Joel and Ellie staring

"The Last of Us" may have been one of HBO’s most anticipated series ever before its premiere on January 15, 2023. However, few could have predicted just how well the show has been received by both critics and viewers, holding a 97% critic rating and a 91% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing. The show is so good that many believe it may redefine how people view live-action video game adaptations, seeing the potential for intense, dramatic storytelling.

While "The Last of Us" remains remarkably faithful to the beloved video game that inspired it, like all good adaptations, the show has taken several creative liberties and made some changes. Understandably, some fans will always be wary of any changes to a story that’s as well-loved as "The Last of Us," but many of these adjustments utilize the medium to help highlight story elements that may have been more difficult to tell in the game.

Although the journey of Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) has remained mostly untouched, many of the supporting characters and the world they live in have been built upon and expanded in the HBO series. Some of these changes might be minor, while others play a larger role in how the story plays out. Here are some of the biggest differences between "The Last of Us" show and the game.

More points of view

Tess with Ellie

Like many video games, the points of view in which the players experience the story of "The Last of Us" in the video game are quite limited. The story is primarily seen through the eyes of the protagonist, Joel, with only brief moments that put players in control of his daughter, Sarah, and the game’s deuteragonist, Ellie. By keeping the story limited in scope, the game helps to place players firmly into the shoes of the main protagonists, helping them to feel immersed in the game’s world.

HBO’s "The Last of Us" uses its change in medium to flesh out the supporting characters in a way that was difficult for the game to achieve without breaking said immersion. This change in direction is apparent from the very first episode when viewers get to experience more of Sarah’s (Nico Parker) day prior to the collapse, including how she fixes Joel’s watch.

The show continues this trend, giving viewers insight into the world through the eyes of characters such as Tess (Anna Torv), Bill (Nick Offerman), and Henry (Lamar Johnson). It even provides some brief points of view from minor characters, such as the unnamed child in Episode 1 that appears just after the 20-year time jump.

Spores vs. Tendrils: How the infection spreads

An infected shows its tendrils

There are a lot of ways in which "The Last of Us" sets itself apart from "The Walking Dead" and other zombie shows, but one of the biggest examples is how the walkers come to be the way they are. While "The Walking Dead" sets up a viral infection as the culprit, leading to the rise of zombies and the fall of civilization, the walkers in "The Last of Us" are infected by a fungus, based on the real-life fungus, cordyceps. In the show and video game, the cordyceps infect the human brain, taking control of the host and turning them into husks that resemble traditional zombies, with some even further mutating into clickers and bloaters.

Cordyceps is used as the means of infection in both the game and the show, but the series actually makes some surprising changes to how the fungus works and spreads. In the game, cordyceps is primarily spread through airborne fungal spores, which often necessitates that characters wear masks. The fungus can also be transmitted through bites from other infected, like many other zombie properties.

In the show, the fungus can no longer spread through spores in the air, and can only be transmitted through physical contact such as bites, or ingested through a food supply. The show’s version of cordyceps also gives the infected tendrils that allow them to communicate with other infected through the mycelium network going through the ground.

The collapse of society

Ratna Pertiwi looking

"The Last of Us" video game provides only some glimpses into the collapse of society that takes place between the introduction and the 20-year time jump that sets up the rest of the story. Most of that information can be gleaned by inquisitive players during the game’s introductory segment in which players take control of Joel’s daughter, Sarah. If players explore a bit, they can read a newspaper and view a news segment on television that give brief insights into the collapse around where she lives in Texas. In "The Last of Us: Part II," players can also locate a patient’s note that explains that the infection likely began in South America.

In HBO’s "The Last of Us," the beginning of society’s collapse and the spread of the cordyceps infection has changed quite a bit. Unlike in the video game, viewers get to see how the infection began to spread via a flashback in Episode 2 ("Infected"). The flashback shows that the infection actually began in Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia. After several workers were infected while working at a flour mill near the city, mycologist Ratna Pertiwi (Christine Hakim) is called in to assess the situation, to which she gives the recommendation that the Ministry of Defense bomb the city.

Joel’s reason for taking the job

Tommy looking

Joel isn’t always the easiest hero to root for, as even he himself has admitted that he’s done some pretty terrible things in his life. However, the HBO show softens the character up a bit from his counterpart in the video game, making family a bigger priority in the character’s life and motivations. This subtle but important change not only helps to make the character more relatable and set up his relationship with Ellie later in the game, but it also changes some of his motivations throughout, including the reason that he agrees to help smuggle Ellie out of the city for the Fireflies.

In the game, Joel and Tess are looking to buy a shipment of guns from a smuggler named Robert to resell for a profit. However, Robert double-crosses them, selling the guns to Marlene and the Fireflies instead. After Roberts’s death, Marlene agrees to give Joel and Tess their guns back, even doubling them, if they agree to smuggle Ellie out of the quarantine zone. In the show, Joel is worried about his brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna), who hasn’t made contact in some time and wants a car battery to get to his brother in Wyoming. This change makes Joel more family-oriented, prioritizing his brother over profits, while in the game, the two are estranged.

Ellie’s relationship with the Fireflies

Marlene struggles with her injuries

Like Joel’s relationship with Tommy, Ellie’s relationship with the Fireflies, and Marlene (Merle Dandridge) in particular, seems to have changed somewhat in the show. In the video game, when players first encounter Ellie, she is with Marlene who tells her to go with Joel and Tess. Ellie protests, worried about Marlene’s safety. Throughout the game, Ellie describes her relationship with Marlene, always wondering whether she was safe. The two seem to be very close, with Ellie referring to her as a friend.

