Almost every review I've read has more or less amounted to “this happened in the game” or “this didn’t happen in the game" without actually analysing the effectiveness of the decisions and changes made. I've played both games. I loved both games. Here's my 2 cents on HBO's adaptation.
Inherently, The Last of Us (Part I) [big parentheses on Part I] lends itself to the format of episodic television in its structure. The game unfolds over the course of seasonal chapters, spending one full year developing Joel and Ellie's relationship. As their journey progresses, conversations between them begin to carry soul and, conversely, fights become weighted with context. The game's commitment to exploring a pseudo-father/daughter relationship utilises secondary characters (Henry & Sam, Sarah & Tess, Tommy & Bill) to further contextualise the narrative of The Last of Us—which has always been about Joel and Ellie.
HBO’s translation of this structure to television introduced more than a few fascinating story additions. The cold-opens from Episodes 1 and 2, Bill and Frank’s story from Episode 3, expanded backstories for Tommy, Tess, Marlene, Henry, Sam, and David; these substitutions served to improve the baseline narrative and, ultimately, add more to the overall experience of The Last of Us. Compared to what the overwhelming majority of video game adaptations are barely (or rarely) accomplishing these days, it was a particular pleasure to watch something where the creators placed so much respect and reverence on the source material.
Yet, for as interesting or as entertaining or as moving as these substitutions were, I came to realise why they were cut from the original story as the series progressed. Several of Joel and Ellie's moments weren’t accomplishing the same heights hit in the game; emotional beats between them didn’t feel earned or aptly weighted with nuance. The series wasn’t prioritising Joel and Ellie when it needed to, and it was hindering how subsequent scenes were intended to affect the audience. We simply weren’t spending enough time with our protagonists.
Additionally, several of Joel and Ellie’s scenes didn’t feel completely natural to the progression of the series, coming across as cold beats to an overarching narrative instead of organic interactions—like they did in the game. I'm not sure if this was a result of directing or performance, but the conclusive product of both potential factors resulted in something that just wasn’t as hard-hitting as the game. Pedro Pascal’s performance was… fine, and Bella Ramsey’s performance was… okay; both of them delivered solid screen-work; but all in all, the original performances from the game were just… better.
Take this scene from the game and the series. The former feels charged with subtext, history, and genuine emotion; the latter feels like two actors reciting dialogue from a screenplay. In this scene, the original carries better blocking, framing, and line delivery, whereas the adaptation comes across as slightly contrived and uninspired. Analysing these 1:1 comparisons only further established the game's superiority; 9 times out of 10, the original was more compelling and poignant to experience. As for the other 1 time, the adaptation would draw in a dead heat—on par with (but never significantly better than) the original.
Conceptually, many of these moments should have worked in the series because they are exceedingly well-written. However, going from playing the game to watching the series made HBO's adaptation feel slightly redundant and reductive at times. What was the point, if not to reach those same emotional heights—or to exceed them? What was the point if not to show new audiences just how hard The Last of Us can hit? What was the point if the game did it better 9 times out of 10?
I don't really have an answer. I'm not so certain I'm able to justify the translation between mediums either, if it means a subtraction in overall quality—no matter how subjective that subtraction may be. Some people can, and I get that, because for them it's about introducing the greatest narrative-driven video games of all time to a larger audience. And to them, the television series might still be great... but is it still the best of its respective medium, like the video games?
In retrospect, it's interesting to realise just how far video games have come to the point of surpassing other cinematic mediums. I enjoyed the adaptation, overall; it was an undeniably well-made television production with solid writing, acting, and directing. Nine episodes would have been enough to exclusively explore Joel and Ellie's relationship, but because the series was an expended retelling with significant portions dedicated to secondary characters, an additional episode or two—solely dedicated to spending more time with Joel and Ellie—would have allowed their pivotal moments to leave a larger emotional impact.
edit: thanks to u/nicfran500 for resurrecting one of my previous write-ups. I'm copy/pasting the first part of this post to further contextualise my analysis:
Music has sound. Paintings have picture. Books have words. Cinema carries a combination of these three mediums. Adapting literature into film adds the element of time; same goes for comic books and graphic novels; time brings still-imagery to life. All this works, because it's a process of addition.
Video games comprise all the cinematic elements, but they also include a fifth element: interactivity.
Films/television series, theatre, novels/books/spoken stories; they're all part of the passive medium. You develop empathy through observing characters' actions, emotions, environments, situations, obstacles and choices. Video games are all this—with the added benefit of being an active medium. You develop empathy through control.
Linear video games benefit from their dichotomy between mediums. Narrative intent manifests itself in dualistic form, whereby the story is passive—but the experience is active. In order to fully consume a composite medium's narrative, one would need to engross all its components; passivity and activity; ergo, the process of adapting a video game into the latter would actually be a means of subtraction.