The Last Of Us Comparison

Comparing The Last Of Us: Which Told the Story Better, the TV Show or the Video Game?

As many video game fans know, adaptations of beloved properties into TV shows or movies are often a mixed bag. When they’re animated, they tend to do better. But when it’s live-action? It’s a lot more miss than hit. However, in recent years, things have changed, with the pinnacle being the adaptation of The Last of Us for HBO. The show was so great that it was recently nominated for 24 Emmys, including for acting, directing, and more. But now that we’ve “sat” with both properties for a while, which did it better?

This The Last of Us Comparison will hopefully illuminate things for you on my end.

Spoilers Updated 2022

Yes, I am putting up “spoilers” for the game and TV show because I’m doing a deep dive for both. I even rewatched the TV series and replayed the game just to ensure I had everything fresh. So if you have missed watching/playing one or the other, stop here! If you’re good, let’s begin.

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#1 The Intro - Winner: TV Show

It's only fitting that our The Last Of Us Comparison begins with...well, the beginning. After all, in both the video game and the TV show, we have powerful and downright violent introductions to the world that will consume us for many hours afterward. These intros set the tone, and both did them well enough. But if we're picking one that did it better? The TV show did so by a landslide.

First off, we got to see more of Sarah, which is important because she's one of the most important characters in the game despite only being in the beginning. She's the reason Joel is the way he is. He lost her and never recovered. While we saw Sarah and Joel bond in the game (in its many versions), the TV show peeled back more of the layers of their dynamic and relationship. Sarah calls out Joel on his crap, broken promises, mocks him for wearing his shirt inside out, shows off her smarts compared to her father and uncle, etc. Yet even with that, she goes out of her way to take care of him and gets his watched fix.

Another element here is we see the brotherly bond of Joel and Tommy before things go to crap, which is important for later on.

Finally, and arguably most importantly, the TV show did everything possible to flesh out the threat of Cordyceps and then slowly tease the infection becoming full-blown. Radio reports, the twitches of a classmate, the storeowner rushing out Sarah because of what she heard, police blasting by, etc. And my personal favorite is the crippled neighbor suddenly becoming very mobile behind Sarah's back and the dog knowing something was wrong.

By the time everything went bad, you were already heavily invested and just waiting for things to explode. Heck, even the rush into town to get away was bigger and more dramatic than the game in many ways. Proof that they had quite the budget for the HBO adaptation.

Even after Sarah's death, the show did well to set up how Boston was in 2023, with the world being post-apocalyptic for many years. One could argue they HAD to do this to ensure that viewers were hooked, and yeah, we were all hooked, as the ratings would prove.

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#2 Joel and Ellie - Winner: Both

There's a reason that The Last of Us has endured for a decade in growing forms, and Naughty Dog knew that nothing would matter if no one cared about Joel and Ellie. They put everything they had into their story, and voice actors Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson gave their all as Joel and Ellie, respectively. So when the TV show adaptation came around, they HAD to match what they did...and they did.

Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsay brought both familiarity and nuance to the roles so that we knew that they were Joel and Ellie but with their own wrinkles. For example, I felt that Bella brought out the more violent and aggressive side of Ellie, especially in key moments in episode 8, "When We Are In Need." That helped make her stand out and arguably do certain scenes better than her VO counterpart.

As for Pascal, I appreciated the PTSD elements that he showed at times and how that influenced Joel's decisions. Pascal and Ramsay had a chemistry that couldn't be ignored, and they both got nominated for Emmys for their performances. Clearly, they did something right.

To be clear, Baker and Johnson were incredible too, and I loved seeing the banter in the game that never made it to the TV show. There's a reason they were both brought into the live-action adaptation and arguably helped make it better in their own ways. They earned that right as they were the bar that had to be cleared.

Both sides did well, so let's appreciate that.

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#3 Tess - Winner: Video Game

This one might surprise some of you, so please give me a moment to explain.

While the actress for Tess in the TV show, Anna Torv, was nominated for her part in the series, after playing the video game (on PC), it was clear to me that Tess had more going on for her in the digital landscape. For me, it felt like she was more "in control" of her and Joel's dynamic versus what we got in the TV show. When we first meet Tess in the adaptation, she's being begged by a guy to "not let Joel come get them." She's supposed to be the "shot caller," and yet, at times, it feels like she's just there to "override" Joel and his ideas, like taking Ellie at Marlene's request.

