This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us HBO show and The Last of Us Part 1 game.
The Last of Us first season is finally over. While many predicted that the show had the potential to be the finest live-action adaptation of a video game ever, it really was remarkable to see all the ways the show successfully adapted the game’s legendary story. Of course, as with all adaptations, there are some major differences between the HBO series and its source material.
While you’ll find a list of those differences below, keep in mind that we’re emphasizing the word “major.” That means this article doesn’t reference things like different camera shots, different actors, or even slightly different dialog sequences. Instead, we’ve primarily focused on changes that either impacted The Last of Us‘ overall narrative (or specific character arcs) in significant ways or notably altered a memorable event from the game. If you spot any significant changes you think we missed, though, let us know about them in the comments.
The Last of Us Episode 1: “When You’re Lost in the Darkness” Differences
The Talk Show Opening
The very first scene in HBO’s The Last of Us is unique to the TV series.
Whereas the game’s opening takes us back to the early days of the Cordyceps infection (more on that in a bit), the show goes even further back in time than that. It opens with a snippet from a fictional 1968 TV program in which a host discusses global apocalyptic scenarios with two researchers (always a pleasant bit of programming). During that panel, one of the researchers suggests that the greatest threat to humanity is actually a fungal infection accelerated by global warming (though those words aren’t used). As you probably know, that suggestion turned out to be tragically prophetic.
The showrunners have previously stated that they felt this intro helped set the stage by informing viewers that the people in this show were aware of that threat on a least some level before it actually happened. The team said they were originally going to utilize a David Attenborough-style opening, but felt that the roundtable format was a bit sleeker and more entertaining. As we’ll soon see, this was just one of the many ways the show added new material to the game in the name of worldbuilding.
The Timeline Changes
As we’ve previously discussed, The Last of Us’ pilot episode quickly establishes that the show follows a slightly different timeline from the games. Whereas the game opened in 2013 before jumping to the apocalyptic future of 2033, the show opens in 2003 before eventually jumping to 2023. The timeline changes ultimately don’t have a major impact on the rest of the series (aside from some additional 2003-specific references), though the 2023 timeline does hammer home the idea that we’re looking at an alternate timeline rather than a vision of 2033 that could yet come to pass.
We See a Lot More of Sarah
While The Last of Us HBO series does a remarkable job of recreating the game’s incredible introduction sequence, the HBO version of that incredible opening features significantly more scenes with Sarah. The show allows us to spend much more time with Sarah and witness a pretty typical day in her life (albeit during some quickly escalating circumstances), which arguably makes her eventual fate hit that much harder.
Tess and Joel’s Relationship Is Much More Obvious
This is a slightly smaller change, but it’s worth noting that the show implies that there is more of a romantic (or at least sexual) relationship between Tess and Joel than the game did. Most notably, we clearly see Tess crawling into bed with Joel and embracing him. While you could argue that the game also leaves you with the impression that Tess and Joel are more than just friends or partners in crime, the show emphasizes that Joel is still looking for someone to love at the end of the world despite his hardened exterior.
How the Cordyceps Infection Spreads
This is another one of those changes that run throughout the series, but The Last of Us’ pilot episode quickly establishes (in various ways) that the Corydycpes infection in the show generally spreads via direct contact with the infected rather than through the spores that were such a major threat in the game. The showrunners discussed their reasons for that change before the series’ pilot even aired, and the decision to make the actual act of infection a little more “personal” would pop up in various ways throughout the show (some of which we’ll discuss in a bit).
Tommy Is Missing
Strangely, The Last of Us show reveals that Joel had lost contact with Tommy quite some time ago (despite the two speaking regularly before that), whereas the game suggests that the two simply don’t talk that much anymore. It’s not entirely clear why the show implies that Tommy may be “missing,” though we some minor ramifications of that alternation in future episodes.
The Last of Us Episode 2: “Infected” Differences
The Scientist Opening
Much like the pilot, The Last of Us’ second episode opens with a show-specific sequence that takes us back in time. This time, though, we go to the earliest days of the Cordyceps infection and follow a scientist in Jakarta who learns of the nature of the outbreak and reveals that there is little else that can be done at this point outside of bombing the city.
