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You don’t need to play ‘The Last of Us’ to watch the HBO show

You don’t even need to know anything about video games

(Washington Post illustration; HBO; Sony Interactive Entertainment)
3 min

HBO’s upcoming marquee show, “The Last of Us,” is based on a much-lauded video game series. For those interested in the new prestige drama, but maybe less interested in video games, there’s good news: You don’t need to play the games to understand the show. In fact, you don’t really need to know anything about video games at all.

In “The Last of Us” (both the game and the show) a fungal infection ravages the world, taking over human hosts and turning them into unusually floral zombies. No cure exists. The narrative follows Joel, a world-weary smuggler who reluctantly agrees to transport Ellie, a young girl who appears to be immune to the infection, to a medical facility across the country. The game’s 2020 sequel, “The Last of Us Part II,” explores the fallout from decisions made in the original game; the TV show’s first season follows the plot of the first game.

As a gamer (and an editor at The Washington Post’s video game vertical), I’m familiar with the premise and even some pivotal plot points of the games, though I haven’t played them. Still, having watched a few episodes of the show, there’s no indication that playing the series is an important prerequisite to enjoy the HBO adaptation. The show explains its core premise well, and doesn’t assume that you have any context from the game.

Review: HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ stays true to the game, and hits just as hard

Playing the games may reward some viewers with some additional context and depth of understanding. I asked Gene Park, my colleague and an avid fan of the games who has seen the first season of the show in full, about what people who had played the games might pick up on that viewers coming in cold might not.

“Experienced players of the game will likely delight in many of the Easter eggs that allude back to the game’s storytelling,” Park said. “The made-for-fiction teenage wolf movie poster all over cities in the game reappear in the show, alongside real-world corporate signage for brands like CVS and GameStop. Fans will also recognize the costume changes, especially since they adhere directly to the outfits from the game as they appeared during key moments.”

Still, Park cautioned, fans won’t hold some secret contextual key to the show. Instead, fans are just likely to notice changes between the two stories — particularly different approaches to key scenes.

The Last of Us game series is very popular; judging from its overwhelmingly positive reviews, it’s safe to say that the consensus opinion among gamers is that playing the games will be its own reward. If you want to play “The Last of Us,” you’ve got a few options — and one more coming in March, if you’re willing to wait. There’s the original PlayStation 3 game, a remastered version for PlayStation 4 titled “The Last of Us Remastered” and a remake for PlayStation 5 called “The Last of Us Part I.” A version of the remake for PC comes out March 3.

Just don’t feel any anxiety over “needing” to play before you watch. There’s no best order in which to engage with The Last of Us media, Park tells me. Just enjoy yourself — inasmuch as you can, given the doom and gloom the franchise is generally known for.