The Last of Us: The biggest changes from the game

Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal in The Last of Us
Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal in The Last of Us Liane Hentscher/HBO

HBO's The Last of Us is a largely faithful adaptation of the hit video game. But that's not to say there haven't been major changes made to the source material along the way. Here are the most significant ways the series has deviated from and built upon the game — and why: 

The show's opening scene wasn't in the game

Right from the top, the HBO show's first scene isn't from the source material. The series begins in 1968 with an epidemiologist on a talk show making the chilling case that a fungus infection spreading across the world would be far more dangerous than a viral pandemic.

None of this was in the game, which doesn't begin in the 1960s. Instead, it jumps straight into the action with Joel and his daughter, Sarah (who is white in the game, whereas she's played by a biracial actress in the show), fleeing their home during the outbreak only a few minutes in. This also means most of the show's opening scenes, where we see more of Joel and Sarah's home life and meet their neighbors before the outbreak, was added.

One reason for including the talk show opening, co-creator Craig Mazin explained on the official Last of Us podcast, was that the series was being released amid a real viral pandemic. So this allowed the show "to address the elephant in the global room" and make clear that this apocalypse isn't like the COVID-19 outbreak, Mazin said.

"I thought it was important to say to people, 'We are not a show that's asking you to share some of your own personal horror about the viral pandemic with us,'" he noted.

Other reasons for the addition included wanting to expand the timeline of the story and increase the tension of the following prologue scenes.

The car crash happens differently in the game

Once Sarah, Joel, and Tommy flee, the show's escape sequence is almost an exact recreation of the scene in the game, right down to being similarly viewed from Sarah's perspective in the backseat of the car. But one notable change comes when a plane comes down, causing the car to crash. In the game, the car simply crashes because another vehicle hits it, and there's no plane crash. Oh, the joys of having an HBO budget.

The game takes place in 2033, not 2023

The HBO series shifts the timeline of the story back a full decade. When the game jumps forward after an initial 2013 outbreak prologue, it takes us to the year 2033 — 20 years in the future from when the game was released — whereas the show brings the prologue back to 2003 before jumping to 2023.

Mazin told Insider this change was made so the show could take place the same year that it airs.

"I just had this thing where if I'm watching a show and it takes place 20 years in the future from my time now, it just seems less real," he said. "...There's just something about saying this is happening now in this parallel universe."

The show fleshes out Marlene's relationship with Ellie

In the game, players barely see Marlene and Ellie interact before Joel and Tess take her on the smuggling mission, largely because the story is being told from Joel's perspective. The show, though, has more time to flesh out their relationship before the mission begins. We get a scene between just Ellie and Marlene that wasn't in the game, where we learn Marlene put Ellie in a FEDRA military school when she was a baby to keep her safe.

"The relationship between Ellie and Marlene in the game was sort of like, 'Look, just take this kid. I need you to take this kid, it's important,'" Mazin noted on the Last of Us podcast. "Here, you get the sense that Marlene has this profound connection to Ellie, which will be something that we're going to pay off and pull on quite a bit later on."

Joel's romance with Tess is confirmed in the show

The game implied that Joel and Tess were an item, but this was never actually confirmed. The show, though, removes any doubt, showing the two in bed together.

Joel goes on the mission with Ellie for a different reason in the game

In the show, Joel agrees to leave the quarantine zone and escort Ellie largely out of concern for his brother, Tommy. He's promised a car battery that Robert sold to the Fireflies, which he needs to go find Tommy, in exchange for escorting Ellie.

In the game, Joel is instead promised weapons, which Robert similarly sold to the Fireflies, in exchange for escorting Ellie. But finding his brother isn't why he accepts the assignment. In fact, Joel and Tommy haven't been keeping in touch at this point in the game, unlike in the show.

The show changed the way the infection is spread

In the game, a person can become infected either through a bite or through breathing in airborne spores, so there are many sequences where Joel has to wear a gas mask. But in the show, the spore concept was replaced with tendrils, as we see in the scene with Tess' nasty zombie kiss in the second episode.

The reason for removing the spores, co-creator Neil Druckmann told Polygon, was to avoid having the show's characters constantly covering their faces in masks. "Then we lose so much, which is maybe the most important part of the journey is what's going on inside behind their eyes, in their soul, in their beings," he said.

Still, Mazin told Variety, "I don't necessarily know if we're going to see any spores this time around, but to say that our world is devoid of them would not be accurate. We don't quite know yet."

