HBO's The Last Of Us Has A Cool Idea The Games Could Use
HBO's The Last of Us introduced a twist that would be an excellent addition to the games.
Before the release of HBO’s The Last of Us, a TV adaptation of one of the most acclaimed games of all time, many on the internet were ready to deride the show before having seen an episode--partly because the history of live action video game adaptations has been a mixed bag at best, but mostly because a lot of commenters online enjoy being grade A haters.
Following positive press reactions to the show’s first season, the first two episodes that have aired since have changed a lot of people online’s tunes. There seems to be a general consensus that the show not only faithfully adapts the story of the game, but expands on the world, characters, and plot beats in meaningful ways. In a few short weeks, the conversation around HBO’s The Last of US has gone from, “This is going to be bad,” to, “Is it actually better than the game?”
Opinions like these are subjective, but I saw a post on Twitter that made a good point about comparing the two: You can’t call one better than the other because one is a TV show and the other is a video game. The playable version of The Last of Us has game mechanics that you can interact with and critically weigh when determining if it is good or not, whereas the TV show has the flexibility to jump around in the story and follow the perspectives of numerous different characters. It’s a solid argument to make.
However, after Episode 2 of the show aired, something became clear to me: it’s not just that the story of the show, for the most part, has been a step up from the original, but the “gameplay” has as well.
As the press tour of HBO’s The Last of Us kicked into full gear in the weeks leading up to its premiere, one of the sticking points for players was that the show would change a component of how its cordyceps infection would work. In the game, specific areas saturated in the fungus would produce airborne spores that would force the characters to have to put on gas masks while traversing through that space.
The show doesn’t have this mechanic for a few reasons according to its creators--spores are not entirely scientifically accurate and gas masks would have covered actors' faces during key moments. So instead, showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann opted for the fungal infection to be spread by tendrils; the mycelium filaments that connect fungi spooling out of an infected’s mouth, stretching to find its next host.
Not only do I personally find this to be a visually much creepier design for the infection over the spores, but this mechanic allows for one of the coolest new concepts that the show has introduced, and it’s one that I’m now upset is not a part of the video game.
In Episode 2, as Tess and Joel escort Ellie through the dangerous wastelands outside the Boston quarantine zone, Tess informs the child of a horrifying element to the infection: The mycelium is not only spreading throughout the bodies of those it infects but, like real fungi, is spreading through the ground, creating an interconnected network that stretches for miles on end. That means that if you step on something connected to the network in one place, say a freshly deceased infected corpse or even just a mushroom cap that is sprouting, it can alert anything else connected to the network miles away. This is demonstrated in the final moments of the episode, when the group kills an infected and a horde they had avoided much earlier is suddenly activated and aware of their location.
This is a monumental change to the infection that makes it infinitely more horrifying and deadly than the version we get in the game. Forget rooms filled with spores that are generally safe if you have a gas mask; one wrong step in the TV show could mean every infected for miles knows about your whereabouts, and you wouldn’t even know until they were on top of you.
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The gameplay of The Last of Us is fairly generic: move through the world solving environmental puzzles as you go to progress and when combat encounters present themselves, either use stealth to avoid them, craft items to distract or attack, or run into the situation guns blazing. The Last of Us executes these gameplay mechanics on a high technical level, placing them in an incredibly well-realized sandbox, but there’s very little to the experience that hasn't been done before in other, zombie-ridden post-apocalyptic games.
Including an element where you have to watch your steps as you go, not just to avoid making sounds but to steer clear of alerting a widespread mycelium hivemind, would heighten The Last of Us’ gameplay considerably. Forcing players to manage their resources and decide between utilizing them for stealth/combat or for clearing the environment of fungal booby traps add a dynamic wrinkle that would make the game’s mechanical flow feel a lot more unique.
It’ll be interesting to see how Druckmann and the Naughty Dog team move forward with developing The Last of Us games, particularly as Druckmann has been clear in interviews that there are things they’re doing in the show that he regrets not thinking about for the games. To me, introducing this gameplay element should be at the top of the list.
And I don't think it would be too hard to accomplish, at least narratively! As the show has made clear, a change in environmental factors allowed cordyceps to evolve and infect humanity on a catastrophic level. The twenty years since the initial outbreak has also rapidly changed the world, so it would make sense that the fungus would further evolve with those changes. With the pool of infectable humans quickly depleting, cordyceps developing a new way to make it easier to locate victims would align with those shifting factors.
There’s also a game already on Naughty Dog’s docket that would be a great candidate to implement this change. The Last of Us standalone multiplayer game, which the developer has confirmed we’ll learn more about this year, could be an excellent proving ground for this mechanic. Not only would players need to worry about their own movements, but the actions of their teammates as well as opposing players. We don’t know what this multiplayer game looks like at the time of writing, but if it’s anything like the first game’s packed-in online Factions mode, this gameplay element would be a perfect fit that would dynamically change the tide of an online match.
As I mentioned before, the overall beats of the show have hewed closely to what we’ve seen in the games, but so much has already been developed upon and expanded. If the series keeps up at this rate, you have to imagine it would affect the development of future gaming installments, especially since the show has clearly incentivized so many new people to check out the original title. It’s mechanics like the mycelium hivemind network that make me feel that even though I can’t play the TV show, I wish I could.
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