But in the game? She feels more gung-ho, and she shows exactly why she's a threat instead of just being the woman who "controls Joel." Case in point, when the two go after Robert (for screwing them over on a gun deal), she's the one who draws first blood by shooting one of his henchmen without hesitation. Then, later on, she's the one who kills Robert. Again, without hesitation. She even almost killed Ellie when she learned about her infection. Oh, and at one point, Joel called her "Boss." That speaks volumes to who "ran the show" in that duo, and yet we didn't get that in the series.

Also, and this may be just me, her death in the game felt more impactful than the TV show. As I'll explain later, the Infected are a key divide between the two versions, and here, they felt superfluous as part of Tess' death. Did we REALLY need to see her get "kissed" by one before she died? I don't think so. Her death in the game was more basic, but sometimes that's better when it serves a purpose.

#4 Bill and Frank - Winner: TV Show

Come on, is this really a surprise? If it is, you really didn't partake in both sides of this equation.

When The Last of Us was adapted, the game's creator and director, Neil Druckmann, fully admitted that certain parts of the game would be changed and expanded to fit the TV mold, which was fine for the most part. The biggest change by a country mile plot-wise was episode three, "Long, Long Time." In it, we get to see the character of Bill and his partner Frank live their lives in this infected world.

In the game, Bill is someone Joel meets to "cash in a favor" to help get Ellie across the country, which Bill isn't happy about. Bill is paranoid to a fault and hates that Joel is there to ask for help and is basically forced into compliance. A lot of action sequences transpire, and then we never see him again. As for Frank, he's dead in the game, and he never had a big relationship with Bill. In fact, he curses him in his suicide note.

But in the show, they did a 180 and focused on how these two met, how they grew to love one another, and how that was enough for them when Frank felt it was the right time to die due to his failing health.

Nick Offerman delivered the performance of a lifetime here as Bill, and yes, he was nominated for an Emmy, too (and he should totally win.) His line, "I'm old. I'm satisfied, and you were my purpose," really hit home by the time the episode ended. And somewhat counterintuitively, yet beautifully, it showed that people could have a true "happy ending" even when the world had basically ended.

This was a bold move and 100% different from the game, and yet, the TV series was better because of it.

#5 Henry and Sam - Winner: TV Show

Sorry, I couldn't find a good "video game vs. TV show" pic like the others. Also, I want to make clear that I'm focusing on the brothers here as characters, not necessarily the episode/story they are portrayed in. I feel there's a key difference here that I'll reference later in another entry.

Sam and Henry are important characters in both the video game and TV show as they are representative of another duo that is simply trying to survive this world, with one of them willing to "go all out" to protect the other. But the key difference here is how/why Henry has to protect Sam. In the game, it felt like Henry was just being the "typical overprotective brother," to the point where he straight-up abandons Joel due to how in danger he and Sam were. But in the show, Sam is deaf, so the big brother has to put on a brave face no matter what. Even Neil Druckmann admitted that he wished he had thought of that dynamic for the game.

Furthermore, Henry's story of selling out a rebel leader to get medicine for Sam hits home more as it's something many of us would do, and it helped him connect with Joel more, given his own sordid past.

But arguably, the most important thing was Sam's connection with Ellie. In the game, they were about the same age...and that led to some natural flirting by Sam. It was weird, and you knew it wouldn't last. However, in the show, Ellie was more of a "big sister" to Sam, which was proven when his infected bite was revealed, and she tried to use her blood to save him. That bond made his turn at the end more tragic, and the "I'm Sorry" message at the end was heartbreaking.

You felt their deaths more in the TV show, and that shows that sometimes you need another person's perspective, in this case, Craig Mazin, to help bring something to its fullest potential.

#6 "You Have No Idea What Loss Is" - Winner: TV Show

This one was originally very close, and I'll honestly give points to both versions here because this scene is iconic no matter which version you "watch." But after a second playthrough, the TV show gets the nod here.

In many ways, this is the turning point for Joel and Ellie's relationship. They've endured a lot of crap and crossed over half the US to try and find his brother, and once Joel does...he basically betrays Ellie by trying to dump her off on Tommy. She finds out and calls him out on it, saying that she isn't Sarah, which pushes Joel over the edge in many ways. So why is the TV adaptation better than the video game in this case?

It all has to do...with Pedro Pascal. In the video game, Joel kind of gives a bull crap reason why Tommy should take Ellie. He essentially tries to force him to take her by stating that Tommy "owes him for keeping him alive for so long." Which is an odd way to play it as Joel himself admitted that they parted on very bitter terms, so why would the "strongarm" technique actually work with him? Exactly.