This new sequence accomplishes two key things. First off, it furthers the show’s message that the outbreak was a global crisis whereas the game focused more on the U.S. (though a global outbreak was certainly implied in the games). Second, it suggests that Jakarta was the apparent starting point of the infection whereas the games were always a little more ambiguous regarding the exact origins of the outbreak. In general, this is one of the many ways that the show directly reveals things that the game only hinted at or simply never said.
In The Last of Us game, Joel and Tess are convinced that Ellie is immune after they see her breathe in deadly Cordyceps spores and remain miraculously uninfected. Since the show doesn’t utilize those spores, we instead see Ellie get bit yet again, which eventually helps convince Joel and Tess that she’s the real deal. It’s a logistical change that gets us to relatively the same place via a slightly different route.
In The Last of Us game, Tess is killed by FEDRA soldiers that have been pursuing the trio since they left the quarantine zone. In the show, Tess is killed by a horde of infected (though she manages to take quite a few infected out with her before dying).
As we’ve previously discussed, this change can likely be attributed to a few things. First off, the showrunners felt that it just didn’t make sense for FEDRA soldiers to pursue Joel, Tess, and Ellie so far into Boston. As we’ll discuss later, it’s also possible that the showrunners also wanted to portray FEDRA as a slightly more morally ambiguous organization rather than de facto bad guys.
This change also allows Tess to go out in a blaze of glory rather than simply die in a gunfight against seemingly impossible odds. More importantly, having Tess be killed by the infected rather than FEDRA allowed this episode to establish another important change to the functionality and social structure of the infected.
The Cordyceps’ Kiss/Connections
Early into The Last of Us’ second episode, we watch as Joel, Tess, and Ellie observe a massive horde of infected from a seemingly safe distance. It’s here that we learn that these larger populations of infected are essentially connected via a fungal network that allows them to detect humans from across great distances and communicate with each other. The implication is that the infected have a strange kind of “society” that allows them to work together more effectively than the survivors often do.
Another lore change to the infected’s functionality occurs during Tess’ aforementioned death scene. Right before she blows up most of the pursuing infected horde, a lone infected host corners Tess and essentially tries to “kiss” her with tendrils in order to infect her. That kiss is yet another example of the show altering the portrayal of the infection process to make it more horrifyingly intimate.
The Last of Us Episode 3: “Long, Long Time” Differences
The Source of the Infection
Early into The Last of Us’ third episode, we see Joel and Ellie walking along the countryside and observing some remnants of the world that was. Ellie asks Joel how all of this happened, and Joel theorizes that the infection may have spread globally via contaminated food products (specifically, bread and flour-based products).
Joel admits that nobody alive probably knows exactly what happened, though his theory seemingly confirms an early fan theory about the show. After all, in The Last of Us’ pilot episode, we see Sarah and Joel avoid eating a suspicious number of bread products on the day the infection spread. To be fair, fans of the game had also previously theorized that the infection’s spread was likely related to food.
As Joel and Ellie are heading toward Bill and Frank’s house, they stop off to explore an abandoned gas station. The gas station secretly harbors a cache of supplies that Joel had previously hidden away, but the real prize in Ellie’s mind is a broken Mortal Kombat 2 arcade cabinet. In the game, that isn’t a Mortal Kombat arcade cabinet but rather a cabinet for a fictional fighting game called The Turning.
It’s a minor change all things considered, though the show would eventually revisit Mortal Kombat in ways that make that game’s first post-apocalyptic appearance feel slightly more significant than it did in that moment.
Pretty Much the Entire Frank and Bill Story
While many viewers (ourselves included) have already discussed the many ways that the Bill and Frank storyline in episode three diverges from the game, it really is worth noting that this episode represents the biggest departure from The Last of Us game by some distance.
