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‘The Last of Us’ is already an HBO show in game form. Is there more story to tell?

(The Washington Post illustration; Carlos Alvarez, Tristan Fewings/Getty Images)

Pedro Pascal, star of “The Mandalorian,” the Disney+ Star Wars version of “The Last of Us,” will be taking in another special orphan child. Wednesday, it was announced that Pascal was cast as Joel Miller, one of the protagonists of the upcoming HBO adaptation of the “The Last of Us” video game series. Bella Ramsay, of “Game of Thrones,” will portray the orphan teen Ellie.

It’s clear that HBO and Sony were swinging for the fences when it came to the leads. Thanks to his role in “The Mandalorian,” Pascal has been on a meteoric rise to the A list of leading men in Hollywood. And even before that news was confirmed, a small website called The Illuminerdi reported that Oscar winner Mahershala Ali was considered for the role

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I’ve found it hard to get excited about a “Last of Us” show, particularly when the performances captured in the games were already so compelling and were often better than what we’d see on TV or film. On the other hand, there are plenty of stories for the show to explore. “The Last of Us” already felt like an HBO production. It’ll be interesting to see: Can this corporate and medium synergy tell a story that lives up to the games? Should I be more enthusiastic?

With two marquee names cast, the show will continue to center on Joel and Ellie, and is expected to retell the story of the first game, released in 2013. This may give the showrunners some creative leeway. Video games are sometimes described as telling the parts of a movie that would be skipped, like traveling a few miles to the destination just to get to the next story beat. A TV show isn’t hamstrung by any obligation to gameplay. Luckily, the first game had plenty of time pass between its chapters, so there’s ripe opportunity to tell stories the games didn’t — or couldn’t.

“The Last of Us 2,” released last summer, concluded the journey of the two protagonists. Still, there are five whole years of unexplored stories between the first and second game. The sequel provided several flashbacks to key moments of the father-daughter relationship, but these were mostly necessary to provide context for the game. There was also quite a bit of character content cut from the sequel, including stories about Joel’s love life. All of that provides potential to build upon an already strong story.

An HBO show about a fictional apocalypse also presents a unique opportunity to be a compelling post-coronavirus pandemic piece of pop art that distinguishes itself from anything else in TV or film. New York Daily News TV writer Kate Feldman recently bemoaned that almost no TV shows “have handled the pandemic properly. So please, for all of us, stop trying.” The problem is that those stories hue too closely to reality. It’s hard for any viewer living through the pandemic to not take a critical eye to how a story might portray our current pain.

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As a video game, “The Last of Us” was conceived thanks to inspiration from zombie video game franchise “Resident Evil.” The zombie outbreak stems from real-world cordyceps that take over insect minds, and was mostly created as an excuse to fuel an action horror game. But it also provides some emotional distance from the mental uncanny valley of seeing a fictional show dealing with our current, real-world horror. Both games gave a lot of macro insight into societal breakdown, while still telling smaller stories about how people deal with their day-to-day lives.

For example, in the sequel, Ellie and her girlfriend Dina marvel about how Joel actually saw a film in a crowded movie theater once. Going on dates, worrying about what to wear and what movie to watch, our modern-day dalliances with trivial life decisions became ancient history and myths to these young folks. Considering we’re approaching one year of quarantine, it’s hard not to relate on some level.

Sony’s CEO Jim Ryan has said that PlayStation’s new focus will be on making its intellectual property work harder to attract new PlayStation customers. It would be no surprise if the show teased to aspects of the game’s story (or things only hinted at in the games) to throw more wood into the fires of hype for this show. Disney and Marvel are leading the way when it comes to multiplatform, multimedia universe strategies, with “The Mandalorian” tying into the “Star Wars” movies and “WandaVision” providing a pit stop for cameos and references for future movie properties.

In just two games, “The Last of Us” catapulted to the top tier of stories about post-apocalypse life. The second game’s story became among the most controversial and passionately debated pieces of 2020. The show is about to introduce a new world of hurt, and possibly years of discourse, for a new audience.

Read more:

The storylines, characters and levels cut from ‘The Last of Us Part II’

A child in a dangerous world: Inside the creation of Ellie

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