'The Last of Us': The Biggest Changes Between the Game and TV Show

The HBO series has been lauded as one of the best video game adaptations put to screen.

When HBO first announced its television adaptation of The Last of Us, fans expressed mass concern. The video game, originally debuted in 2013 and re-released as The Last of Us Part I in 2022, remains one of the most beloved narrative arcs in the gaming community (there is also a sequel, The Last of Us Part II, released in 2020). Game versus show comparisons were inevitable, and succeeding would require undying respect of the source material. 

Plus, attempts to adapt the game had already failed once: TLOU almost became the subject of a live-action movie in 2019, but the project fell through before production began.  

Show creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann looked at these struggles as learning opportunities for their television show, which aired its season 1 finale on HBO Max on Sunday. Druckmann is also a director of the original game. 

To succeed in their adaptation, Mazin and Druckmann knew they needed to strike a balance between an honest portrayal of the game's ingenuity and an understanding of where television requires different types of storytelling.

The first episode’s release in January seemed to surprise even the most ardent of fans with how much they got it right, as season 1 went on to adapt the entire storyline of The Last of Us Part I, even featuring several of the video game's original voice actors. Season 2 will now move to The Last of Us Part II -- learn more about it here

Check out our favorite The Last of Us game vs. show comparisons by episode below. 

EPISODE 1 - Missing Spores and an Altered Setting

HBO's first departure from the game is in its setting: The show takes place 10 years before it does in the game.

Mazin and Druckmann also altered the foundational details of the narrative's pandemic. The game features infectious spores that are transmissible through the air, but the TV show does away with this. The changes were received fairly positively online, with many arguing that the spores would have been harder to believe in a widened TV setting anyway (the physics of how a spore travels through doors and windows are easier to control in a video game). 

The show's pandemic deals instead with infections caused by direct contact, transmissible via bites and food supplies. 

The first episode still made waves for its similarity to the game. This video shows a comparison from the scene when Joel (Pedro Pascal), his daughter, Sarah (Nico Parker), and his brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna), flee their Texas home following the initial Cordyceps outbreak in 2003. From the inside of the vehicle, Sarah sees a burning building on the side of the road:


EPISODE 2 - Pandemic Backstory and Tess' Death

The TV show explains the lethal Cordyceps origin in a way that the game does not. Episode 2 includes an opening sequence regarding a mycologist in Indonesia who inspects an early human victim of the mutated fungus. The scene is dated Sept. 24, 2003, and after inspecting the body, she tearfully advises the government officials to bomb the city where the victim was found. The scene provides a helpful backstory for the many bombed cities that Joel and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) find across the U.S. in a way that the game does not explain with such detail. 

Episode 2 also marks Joel's devastating goodbye to his partner, Tess (Anna Torv), who becomes infected while she, Joel and Ellie are working their way through an abandoned building.

The scene when she reveals her infection to Joel is very similar to the moment in the game, and also happens in the same building: 

Tess' death, however, is markedly different. Rather than simply attacking the approaching FEDRA soldiers to buy Joel and Ellie time for their escape, she sets fire to the whole building and then allows one of the infected runners to kiss her, and their mutated fungal tendrils to enter her mouth. 

Though the unsettling kiss doesn't happen in the game, Druckmann later told Entertainment Weekly that the tendrils came from the game's concept art. 

"Craig smartly said, 'What can we do to separate our infected even further from zombies?' It's more than just a bite. There's something else going on," Druckmann said. "I wish we had that aha moment immediately, but we brainstormed so many different things that they could be doing," he adds. "Some of them were pretty outlandish."

EPISODE 3 - Bill and Frank's Love Story

The show's third episode is its most famous departure from the game. Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank's (Murray Bartlett) life stories are nonexistent in the game, and Joel and Ellie's interactions with the two characters are also altered. 

The TV show presents Bill and Frank's story as a flashback. Bill was a hardy survivalist who avoided the government-mandated evacuation and then lived alone in his neighborhood which he protected with traps and fences. After years of solitude, Frank arrives, begging him for food and shelter. The two fall in love, and live together peacefully for years, occasionally hosting Joel and Tess and fending off intruders. 


Frank ultimately falls ill with an ALS-like illness. When he can't go on any longer, the two men commit suicide together, dying in each other's arms in their bedroom. Joel and Ellie arrive later that year and find their suicide note on the dining table. The letter is addressed "To whomever, but probably Joel."

