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March 10, 2014

So The Last of Us is getting a movie.

First question: why?

Second question: how come?

Third question: did you catch that vague Simpsons allusion?

If you’ve read this blog for a while -- and I can only imagine what stroke of misfortune led to that -- then you might know that I don’t exactly hold The Last of Us in high esteem.  There are a lot of reasons why; as you can guess, there are too many to list in the space of a single paragraph, so I’ll just recommend checking the Let’s Discuss tab and leave it at that.  Whatever the case, I’ll be blunt.   It seemed like every time I tried to give the game a fair shake, it did everything in its power to grind its butt all over my face.  And that’s true even today; I have no earthly clue why Naughty Dog wouldn’t make the significantly-better (but flawed all the same) DLC the main game, because the main game is so riddled with faults that even the most crushing of sad guitar songs isn’t enough to change my opinion.

On that note, let me make something clear…again…even though I shouldn’t have to, but this IS the internet, so whatever.  If you’re reading this and you actually like TLoU, then that’s fine.  You’re not wrong for liking it.  You’re not any worse off for it.  I disagree with your opinion -- STRONGLY -- but I don’t feel any need to harass anyone from thinking differently from me.  Likewise, I’m not trying to force anyone to see things the way I do.  If that happens as a consequence of my word-spewing, then that’s okay.  But more than anything, this is a way for me to make an argument and support it.  Make a case and prove it.

Now.  Back to the topic at hand.

The Last of Us is getting a movie.  Or at least it’s been announced, in a way.  In my eyes, it hasn’t “gotten a movie” until it’s out in theaters and in a format that can be consumed by the public.  That’s a pretty clear distinction; after all, if we play fast and loose with the semantics we can say that things like Akira and Bleach have gotten live-action movies.  But if we assume that this thing goes through, and that this announcement (itself the result of months of teasing/discussion) is the precursor to an official release, then yes, we’re actually looking at a movie.  People who don’t exactly go out of their way to play games are going to have a chance to be exposed to what millions of gamers have experienced to its conclusion.  And in that respect, that’s a good thing.  People should be able to enjoy, and be exposed to, a good story.

Too bad they chose the worst possible story to expose.

Okay, so let’s play the numbers game for a bit.  A while back, Sony had a good pat on the back for TLoU reaching 3.4 million in sales.  You’d think that they’d be calling it a failure, given the whole triple-A/”sell 5 million copies no matter what” mantra, but from what I’ve heard Naughty Dog saved on the price by way of using assets/tech from the Uncharted games.  (It probably helped that they didn’t bother making those blasted, no-doubt-pricey live-action commercials that don’t tell you anything about the game but the title.)  And if you take VG Chartz’s numbers at face value, then as of this post the total count is creeping up on five million.  That’s not bad, but it’s still a far cry from CoD numbers, Skyrim numbers, Assassin’s Creed numbers, or even Uncharted numbers.  Granted all of those have the benefit of being part of established franchises, but if we’re going solely by sales, then any one of those is deserving of movies.  To say nothing of the fact that Resident Evil 6 also had comparable numbers, despite being complete schlock.  So what, is that going to get a movie --

Oh.  Right.

Naughty Dog is teasing and teasing about making TLoU 2.  Last I heard, the chances were 50/50, but if my understanding of the current games industry is right, the company is probably going to err on the side of a surefire profit excess and cave.  It’s safe to say that they have every intention of spinning a one-off title into a franchise, because that’s what they’ve done before with great success.  But if that’s the case, why make a movie out of the game now?  It hasn’t even been a year since it came out.   It has its fans, sure, but even if more people played it than bought it, can the market for a video game compare to the market for a theatrical release?  The name means something to fans, sure, but to movie-goers?  I’m not convinced -- especially if they see “based on the video game” or something in a promo.

What I’m getting at here is that TLoU doesn’t have the establishment it needs to justify a movie.  Like I said, it hasn’t been a year.  To date, there’s only been ONE game and ONE piece of story DLC, and maybe ONE comic.  If it had two or three more games under its belt, then maybe it could work out.  If its numbers after several installments beat Uncharted after several installments, then maybe that could work.  If by some miracle it gained more cultural clout, then maybe it could work.  But right now it feels like they’re trying to push a story that doesn’t need to be pushed -- and I’m concerned that it’s going to hurt the original product more than it does help.

Whether you agreed with/enjoyed the ending of the game or not, TLoU came to a conclusion.  It was one that didn’t offer much in the way of closure (in the sense that it had to leave open the possibility for sequels), but it did end.  It’s done for now.  It told its story as best it could.  So the questions that follow are A) how are they going to tell that story again, and B) is it even a good idea in the first place?  I would imagine that the game played out the way it did because, you know, it was a game.  It had its set of conventions, and played to them.