In the show, however, when viewers first meet Ellie, she has an antagonistic relationship with the Fireflies and Marlene who are holding her against her will. Apart from holding her captive, Ellie seems to have little knowledge of the Fireflies, or who Marlene is. After a few visits, Marlene finds common ground with Ellie by telling her that she was a friend of her mother. While Ellie and Marlene seem okay working with each other until Joel and Tess arrive, it’s clearly not the close friendship described in the game. In addition, Ellie seems more antagonistic towards Tess and especially Joel when they first meet, and it takes her longer to warm up to him, while in the game it is the other way around.

The story of Bill and Frank

Frank looks through Bill's Linda Ronstadt song book

Arguably one of the biggest changes in HBO’s "The Last of Us" revolves around Bill, a supporting character that Joel meets early on in the video game. In the game, Bill is a solitary survivalist that lives in a small trap-filled town outside of the Boston Quarantine Zone. After losing Tess, Joel takes Ellie to see Bill in order to secure a vehicle and some supplies. Joel, Bill, and Ellie have to fight off the infection while looking for a battery. While they do so, they encounter the body of Bill’s former partner, Frank, who had a falling out with Bill sometime before the game and took his own life after being infected.

The show takes a very different approach to the character’s story in Episode 3 ("Long, Long Time"), which chronicles Bill’s life since the collapse, including meeting Frank (Murray Bartlett). While the game hints that they may have been romantic partners, the show outright confirms this, showing how the two fell in love. Unlike the game, the two never have a falling out. Instead, after 15 years together, Frank develops a neurodegenerative disease and chooses to end his life once the disease progresses. In the show, Bill chooses to end his own life at the same time, not wanting to live without Frank. Ellie never gets to meet Bill in the show, but he is able to leave a working vehicle and supplies to set Joel up for the road ahead.

New characters

Kathleen staring

Since "The Last of Us" series is able to introduce more points of view throughout the show, it has the benefit of being able to include not only a wider range of characters but also develop their motivations in a detailed way that the game was never able to. This provides the show with the unique opportunity to introduce new characters that never appeared in the game. Even in just the first half of the season, the show has already introduced several new characters into the fold.

Some of these characters only appear in a single brief, albeit important, scene. For instance, actor John Hannah, who’s known for his roles in popular films such as "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "The Mummy," plays Dr. Neumann, a scientist who appears in a TV interview in 1968. While he only appears in a single scene, his interview sets up how the fungus would be able to mutate to infect humans.

In another episode, viewers are introduced to mycologist Pertiwi, who tries to stop the spread of the cordyceps in Jakarta. However, the most important new character is Kathleen, played by Melanie Lynskey, and her sidekick Perry, played by Jeffery Pierce (who voiced Tommy in the video game). Kathleen is a revolutionary leader turned warlord who has taken control of Kansas City.

Pittsburgh or Kansas City?

Joel and Ellie look out of the car

Another major change between "The Last of Us" video game and the show is the location where Joel and Ellie are ambushed and lose their vehicle. In the video game, the pair are passing through Pittsburgh when they fall into a trap set by local bandits and end up losing their vehicle. They have to make their way through the city on foot while being hunted by an unnamed faction that overthrew FEDRA in the city. Much of Pittsburgh is flooded, including a major segment in a partially submerged hotel that Joel and Ellie encounter much earlier in the show while still in Boston. Eventually, they meet up with Henry and Sam and escape the city together.

In the show, Joel and Ellie are much further west on their journey to Wyoming. Instead of being ambushed in Pittsburgh, they are instead attacked while passing through Kansas City, Nebraska. Like the game’s Pittsburgh segment, Kansas City is under the control of a revolutionary faction that overthrew FEDRA, before becoming tyrants themselves. In the show, the faction is given a leader, Kathleen, and viewers are able to see the hunt for the two from the other side. Like in the game, Joel and Ellie meet up with Henry and Sam (Keivonn Woodard), who are instrumental in their escape.

Henry and Sam’s backstory

Henry looks at Sam

Like Bill and Frank, Henry and Sam are two supporting characters from "The Last of Us" game that Joel and Ellie meet for a brief time while escaping from the hostile city of Pittsburgh. In the game, Henry and Sam are brothers, and like Joel and Ellie, they were traveling through the city when they are ambushed by the local militant faction. After escaping, they went into hiding in the city, while Henry devised a plan to escape, which he was only able to do with Joel’s assistance. Sam, Henry’s younger brother, is about Ellie’s age, and the two bond before he is bitten and becomes infected.

In the show, Henry are Sam were residents of Kansas City during FEDRA’s rule. To afford medicine for Sam, Henry sold secrets about the revolutionary faction which resulted in the death of Kathleen’s brother. Once Kathleen’s group overthrows FEDRA, she mercilessly sets out to capture and kill Henry, trying to avenge the death of her brother. With the help of a local doctor, Henry and Sam are able to hide until Joel and Ellie arrive, giving them the opportunity to escape.

In the show, Sam is younger than his game counterpart, and is also deaf, using a magic slate paper saver to communicate with Ellie. Sadly, he and his brother meet the same tragic fates as they did in the game after Sam is bitten and Henry takes his own life, unable to cope with losing his brother.