It's been a big year for The Last of Us. Not only did the original game finally come to PC in 2023, but we also got the beloved live-action adaptation on HBO. Still, even with The Last of Us occupying a big space in pop culture, Naughty Dog, the studio behind the game series, wasn't finished. There was one last frontier for The Last of Us to conquer: Halloween Horror Nights.
Each year, Universal Studios in Orlando, FL and Los Angeles, CA present its celebration of horror with haunted mazes dotting both theme parks, often inspired by well-known franchises. This year, The Last of Us made the cut. Surprisingly, though, Universal didn't adapt the TV show. Instead, it's the original game that has been converted into an immersive experience at the popular theme parks.
The Last of Us experience at Universal is two years in the making, with plans for the attraction going into motion after the game's writer Neil Druckmann tweeted how much he'd love to see Joel and Ellie's adventures be part of the annual festivities. According to Druckmann himself, speaking at a Halloween Horror Nights media event, it took less than 24 hours for someone from the parks to reach out and get the ball rolling. Now, fans on each coast can find themselves immersed in The Last of Us in a way the game and the TV show could never accomplish.
"There's something really special about this experience, but how do you articulate it? You want to put the players in the game," Druckmann told GameSpot. "And you can argue, 'Well, they're already in the game. They're playing as Joel, they're turning the camera on. They're deciding what they're doing.' Yes, but they're seeing it through a 2D frame on their wall. And what if you break that frame and now they're surrounded by it, and you can walk, and you can touch it, and you can feel it, you could smell it. And it's a different kind of an emotional experience."
It's truly something the show or games can't accomplish, with guests able to touch the various environments and items throughout the maze, before finding themselves face-to-face with an infected person while the smell of something putrid lingers in the air. For Druckmann and the team at Universal Studios, though, it wasn't enough just to recreate the atmosphere of the games for guests to explore. There also needed to be familiar faces.
"Then [you must] add the Joel and Ellie experience and really feel like you're on a journey with them," he explained. "It felt like you could give them something that they would draw from the game or draw from the show, but have a different kind of experience."
Of course, Druckmann also insisted one of his favorite things about having a maze at Halloween Horror Nights is the "incredibly high production values, and it's here for this limited time, and then it's gone." If you don't catch it at the parks on either coast this year, you'll never experience this take on The Last of Us again, which is certainly an interesting selling point for superfans.
Another point of interest is that this isn't just a single maze that was made on both coasts. The experiences in Florida and California are different--something Universal Studios strives for when the parks take on similar intellectual property.
Druckmann would only tease what the differences between the two mazes are, saying, "There's some amazing stuff that's only here and some really amazing stuff that's only there." What we know is that both mazes are set in Pittsburgh, following Joel and Eddie as they try to survive the city. The mazes, though, were developed independently and are unique experiences.
Ultimately, either one should be a worthwhile destination if you love The Last of Us--and there will be some super fans that will do both. Not only did the game's stars Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson record new dialogue just for Halloween Horror Nights, but Universal's creative team was given a treasure trove of assets by Naughty Dog, allowing the theme parks to recreate the sounds, sights, and feeling of the game.
It allows Universal to create an immersive world where, while you know zombies aren't a thing and The Last of Us is a video game, it's easy to fall prey to infected shambling in the shadows or Ellie popping out from behind a wall, determined to protect you. And that's exactly what Druckmann and Naughty Dog wanted from the collaboration.
"For us at Naughty Dog, our approach is always: Let's do a few things and let's make sure they're the best. They're excellent," he said. "So we've had people approach us to do similar experiences, but it wouldn't have been up to this level of quality."
Halloween Horror Nights runs on select nights through Halloween at Universal Orlando Resort and Universal Studios Hollywood. Other mazes include haunts based on Stranger Things, Chucky, and the upcoming film The Exorcist: Believer.
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