Can those elements -- the gameplay elements, well outside the bounds of those million-dollar cutscenes -- be translated into the movie?  Assuming that the movie stays at the top of its game and isn’t just a cheap cash-in, it would have to portray actions and events with a greater sense of realism.  I’m not just talking about regenerating health and on-the-fly weapon crafting; Ellie would have to be in real danger.  The AI wouldn’t be able to ignore her anymore -- and beyond that, she’d have to come under fire in a way the game was reluctant to show until its final hours.  Does a legitimate and constant threat to a teenage girl sound like the sort of thing that’d go over well with the average movie-goer?  Is the movie actually willing to go that far?  Because if it’s not, it’s going to come off as just as much of a disservice as it did in the game.  Maybe more so.

There’s something that I’ve been wondering about TLoU for a while now: is this a story that needed to be told?  Believe it or not, I think it did; conceptually, there’s some real promise in there, and it could have worked remarkably well.  But in terms of design and execution, it suffered severely.  It didn’t push any boundaries, it didn’t give itself merit, it didn’t explore its possibilities, it didn’t have anything important to say after the first hour (if that), and the central premise -- a man and his daughter on a zombie-filled road trip -- ended up getting hamstrung every step of the way.   Its stumbles forced me to revoke that goodwill; had I known that the game would turn out so poorly, then I would have said upfront that it didn’t need to be told.  Not in that form, at least.

So why, then, would making it into a movie even be an option?

What can TLoU do on the big screen that it couldn’t do as a movie?  I was under the impression that the entire point of the game was for it to create a tense, emotional experience -- something visceral that gamers would feel every second.  And apparently, the next step is to take all that away and make a passive experience out of an active one?  Unless this movie is going to be a big departure from the game, then we already know how it plays out.  Turn it into a movie, and what’s gained?  Why bother trying to make a dramatic tale centered on the personal struggles of a few scant and weary survivors when THIS is one of the most popular shows on TV right now?

Has zombie fiction not been tapped enough?  Is there anything that a Last of Us movie can contribute that many other movies haven’t already?  Is the assumption just that mediocrity and the mundane is enough to win adoration?  Setting aside my issues with the game, I don’t see how making this particular story available for a broader audience is going to do the brand any good.  TLoU is only good by video game standards, at best.  I’m working under the impression that zombie fiction is a genre that demands the stupidity of its characters, to the point where you could hardly call them realistic.  (I guess that’s another way it could step on The Walking Dead’s toes.)

The game might have won awards -- some more illustrious than others -- but is that going to be enough to win the same approval from movie critics?  If the game is the virtual equivalent of Oscar bait, then what does that mean for the movie -- a movie which is based on a game which in itself is heavily influenced by a book, and similarly borrows conventions from virtually every zombie story ever?  Frankly, it’s to the point where the only thing bold about TLoU is that ending -- one so obvious and unsatisfying that it has the impact of a silent fart in a breezy playground.  Is it really the wisest idea to expose the faults of an “award-winning” title?  Is that the kind of attention you want to draw from the populace? 

But the biggest issue I have is that, all things considered, a movie version of TLoU is completely redundant.

Because we already have that movie.  IT WAS CALLED THE LAST OF US.

From start to finish, the game tried so hard to sell itself as a movie -- as an emotional, “cinematic experience” -- that it forgot to sell itself as a good game.  But even if you don’t agree with my obvious bias, you have to admit that a LOT of effort went into making the cutscenes and the story at large as movie-like as possible.  And on that note, Naughty Dog succeeded; they turned what should have been an active experience only occasionally informed by cutscenes into a chain of triggers that wouldn’t be out of place in Final Fantasy 13.

So now the intention is to do that all over again, only this time they’ll do it with real actors?  Why?  What could they possibly gain from that?  The only justification is if they go off the script and add in new things (or create a completely different story).  And even if they did that, what could they do that wouldn’t trip up Naughty Dog?  What could they do with the canonical and tonal constraints of the game?  In the grand scheme of things, is that something even worth seeing?  Fan or otherwise?

This should be pretty obvious by now, but I don’t understand why this movie is a thing that might happen.  Think about it: what does that -- and TLoU at large -- say about games in general?  “The only way to be high-quality is to be more like a movie”?  So what, now that it is actually going to be a movie, it’s reached the highest plateau?  This is its reward for a job well done?  For making the work easy for Hollywood?  No.  Screw that.  