Simply put, Bill is not only dead by the time Joel and Ellie find him in The Last of Us show (which is a major change in and of itself) but the majority of this episode is devoted to showcasing the relationship between Bill and Frank. Perhaps some of those events could have happened in the game, though we certainly don’t get to see them in the game and Bill and Frank have already split by the time we encounter Bill in the game.
While this almost entirely original episode is arguably the show’s finest accomplishment (though not everyone feels that way), it may eventually become a harbinger for things to come. Now that we’ve recently learned The Last of Us’ second season will make some major changes to The Last of Us Part 2, it seems reasonable to expect more episodes like this one moving forward.
The Last of Us Episode 4: “Please Hold to My Hand” Differences
Kansas City In Place of Pittsburgh
In The Last of Us game, Joel and Ellie head to Pittsburgh after leaving Bill’s compound. In the show, they instead head to Kansas City. While that change in location doesn’t have a major impact on what happens next (at least not on its own), it’s worth noting that Kansas City is not seen or referenced in the games at all. This is yet another one of those ways that the show emphasizes how far the infection has spread and how much of a world exists beyond what we see in the games.
The Last of Us’ fourth episode introduces us to Kathleen: the leader of the Kansas City resistance who has more than a few grudges to settle. As you may know, Kathleen doesn’t exist in The Last of Us games. She is instead a kind of amalgamation of different characters and concepts from those games who helps give Joel and Ellie’s human adversaries more of a face and purpose than they previously had at this point in the adventure.
So, in the interest of keeping things as tidy as possible, any scene with Kathleen is obviously a change from the games. As we’ll soon see, Kathleen’s presence and narrative also create a ripple effect that changes a lot of little things that follow in increasingly significant ways.
In The Last of Us game, Ellie kills a raider who is attacking Joel. This is the first time we see Ellie kill anyone. In the show, Ellie does stab a raider that is attacking Joel, though Joel ends up killing the wounded raider himself. That change also gives us more time to sit with the pleas and screams of the wounded raider who now seems much more human than he did moments ago.
It’s not entirely clear why this change was made. Perhaps the showrunners didn’t want Ellie outright killing someone so early on, or maybe they just felt this was a good time to showcase Joel’s more ruthless side. In any case, it’s a brief but notable departure from the source material.
The Pit of Infected
Though arguably the smallest change on this list, there is a fascinating scene in this episode that sees Kathleen and her right-hand man Perry overlook what is essentially a pit of infected creatures that seems to be boiling slowly to the surface. This scene doesn’t exist in the game, though its presence here both keeps the infected in the conversation and contributes to the idea that the infected are actually growing more hostile rather than simply rotting away underground.
Henry and Sam’s Intro
In The Last of Us game, Joel and Ellie just kind of run into Henry and Sam while wandering through Pittsburgh. In the show, Henry and Sam sneak up on Joel and Ellie while they’re sleeping. Along with giving Henry and Sam a little more agency, this change also allows this episode to end on an effective cliffhanger.
The Last of Us Episode 5: “Endure and Survive” Differences
Sam is Deaf
Simply put, Sam is deaf in The Last of Us show but seemingly has no hearing problems in The Last of Us game. While Keivonn Woodard (the actor who plays Sam in the show) is also deaf, it’s not clear if this change was made due to casting or if it was another way that the show tries to give Henry and Sam more of a story of their own (which we see play out in several early scenes not present in the game).
No Infected In the Tunnels
In The Last of Us game, Joel, Henry, Sam, and Ellie’s journey through the Pittsburgh underworld is interrupted by a steady stream of infected who block their progress. In the show, the group doesn’t encounter any infected in the tunnels. Henry actually makes it a point to mention that he believes the tunnels are mostly clear of infected (minus some possible stragglers).
It’s another small change that has more of an impact when you weigh it against the previous implication that Kansas City is practically bursting at the seams with infected (as well as what happens next).
Henry Was a FEDRA Informant
In the games, Henry and Sam are just two people trying to survive in the city. In the show, though, we learn that Henry was actually a FEDRA informant whose information led to the death of Kathleen’s brother (and many unfortunate events that followed). Aside from the fact that there is no Kathleen in the game (which also means that Kathleen’s brother doesn’t exist), the biggest reason for this change seems to be the many ways the show tries to highlight the many moral ambiguities and complicated choices people in this world must often face.