In the game, Joel and Ellie must work their way through Bill's traps around the town and eventually find him alive. Bill tells Joel that Frank had become infected and killed himself. The group eventually finds Frank's dead body hanging from a tree, and a nearby suicide note reveals that Frank was mad at Bill at the time of his death. Bill never specifies the nature of his relationship with Frank, and when Joel and Ellie leave, he is still alive. He never appears again throughout the rest of The Last of Us games. 

ET spoke to Mazin in February about the choice to go deeper on Bill's story. "It was something that I proposed to Neil [Druckmann] because I thought there was an opportunity there," Mazin said. "The Bill section [of the game], a lot of it was based around game play and we obviously don't have that, but also Bill was unique. He had created safety and I was fascinated by the idea of somebody who had eliminated the major problem and was safe. But now what?"

See more here: 

@entertainmenttonight Bill and Frank’s ‘The Last of Us’ story showed us “both sides of what love is” #thelastofus #tlou #billandfrank #tlouepisode3 #fyp original sound - Entertainment Tonight

Episode 3 was a massive success for Mazin and Druckmann. Though dramatic in its narrative differences, fans commended the show's changes and celebrated the creators' excellent storytelling. Video game critic Bernard Boo wrote that the installment was "one of the best episodes of television in recent memory and acts as irrevocable proof that this show may be, only three episodes in, the best video game adaptation ever made." 

EPISODE 4 - Same Fight, Different City 

Ellie and Joel are ambushed at the beginning of episode 4, a scene very similar to the game. The attacker pretends to be injured but then strikes the car, breaking the windshield and later forcing both Joel and Ellie into the open to fight. You can see the game-to-show comparison here:  

In the show, Joel and Ellie are in Kansas City, forced to detour there on the way to Wyoming. In the game, this ambush happens in Pittsburgh, but much of the set building makes them look like the same city. In both, the area has been destroyed, first by FEDRA and then by Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey) and her resistance movement. Kathleen is not in the game, and the resistance fighters thus have much less of a backstory. Her right-hand man in the show, Perry, is played by Jeffrey Pierce, the actor who voices Tommy in The Last of Us video games. 

In the show, the initial ambush results in Ellie's first kill using the gun she took from Bill and Frank's. Actor Bella Ramsey was commended for their performance in this scene, a somber portrayal of their young character's trauma. In the game, Ellie only wounds the man, extending the fight and later killing him during a much longer brawl sequence. 

See one comparison (with a few extra scenes) here: 

While hiding in Kansas City, Ellie wakes up to find Sam (Keivonn Woodard) and Henry (Lamar Johnson) holding her and Joel hostage. The episode ends on this cliffhanger: 

EPISODE 5 - Sam and Henry 

Mazin and Druckmann made another major character change in episode 5. Though Sam and Henry both appear in the game, Sam is younger in the show, as well as mute. He speaks to Henry, his brother, in sign language and communicates with Ellie with a white board, a completely new addition for the TV adaptation. 

"It's a way that Sam has to rely on Henry even more," Druckmann said of the change in HBO's "Inside The Episode" featurette. 

In the show, Sam, Henry, Joel and Ellie make their escape from Kansas City via a set of underground tunnels. In the game, these are sewers. The ensuing fight with the resistance and the infected also plays out rather differently, and the show introduces its first bloater (a type of infected). 

At the safe house the next day, Sam's death plays out just as quickly -- and is just as devastating -- as in the game. After his infected self attacks Ellie, Henry kills Sam: 

Horrified by what he's done, Henry kills himself in front of Joel and Ellie: 

"It's a very sad scene," Johnson told ET of his character's end. "I'm really grateful for the opportunity to be able to step into that space and interpret it in my own way. I also didn't wanna create a carbon copy from the game. I did want to honor his performance, because it was beautiful and it affected me when I played the game. But I did want to add my own self and my own instincts to that scene as well."

EPISODE 6 - Details From 'The Last of Us Part II'

The sixth episode reunites Joel with his brother Tommy after he and Ellie finally make it to Wyoming. In the game, players find Tommy with his wife Maria at a hydroelectric dam that powers a nearby village, and players never see the town.

In the show, Tommy and Maria (Rutina Wesley) live in a village closely based on a setting from The Last of Us Part II. Many of the details of their time there come from plot points that play out in the updated video game, but are only mentioned in passing in the original. The movie night attended by Ellie and the horse named Shimmer are both from The Last of Us Part II but not in the 2013 game. 

