Biggest differences between The Last of Us HBO TV Series and games explained

Biggest differences between The Last of Us HBO TV Series and games explained

With the The Last of Us HBO TV Series, the creators tried to stay very true to its source material: the video games. Naughty Dog, the developer of the video games, was closely involved. Neil Druckmann, writer and director of the games, even directed an episode of the show. Still, due to the nature of both media, there are many differences between the HBO Series and the video games. Some are small and subtle, others ar big and significant. In this article, we’ll dig deeper into the world of The Last of Us and explain the most important differences between the TV series and the games.

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This article about the The Last of Us HBO Series versus the games will be updated as the show progresses. It might contain fan-fueled speculation from our side, please don’t hate us for it. Feel free to join us speculating by leaving a comment below! We’d love to hear our thoughts.

General setting

The Last of Us is set in a post-apocalyptic United States, following a fungal outbreak that has decimated the population. The outbreak, caused by a mutated strain of the Cordyceps fungus, has turned the majority of the population into aggressive, zombie-like creatures.

The virus spreads in a different way

In the HBO TV Series, this infection is spread in a slightly different way. In the video games, infected can spread the virus by biting their victims, but the virus is also spread through airborne spores. Because of this, the characters in the video games carry and often wear gasmasks. In the HBO TV series, the virus is spread through tendrils. According to Neil Druckmann, writer and director of the video games, “it became very scary to think that they’re all working against us in this unified way, which was a concept that I really liked, that got developed in the show.”

The show takes place in a different year

The series also take place in a slightly different time. In the video games, the outbreak of the cordyceps virus takes place in 2013 (the year the game was first released), and then skips twenty years, so most of the game takes place in 2033. In the HBO series, the outbreak takes place in 2003. The show then skips twenty years as well, so most of the tv series takes place in 2023, the same year the show aired.

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The Last of Us Differences Games and HBO TV Series 1

Episode 1: When You’re Lost in the Darkness

Joel and Sarah get more backstory

Both Joel and Sarah, Joel’s daughter, get more backstory in the HBO Series. We see how Joel and his brother Tom discuss their work as construction workers, and see how Sarah goes to school. They’re just living ordinary lifes, until the cordyceps virus breaks out. After the time skip, twenty years later, we also see more of Joels then-ordinary life. He takes jobs that are available and smuggles contraband in between shifts.

Joel’s watch isn’t brand new, but a repaired one

In the video games, Joel receives a new watch from Sarah for his birthday. In the series, Sarah brings an older watch to a watchmaker and gives Joel the repaired watch. Nevertheless, the watch is of great sentimental value to Joel, and he keeps wearing it long after the watch broke.

Joel is already trying to track down his brother Tommy

In the first episode of The Last of Us on HBO, it is revealed Joel is already searching for his brother Tommy. They lost contact about three weeks earlier. His concern for his brother is one of the main reasons he is looking for a way to escape the Boston Quarantine Zone. In the video games, Joel only turns to his brother after the drop-off of Ellie goes sideways.

Details around the deal with Robert are different

The deal with Robert goes down slightly different. In the video games, Robert stole weapons from Joel and Tess and sold them to the Fireflies. He ends up dead by the hands of Tess, and Joel and Tess end up smuggling Ellie in exchange for the weapons. In the HBO series, he stole a car battery, which he tried to sell to the same Fireflies. In this scenario, Robert is already dead before Joel and Tess track him down. Once again, because of this failed deal, the two end up smuggling Ellie in exchange for the lost goods.

Differences between The Last of Us HBO TV Series and games episode 1

Episode 2: Infected

More insights in how the outbreak started

The second episode of The Last of Us provides viewers with additional insights in how the cordyceps virus was spread. The games never bothered much wich exploring the initial outbreak of the virus, it was just there. In the HBO Series, it is revealed how what appears to be the first infected popped up in Jakarta. Attempts were made to contain the virus, but we all know how that turned out.

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Infected communicate through tendrils

The creators already hinted infected could communicate and think as one before the show was aired. In the second episode, we see how this works. Infected are connected through tendrils, with hypha spreading underground for miles. This enabled infected to act as one and makes it even harder to avoid being detected, as simply touching fungus can reveal your presence.

Ellie gets bitten twice

Ellie was already bitten once before she met Joel and Tess, proving she is immune to the virus. In the HBO Series however, she’s bitten a second time during the skirmish in the museum. Since Tess is bitten at the same time, the differences between their wounds further emphasize Ellie’s immunity to the virus.

