As one of the most anticipated television adaptations of a video game ever, the pressure was on The Last of Us to succeed. Fortunately, it seems to be going swimmingly so far, with the setting, cast, and acting all being completely on point. It does reveal an interesting issue, however, in its exploration of ludonarrative dissonance, and how that reflects the game's versions of the TV series action.
Before getting into the concept itself, let’s consider the threats in The Last of Us, and how they’re faced. ExpressVPN points out five major stages of infection, with each becoming less common and taking longer to manifest. In order of age, these are runners, stalkers, clickers, bloaters, shamblers, and the once-seen rat king. In the games, players fight multiple of each of these except the rat king, who appears just once in the second game. As tough as they are, each is also fairly easy to put down once you understand the game mechanics, which is where the trouble with ludonarrative dissonance appears.
What is Ludonarrative Dissonance?
Ludonarrative dissonance describes the disconnect between how a game works when it's being played, and how the world works when you're watching a cutscene. In other words, and as Inverse puts it, it’s when the story and gameplay don't match up. This is extremely common in games that take their stories seriously because making a game fun and making a game realistic often requires very different approaches.
In The Last of Us, it's common, even on the hardest difficulties, to come face to face with a dozen tough enemies, human and infected, at the same time. Quickly dropping in and out of stealth, grappling, crafting, and desperately scavenging for supplies is how the game plays, and in doing so it's extremely exciting. The problem is, you can't direct scenes with this type of action in a serious game without it coming across as incredibly unrealistic to the point of being cartoonish.
Cutscenes as a Series
As a television show, The Last of Us has no 'gameplay'. Joel and Ellie may be effective infected and human killing machines in the game, they can't appear this way on TV without it transforming the show into a John Wick-esque run-and-gun thriller. Instead, they have to take the more measured form they adopt in the cutscenes.
While taking this approach can be the most natural idea, it also illustrates some issues when taken too far. If done incorrectly, the show risks reflecting what TVTropes notes as cutscene incompetence, where a character does something silly or stupid to advance the plot. Since the show is already two steps removed from gameplay, finding and balancing the line between realism and incompetence is a tricky component of ludonarrative dissonance which needs to be addressed.
Even a few episodes in, it became obvious that The Last of Us show is taking some departures from the story laid out in the game. So far, this has been played to great effect but time will tell if they can maintain the pace. For the diehard among us, we’ll be watching how the challenge of ludonarrative dissonance plays out, and hoping for a delivery that keeps everyone happy.