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The Ticking Bomb in “The Last of Us” Tv Show: A Masterclass in Building Up Tension


We’re only three episodes into the “The Last of Us” series, but it already feels it might go beyond the game itself. I’ve never played the first game, but I’ve watched a few streams on Youtube and I have to say I had high expectations for the TV adaptation.

Expectations, of course, but they were also mixed with a sense of dread and worry. It’s true that Druckmann was involved in adapting the story to the new format, but what if he screws up big time anyway? Trans-media adaptation are not guaranteed to do well only because the source material was good, especially when interactivity is involved. What if it’s just another Resident Evil, another Halo? It’s true that the The Last of Us game story was leagues ahead of both Resident Evil and Halo, but you can never know, right?

There is still plenty of time for disappointment, sure, but after three full episodes and countless spoiler-free previews of the series I feel like I can show some optimism about it. The series is incredibly faithful to the source material, and the few changes were made with sound motivations and brilliant results.

Spoilers from Episodes 2-3. And an exclusive picture of my cat

The way the infection spread is a bit more complicated, if you ask me. But in a certain sense, if the spores contamination were just airborne rather than passed through the grossest French kiss ever, everyone should wear gas masks. And the excellent performance of Pedro Pascal, Bella Ramsey and everyone else would be much less effective.

And the story of Bill and Frank, oh my. My poor feelings. I’ve just finished watching it with the comfort of my cat, and as much as he was unimpressed, I knew since the beginning that it was gonna break me. It gave me the “Haunting of Bly Manor” final episode vibes.

“Come on, Hooman. You knew that already, didn’t you?”

It was different from the game, of course. In the game, even if it’s hinted that Bill and Frank had been a couple, we never meet Frank alive. He was fed up with Bill attitude and antisocially and so he left him, meeting his demise.

In the series, instead, their story goes on until they both die. It’s a beautiful story of love and finding someone making life worth living even in an apocalyptic scenario. And Bill’s letter casts a new and different light under Joel’s mission to take care of Ellie and to deliver her to the fireflies. (Or maybe not deliver her, who knows…)

What about this ticking bomb? Isn’t it a show about some kind of zombies?

I have to place a spoiler here, it’s the entire point of the post I’m trying to write, but I promise it’s not a major spoiler. It happens in one of the first sequences of episode one, and if you know the bare minimum about the story it’s not a spoiler at all.

One of the first lesson I learned about storytelling and building up tension was that the amount of information the audience is given with respect to the characters in the story contributes in making a scene more compelling.

Suppose that you (the reader/the audience) know that there’s a bomb hidden a briefcase under the table of a bar. A ticking bomb, wired to blow up in a matter of minutes. No one of the characters inside the bar knows about the bomb, and they go on with their life as if nothing was threatening them.

You see them talking, laughing, drinking, totally unaware of the looming danger, while the clock keeps ticking and the countdown goes on and on. Will someone notice the odd ticking sound that comes from the briefcase? Will someone see it, and do something about it? Or will everybody die in a fraction of a second?

This technique of creating a bigger tension in the audience is a trick used to keep the audience watching (or reading). It’s much more effective than having the bomb explode all of a sudden or the hero coming into the bar and saving the day out of nowhere.

At the beginning of episode 1, Sarah is visiting her neighbours’ house, as she usually does when her dad is working. It seems such an ordinary day, it surely is for her, but we as the audience know that it’s not. And just before Sarah leaves, we have a clear proof of that, but unfortunately we’re the only ones to notice it.

I’ve shouted to the television as I watched the scene (my cat wasn’t with me that time or he’d been super pissed), and I’m sure I’m not the only one, even though I knew it was going to make no difference. But as I screamed at my tv, I also realised how well that narrative device had been used. The entire episode one, for someone who knows the game at least, is a big and slow descent into an announced disaster. But as much as we can’t warn any of the protagonists, we can’t also look away because at that point we have to see it happening.

That’s a powerful device in the hands of a storyteller, but it doesn’t guarantee success when a huge part of the audience already knows a lot of how things will play out. But I’m sure Mazin and Druckmann know how to use it to make us enjoy the rest of the series.

Published inRamblingsStorytellingVideogames

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