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Show vs Game: The Last of Us Episode 1

The Last of Us (TLOU) show is the talk of TV town. Whether you’re brand new to Joel and Ellie’s adventures or you’re wondering how the show differs from the 2013 video game, each week I’ll recap episodes and compare these with the game. Plus, I’ll provide some light speculation on what is to come.

Check out our coverage of The Last Of Us

SPOILERS below for episode 1 of the TLOU show and early parts of the 2013 game:

Episode 1 recap

  • We begin in 1968. A scientist (John Hannah) tells a studio audience that fungal viruses could easily infect and control human minds. But don’t worry, it’ll only happen if the world’s temperature gets warmer. And by the way, there’s no cure. Great!
  • We move to September 26th, 2003. In Austin, Texas, it’s labourer Joel Miller’s (Pedro Pascal) 36th birthday. He takes daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) to school then Joel and brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) head out for a double shift. Sarah fixes Joel’s watch and bakes cookies with their elderly neighbours. But everyone seems a little…twitchy. When Joel returns, he and Sarah watch a DVD and Sarah presents him with his fixed watch. At 11 pm Joel gets a call to collect Tommy from jail. At 2.16 am Sarah wakes up alone. She discovers that the neighbours have a taste for blood and fungus growing in their mouths. Yuck! Joel and Tommy arrive to deliver some serious elder abuse, then the three get the hell out of dodge as civilisation quickly disintegrates. A falling plane (yikes!) causes Tommy’s truck to crash. Separated from Tommy, Joel carries an injured Sarah to the highway. A soldier stops them, a voice in his earpiece urging him to shoot first, ask questions later. He fires, they run. Tommy kills the soldier but it’s too late, as a bullet-ridden Sarah dies in Joel’s arms. Bleak.
  • Now it’s 2023. A greying, hardened Joel lives as a dodgy fixer/runner in a Boston Quarantine Zone (QZ) under strict military rule by the Federal Disaster Response Agency (FEDRA). It’s the kind of place where little girls infected with zombie fungus don’t see their next birthday and soldiers sell sleeping pills on the side. Joel’s in a relationship with fellow runner Tess (Anna Torv). They haven’t heard from Tommy in the three weeks since he left the QZ, so Tess buys a car battery from low-life Robert so they can go find Tommy. Meanwhile, “Veronica” (Bella Ramsey) is chained in a room, being closely monitored by the Fireflies, a resistance group out to destroy FEDRA. Robert takes Tess’s money, but sells the battery to Fireflies leader, Marlene (Merle Dandridge). Marlene needs it to transport Veronica (real name, Ellie) to a Fireflies outpost outside the QZ. Off screen the battery and Robert become well and truly dead. Injured in the fight with Robert, Marlene asks Joel and Tess to take Ellie to the rendezvous, promising them lots of loot. They reluctantly agree, Joel wary of the inquisitive Ellie. On their night-flight out of the QZ they’re stopped by a soldier Joel knows, who Ellie knifes when he discovers she’s infected. Ellie reveals her wounds are three weeks old and she hasn’t turned fungizombie yet, when all (literal) signs point to zombification after 24 hours. Team ‘Deliver Ellie‘ then RUN.

Well actually, in the Game…

This episode nicely maps on to the game’s Prologue, Chapter 1 (Quarantine Zone) and the start of Chapter 2 (The Outskirts – subsection: Outside). The TLOU game plays as a mixture of playable plot and cut scenes which I won’t differentiate between.

However, the most egregious change comes immediately. Perhaps with a nod to his film, Sliding Doors, John Hannah’s scientist is nowhere to be seen. The entire 1968 scene is a show invention, designed I think, to better explain the origins of the fungizombies in a way the game never does.

TLOU’s events begin on the evening of Joel’s birthday in 1993. He arrives home late. Sarah (voiced by Hana Hayes) does give her dad the watch, telling him in a gorgeous Texan drawl: “I got the money from selling hardcore drugs,” to which he replies “Good, now you can start paying the mortgage,” a good nod to their relationship. Sarah falls asleep and Joel carries her to bed. Then actual gameplay begins with controlling a very different Sarah.