The show seems to have tweaked the infection's origin

Similarly, the game suggests the outbreak can be traced to infected crops in South America, whereas the show has changed this so the outbreak's origins appear to have been a flour and grain factory in Jakarta, Indonesia.

We learn this in a cold open at the start of the episode "Infected," in which a mycologist in Jakarta is asked for advice on the outbreak, only to recommend that the city be bombed. Nothing like this happened in the game.

"We wanted to give a little bit more of an origin story" of the infection and show it was "global," not "something that was just happening in America," Mazin explained on the official Last of Us podcast. Druckmann noted this was a "huge deviation" from how the game was made, though. "We made a conscious choice [in the game] that we will never leave the perspective of the United States," Druckmann, who wrote the original game, said.

Ellie being bitten again was added

This led to another change in the second episode, in which Ellie is bitten but doesn't become infected. This second bite doesn't happen in the original game, but the change ties back to the removal of spores.

In the game, there are many moments where Joel has to wear a mask to avoid breathing in spores. But Ellie can breathe them in without a mask and not become infected, proving she really is immune. The show couldn't give Joel this same kind of evidence without spores, so the next best thing was having her receive a second bite.

Tess' death was tweaked

Tess' death at the end of the episode "Infected" is similar to the game in spirit, but with one important difference. In the game, Tess, Joel, and Ellie are being pursued by FEDRA at this point, so Tess is shot at the State House while holding the soldiers off. In the show, though, FEDRA is nowhere to be found during this sequence. Instead, it's the infected that are the threat, and Tess is killed in an explosion, rather than being shot.

On the official Last of Us podcast, Mazin explained this change was made because he questioned why FEDRA would care to follow Tess, Joel, and Ellie out of the quarantine zone at all. "It didn't make much sense to me to have FEDRA all the way out there," he said.

The other reason for the change was to show a "different result of being infected, which was not one of mere violence or horror, but rather a sick kind of community," Mazin said. This idea of the infected being connected through a hivemind also wasn't in the game — though Druckmann admitted on the podcast he wishes it was.

Bill and Frank's storyline is radically different

But by far the biggest departure from the game came in the third episode, "Long, Long Time," in which nearly the entire story of Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett) was changed for the series.

First of all, Bill is still alive in the game when Joel and Ellie find him, whereas in the show, he has died by suicide by then. Bill is initially antagonistic toward Joel and Ellie in the game before reluctantly agreeing to help them gather gear to fix up a car. So the three travel across town together, encountering infected along the way. Eventually, they come across Frank's body, and we see he has hanged himself. Unlike in the show, we find out that Frank committed suicide after being bitten to avoid becoming infected.

The game does imply that Frank and Bill were lovers like in the show. But their relationship is only alluded to — there are no flashbacks of them together — and it's clear that things ended badly between them. Bill tells Joel that he once "had somebody that I cared about," a "partner" whom he had to "look after," but "in this world, that sort of s--t's good for one thing: getting you killed." After finding Frank's body, we learn that he stole Bill's car battery and planned to run off before he was bitten. Joel then comes across a note that Frank left Bill, where he writes, "I want you to know I hated your guts."

"I grew tired of this s--tty town and your set-in-your-ways attitude," the note from Frank to Bill says. "I wanted more from life than this and you could never get that. And that stupid battery you kept moaning about — I got it. But I guess you were right. Trying to leave this town will kill me. Still better than spending another day with you."

The show changed all of this so that Frank and Bill are genuinely a loving couple until the end, and they die together after Frank develops a degenerative disease. In the game, Joel and Ellie leave with a car from Frank's house like in the show, but Bill doesn't actually die at all. The last time players see Bill, he doesn't impart a meaningful lesson on Joel like he does in his series with his note. Instead, he simply tells Joel to "get the f--k out of my town."

One reason for these massive changes, Druckman explained on the Last of Us podcast, was to contrast a hopeful love story with the tragedy of Tess' death at the end of the previous episode. Tess' death showed "what you stand to lose when you love someone: you can feel this immense loss," Druckman said. The Bill and Frank love story shows, though, "here's what you gain."

From Pittsburgh to Kansas City

In the fourth episode, "Please Hold to My Hand," Joel and Ellie are ambushed in Kansas City, where we see that a group of revolutionaries has overthrown FEDRA.

The ambush also happens in the game, but all of this occurred in Pittsburgh, not Kansas City. It sounds like this change was primarily based on needing to switch to a city that looked similar to where The Last of Us was filmed.