But in the show, we see that Joel is suffering mentally and emotionally. He's going through panic attacks, and he truly believes he can't get Ellie the rest of the way. That one scene with Tommy where he's breaking down as he explains his fragility was arguably worth the Emmy nomination itself and something the game lacked, in my opinion.

The twist here is that, in my opinion, the video game had the better "conclusion" to this story beat. How so? In the show, Joel just kind of...doesn't leave and then asks Ellie to choose between him and Tommy. Obviously, she chose him, and that was kind of odd. In the game, after fighting some raiders and having a "long ride back" to Jackson, Joel realizes that he has to finish this and tells Ellie to join him. It's the little things that can go a long way here, and that's why they get the final point...but the victory still goes to the show.

God bless Pedro Pascal.

#7 The Danger - Winner: Video Game

Some of you might not understand this topic at first (especially since I'm going "out of order" a little bit), but this is easily the biggest distinction between the two versions of The Last of Us.

Because as the showrunner Craig Mazin loved to note in the commentary for the show, "There's no gameplay in a TV series." Yeah, we know Craig, and many people called you out for it. Because while the opening episodes did show infected of various types and dangers of this the episodes went on...the danger actually got less and less. To the point where there were whole episodes where the danger was nonexistent and simply talked about in "terrified whispers." Episode 6, "Kin," was a great example of that. There was no threat until the last few minutes of the episode. Or in "Long Long Time," we only saw Bill & Frank be in danger once, and they got out of it rather easily (Bill even thought he would die, and yet he didn't) and apparently were never bothered again.

In contrast, the game is littered with danger all over the place, and the show glosses over many of those moments for timing or plot reasons. The escape from Boston? There were plenty of dangers to avoid aside from that one guard, including seeing MULTIPLE Clickers before entering the museum. Escaping the city and going underground with Sam and Henry? They faced all sorts of perils, got separated multiple times, and then when they finally escaped, they got the "OMG" moments of their lives when they found that the exit door was actually the entrance, which said, "Do Not Enter." Oops.

And even the last entry, when the game version of Joel said, "You have no idea what loss is," and told Ellie they were going to separate, they had to go fight raiders moments later. Even the end of the story (which I'm getting to...), where they finally reach Marlene and the Fireflies, was littered with infected and other dangers, which led to the two getting "captured" by the Fireflies. They weren't merely ambushed while Ellie was telling jokes.

Notice how I barely mentioned the Infected? It's because they were barely in the show! I checked (and rewatched the show a second time), and you'll only see infected well and truly in episodes 1, 2, 5, and 7. I don't count episode 3 as it was a lone Infected, and Bill killed it with a trap, and the season finale with Anna was a literal one-off with an Infected, and that was solely for plot reasons. They also barely touched on the different "classes" of Infected, such as the Runners, Stalkers, and Bloaters.

Just as bad was how they kept talking about the "Raiders and Slavers" in the show, and yet we never saw them outside of one attack on Bill's place. In the game, they were everywhere! Kathleen's crew and David's "cult" doesn't count if you couldn't tell. In contrast, the game would throw them at you almost out of nowhere, such as after Joel and Ellie (with Henry and Sam) escaped the Pittsburgh sewers only to enter a town full of Raiders...and then Infected. Or when Joel did reconnect with Tommy, only to be attacked by Raiders at the dam soon after.

The first season felt more focused on showing the "darker side of humanity," and while that's fine, plenty of other shows have done that, including post-apocalyptic shows like The Walking Dead. The Infected were what made this world unique, and we needed more of that to showcase just how impressive it was for Joel and Ellie to make it as far as they did.

#8 Left Behind - Winner: Tie

Here's another one that might be odd in some of your minds, but for me, each version of "Left Behind" had its merits and shining points that made them special. You could easily pick out which version had the better interpretation of the moments, but overall, this was a key point of Ellie's life that was brought to life twice over in special ways.

Let's not forget that the content was DLC for the original game, yet it takes place within a section of the main story. So by default, you knew that things were going to go a certain way (meaning Ellie would save Joel), and the only question was what would fill the time.

In contrast, the show put Left Behind in the chronological point in the story, and that helped make it more impactful as those who didn't play the game didn't know what was coming in many respects.

