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SYFY WIRE The Last of Us

‘The Last of Us’ video game creators give seal of approval to HBO adaptation: ‘It gave me goosebumps’

Naughty Dog veterans hint Joel and Ellie will endure and survive their big transition from game to TV.

By Benjamin Bullard
The Last of Us HBO PRESS

Ask any longtime Mario fan: Results aren’t guaranteed when you yank away the controller and adapt even the most beloved of video games into stories fans are meant to watch instead of play. But HBO is showing no signs of trepidation as it ramps up the buzz for the upcoming series adaptation of The Last of Us, the post-apocalyptic PlayStation classic set to arrive at the platform sometime early next year.

HBO picked a seismic TV event — the Aug. 21 premiere of House of the Dragon — to show off its first teaser footage from the upcoming series, giving fans their first in-character look at stars Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, who respectively play Joel and Ellie, the video game’s unlikely main duo. If rolling out that first look before millions of viewers was meant as a show of confidence in the show’s video game bona fides, well…it definitely worked, according to a pair of Naughty Dog creators who’ve been with the franchise from its earliest beginnings.

Speaking recently with Entertainment Weekly, Matthew Gallant and Sean Escayg — designers who worked on both the 2013 original game as well as the just-released PlayStation 5 remake — confessed the teaser has them hyped about seeing Joel and Ellie’s story make the TV leap. “It gave me goosebumps to watch the trailer, as little footage as that was,” Gallant shared with EW. “I felt like I was wanting to watch it over and over again, and catch all the little details.”

Sure, the allure of star power helps. In addition to to Pascal (The Mandalorian) and Ramsey (Game of Thrones), HBO’s take on The Last of Us features Nick Offerman as hermit survivor Bill and Diego Luna as Joel’s brother Tommy. But what really stood out to Naughty Dog’s game creators was the series’ evident fidelity in capturing the soul of the studio’s groundbreaking game narrative.

“It was a challenge of, how do you create this experience that feels like you're playing out the movie version?” Escayg said of creating a video game that tells its story not only through cutscenes, but through moment-by-moment gameplay. The series, helmed by Emmy-winning Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin, added Gallant, appears to understand that ethos in a way that’s often eluded other big-name game adaptations.

Studios “often take really big creative license with the original franchise,” Gallant explained. “This looks like it's just gonna be so authentic to the original games. And as someone who loves the original games, I'm so excited to see that being explored in a different medium.”

Though neither game designer is involved in the HBO series, each is part of the Naughty Dog team that rebuilt their 2013 masterpiece for the PlayStation 5’s new The Last of Us Part I, the bottom-up, current-gen remake of the original game that just released last week. But there’s a direct line from the game studio to the series: Naughty Dog president Neil Druckmann developed the HBO project alongside Mazin, and the two share writing duties for the first season’s 10-episode story.

Maybe those close creative ties hold the key to making a video game crossover successful, said Gallant. “They really, really care about the art direction. That two-second clip [from the HBO trailer] of the infected embedded in the wall. That looks like it's right out of the game. The way the characters' outfits look. The way certain lines are delivered in that trailer. That's often not true in video game adaptations.”

HBO hasn’t revealed a precise premiere date yet, but the series is expected to closely align with the game’s post-apocalyptic meetup between Joel and Ellie and their dangerous shared journey across a wasteland of  fungus-infected plague victims. Also starring Anna Torv as Tess, Merle Dandridge (reprising her game-voiced role) as Marlene, and original Joel and Ellie voice actors Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson in still-secret roles, The Last of Us is set to premiere at HBO sometime early in 2023.

Looking for more horror? Check out Reginald the Vampire and Chucky Season 2 this fall on SYFY.