The Last of Us released in 2013 to widespread critical acclaim, easily cinching its legacy as one of the best games ever. Since then, the game’s been remastered, received a controversial (if still successful) sequel, is receiving an HBO adaptation, and as of some weeks ago, has been even “remade.” This last point has turned up noses for a number of reasons though, primarily for a relatively high price point (a whopping 70$ USD) for what the team has outlined is a visual upgrade more than a mechanical one.
The remake, annoyingly titled Last of Us Part I, seems to exist as an attempt to rewrite the story of this already beloved game, positioning this new release as the definitive first installment in what is tentatively a duology. The developers have constantly walked out the line that it is an attempt to realize the original vision, which was accordingly deterred by technical limitations of the hardware. Given that the project didn’t even start at Naughty Dog, that statement is basically impossible to take at face value. The remake does bring the original’s fidelity up to par with The Last of Us Part II, which was released back in 2020. The point of all this work, however, seems to be the erasure of the original game, rather than uplifting the original, a piece of art that is now being cast aside for the blemishes age have brought to light. But the thing is, art should be allowed to age, gracefully or not. To seemingly strip The Last of Us of even that—by plastering over it with something flashy and new—doesn’t deny its artfulness, but certainly works to redefine what that means these days.
The reality is The Last of Us likely was a compromised work from the very beginning. Budgets come for us all in the end and the creative process is often defined by the act of trimming almost as much as it is pure invention. And yes, that does make it inherently flawed, but that’s art! It is not any less an artistic vision because it was made with compromises in mind. Art and all its imperfections have existed for longer than history can even account for. The blemishes are endemic to the form. Some of the finest examples of art have existed for centuries longer than The Last of Us and have weathered age, imprecision, and criticism handily. That art emerges from a certain set of conditions isn’t just a draw, but a lot of the point behind our understanding and appreciation of it. Moreover, discussion and interpretations of art shift over time and the way we can turn these singular works over and over in our head is core to our relationship to them. Art is enjoyed by meticulously pondering over it as much as one “experiences” it. The most artful thing The Last of Us could be is imperfect, and it’s a point that the onset of technology, and this remake, seem intent to erode.
The arc of the Last of Us remake is not an artistic one, but a technological one. The argument that it realizes a truer vision of the original fails for me because comparing their visuals and aesthetics tells entirely different stories, not ones that build on each other. Because PlayStation could will this prettier remake into existence, it has and it will make damn sure this is the way you will remember the game now. Not for what The Last of Us was, but for what it was fashioned into, itself a competing vision of the true potential of the game. The remake’s flourishes, mostly superfluous, serve to prop up a vision of a game that never existed, all the while convincing consumers this is the thing they’ve always wanted. Its existence is also purely a circumstance of unfettered capitalism: rather than work to preserve an original work, invest in the means to repackage and distribute it for yet another profit.
The thing is, famous works have been remolded in the public eye before, especially with the advent of more sophisticated tools. The first and only version of Blade Runner I’ve ever watched is the Final Cut. This version of the movie is infamously the only one that director Ridley Scott actually had full creative control over, despite the fact that an obviously poorly titled Director’s Cut does also exist. “Han Shot First’’ is a pop culture phenomenon practically born out of George Lucas’s desire to retouch a scene from the original Star Wars—a movie that was officially renamed at some point well after release. A defining trait of modern media has been this flexibility, but it’s rarely worked so actively to replace the original. In most of these cases, cuts like these happen in order for creatives to wrest control from studio mandates that alter their vision. However, the same can’t be said of Naughty Dog, a studio often granted carte blanche for being PlayStation’s golden child, a precedent especially established with the development and release of The Last of Us, painting this project in an unflattering light that’s provided me with unending hesitance.
And yet for as much disdain as I’ve got for the move, I can’t argue that advancements in tech and values haven’t made some significantly positive impacts in the remake. The ability to more wholly realize the physical performances at the heart of the game is a wonder and I certainly won’t deny the view while watching the game in action. More importantly, The Last of Us Part I is now abundantly wealthy in accessibility features brought over from development on Part II. How can I possibly fault a work so heavily when it opens the door for so many more people to experience it? And if art can reflect the time it was born from, maybe our art can itself be transformative and fluid. The last thing I would ever want art to be is conservative.
What art shouldn’t be is a wholesale replacement of what came before it, and that’s what most worries me about this scenario. The original Last of Us, warts and all, is already stranded on an unsupported system, and your only alternative is streaming it (a practice that is not nearly as accessible as it should be) or a remaster, which is the closest thing to a modernization that doesn’t fundamentally alter the game. When those fade away, how will the original vision be preserved? Because it deserves to be around just as much as this shiny new remake does, a realization I hope the people with the power to ensure that keep in mind.