What the game got better was allowing us to experience everything, both past and present, through Ellie's eyes and do our best to give her this "day off" with her BFF, all the while trying to save Joel in the present. Here was yet another example of the world's danger being present because even a jaunt through a local mall to find supplies led to her fighting both people and Infected and learning the hard truths of those who had been there before her (more on that later.) Thus, by the time we reach the end of the DLC, we know Ellie went to her limit and beyond all to save Joel, and that meant something.

In contrast, the TV show focused mostly on Ellie's relationship with Riley (played incredibly by Storm Reid.) Throughout the episode, we see Ellie and Riley on a roller coaster ride of emotions from frustration (as Riley had been "missing" for weeks) to jubilation and joy over seeing the wonders of the mall to pain when Ellie learned the truth of why Riley came back to her, to downright ecstasy when they kissed, and Riley agreed to stay with her. Bella Ramsey delivered magnificently not only in her acting but in her body language as she interacted with Storm, and Storm was great, too, in that regard.

Another thing I'll give the TV version is that the way their "happy ending" was shattered by a lone infected drawn by their loudness was perfect. In the game, they faced a horde, which you could read as overkill. But here, it was much simpler, refined, and that made it all the more heartbreaking.

This was a moment that changed Ellie forever, and seeing it rendered two different ways and feeling the pain of loss in both of them shows that each version did well.

#9 David - Winner: The Game

When it comes to any adaptation, even ones as great as this, there are always going to be changes to the lore that can't be helped. But if I'm being honest, one of the more divisive elements in my The Last Of Us Comparison is talking about David and the changes made to him. Changes that definitively made the gaming version better than the TV one. In my opinion, of course.

In the game, as in the show, David is the leader of a small group that is struggling to survive. When both meet Ellie, they're curious about her as they didn't expect to run into someone else. Where things diverge from there is the problem I had.

In the show, they make it clear really quickly that something is "off" with David. How he looks at others, how he talks, etc. Then, after chatting with Ellie, he makes it clear that he's not an ally, and things quickly spiral from there as we learn that he is yet another "creepy religious nut obsessed with young girls." And his hold over his "cult" is so strong that no one opposes him, even after slapping a kid.

In contrast, in the game, David took his time to try and build up trust with Ellie. They had to fight Infected (further adding to the world's danger) together, and it was through that which Ellie kind of trusted David, even lowering her weapon when they returned to the fire after surviving. Even when things fell apart, you always wondered why he was interested in Ellie. It was more of a curiosity than anything else, and eventually, he got tired and was willing to put her down after escaping his grasp multiple times. But in the show, they went REALLY far to state what David "really wanted" from Ellie, and while it was dark, it felt unnecessary. His group was already cannibals, and the danger of dying and beating eaten by them was enough...why go that extra mile?

And yes, the "hand-holding scene" was in the game too, but it was more subtle, and that delivered more weight here, IMO.

David dying by Ellie's hands was impactful in both versions as it defied the "protector trope" that many expected Joel to fulfill, and Ellie was hurt by what she was forced to do. So to me, this was once again trying to show that "humans are the real monsters" when that was already apparent.

Oh, and the boss fight with David in the game was total bull at times, and that also gets points.

#10 Worldbuilding - Winner: The Game

I will praise the TV show for adding its own unique touches to the video game's story and building up the world in its own way. The "cold opens" for the first two episodes are great examples of this, as is the truth about Ellie's mom we see in the season finale. You can even throw in Sam and Henry's backstory and how it ties into how Kathleen came into power and overthrew FEDRA in Kansas City. However, the game trumps everything that the show attempted, and it honestly makes the show feel a bit "smaller" as a result.

By that, I refer to how in the game, you had to wander through the homes and various areas of the world and not only get supplies (another thing that the game showed off better than the show) but learn about what happened to people. Joel would tell Ellie about the world and what likely happened, and through notes and messages, you learned the grim truth. At times, it was downright heartbreaking to hear what happened to these people.

For example, there were multiple times when you would come into homes that once belonged to families, only to find out that they killed each other in "mercy deaths" and wrote messages that said, "They didn't Suffer." Every time you saw moments like that, your heart sank because it showed how this world truly took everything away from people.

Another example is the tale of Ish, who, through notes you found in the Pittsburgh sewers, learned that he was a trawler man who helped a family build a community within the sewers. He and another man because their "protectors" and did all they could to keep them safe. It didn't work out, and Ish, along with only a handful, made it out alive. We don't know their fate afterward, and that made it interesting.