Again, pretty much any scene with Kathleen in it is obviously at least slightly different in the show vs. the games, but one of the more interesting changes related to Kathleen occurs when the Kansas City hunters and our group of protagonists face off against a rapidly swarming horde of infected. The horde is seemingly led by a giant infected creature affectionately known as a “Bloater.”
We actually see a Bloater during the Bill section of the game, but he was moved to this portion of the adventure as a way for the team to show that the infected can grow larger and more dangerous over time.
In one of the most heartbreaking moments in The Last of Us show, Ellie learns that Sam is infected and tries to cure him by rubbing her blood into his wound. The “cure” obviously doesn’t take, which eventually forces Henry to shoot Sam before taking his own life.
While Sam does get infected in the game and is eventually killed by Henry, the scene of Ellie trying to rescue Sam with her blood is a devastating new addition that cleverly showcases that a real cure will be much more complicated than that (if it’s possible to manufacture at all).
The Last of Us Episode 6: “Kin” Differences
The opening scene of this episode represents yet another opening sequence not found in the game.
In that sequence, Joel and Ellie confront an older couple living out in the middle of nowhere whose day-to-day lives were seemingly not greatly impacted by the end of the world. After some persuading, the couple then send Joel and Ellie in the right direction before warning them of a mysterious danger just across the river.
Along with expanding the world of the games just a bit more, this scene plays into Joel’s paranoia that Tommy is not well. That paranoia is not entirely unique to the game, though it’s obviously more pronounced due to some of the changes mentioned above.
Tommy and Maria’s Baby
In both the game and show, Joel discovers that Tommy is actually living a pretty good life for himself in Jackson. He even has a wife named Maria. In the show, though, we learn that Tommy and Maria are expecting a baby. Among other things, that expected child adds weight to Joel’s eventual decision to ask Tommy to risk his life to help Ellie. It also highlights the many ways Joel is slightly pained by Tommy’s ability to make a new life for himself.
Joel’s Panic Attacks
One of The Last of Us show’s most memed moments actually wasn’t in the games. Yes, the games show that Joel is struggling with the decisions he must make in Jackson, but we don’t see him start to have full-on panic attacks as he does in the show. Again, these panic attacks just make Joel’s vulnerabilities and doubts a little more obvious.
Joel’s Breakdown When Talking to Tommy
The scene in the show where Joel asks Tommy to escort Ellie the rest of the way also happens in the game, but the conversation between the brothers plays out slightly differently in the show. For instance, Joel is much more open with Tommy in the show regarding both his fears that he can’t get this job done and the ways he now sees Ellie as so much more than just a package that needs to be delivered. Again, the game heavily implies that Joel has these same concerns but Joel doesn’t outright state his concerns in that game at that moment in the same way he does in the show.
Ellie Stays in Jackson
In The Last of Us game and show, Ellie overhears Joel’s conversation with Tommy. In the game, though, Ellie runs away when she learns that Joel intends to hand her off to Tommy. That leads to Joel finding and confronting Ellie. In the show, though, Ellie just heads back to her room and waits for Tommy to pick her up. Along with showcasing Ellie’s increasingly hardened soul, this change allows the show to move at a slightly brisker pace by skipping the sequence where Joel has to look for Ellie and gets into some trouble along the way.
In both the game and show, Joel is wounded while trying to escape the Eastern Colorado campus. In the show, though, Joel is wounded by a raider. In the game, Joel falls onto a metal rod and must fend off several raiders while his wound worsens. It’s likely the showrunners just wanted to simplify this sequence for runtime purposes. It also would have been hard to recreate the full impact of the in-game version of events given that viewers obviously can’t participate in that shootout the same way they can in the game.
The Last of Us Episode 7: “Left Behind” Differences
There Is No Mall
After Joel is wounded, Ellie tries to find the basic supplies needed to keep him alive. In the show, she finds a needle and thread in an abandoned house. In the game, though (or at least the Left Behind DLC), Ellie looks for supplies in a nearby mall filled with raiders she must fend off. The sight of that mall triggers the flashback sequence that follows.
