The Last of Us has always done a stealth-crouch-crab-walk straddle along the edges of survival horror. They’re zombie games, so they could easily go for the big scares you find in the likes of Resident Evil 2 or 7. But, Naughty Dog's post-apocalyptic blockbusters are more interested in making you feel invested in their characters than they are in making you feel like you’re going — to borrow a phrase from my British colleagues — to wee your britches.
In the HBO show however, clickers (and the infected in general) are actually scary. The second episode has Joel, Tess, and Ellie trying to reach their meet-up location, and in doing so cut through an old hotel. While they’re approaching it, Ellie is picking Tess and Joel’s brains about what is fact and what is fiction about the world outside the quarantine zone.
She asks, “So there aren’t super infected that explode fungus spores on you?… Or ones with split-open heads that see in the dark like bats?” Joel and Tess demure, but shortly after this question, they hear the ominous sound of a clicker screeching in the distance. Writer Craig Mazin and director Neil Druckmann do a great job of slowly building the anxiety before introducing clickers in all their mushroom-encrusted glory.
After their attempt through the hotel reaches a dead end, the group doubles back to take the shorter, but more dangerous path through The Bostonian Museum. As they enter the building, Ellie spots a fresh corpse that looks to have a different kind of bite mark than the one she has on her arm. Joel and Tess realize this signals that clickers are nearby, and Tess weakly suggests that the guy could have been bitten outside and crawled into the museum for shelter. Neither of them believe it, and Joel tells Ellie, “From this point forward, we are silent. Not quiet, silent.” Seeing our two experienced smugglers clearly gripped by fear effectively gets the audience to feel the same. As they climb the old wooden stairs, each creak brings with it the fear that these things — still unseen — are going to swarm.
The scene when the clickers do show up is more tense than these interactions could be in the game because the fear can’t be blunted through multiple one-hit kills. When you play The Last of Us, you might be afraid of clickers at first. But if you’ve seen Joel’s neck muscles bitten out once you’ve seen it a hundred times. Clickers being a difficult enemy to fight actually makes them less scary in the long run.
But Joel and Ellie only having one life in the show actually extends and ratchets up the tension. In a game, death is frustrating, but it’s also a release. You get to escape the difficult situation, reset to a place where you’re safe, and start again. In the series, our characters can’t die — except in the event that the narrative dictates it’s their time to go to the big toadstool in the sky — so that release never comes.
It isn't less meaningful to see a character die in a video game. The big death at the beginning of Part 2 was no less meaningful because the character was made of pixels. But there is a certain amount of terror that can be mined from not having control that The Last of Us is effectively mining.
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