Watching Pixels Die: Sony, HBO, and “The Last of Us”

Watching Pixels Die: Sony, HBO, and “The Last of Us”
WITH THE ARRIVAL of Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan’s Amazon Studios adaptation of Bethesda Softworks’ Fallout on April 10, the long-heralded convergence of prestige video games and prestige television finally seems fully underway. A version of this synthesis had long seemed inevitable. Despite decades of usually half-hearted attempts and the prevailing sense that Hollywood has yet to take full advantage of video games as intellectual property with a built-in audience, studios have continued to view the medium as a potential gold mine. Now, at last, with those years of schlocky films fading from cultural memory, upcoming TV adaptations of Horizon Zero Dawn (2017), God of War (2005), and BioShock (2007) suggest that a significant change is underway. And with HBO’s critically acclaimed 2023 adaptation of The Last of Us—the “cinematic” 2013 game developed by Sony subsidiary Naughty Dog—we have at least one template for what this collision might look like.

That said, the HBO series’ cocreators, veteran screenwriter Craig Mazin and Naughty Dog copresident and creative director Neil Druckmann, have seemed intent on not providing that template for the industry. Even in promising to deliver “the best, most authentic game adaptation” and touting the media convergence, Mazin and Druckmann confess to its near-impossibility. “The most important thing was to keep the soul of it, what it’s about,” Druckmann mused on the eve of the series debut. “What makes the show are the characters, the philosophical arguments […] The least important part was the gameplay.” “It’s just the wrong medium,” added Mazin, who explained to Time that “[w]hen you’re watching television, which is passive as opposed to the interactive aspect of playing video games, your moral complications come from your emotional attachment to the characters you love.”

Gaming’s interactivity, they seem to say, can’t be ported to TV, and it’s wrongheaded to try. Better to reject the challenge and compensate for the loss with high visual intensity and an expanded field of ethical and affective relation. Better to cede the controller—when control of a linear narrative is, in any case, illusory—for absorption in that narrative. Better to give up haptic, quasi-existential intimacy with a character you play in favor of heightened emotional intimacies with and between characters you watch. Better, that is, to let someone else act on your behalf. “If Mazin and Druckmann have done what they set out to do, a shot of [Bella] Ramsey’s [i.e., Ellie’s] finger on the trigger will feel as visceral as having your own finger on the button of your controller,” Eliana Dockterman contends in the Time essay. “It may be an impossible feeling to replicate exactly, but we wouldn’t have more than a century of rich cinematic history if there weren’t power to be found in watching angst cast a shadow across an actor’s face.”

Acting on someone else’s behalf is, as it happens, the series’ central concern. That concern is focalized by the game’s constitutive metaphor: the cordyceps fungus that transforms human hosts into “infected” zombies, violent channels for an endless replication. In the game, that metaphor gets compounded with a contradictory structure of illusory choices that compel players’ identifications while denying them agency, a canny sublimation of interactivity that signals Druckmann’s ambition to transcend his medium long before The Last of Us was optioned by HBO. The series subsequently worries interactivity’s sublimation as the need to rationalize the limited agency still available to its “passive” viewers. All of these worries and rationalizations matter, at a greater remove, as reckonings with the flattening and dispersion of creative agency across the series’ metastasizing transmedia franchise.

Challenged to justify ostensibly “pointless” differences between the series and the game, Mazin declared that “[w]atching a person die, I think, ought to be much different than watching pixels die.” It’s a familiar refrain: the ethical and affective desensitizations of video games are lined up against the ethical and affective intensifications of cinema and quality TV. But the series is at pains to justify its ethical and affective primacy for much the same reason that Mazin and Druckmann are at pains to justify their creative primacy as showrunners to an “HBO original” produced by Naughty Dog, Sony Pictures Television, and PlayStation Productions. For all their auteurist bravado, they remain all too conscious that their series, however pedigreed and profiled, joins Sony’s steady stream of Last of Us remakes, remasters, and PC ports as yet another version of the same. And if the cordyceps seems at first to figure the “flat” collective agency of the series’ viewers, so too does it presage the flattening of the TV’s showrunner’s creative agency, in ways Mazin’s ethical exhortations are quietly desperate to resist.


