By: Sara Parulekar—A/E Editor
The Last of Us advertising poster with a close-up look
“I struggled for a long time with surviving. And no matter what, you keep finding something to fight for,” states Joel Miller, the main character of The Last of Us (2013), a universally acclaimed action-adventure video game. The mega-hit game has been praised for it’s intricate storyline, complex character development, stellar graphics, and depiction of female and LGBTQ+ characters. The video game has recently regained popularity through the 2022 HBO TV series adaptation.
The Last of Us features a unique post-apocalyptic plotline through the devastating effect of an infectious fungus from the Cordyceps genus, which manipulates the human body, essentially turning them into vicious, gruesome zombies known as the Infected. This is made even more alarming with the fact that this is a real fungus that inhibits ants and other invertebrates, as it spreads spores by deteriorating brain tissue. The Last of Us explores a civilization decimated by this parasitic fungus, and depicts a cruel, unforgiving new humanity–determined to survive at all costs.
The game begins with a flashback of the first Cordyceps outbreaks in the early 2000s, and focuses on Joel Miller, a 32-year-old single father in Austin, Texas. He manages to escape from the Infected, but not without the death of his daughter, Sarah.
Still from The Last of Us HBO TV show
Twenty years later, we see the resulting civilization–or lack thereof. Survivors live in in oppressive Quarantine Zones (QZs), paranoid independent settlements, or nomadic groups, plundering as they move across a desolate America. An older Joel Miller lives in a QZ on the outskirts of Boston, Massachusetts, as a smuggler. He wants to recover a stolen weapons cache, but his supplier reveals that he swindled it and sold it to the Fireflies, a rebellion group opposed to the totalitarian law enforcement within the QZs.
As Joel hunts down the cache, he encounters the leader of the Boston Fireflies, Marlene, who promises to double their cache if he smuggles Ellie, a teenage girl, out of the QZ. Marlene insists that Ellie is extremely important, but she refuses to tell Joel why. The reward draws Joel’s attention, and they sneak out, but through the rough process, Ellie is discovered to be infected. However, symptoms normally occur after two days–and Ellie reveals that she was infected three weeks ago–in other words, she is immune to Cordyceps.
The hope for a potential cure motivates Joel to take Ellie across the United States, defeating a variety of enemies–both humans and infected–along the way. Throughout their journey together, both characters struggle with their reason for survival, their humanity, and their relationship with each other. Ellie, who is only 14, relies on Joel as the first constant parental figure in her life. And Joel, after losing his daughter, struggles with his attachment to Ellie. Yet by the end of the game, it is evident that they have forged a unique, personal bond with one another.
Still from The Last of Us video game (2013)
With no surprise, The Last of Us became one of the best selling video games with its release, selling 1.3 million units in its first week of release, and 17 million by 2018. Although the game has spawned a media franchise including a 2013 comic book, 2014 live show, 2020 sequel, it is the HBO adaptation that was most anticipated by fans. The show features acclaimed Pedro Pascal as Joel, and Bella Ramsey as Ellie.
In The Guardian, critic Rebecca Nicholson says that the show “manages to find humanity in the ruins – and that makes it worth the hardship. Pascal is great, but Ramsey is phenomenal… Watching the pair’s relationship develop and deepen is desperately moving. The fact that it manages to resist a sentimental approach and yet still finds such soul is a real achievement.”
Freelance writer and game critic Barry Levitt admits,“The Last of Us embraces its roots as a video game, combining storytelling and staging elements that feel distinctly game-y with expressive cinematic camerawork, all to create an unforgettable experience.”
Behind the scenes shot from The Last of Us filming
Fans are equally as in love with the show. On Google Reviews, Austin Giles comments, “Though not a 1:1 remake, HBO’s The Last of Us expands upon the universe of the game, flushing out the characters and the world in a way that feels fresh and natural…HBO’s The Last of Us respects not only the fans of the game, but newer audiences who are just now dipping in their toes for the first time.”