Sarah is woken by a call from Tommy (who’s not in jail) asking for Joel. She goes look for him. A newspaper suggests that America is being flooded with infected crops from Mexico, which the show drops (replacing it with TV news shenanigans in Jakarta). On Joel’s TV, we see a news anchor overrun by zombies in hospital gowns. Joel comes home, pursued by a rabid male neighbour who Joel shoots in the face. This hits harder than the show because we, playing as Sarah, have no idea what’s going on. Tommy arrives and they take Joel’s truck on the same route to San Marcos. It’s not a shot-for-shot remake, but very similar. The events are also key to Joel’s character. In both game and show he refuses to pick up bystanders. Game Sarah is more distraught at this, “We should’ve helped them.” Thankfully, there are no falling planes, instead an exploding petrol station causes the truck crash. Tommy doesn’t get separated, he chooses to fend off zombies so Joel and Ellie can get away. The same scene happens with the soldier’s earpiece, but in the game he initially refuses with a “But…” when he’s (presumably) told to pull the trigger. And yes, Sarah dies again. It’s a strong, upsetting prologue whether you watch it or play!

The game now moves 20 years later – meaning it’s 2013. The show tells us that Joel is 56 (I’d always wondered), and both show and game Joel look far too good for all those years of hard labour. Thankfully, there are no burning bodies or hangings in these game chapters, although FEDRA is everywhere and is winning the battle against the Fireflies. The show makes a lovely reference to Fireflies graffiti on city walls, which players seek out throughout the game to indicate they’re going in the right direction. The Robert plotline plays out differently, as this Tess and Joel are gun runners buying guns from Robert. Players get a lot of combat gameplay fighting Robert’s men, which is fun, but dropping the gun focus is welcome in the show.

Game Robert has a very Game of Thrones’ Bron energy

Marlene (Dandridge is the only actor to reprise their voice role with an on-screen performance) is again shot in the fight, but Joel, Tess and Marlene all seem much closer friends. Marlene was close with Tommy, Joel saying “…until he decided to leave your little group” suggesting game Tommy was once a Firefly, which links to his combat vet bumper sticker in the show.Ellie and Joel’s meeting is less adversarial, and gameplay has a friendlier Joel escort Ellie back to his apartment. In fact, Ellie is barely in these early game chapters. Award-winning voice actor Ashley Johnson gives a much softer portrayal than Ramsey. I think I know why (a light spoiler for TLOU2>), in the game’s sequel Ellie becomes much more cruel. The show may weave this flintiness into Ellie’s personality (many gamers thought she became too hard too quickly in TLOU2) much earlier. At Joel’s apartment, there’s no music code book for Ellie to flick through, but the show retains Ellie’s killer line: “Your watch is broken.

Game Ellie knows better than to shout ‘I’m actually outside” quietly saying the same line. The final encounter from the show comes from the game, where they meet two stranger soldiers, a woman and a man. Tess and Joel kill them without blinking an eye, to Ellie’s shock. Joel doesn’t use the classic keep punching a guy trope, but punching people out is a key game mechanic (and in the game is weirdly less violent!). They discover Ellie’s infected status with those same scary machines and off they run through muddy tunnels.

Great touches come from in-game documents

Stray Spores

Firstly, an explanation. In the game, characters must wear masks because the fungi zombie virus affected humans emit spores which can be inhaled. Maybe this is too COVID-adjacent, so the show is ditching this entirely. It’s a shame, because spores are part of the game’s visual motif (like in a clever cut scene where Ellie’s mask breaks and she reveals she can breathe spores), but I get why this was changed.

Some other stray things I noticed: Joel isn’t a pill popper in the game. A lot of men wore flat caps in 1993(!) Sarah’s birthday card to Joel suggests he’s a tough parent, Sarah’s an avid football player. The neighbours are the Cooper’s in the game, and the Adler’s in the show. It takes 48 hours for people to turn into zombies in the game. Some TLOU2 references are already slipping into the show, such as religion and slavers. Oh, and anyone who has played Naughty Dog’s other big gaming franchise, Uncharted, would know that Nathan Drake was programmed to make a joke about a female character’s derriere when following her up a ladder. Thank god Joel has some class.

What’s coming in Episode 2:

The crew are heading to Bill and Frank’s, an interesting plot change, as Frank is not alive in the game, but more on that next week. And I suspect Ellie is about to get up close and personal with something called a Clicker. I can’t wait.

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