More stories like that were scattered throughout the game (including with the soldiers in Left Behind), and it helped make the world feel alive, lived in, and lost in many ways. Yes, you could argue that the show did what it could with the time it had, but there's little doubt to me that the game definitely grew its concept and ensured that people knew that this world fell hard after the infection spread.

Each story made you feel grief and terror, and yet you couldn't stop looking for more stories like them.

#11 Marlene - Winner: The Show

There's obviously an irony here as Marlene is played by the same actress in both the game and the show, Merle Dandridge, but as in all things, the subtle things can tell you about a character. And to be blunt, the video game version of Marlene doesn't come off as competent, whereas the TV version shows a confident woman doing what she feels is best to save the world.

So how did that work out? Well, in the game, we literally meet Marlene AFTER she's been shot. That's literally our first image of her. We don't understand the connection between her and Ellie or the weight she has as a leader of the Fireflies. In contrast, the TV show goes far in the first episode to highlight that Marlene is a leader, as she commands her No.2 to "follow orders" when her intentions are questioned. But, we also see her softer side as she explains things to both the No.2 and Ellie.

Also, in the game, Joel and Tess are basically cordial with Marlene, whereas the show depicts them with a much more strained relationship due to Tommy's former involvement with her.

Fast forward to the end of the game/show, and little details change the narrative of who Marlene is. In the game, we see that she's at her wit's end. The Fireflies are coming apart at the seams ("I've pretty much lost everything"), and she has no idea what to do. She's desperate, and so when Ellie is found, and she learns that Ellie has to die to save everyone, her acceptance of it feels more like a "desperate bid for closure and confirmation" versus doing what's right for everyone. She even notes, "Maybe it was meant to be," which is more of a "faith" line than one of confidence.

But in the adaptation, we see that it really hurts Marlene to sacrifice Ellie because of her connection with her mother, Anna. She swore to her best friend to protect her daughter, but she knew that Ellie's sacrifice would be worth it overall. And while the game did state that she knew Ellie's mother, the TV scene of Ellie's birth (which wasn't in the game) helped sell that moment a heck of a lot more.

As I said, subtle differences make the distinction between the two clear.

#12 Joel's Rescue Of Ellie - Winner: The Game

Prepare for the "this is the hill I will die on" moment. And it ties back to the "dangerous world" entry yet again. As others have noted, The Last of Us Season Finale honestly felt like a rush to get through the final beats of the game, all the way up to the "ok" ending. While that's understandable in part, the biggest sacrifice due to this was Joel's assault on the hospital to save Ellie.

In the game, after Joel takes out the initial guards, he has to go through multiple waves of Fireflies to save Ellie. It's not easy, and it takes guts, stealth, and resource management (another thing the TV show doesn't really show off.) But in the show, Joel mows through the Fireflies like they're nothing. He's basically Rambo, getting little to no resistance as he wipes them all out. There's even a shot of him taking on three Fireflies at once, and he doesn't even get hurt or have to take cover!

He gets through everything with laughable ease, which honestly takes away from the moment of him doing "whatever it takes to get to Ellie" when he's not having to struggle to get to her. In contrast, the game had you dealing with enemies all the way up until he gets into the elevator, which he barely manages to do.

People WANT to see the struggle, see the endurance and persistence a character has to achieve a goal. But in the show? It just looked...easy. Remember, the Fireflies were meant to fight the government and had to be trained enough to do that...and yet they couldn't take on Joel when he's by himself and exposed at virtually all points of his attack. It definitely took me out of the scene a bit.

As an aside, both the show and the game made Joel, in my mind, 100% right to save Ellie. Why? It's not simply because of his love for her but because of the very vague and loose promises Marlene made about the vaccine. They were going to do brain surgery in the HOPES of finding and replicating a a world that is emphatically post-apocalyptic, and then SOMEHOW find a way to test it in a human, mass produce it, and then distribute it all over the place. Really? Why would anyone buy that? Exactly. So yeah, Joel was right.

In the end, as I end this The Last Of Us Comparison, there's little doubt that you're going to find things you loved more in the show or game based on your preference and experience with the two. Both are incredibly detailed and worthwhile projects that you should enjoy at least once, and I am looking to season 2 despite the controversies I've heard about the second game. And I'm definitely rooting for The Last of Us to clean house at the Emmys in some fashion.

If you have your own thoughts on which version did what better, I'm fully up for listening to you in the comments below.