Videogames are not movies. They share common elements and both present audio visual narratives, but that’s about where the similarities end. I’ve made my feelings about videogame movie adaptations known before, mostly in response to possible Mass Effect and Deus Ex: Human Revolution movies. Long story short: it would be impossible to condense the amount of player choice found in those games into a single, linear narrative. So many players experience those games differently, and a movie that only picks one of many conceivable paths would just aggravate the very people it’s marketed at. I did, however, express a more positive attitude towards cinematic adaptations of more linear games like Halo or Call of Duty.
Take Halo for example; it has a rich universe and back-story to pillage from without treading on the toes of any future Halo games, and its gameplay is linear enough for most players to have experienced it in roughly the same manner. Of course, there would be no “Legendary” mode for the movie wherein the main character dies and re-spawns 200 times before the film’s climax, but for the most part, a cinematic adaptation of the Halo universe can, and arguably has been, done.
The Last of Us falls into an odd sort of middle ground. It isn’t the multiple path, choice ridden adventure found in Mass Effect or Dragon Age, nor is it a decidedly linear experience like Halo or even Naughty Dog’s previous success Uncharted. The Last of Us follows a linear story – there is a beginning, a middle, and an end, kept securely in the talented hands of the game’s creative director, Neil Druckmann, and out of the hands of the player – but there are also moments of divergence, moments where the player can delay narrative progression in favour of character beats or exploration. With this in mind, we can agree that The Last of Us isn’t a wholly linear experience, nor is it a sandbox experience or an exercise in explicit choice.
Each medium comes with a set of restrictions and advantages when it comes to telling a story. With literature, an author is relying heavily on a reader’s own imagination and intellectual capability, but in doing so, they can tap into a character’s innermost thoughts and feelings. With cinema/TV, we can experience visual interpretations of stories, a marriage of artistic flair and storytelling (rather like a comic book). Only in doing so, we often sacrifice the intimacy and information that literature can provide through internal monologues and thought processes. With videogames, you can pretty much accomplish all of these and then some. Games allow us to experience gorgeous cinematic stories, with the added benefits of text pop ups, internal narration (this does happen in films, but I’d argue it’s far more prominent in games), and a sense of attachment to a character that can only come from controlling their movements and behaviour. This is why games are such a powerful medium for storytelling. This is also why a The Last of Us game is pointless.
To adapt the game into a movie would be to admit that there were limitations or flaws within the “game version” that could only be improved upon by adapting it for screen, when really there aren’t any. The game allowed us to walk in the shoes of Joel and Ellie and experience their hardships first hand. Through some wonderful direction, voice acting, and motion capture technology, it provided us with characters to rival those found on most movie sets, with the added bonus of being in control of those characters. When the cut-scenes were over, we assumed the role of Joel/Ellie, rather than just being sidelined and watching from the outside. Would the emotional impact of Sarah’s death have been as great if we had simply been watching through the lens of a camera? Sure that sequence has wonderful acting, music and writing – all of which could be recreated faithfully – but to have walked in Sarah’s shoes at the game’s outset and experience her fear and panic first hand (through some excellent animation I must add) is something that would be lost in a cinematic adaptation.
Even some of The Last of Us‘ more “gamey” filler moments, like its unusually frequent ladder/plank puzzles, were somewhat valuable towards the end of the game. The monotonous routine had really taken its toll on Ellie, something which was excellently portrayed through a mechanism that originally felt like dull padding for time.
There’s also the issue of actor replacement. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson (and arguably Nolan North as the sinister David) provide career best performances, though they look nothing like the characters they portray. Does Druckmann sacrifice these great performances in favour of looks and star power, or does he bite the bullet and retain Baker and Johnson, leaving the film feeling Joel and Ellie-less, at least visually?
I have no doubt that The Last of Us movie will be enjoyable. Hell, with source material that good it’d be hard to screw it up too badly. But I’m also confident that the film can’t accomplish anything that the game didn’t. When such a fantastic, cinematic piece of storytelling already exists in game form, why not just play the game? Since gaming is becoming one of the largest forms of entertainment media in the world, one can’t even argue that a cinematic adaptation would bring it to a larger audience.
Is putting our most beloved games on the big screen really going to add anything to them, or will it simply detract from what made them great in the first place?