If many critics have been quick to laud Mazin and Druckmann’s series as “the greatest video game story ever told,” a few wondered what might have gotten lost in translation. “HBO’s The Last of Us adaptation is astonishingly well made,” Judy Berman writes, “but something’s missing.” “The Last of Us has a tendency to feel like something crucial to making it work is missing,” echoes Charles Pulliam-Moore, “even though it’s a surprisingly faithful adaptation.” “Prestige TV can’t beat the experience of playing Last of Us: What The Last of Us on HBO misses—that the video game gets right,” reads Mac Schwerin’s headline. “HBO turned the story into unmissable television,” repeats Andrea Long Chu. “So why does it feel like something’s missing?”

What’s missing for Berman isn’t exactly what’s missing for Pulliam-Moore and Schwerin, and neither go so far as Chu in challenging the very premise of video game adaptation. Admitting to never having played the game, Berman intuits all the same that the medium is the message. “What’s the point of putting yourself through so much vicarious suffering?” she asks, questioning the series’ capacity to realize any novel or compelling “visions of spirituality, art, and love influenced by the ordeal of living through the end of the world.” That vicariousness informs Pulliam-Moore’s and Schwerin’s complaints, less gripes about The Last of Us’s tired postapocalyptic vision than its experiential flatness—the “pointlessness” ostensibly rooted in viewers’ inability to “take custody” or “become a part” of that vision via interactive gameplay. Chu’s objection sharpens all three complaints. If Mazin and Druckmann’s series fails to deliver a compelling experience, it’s not for lack of interactivity per se—not, that is, for TV’s inability to achieve the kind of immersive identification and haptic enrichment through which players “become a part” of the video game’s world and gain access to its aesthetic core. It’s rather that the “feeling of helplessness [within the game] is the whole point.” Flickering between the video game it evidently is and the quality TV it always anticipates becoming, The Last of Us, Chu adds, “often resembles a game that doesn’t want to be one.” But it’s precisely this medium’s ambivalence that makes it a “compelling study in powerlessness,” a reckoning with the “breezy conflation of interactivity with control.”

In the series, that reckoning takes new shape, no longer a reflexive meditation on illusory choices compelled by survival—the clichéd and hence critically redeemable stuff of gaming—but a call to rationalize viewers’ “vicarious” collective agencies. “We play video games on our own,” Mazin explains to Time, speculating that TV audiences might forgo the game’s closed personal formats and peculiar haptic prods in favor of “process[ing] [The Last of Us’s] darkness collectively,” as a “communal experience.” If the illusory choice describes the game’s sublimation of interactivity, then the series needs to justify acting on the viewer’s behalf, mulling passivity as the condition for collective “processing,” while at the same time investing that processing with the capacity to rebalance control away from those who act and toward those who merely watch.

The condensed image of that rebalancing appears at the climax of the series’ fifth episode, the reworking of a memorable combat sequence that occurs roughly midway through the game. In the game’s version, Joel (Troy Baker) snipes at a few dozen zombies and a handful of Kansas City militia members, from whom he and Ellie (Ashley Johnson), alongside brothers Sam (Nadji Jeter) and Henry (Brandon Scott), are on the run. As Joel is the main playable character, the entire sequence unfolds from his point of view. The series’ rendering changes little of substance, although the size of the militia, here helmed by rebel leader Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey), has quadrupled and so have the zombies, now flanking a hypertrophied infected person known as a “bloater.” What does change is Joel’s fixed point of view, replaced by a dramatic shot/reverse shot configuration that rebounds between Joel (Pedro Pascal) as he slowly takes aim from an upper-story hideout and Ellie as she slowly makes her way to safety on the ground below.