Again, this change was likely made for logistical reasons. Simply put, it’s easier to shoot in a house than it is to find yet another mall set (and film yet another action sequence). It’s also worth noting that Ellie’s flashback in the show is partially triggered by Joel telling her to leave him and go off on her own. The scene where Joel asks Ellie to leave him to die was also not in the game.
Fast Times at FEDRA High
While this episode largely focuses on Ellie’s pre-Joel adventures, the show expands on that portion of her life more than the original Left Behind DLC did. Specifically, it includes a few scenes of Ellie’s time at a FEDRA academy that weren’t included in the games. Those scenes show Ellie being reprimanded for attacking another student while also being reminded that she has the potential to be a leader in FEDRA.
While The Last of Us game does include that sequence where Riley confronts Ellie in their dorm room, the rest of Ellie’s time at the FEDRA academy is unique to the series. It’s an interesting addition to the show that once again portrays FEDRA as more of a morally ambiguous collection of humans than the often slightly more evil organization they often were in the games.
Playing Mortal Kombat 2
As previously mentioned, most of the references to the fictional fighting game The Turning in The Last of Us game were replaced with references to the very real fighting arcade fighting game Mortal Kombat 2 in The Last of Us show. So, when Riley and Ellie play Mortal Kombat 2 during the arcade sequence in that episode, they’re actually playing The Turning in The Last of Us game. However, that’s not the biggest change the show made to this memorable scene.
See, in the game, Riley and Ellie aren’t able to actually play the arcade machine. Instead, Riley asks Ellie to close her eyes and pretend to play the game while she describes it. In the show, they simply power up the arcade machine and finally enjoy a few rounds of Mortal Kombat. Why the change? The official answer to that question is unclear, though the whole idea of Ellie pretending to play the game probably wouldn’t have translated quite as well to the series. Generally speaking, the entire mall sequence in the show is also more colorful and “alive” than it was in the game, and this change feeds into that part of the fantasy.
Riley’s Firefly Station
In The Last of Us show, we learn that Riley has actually been stationed at the mall by the Fireflies. In the game, Riley simply chooses to take Ellie to the mall to celebrate their last night together. It’s not clear why this relatively minor alteration was made, though it likely has something to do with the scene where Ellie and Riley argue about the Firefly’s intentions and their plans for Riley. Learning that Riley has been building bombs in this mall was just a perfect catalyst for that discussion.
A Single Infected Corners Riley and Ellie
In The Last of Us: Left Behind DLC, Riley and Ellie have to fend off (and mostly run away from) a horde of infected. In the show, they are instead confronted by a lone infected host. While both scenarios end the same way (Riley and Ellie are “infected” and choose to spend their remaining hours together), the choice to focus on one infected rather than a horde almost certainly made this scene cheaper and easier to film. It also hammers home just how dangerous a single infected host can be.
The Last of Us Episode 8: “When We Are In Need” Differences
In a memorable sequence from The Last of Us game, we watch as a cute snow bunny hops around an idyllic winter woodland area. The bunny is then swiftly killed by an arrow that we soon learned was fired by Ellie. In the show, Ellie does see a bunny but isn’t able to kill it in time. It’s likely that the showrunners were just following a variation of the “don’t kill the dog” rule, but I haven’t heard the official word regarding this change.
David, The Religious Cult Leader
While David is a big part of The Last of Us game, we still end up seeing a lot more of him in the show than we ever did in the game. The show features numerous sequences of David interacting with his followers and roaming the town that were not in the game. That’s likely because the show is occasionally able to focus on characters that aren’t Joel and Ellie whereas the game kind of had to stick with that pair for gameplay and presentation purposes. Actually, the showrunners have stated that they originally thought about giving David an even bigger role in the show via flashbacks.
Those sequences aside, David is also presented as more of a religious cult leader in the show than he was in the game. Interestingly enough, some unused audio files from The Last of Us game also portrayed David as more of a religious figure than he was shown to be in the final campaign. It’s likely that the showrunners just wanted to revisit that concept.