The episode does feature one of the game's most famous scenes: the fight between Joel and Ellie. Finally reunited with his brother, Joel opens up about how scared he is about not being able to protect Ellie. When she overhears his conversation, Ellie feels betrayed, and later tells Joel she knows about Sarah, his daughter. 

One TikTok user edited the scene in the game and the show together in one sequence here: 

Watch the scene side-by-side here: 

EPISODE 7 - Backstory Based on 'The Last of Us' Expansion Pack

Episode 7 recounts the night that Ellie learned she was immune, telling the story of how she got the bite scar on her inner forearm. In an extended flashback scene, Ellie sneaks out of the QZ (quarantine zone) where she grew up to explore an abandoned mall with her friend and recent Firefly recruit, Riley (Storm Reid). Toward the end of their night, Ellie and Riley both confess their romantic feelings for another and share a first kiss. Soon after, they are attacked by an infected and both are bitten. 

The episode's title, "Left Behind," takes inspiration from an expansion pack on the original 2013 video game. The add-on series is based on a comic series, The Last of Us: American Dreams, written by Druckmann and Faith Erin Hicks. 

Check out this detail about the infected-infested American Girl Doll store and its connection to the game here: 

Ellie mentions Riley in The Last of Us, but players don't learn her backstory, or the extent of Ellie's feelings for her until playing the DLC. Fans were also quick to point out the show moments that corresponded with scenes from the game:

Druckmann explained the process of fleshing out her character for the game's expansion pack in a 2014 interview with Wired. "When I did interviews with Faith for the comic book, and we both made the mistake when we were describing Ellie and Riley for the first time – we said Ellie was attracted to Riley. We meant, I think, that she was just really drawn to her, that she really looked up to her," Druckmann said. "But then I thought in the back of my mind, what if there's something more than that? It became this interesting dimension of their relationship that we could explore."

Though Riley is presumed dead because of the infected bite, the comic series and expansion pack do not provide any more details about her death, nor do they explain when Ellie realized she was immune or how she found Firefly leader Marlene (Merle Dandridge) who viewers met in episode 1. Dandrige also plays Marlene in The Last of Us game. The jury is still out as to whether the show will further develop these stories. 

EPISODE 8 - Troy Baker makes a cameo! 

The penultimate episode of The Last of Us season 1 follows Ellie as she becomes entangled with a nearby religious cult leader named David who at first offers her medicine to help Joel's injury but later reveals more violent intentions.

Troy Baker, the voice actor for Joel in The Last of Us video game, guest stars in this episode as David's assistant. Baker recently spoke to ET about returning to the TLOU franchise from a new angle. 

"I'm one of those people that subscribes to the theory that there are no villains," he explained of his new character's dubious motives. "There's just my hero from a different perspective. I am 100 percent the hero of that story and I'm living my movie of my own life, and all these other people... they are the antagonist to my protagonist."

"It's way more interesting to me to find the empathy in someone and try to understand their perspective," he added. "I think that you can't out-hate somebody. That's why empathy has to be the key."

EPISODE 9 - The Giraffe Scene Appears, and We Meet Ellie's Mom 

The Last of Us video game fans often cite the giraffe scene as one of their favorite moments of the game. Ellie and Joel stumble on a giraffe outside an abandoned building that they're exploring. The scene is one of the final moments of beauty in the first game, and fittingly, is the same for the onscreen adaptation. Giraffes have also been a motif throughout the show, and eagle-eyed fans noticed giraffe stuffed animals, paintings and references throughout all nine episodes. 

Soon after they resume their journey, Joel admits to Ellie he attempted suicide after Sarah's death. This is not in the game. 

The episode also opens in a flashback, when a pregnant woman is bitten by an infected just before birth. She cuts the umbilical cord and claims to Marlene it was cut before she was bit, asking Marlene to kill her and keep the child. The scene fills out Ellie's origin story, and explains her immunity, two questions that were never answered in the game. In the show, Ellie's mother is played by Ashley Johnson, who voices Ellie in the game. 

During the hospital scene, one of the nurses Joel holds at gunpoint is played by Laura Bailey, who voices Abby, a protagonist of The Last of Us Part II.

The first season of The Last of Us is now streaming on HBO Max.