Up until this point, the series has established Ellie’s abiding need for Joel’s protection even as it has teased her appetite for violence; leery of Ellie’s claims to immunity, Joel initially opts to dispatch attackers solo, withholding an antique pistol that Ellie cannot, in any event, shoot straight. In this scene, however, Ellie’s relation to Joel becomes patently directive. Locking eyes as they settle on one target, then the next, Ellie effectively plays Joel, silently communing with her gunslinging protector to execute the kills that will allow her to move. Figuring a palpable burden of action that shifts between the character who acts and the one who cannot, the scene moreover conveys that action’s sublimation into an equally palpable burden of perception, an existential watching that is split between two subjects and charged with coordinated urgency.

The following episode, “Kin,” strengthens this dynamic. Suffering a string of panic attacks, Joel confesses to his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) a mounting paralysis as his feeling for Ellie grows. “[A]ll I did was stand there,” Joel whimpers, recalling Ellie’s near-dismemberment by a disease-sniffing dog. “I couldn’t move. I couldn’t think of anything to say, […] I was so afraid.” Joel experiences a degree of engrossment so intense as to paralyze him, his actions and reactions suspended by a phenomenological glitch that, not coincidentally, resembles gaming’s distortions and vertiginous effects. Another image of becoming-active in and through passivity, it is not by overcoming but rather by embracing these phenomenological glitches that Joel is finally capable of the extreme violence he’ll need to perform for Ellie and for himself, an illusory choice that disperses and volatilizes his agency.

What undergirds these dispersions and volatilizations is the gradual liberalization of Joel’s paternal love, its expansion into a kind of collective affect akin to the TV audience’s “communal experience.” Over and again, Mazin and Druckmann rehash Joel’s investment in Ellie as the transfer of affects lodged elsewhere and held by others, as actions taken by Joel on Ellie’s behalf but also on behalf of others who, in turn, act on behalf of their own Ellies. “I never ask you for anything, not to feel the way I felt,” Joel’s dying lover, Tess (Anna Torv), vents before securing his promise to escort Ellie to a group of scientists working on an antifungal “cure.”

Charged by that affective debt, Ellie becomes a cipher for others’ unfulfilled promises and unrequited loves. Soon after Tess “turns,” Joel’s old smuggling acquaintance Bill (Nick Offerman) invests Ellie with queer desire. “I used to hate the world, and I was happy when everyone died,” he writes to Joel. “But I was wrong. Because there was one person worth saving [his partner, Frank, played by Murray Bartlett]. That’s what I did: I saved him. Then I protected him. That’s why men like you and me are here: we have a job to do. And God help any motherfuckers who stand in our way.” (Bill himself is amply coded as a gamer: painfully repressed, he bunkers down with an arsenal of weapons long before the pandemic arrives, surrounded by dozens of flat-screens.) Later, Ellie will be figured as Joel’s kin, assigned the role of disabled younger brother by way of analogy to Sam (the target, along with his older brother Henry, of Kathleen’s vengeance) and of messianic elder by way of likeness to Michael—Kathleen’s martyred brother, given up to a brutal security state by Henry (Lamar Johnson) to protect Sam (Keivonn Montreal Woodard).

Yet amid this gamut of intimacies, the label that seems most apt to describing Ellie and Joel’s bond is, as the series’ musical refrain and preponderant activity would have it, of two “best friends” who are “taking a ride.” And this because, despite their overdetermined relation as father and daughter, what binds Joel to Ellie and Ellie to Joel isn’t simply family feeling but something more reflexive and mimetic, not just the “resemblance” of “kin” but a shared affinity: a common mourning for a common love. For Joel, that love is Sarah, the daughter who amenably sat through deleted scenes from his favorite Mortal Kombat–style DVD and was later killed by the military. For Ellie, it is Sarah’s doppelgänger Riley (Storm Reid), another best friend killed by Ellie in self-defense following a night of Mortal Kombat II arcade revelry that sees the girls attacked and Riley “turned.” “Best friends,” then, if always something more, their common loves and losses toggling between the living room and the arcade, the DVD player and the console, movie and game.