"The Pittsburgh-ness of Pittsburgh wasn't necessarily important [in the game]," Mazin said on the official Last of Us podcast. "We had certain environments we knew we could shoot in because we were shooting in Alberta — largely around Calgary, a little bit in Edmonton — and it looked closer to Kansas City. It just literally came down to that."

But Druckman added that they also wanted to move this section of the story closer on the map to where Joel and Ellie are heading next.

Ellie saving Joel happens differently in the show

In the fourth episode, Ellie rescues Joel by shooting a bandit while he's being attacked. Joel finishes the job, but not before the show brutally gives this bandit some characterization and even a name, Bryan.

There's a similar moment in the game where Ellie shoots a man to save Joel, but it happens later on in a hotel once they're deeper into the city. In the game, Ellie also straight up kills him, so Joel isn't the one to finish the job, and it's just a random guy who doesn't plead for his life and give his name like in the show.

More significantly, Joel is angrier about this in the game, asking Ellie why she didn't "hang back like I told you to" and proclaiming he's "glad I didn't get my head blown off by a goddamn kid." The show softens this reaction, with Joel feeling guilty and apologizing to Ellie for putting her in a position to save him.

Melanie Lynskey's Kathleen is a show invention

We meet Kathleen, played by Melanie Lynskey, in the fourth episode, the leader of the group that has taken over Kansas City. This character is an invention for the show, as is the idea of Henry being wanted for apparently ratting Kathleen's brother out to FEDRA. Perry, Kathleen's second-in-command, is also a new character for the show (though he's played by Jeffrey Pierce, the actor who played Joel's brother in the game).

In general, the show has dramatically expanded on this section of the game by fleshing out these antagonists significantly. While the player does come across these enemies who have taken Pittsburgh, the game never really gives us a good look at them and their motivations.

"In the game, they were just an obstacle," Druckman explained on the "Inside the Episode" featurette. In the show, though, he noted the aim was to make them "feel like people with a real goal and real motivation and humanity."

Henry and Sam have a new backstory in the show

Henry and Sam were characters in the game, and the broad strokes of their story are similar. But the show tweaked it so that Henry and Sam are in hiding after Henry gave up information about Kathleen's brother to FEDRA. In the game, Henry and Sam were just looking for supplies in the city before being ambushed like Joel and Ellie, but they have no connection to the revolutionaries.

Sam wasn't deaf in the game

Another significant change is that unlike in the show, the Sam of the game wasn't deaf.

On the Last of Us podcast, Mazin said this change stemmed, in part, from a desire for the Henry and Sam dynamic to not be too similar to Joel and Ellie's. "It automatically brings a certain kind of intimacy to those scenes because they're quiet, which I love," Mazin said, noting that this would also put them "in this bubble that had to expand to include Joel and Ellie." On the "Inside the Episode" featurette, Druckmann admitted his reaction to this idea was, "That's so good, it makes me upset that I didn't think about it [for the game]."

Sam is also a bit younger in the show. He's meant to be 13 in the game, just a year younger than Ellie, whereas he's eight in the show. "We liked the idea that Ellie would have somebody that could look up to her the way that she looked up to Joel," Mazin said on the Last of Us podcast.

The sniper being an old man was new for the show

The sequence where Joel has to take down a sniper to protect Henry, Sam, and Ellie was fairly faithful to the game — at least up until the point where the sniper is revealed to be an old man with poor aim.

On the Last of Us podcast, Mazin explained this idea came from the realization that "we weren't going to get the same value from presenting the action the way that" the game did. This led to the idea of there being a "sadness" to this sequence in that the sniper is "really bad" because he's old and can't see well, Mazin recalled, a change from the game, in which the sniper is actually "really good."

Sam didn't reveal to Ellie that he's infected in the game

The basics of Henry and Sam's fate — that Sam becomes infected and Henry kills him before shooting himself — are the same in the show as in the game, but with one big difference.

In the show, Sam reveals to Ellie that he's infected the night before he turns. That doesn't happen in the game, in which Sam never tells anyone that he was bitten (though he hints at it during a final conversation with Ellie, where he says he's scared of becoming infected). This also allows for the moment where Ellie reveals that she's immune and attempts to heal Sam with her blood.

"We thought that because of the nature of the relationship between our Sam and our Ellie, which is that he looked up to her, that it made sense that he would trust her," Mazin said on the Last of Us podcast, adding that by having Ellie seek to cure him, "we really wanted to show Ellie starting to believe that she could do something special."

This article will be updated as additional episodes of The Last of Us air, so check back in throughout the season for more. 

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