Tess’ death is even more dramatic

Tess’ death has always been an emotional point in The Last of Us. It’s the first real setback for Joel and Ellie on their journey, and a harsh lesson for Ellie that she’s living in a cruel world. In the video games however, she sacrificed herself to hold back FEDRA forces. In the HBO Series, her infection seems to be more progressed, and infected recognize her as one of their own. She goes out with a bang to hold back the horde of infected, blowing up the iconic Capitol Building in the proces.

Episode 3: Long, Long Time

Bill and Frank’s backstory and fate

Basically this whole episode is a big difference with the video game. In the video game, we’ve only met Bill and Bill assisted Joel and Ellie in retrieving a car battery. We never met Frank; he committed suicide after an argument with Bill. In the HBO Series however, we see how Bill stayed behind after the evacuations, met Frank, and how they grew old together. This time, they commit suicide together after deciding they’ve lived long enough. It is, indeed, in a way a romantic end for the two.

The Last of Us Episode 3

Ellie got a gun

Ellie managed to get her hands on a weapon. In the video game, she only managed to obtain a pistol a little bit later in the story. We are curious to see where this leads.

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Episode 4: Please Hold My Hand

Joel and Ellie get ambushed in Kansas City instead of Pittsburgh

Most of Episode 4 takes place in Kansas City, Missouri. In the vide game however, Joel and Ellie never visit Kansas City. Instead, they pass through Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The events that unfold, however, are very similar. They have to take a detour because of a blockage on the road, leading them right up an ambush by raiders. They crash their truck, have to fight for their lives and continue on foot.

Ellie fires her weapon a lot sooner

Ellie has to use her weapon a lot sooner in the HBO Series. Right after the car crash, Joel is overpowered by a thug and Ellie needs to use her gun to save Joel. She doesn’t kill the thug however, only injuring him so Joel can finish him off. In the video game, Joel gets overpowered in a similar scene but in a different place. This also forces Ellie to use the gun, this time killing the thug.

New characters

Episode 4 introduces us to a couple of new faces, including some raiders. Kathleen and Perry (interestingly portrayed by the man that played Tommy in the video games!) are two important characters that lead the raiders in Kansas City. In the video games, we never really learned the motives and faces behind the thugs. They were just ‘the enemy’.

The Last of Us Episode 4

The raiders have a personal grudge against Henry and Sam

We are yet to discover why exactly, but it is clear the raiders have a personal grudge against Henry and his little brother Sam. They actually search the city and hunt him down actively. It seems Henry was once part of their group. This is different in the video game, where Henry and Sam, much like Joel and Ellie, were just searching Pittsburgh for supplies when they encountered the raiders.

Episode 5: Endure and Survive

Sam has hearing loss

Probably the biggest difference between the fifth episode of the HBO series of The Last of Us and the video games, is Sam having hearing loss. Although not explicitly stated, this could be a symptom of his leukemia (something Sam didn’t suffer in the video game, either). Due to this, Sam and Henry communicate through sign language. Joel and Ellie however don’t know how to use sign language, making it harder for them to communicate. Ellie is trying though and puts a lot of effort in bonding with Sam. They even read Savage Starlight comic books together! A great nod to the games.

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Sam is also younger

They also made Sam in the HBO Series slightly younger. In the tv series, Sam is only eight years old. This makes him way younger than Ellie (14 years old) and changes their dynamic. Ellie is nog acting more like a big sister. In the video game, Sam is 13 years old.

Henry’s beef with the Kansas City Resistance is explained

The previous episode already hinted that Henry has some history with the Kansas City Resistance, especially their leader Kathleen. In this episode, we finally learn what happend between the two. It appears Henry sold out Kathleen’s brother to FEDRA. This explains why she is so hell-bound of tracking Henry down. In the video game, Sam and Henry were just searching for supplies when they encountered the raiders, same as Joel and Ellie.

Sam reveals to Ellie he was bitten

After the chaotic encounter in the suburb of Kansas City, when the four lay down at a motel, Sam reveals to Ellie he was bitten. Ellie even tries to heal Sam, using her own blood. In the video game, he kept it a secret. The outcome is still heartbreakingly the same.