“Best friends” may not fully capture Mazin and Druckmann’s professional rapport as they adapted The Last of Us to television, although it is the characterization given by Shannon Woodward, the mutual collaborator who introduced the two. Druckmann has referred to cocreating the series as an exercise in “co-parent[ing],” with Mazin, the Naughty Dog IP he’s long personified as his “kid.” He has similarly spoken of the codevelopment of that IP, with game director Bruce Straley, as a “marriage.” Those metaphors surely evince the affective register of these creators’ professional bonds. But it’s hard not to view them as expressions of the core concern of both the game and the series: of illusory choices made under constraint and with a resignation born of necessary compromise, of actions taken on behalf of others—cocreators, yes, but also production companies, corporate parents, transmedia partners—at a moment of intensified interindustrial integration. If Mazin and Druckmann think this integration out loud as the conundrums of individual and collective agency, perhaps it’s because they find those agencies increasingly elusive, transformed by continually evolving production processes stretched across multiple corporate interests.

From a certain light, The Last of Us seems little more than HBO’s latest high-stakes gamble for the next “killer app,” a gamble congenial to Sony as it ratchets up its transmedia franchising. Is the series, then, an instance of HBO acting on Sony’s behalf in order to act on its own? Of Sony acting on HBO’s behalf toward those same ends? Of some peculiar “parasitic” mutualism? Beholden to feedback-driven cycles that flatten producers and audiences alike into networked collectives, neither game nor series seems to know. And in that state of not-knowing, Mazin and Druckmann can’t help but confess that everyone is really “best friends,” an ever-mutating collective agency the series constitutes reflexively as its defining symbol and symptom: the cordyceps-infected, infinite replicators of a distending franchise punctuated here and there by HBO-Sony “bloaters.”

But not without envisioning a tentative redemption. As The New Yorker reported, Mazin described an early script for the series that briefly made a cordyceps-infected man its protagonist: “He lifts his head. The sun shines warmth on his face. He rises slightly toward it. A soft breeze flutters through his hair. This is a living creature in a living world.” The creature is Mazin, his fantasy of infected personhood an allegory for the showrunner-auteur, encapsulated but still very much alive at the heart of an increasingly dispersed creative enterprise. HBO’s series never delivers that scene, but Mazin and Druckmann do realize others that are remarkably similar, windows onto the interiority of the cordyceps that figure TV’s ethical intensifications—empathic responses that can’t be solicited by mere pixels—while at the same time rendering the showrunners’ pained self-understanding.

The first follows immediately from Tess’s self-sacrifice at the Massachusetts State House, her infection conveyed as a sexual assault. Ellie and Joel have just stopped off at a gas station mini-mart, inexplicably stocked with a Mortal Kombat II arcade cabinet. (Those infected to whom Mazin and Druckmann award these close-ups are almost always framed by video game hardware, as when Ellie and Riley are attacked by yet another infected who was awakened by the sound of the girls playing MKII. The cocreators seem to be saying, yet again, that television can and should make you feel things that games cannot: realize pixels as persons.) Uncovering a hidden basement, Ellie drops down and starts to look around. She finds a box of tampons and, shortly afterward, a cordyceps-infected man trapped under piles of rubble. Retracting her Italian stiletto, she slowly cuts across the man’s forehead, his yellow eyes quivering as fungal brains spill out. A few more lingering shots of the infected’s terrified gaze, and then a brutal blow to the head.

In terms of the story, it’s Ellie’s payback for Tess, if also a sneak peek at her sadistic likeness to Joel. But we’re made uneasy not by that reveal—the dashing of Ellie’s innocence, an augur of her feminist rage—but by this confrontation with a pixel-turned-person, a glimpse of the only personhoods to which Mazin and Druckmann have access. Conscious of the art they make and the artifice it requires, it’s the admission of their status within the transmedial system: “auteurist” figureheads, artificial from the start.

LARB Contributors

Maria Bose is an assistant professor at Providence College in Rhode Island. Bose and Jason Willwerscheid are writing a book on Sony and the invention of the prestige video game.
Jason Willwerscheid is an assistant professor at Providence College in Rhode Island. Willwerscheid and Maria Bose are writing a book on Sony and the invention of the prestige video game.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!