Contains spoilers for The Last of Us Part I.
Despite being a remake of a game released for the PlayStation 3 in 2013, The Last of Us Part I is in many ways the same game as the original The Last of Us. Players who experience the game for the first time through the remake will understand the storyline in the same way. They follow the same story to the same ending, meet the same characters, and feel many of the same feelings. They experience the same vision of a post-apocalyptic United States, where a traumatized man, Joel, reckons he cannot part with his surrogate daughter, Ellie.
But ultimately, while it stays as close to the original script and overall design as Part I, it’s still a new game in its own right. By making a game look “better” than before, it becomes something different. Whether on a small or large scale, things are changing.
In The Last of Us Part I, the most noticeable changes come through the character designs. Developer Naughty Dog has updated the game’s graphics, improving the graphical fidelity of everything the player sees, from the stomach-churning mushroom bumps covering a giant “Bloater” monster to the bright green chunks of grass emerging from the cracked asphalt of the Potholes of a ghost town loom streets. However, it’s the faces of the performers that really stand out.
The protagonists, Joel and Ellie, are more natural and expressive – the elastic cartoon features of their original faces have been replaced with realistically furrowed brows and naturally wide open eyes of terror when something tragic unfolds in front of them. They also look quite different as humans. Although the character design change is more dramatic in some cases than others, Joel in particular appears dramatically more tired and older than before. Wrinkles carve furrows in his tired face. Shattered shadows accentuate his eyes. The white in his hair and beard underscores his age.
He looks less soulful than before, his features stripped of a nice cowboy glow and replaced by a kind of outward callousness. It makes it harder to imagine him making the kind of heroic turns that both versions of the game suggest for him but ultimately isn’t capable of. Feeling that Joel is a man running out of time — that the world has beaten him down and that he has little left to hold on to other than his concern for Ellie — makes it less shocking that he’s the makes a selfish decision to stop his companion from giving her life to develop a cure for a world-destroying virus. Joel has been transformed to look too upset by the horrors of his violent life to believe in a better future.
This type of change alters the feel of the game by subtly enhancing the original’s narrative. In other cases, the remake introduces more dramatic differences. One-off characters, from the hardy denizens of the Boston quarantine zone to the many human enemies that Joel and Ellie kill on their journey west, now have more detailed faces that better reflect the sense of individuality in a previously homogenous group. Rather than seeming less important than the story’s main characters, the nameless enemies give a better sense of being real, living people.
The attention given to their faces erases some of the distinction between essential and non-essential characters. As a result, her death feels less like the destruction of digital obstacles and more like the brutal obliteration of human life that the original game sought to communicate with its story. This touch also brings Part I further in line with its sequel The Last of Us Part II, which attempted to ameliorate its violence through touch such as enemies screaming for their friends during combat or an ailing feature brought into the game, remake also beg for their lives when they get wounded.
These visual memories expand the scope of Part I’s world. In the original Last of Us, it was easier to abstract the dozens (or hundreds) of bandits and soldiers killed by Joel and Ellie into something other than humans. Their more likable faces help further clarify the story, showing that an entire nation shone beyond the spotlight on the main characters, their fate altered by gory encounters with the protagonist – or narrowed into what seemed an eternally barbaric future, as Joel decided to save Ellie’s life instead of letting her death offer them a hopeful future.
While these design choices emphasize aspects of the story already present in the original, other significant visual changes alter The Last of Us characters in ways that fundamentally rethink their role in the narrative.
Tess, Joel’s partner in crime and romance from the early part of the game, has received perhaps the most dramatic redesign. The original Tess was a younger, livelier counterpart of Joel – a companion whose relative youth and similar disregard for the lives of her enemies made it clear that it was not only the game’s protagonist, but also those around him who had learned others repeatedly killing and risking their own death to eke out a living in post-apocalyptic America. With Tess now looking just as exhausted and wrung out as Joel, her final moments in the story – sacrificing her life to ensure he and Ellie can escape a group of enemies in Boston – take a different turn.
Tess from the original game
Tess from TLOU Part I Remake
Previously, the younger Tess appeared to be representative of a future generation of post-apocalyptic humans who sought nothing in life but companionship and the grueling labor of smuggling to survive. Giving her life for Ellie’s survival meant she ended up seeing the world differently than Joel did when it came down to it. This decision, reflected in Ellie’s willingness to die for a cure and Joel’s ultimate decision to condemn the world to further murder and horror because of his selfishness, meant that the original game positioned Joel as something outside of the adolescent possibilities that Ellie and Tess originally represented . With the redesign of Tess, this subtle thematic touch disappears. Tess still sacrifices herself and sticks to the original script, but her actions don’t carry the same thematic weight as they once did.
Examples like these show that a remake is never a truly neutral exercise, no matter how closely it follows the contours of the original work. This dynamic applies in the case of a bottom-up reimagining like Final Fantasy VII Remake. And it stays that way in maniacally devoted artistic homages like that of Gus Van Sant 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1960 thriller Psycho, which recreated as many aspects as possible of the original, from the script to the composition of the shots. Proof of what’s lost in even the most faithful remakes, it’s hard to find Vince Vaughn’s Norman Bates as chillingly compelling as Anthony Perkins was in the original. No matter how hard a remake tries to make something old new again without drastically tweaking its source material, the act of recreating itself involves new choices that always introduce changes.
That’s because a remake — even one created by a big team like Naughty Dog — reveals the fingerprints of whoever made it. Games are a product of a time and place, their creators’ priorities at the time of their creation, and of course the technological opportunities and constraints of their time. When Naughty Dog returned to The Last of Us for Part I, the studio did so knowing the commercial successes and failures of the original and critical. This happened with a direct sequel being made and released. And it did so with nine years of hindsight influencing its decisions.
The result is that despite its many similarities, Part I is a different game than the original Last of Us. Its characters aren’t exactly the same characters as before, its world isn’t exactly the same world as before, and the experience of playing it is so different that it becomes a new work – one that’s best described as a different draft of the same novel or a new version of the same film can be viewed. By recognizing these differences, both the 2013 Last of Us and The Last of Us Part I end up looking like more than just an older and newer version of the same story.
This article originally appeared in Issue 351 of Game Informer.
Download at: https://www.gameinformer.com/feature/2022/12/26/the-last-of-us-part-i-shows-theres-isnt-a-completely-faithful-remake