Cutscenes: How HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ and ‘A Quiet Place’ Are Cinematic Games

the last of us

Without people—without feeling—the apocalypse is boring. Truly, dreadfully so. As our own world hurtles toward collapse and ruin by the day, creatives of all kinds have exploited the simultaneous fear and fascination of end of days with enough apocalyptic scenarios to make your Bible-toting grandmother weep (or cheer). Camille Griffin’s Silent Night was a sharp, horrifying tale of Christmas on the brink. M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin funneled the end of the world into something more personal, more politically potent.

It’s arguably the most remunerative subgenre there is right now. Even the expansive Marvel Cinematic Universe regularly plays with world-ending stakes. There’s a hopeful dichotomy at work—destroy the world and rebuild it. From that comes hope. And, for as grim and hopeless as the material might seem, that’s exactly what Craig Mazin’s The Last of Us, adapted from the Naughty Dog game of the same name, is doing.

The Last of Us, thus far, has been dour. Adroitly adapting the feel of the titular game, HBO’s adaptation is engagingly episodic in a way most series aren’t. Each new episode feels like a new level of the game. New characters, mechanics (sniping, in the case of episode 5 “Endure and Survive”), and enemies are introduced, tethered less to the overarching world, appearing more like diegetic additions to particular sequences. Whether they appear again or not isn’t the point—they satisfy their role in their particular level, and that’s all they need to do.

That combination of filmic style with ludic elements then conjures a curious comparison—John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place. As scripted by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck (Krasinski wrote the sequel by himself), A Quiet Place itself feels like a video game, what with its stealth-based beats, ferocious monsters, and key emphasis on resource management. While I’ve written about the forthcoming trend of games as movie, best epitomized by the likes of Supermassive Games’ The Quarry, there’s been less said and done about movies and shows as games. In the present canon, The Last of Us and A Quiet Place are among the best.

Interestingly, when The Last of Us adaptation was first announced, online critics were wary of its inevitable status as the greatest video game adaptation ever. Truthfully, it might be (though I’ve always been partial to both 2021’s Mortal Kombat and 2006’s Silent Hill). Yet, some rightfully played semantics, arguing that The Last of Us, in ludic structure, was already basically a movie. As an equivalent, it would be like Shudder adapting something like Until Dawn, with fans proclaiming it the best video game movie ever. The honor can be hard to reconcile with a property already intrinsically linked to another medium.

Yet, while The Last of Us (the game) might reasonably be conceptualized as an HBO show, but make it playable, the show does considerably better to borrow gaming elements, not all of which are unique to The Last of Us, and render them effective within the miniseries format. Episode 3, the heartbreaking “Long, Long Time” was like a video game’s secret ending, a cutscene unlocked when certain parameters were met. What it lacked in urgency and stakes it compensated for with remarkable worldbuilding and deeply felt empathy for those society regularly deemed others. Only at the end of the world can two strangers feel at peace being who they are. It’s fundamentally hopeful.

And that element of hope, too, augments both properties. It links them to the gaming medium. Audiences who behaved as if they’d never seen a movie before wondered, sometimes loudly, why Emily Blunt’s Evelyn was pregnant in the first A Quiet Place. Yes, it wasn’t a responsible choice, but it was a humanistic one. Why keep living without hope? Where’s the prevailing reason to survive simply to survive? It’s why Murray Bartlett’s Frank in The Last of Us wants to mow the lawn and have company. Those nuggets of a life lived and shared with others are the impetus to keep going. Better still, there’s a direct link there between the filmic medium and the gaming medium. Gamers often make reckless, irresponsible choices, charging into danger when they know they shouldn’t. They make rash, silly decisions, but rash, silly decisions with purpose.

The overarching goal is not simply to live, but to hopefully win. Different games conceptualize winning in their own way, though in broad terms, it’s identifying and successfully completing a goal. Some of these are small scale. To use filmed examples, it’s Evelyn fleeing the basement and making it back to the tub in time to give birth. It’s Joel and Ellie navigating a high rise, mindful of any infected (or humans) waiting to ambush them. There are, too, larger, comprehensive goals, the sense of winning right before the credits roll. In The Last of Us game, it’s Joel and Ellie both surviving, en route to Tommy’s settlement. In A Quiet Place, it’s a homestead among the bloodshed.

Both properties (presuming The Last of Us follows the game’s trajectory) leave room for more. As the cap of The Last of Us, Ellie is grappling with considerable guilt. In A Quiet Place, the farm has burned, and the surviving members of the Abbott family must find a new place to live. Both have sequels, and there, new characters are introduced. Cillian Murphy’s Emmett in A Quiet Place Part II, Abby in The Last of Us Part II (roman numerals just make a property more elevated, don’t they). New mechanics make their way in—new weaponry, a hearing aid, for instance. The good fight keeps going. New goals are found and met. There’s no sense in trudging forward without the hope of something better.

While the delineations between game and film might seem hard to visualize, they’re clear upon inspection. As premier examples of post-apocalyptic storytelling, both The Last of Us and A Quiet Place accomplish more than most. They’re thrilling, terrifying, and exceptionally poignant pieces of media. In their filmed forms, they’re also just like video games. Now, if we could just get Paramount Pictures to license A Quiet Place out.

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