Video games are not inferior to movies, and movies are not inferior to video games.  They are equal.  They have their strengths and weaknesses, and when combined they come out to the same basic level.   But games can do things that movies can’t; we all know this by now.  That’s been proven time, and time, and time again.  The medium is not going to gain legitimacy by aping another medium, and tugging on its coattails like some crying toddler.  It’s going to succeed based on its own merits -- the way it has been for years.

Naughty Dog, you want to make a movie out of your one game?  Fine.  Go ahead.  But do me a favor, if you’d be so kind: don’t give me any more bullshit.

Well.  This post is becoming thoroughly unpleasant.  I think I’d better wrap it up early.

Sorry I had to harp on this game.  Again.  But it just feels like people are giving it a free pass when it’s barely done anything -- or hasn’t done anything, really -- to deserve it.  Like I said, I don’t think anyone is wrong for liking it.  I can’t stamp out someone’s opinions to replace them with my own.  But as I’ve said before, anyone who thinks that the game is perfect needs to reconsider immediately.  There is no such thing as a perfect story -- game or otherwise.  If we can understand and dissect stories -- the games we play, the books we read, the movies we watch, and more -- then we can enjoy them more thoroughly, take certain lessons to heart, give bad stories the tirades they deserve, and do our best to improve the stories around us.  Whether we’re creators or not, we can give our support, and our scorn, as needed.

If we start getting complacent, then our standards are going to start slipping.  Suddenly, the stories that wouldn’t pass for kindling would get held up as the new Bible.  We can’t let that happen.  We need to keep our standards in that sweet spot -- a point where we can know when a story does something wrong, but also a point where we can appreciate when a story does something right.  And maybe that’s my big issue with The Last of Us; it’s not the fact that it exists or does things that I don’t like.  It’s because if it keeps going -- if the game(s) and its movie(s) waltz their way to fame and fortune -- then we’re going to have a drop in standards.  That’s one scenario I want to avoid.  At ANY cost.

And there you have it.  Now I can finally stop thinking about that damn game -- at least for a little while, though, before somebody brings it back up in the news.  I’ll tell you one thing, though: if there’s one game that deserves to be made into a movie, it’s not The Last of Us.

It’s Donkey Kong.

See you soon.  


  1. Agreed. Completely redundant.

    But I have a reputation to uphold. I can't just say three words and be done with it. Part of the audacity of something made into a movie is the looming inference that something was missing from the original. You can make a movie out of Donkey Kong because there are several places the game doesn't go.

    Sometimes for the better. The sheer number of fans Rumiko Takahashi has probably had to have dissapear because they started a sentence: "While Ranma is a girl can she..." can attest to that. I'm willing to bet they're right next to all those buried E.T. game cartridges.

    Some questions are simply best left unanswered. In the case of Last of Us, some of the best part came from what wasn't said. Last of Us hit me in the same way Final Fantasy X did. You simply didn't know if it worked out... until the Magical girls meet Charlie's Angels sequel came out.

    It doesn't need a sequel. It doesn't need a movie.

  2. Unfortunately, it's looking more and more likely that your opinion (and mine) is going to end up getting rejected. And on both fronts. I can see it now: award-winning game begets big whompin' movie, and big whompin' movie begets sequel bred from a sparked/renewed interest in the original game. It's the circle of crap.

    We'll just have to see how it goes. Maybe it'll all work out. Or maybe it'll be something else I can clench my teeth over. I'm starting to suspect that that's my tic whenever something displeases me.

  3. Well, I've been preparing for a concert, so I've not been able to chime in with my thoughts on your latest posts, but I have been reading them. Thoughts forthcoming.

    Oh, and the movie's confirmed to be a straight adaptation of the events in the game. Worst move they could have possibly done.

    Seriously, way to not only shoot your foot, but shotgun your entire leg. This thing's doomed to fail.

  4. Truth be told, I had a feeling that a post on TLoU would call you back to my dark lair. Seems like my guess was right -- even if it was later than expected. But oh well. If you've got something to say, I'm eager to hear it. Take all the time you need to gather your thoughts.

    As for the movie being a straight adaption? Yeah. I heard about that, too. It was not the most pleasant news I've ever heard. I mean, where the hell else can you go with this story as-is? Can they really take a seventeen-hour product and compress it into a two-hour film? Three, tops?

    I'd like to think that I can say "I have my doubts" because I can look past my biases. But then again, I can't look past my biases, so this whole thing has me facepalming so hard that I'm in danger of fracturing my skull.