Episode 6: Kin

The HBO Series skips ‘Fall’ and goes straight to ‘Winter’

The Last of Us, the video game, was divided in four seasons: summer, fall, winter, and spring. After Joel and Ellie’s time with Sam and Henry, the Fall chapter starts. In the sixth episode of the HBO Series however, Joel and Ellie find themselves in a very snowy, cold, winter landscape. That seems to be a purely aesthetic difference though, as more or less the same events unfold.

Joel and Ellie get to visit Jackson

Searching the country for Joel’s brother Tommy, Joel and Ellie stumble upon a group of strangers that are revealed to be some of the residents of Jackson. They take them back to Jackson, where Joel and Tommy finally meet again. They catch up, have a drink, and briefly enjoy a relatively normal life. In the video game, Joel and Tommy meet at the Dam. Joel and Ellie only get to actually visit Jackson at the end of the game. We saw more of the small village in The Last of Us Part II though, and it seems that was used as an inspiration to bring Jackson to life in the HBO Series. The same events unfold in Jackson as they did at the Dam however, with Joel asking Tommy to continue his journey with Ellie, and Joel and Ellie getting into an argument.

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Joel struggles with his health

Of course there is that moment where Joel gets severely wounded, but even before that moment, he struggles more with his health, both physical and mental. I guess real life action is different from a video game, you can’t just take a health kit and be done with it.

Maria is pregnant

Tommy reveals to Joel Maria is pregnant with his kid. The video games never mentioned a kid of Tommy’s, even in The Last of Us Part II which takes place years after Part I. The news hits Joel pretty hard and gives him flashbacks to his own daughter, Sarah, so it will be interesting to see how this will turn out in the future.

Episode 7: Left Behind

Left Behind is an integral part of the story

With the HBO Series, the creators decided to make Left Behind an integral part of the story. Just like the flashback in Episode 3, the flashback to Ellie’s runaway adventure with Riley is seamlessly integrated in the bigger story, introducing viewers to Riley early on. However, originally this chapter wasn’t part of the story. In the video game, Riley’s name was only mentioned at the very end of the story and Left Behind was offered later on as an expansion.

The Last of Us Episode 7 Left Behind

Various elements of the mall are remixed

The flashbacks in Episode 7 are very faithful to the video game, yet slightly different. For example, Ellie and Riley stumble upon the store with the horror masks earlier and have their final dance at an electronic store instead. They also had a water gun fight, which is smartly referred to in Episode 7 when Ellie asks if Riley has a water gun. Yet, many elements are very recognizable, including the merry-go-round, the Will Livingstone book, and their inevitable faith.

Ellie’s search for a medkit is cut short

In the video game, after Joel got injured, Ellie must search for a medkit in a mall. This snowy mall brings back memories to the mall she went to with Riley. In the HBO Series, Ellie simply goes looking for supplies in the house where Joel lies.

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Episode 8: When We Are In Need

David’s background is a little more fleshed out

Episode 8 is probably the most faithful adaption of the video game. It follows almost exactly the events from the original story. The only significant difference is that we now see a little bit more from David’s ‘normal’ life. In the video game, he did explained that he was running with a group and that the man that Joel killed at the University was part of his group, but we never saw this group. Still, even with this difference, Episode 8 remains very faithful to the video game.

A cameo for Troy Baker!

David’s sidekick James might sound familiair. That’s because that’s Troy Baker, the original voice actor of Joel in the video games. It’s a great little easter egg.

Episode 9: Look For The Light

Meet Ellie’s Mom

Episode 9 is once again very, very faithful to the video game, yet adds one important chapter. We finally get to meet Ellie’s Mom Anna. And what’s more, she is played by none other than Ashley Johnson, who plays Ellie in the video games!

We’ve learned some about Anna in the video games, but never actually learned how she died. The HBO Series shows us Anna got bitten right during her giving birth to Ellie. Although not confirmed, it is hinted this also explains why Ellie is immune to the cordyceps virus. Anna tells Marlene she cut the umbilical cord before she was bitten, but in reality she was bitten first and then cut the cord, meaning Ellie was exposed to the virus very briefly at birth.

The Last of Us Episode 9 Look For The Light Ellies Mom Anna

This article is now completed and covers the most important differences between the The Last of Us HBO Series and the video games. The HBO Series will return for a second season. In the meantime, The Last of Us Part I and The Last of Us Part II are available.


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Lars Cornelis

Lars is a game journalist since 2005. He loves virtual adventures and appreciates a good story, whether told through environmental storytelling or deep lore. He has a large collection of books and comics based on his favorite games, like Halo, Assassin's Creed, and Metal Gear Solid.

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