

Because of that rich deepness to the story itself, it felt almost as if the TV adaptation would be a surefire hit. Without spoiling for readers unfamiliar with the story, the concept is simple.

In 2013, a global outbreak occurs of a fungal infection that turns its hosts into zombies, and after 20 years of post-apocalyptic living, one girl, Ellie has survived the infection to tell the tale and potentially bring hope for humanity to find a cure. She is escorted across the country by a grizzled smuggler, Joel, who, through trauma, lost all of his humanity.

As authoritative nerd culture commentator Jason Concepcion, who appeared on my podcast “Visionaries” a few weeks ago, said, the story is almost “on rails,” making it a perfect candidate for an adaptation. Regardless of what you do in the game, the outcome remains the same and there’s an emphasis on each little bit of the game striking an emotion for the one holding the controller. In that way, it makes sense why it works.

But there’s also another read here: perspective.

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One of gaming’s pitfalls in its storytelling is that far too often the creators behind those stories do not pay attention to other forms of media. As a result, gaming is inaccessible to the millions who might be interested in the stories these game tell, had they been more thought-out.

Video game adaptations historically have had this issue—either one-to-one directly translating the campy nature of certain video game titles (hello, “Mortal Kombat”) or being made specifically for a gaming audience, who are often unwilling to pay for content.

Side note: The amount of people I’ve seen on Twitter, which admittedly is a bad representation of interest, who have said something to the effect of, “I played the game so I don’t need to watch the show” is obnoxious. Please kindly, shut the f—- up and let other people enjoy something special.

“The Last of Us” is not made for the loudest hardcore gamer who lives exclusively on Twitter and Discord. No, it’s made for the broader audience—the one that has turned the fantasy genre, by mass consuming “Game of Thrones,” or the comic book culture, by way of watching “The Dark Knight” and the Marvel Cinematic Universe thereafter, into staples of modern media consumption. It’s cool to be a nerd now. “The Last of Us” represents a next step in that evolution.

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It’s clear that the creators of the show, Neil Druckmann, the lead mind behind the game, and Craig Mazin, the executive producer of the award-winning HBO drama “Chernobyl,” understand that point finely. In fact, in much of their dialogue in the making-of, after-credits features and on the official companion podcast (a great listen, if you’re watching the show), it’s clear how much of their private pre-production discourse centered on this very specific line of thinking.

Unlike any video game adaptation live-action series before it, and accompanied only by Riot’s “League of Legends” animated adaptation, “Arcane,” on Netflix, “The Last of Us” assumes you know nothing about the universe—but rewards you with a wink and a nod if you’re a long-time fan of the games.

“Arcane,” in 2021, was the blueprint. Riot, to its credit, got it perfectly and the series resonated far and wide, engaging anime fans, comic book devotees and many of their ilk to discuss “League of Legends” and its universe like never before. “Arcane” deviated, like “The Last of Us” (more on that later), from the established “League of Legends” lore, but stayed true to each character’s meaning and built on top of its game-based foundation. It’s no wonder “Arcane”—and now “The Last of Us,” too—got a season two renewal in short order after its release.

“The Last of Us” is not undeserving of criticism, though. There is a part at the end of episode two that made me deeply uncomfortable in its tone and meaning, inferred or not (again, won’t spoil for now). But it has added a layer of depth to certain characters across all five of its current episodes in a way that not even the game could do without getting too side tracked.

The show has been able to do that because Druckmann is clearly not pearl clutching, despite speculation from fans otherwise; or if he is, it’s being pushed aggressively by Mazin and the network executives and somehow they’re all still chummy in a lot of shared media appearances. Hard to believe, though, if you listen to all of those appearances, which have been tens of hours of content already just over halfway through the season.

Instead, it’s more likely that Druckmann realizes what I and some others do: To make a successful gaming adaptation, you have to let go of your precious, preconceived notions of how people may change your work and be a guide on how to do it appropriately—not a constant pain in the ass.

And for Mazin, his love for the game is noted, and it’s a perfect pairing. As the story goes, it was Mazin who pushed the adaptation and leveraged the HBO executives on this story based off of the success of “Chernobyl.” Mazin doesn’t let himself get absorbed in the weeds and the changes between the show and the game are additive, not reductive.

Far too often do gamers—even in professional life as developers, content creators, etc.—feel the need to gatekeep. There’s something to be said about how until recently being a gamer was not cool. So being early to the phenomenon and taking all of the mockery and hate previously associated with it breeds a contempt for outside, more “prestigious” forms of media. But now, in 2023, where streaming platforms are vying for unique content, gaming adaptations are the new hot item for differentiation.

This one works; some may not. But it’s important moving forward that the people manning these shows and films understand that the loudest voice in the room, or this case Twitter or Reddit, is not representative of the mass audience. A few thousand comments versus 10 million viewers tells you all you need to know.

That’s why “The Last of Us” is working so well. It’s ignoring the loudest voice—the obnoxious gamer who overvalues their opinion. Instead, it’s playing for the masses, and it’s doing so damn well.