David and Ellie Don’t Bond Over Their Fight Against the Infected
In The Last of Us game, Ellie and David must fight off a pack of infected. Their battle against the infected allows them to bond a bit before Ellie learns of David’s true nature. In the show, we just see Ellie and David bond during a campfire discussion where David’s dangerous charisma does most of the relationship building.
This seems to be another one of those instances where the infected were cut from the show for both logistical reasons and so the showrunners could focus a little more on the human characters and their interactions.
Joel Pulls Ellie Away From Her Attack on David
In both the show and the game, Ellie kills David in a pretty violent fashion. In the game, though, Joel pulls Ellie off David while she’s still attacking him. In the show, Ellie finishes the job, walks out of the burning building, and runs into Joel.
This is another one of those changes that get us to roughly the same place in notably different ways. You could argue that Joel pulling Ellie off of David better emphasizes the idea that Joel is still making these futile attempts to shield Ellie from the violence of the world, though the show’s version of this sequence does a nice job of establishing that Ellie’s independence (especially when it comes to violence). This change also likely sprung from the decision to not show Ellie straight-up kill that raider in the fourth episode.
The Last of Us Episode 9: “Look For the Light” Differences
This episode features yet another elaborate opening flashback that showcases events not actually seen in the game. This time, we watch as Ellie’s mom (Anna) escapes a pursuing pack of infected and gives birth to Ellie in a remote cabin. Unfortunately, Anna was bitten during the attack. She knows she will become infected.
We soon learn that Anna has actually been sharing that cabin with Marlene and the Fireflies. Anna asks Marlene to kill her when she becomes infected, and Marlene reluctantly honors her request. She would have presumably killed the baby as well if she needed to do so, but we know that there was no need. Ellie presumably acquired her immunity to the infection as a result of her mother becoming infected during the birthing process.
This is a fascinating addition to the lore of the games. Neil Druckmann says that he really wanted to feature the Anna character in the games but just never found the chance to do so before the show. While he mostly wanted to highlight the relationship between Marlene and Anna. This sequence seemingly reveals why Ellie is immune in the first place (a pretty major piece of lore that was never explicitly laid out in the game). It’s another major example of the show outright telling us something the show either implied or simply never directly addressed.
Joel’s Attempted Suicide
While heading towards the Firefly lab, Joel finally tells Ellie the story of the scar on his head. It turns out that Joel tried to kill himself sometime after Sarah’s death. The attempt obviously failed, but this moment allows Joel to share his philosophy that time can heal most wounds.
While that conversation doesn’t really happen in the game, the idea of Joel trying to kill himself isn’t entirely new. In the game, Ellie finds the skeleton of a person that presumably committed suicide. Ellie says something about that person taking the easy way out to Joel, and Joel mentions that suicide is never easy. His delivery implies personal familiarity with suicide attempts.
In The Last of Us game, Maria gives Ellie a picture of Sarah that Joel had previously refused to take. Later on, Ellie gives the picture back to Joel. The implication is that Joel can finally start to accept the past and put it behind him as needed. Strangely, Ellie never receives that picture from Maria in the game so she obviously doesn’t give it to Joel here.
Once Again, No Infected
On their way to the Firefly labs in The Last of Us game, Joel and Ellie have to fight off one more pack of infected. In the show, there are no infected in that part of the story. It’s another one of those instances of the show skipping a confrontation with the infected. Along with the usual logistical reasons, it seems likely that the infected were cut from this part of the story in the show simply because the writers didn’t need an additional action sequence for gameplay purposes and could instead focus on Joel and Ellie’s interactions.
Interestingly, the Fireflies in the show essentially attack Joel and Ellie as they approach the laboratory whereas the Fireflies in the game kind of rescue Joel and Ellie following their recent fight against the infected. It’s a subtle change that is seemingly there to remind us why Joel doesn’t trust the Fireflies even at that point. It’s also hard for them to be rescued from the infected when there are no infected in that sequence.