It can be said with assurance that The Last of Us is the most triumphant video game adaptation to date. Not only is the game widely recognized as one of the best ever created, but the highly anticipated HBO television adaptation, featuring Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, has also received numerous accolades. Its premiere was the second-largest for HBO since 2010 and it continued to attract an average of 32 million viewers per episode.
The most recent accomplishment of Universal Studios is a live-action haunted house for their annual Halloween Horror Nights event. This event has been scaring audiences for 32 years and is considered the top event for horror enthusiasts. The Universal theme parks undergo a spooky transformation after dark, featuring experiences inspired by well-known franchises like Stranger Things and The Exorcist: Believer, as well as original ideas.
For me, The Last of Us haunted house – in Orlando – is the most exciting of all 10 haunted houses this year. It drops fans directly into the game. “It reminded me of when I first walked on set for the HBO show,” says Neil Druckmann, co-creator of The Last of Us and co-president of the studio behind it, Naughty Dog. He’s also been heavily involved in the creation of this latest adaptation of his fungal-zombie brainchild. “I was just like, oh my god, I’m in the game.”
Druckmann is providing the Guardian with an exclusive tour of the horror maze at Universal Studios Florida, where visitors can now experience the attraction in a more intense and terrifying setting. This immersive experience includes being pursued by frightening creatures such as runners, clickers, and bloaters, as well as being aided by the game’s protagonists Joel and Ellie, portrayed by incredibly similar-looking actors. The original voice actors for the game, Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, have recorded new dialogue specifically for the attraction. Guests will journey through meticulously crafted sets inspired by the Pittsburgh section of the first game, starting at the point where Joel’s truck crashes into a building in the quarantined city.
It began with a tweet, as is often the case with terrifying events. In 2021, Druckmann, a dedicated follower of the yearly event, posted: “I would be thrilled to see a TLoU Halloween Horror Nights attraction! Who should I contact?!” This sparked a series of meetings and now, we find ourselves gazing at a wall of decaying human bodies, a short distance from the humid climate of Orlando. The body of Kyle, whom fans will remember from the original game, has been meticulously recreated and is on display for us to admire.
Actors dressed as humans play their parts in the haunted house, carefully timing their movements to create the most frightening scares. They use monitors to coordinate their actions with the guests’ location, utilizing foot pedals to activate sound and lighting. The costumes are designed with clickers and lighting to simulate being covered in Molotov cocktails, and the actors have undergone training to realistically portray the stages of being infected with Cordyceps.
Mike Aiello, the senior director of entertainment creative development at Universal, describes the experience as a live and immersive theatrical performance. Guests follow a designated path and encounter various show scenes, similar to a ride. However, this attraction does not involve a vehicle.
This includes utilizing horror techniques that are not available in video games or television. According to Aiello, as you explore the vast environments, you will notice the deliberate lighting choices that draw your attention to certain areas of a room, knowing that you will only be in that space for a limited amount of time. The goal is to immediately capture the guests’ attention and create a sense of attachment to specific elements in the space. Some areas are highlighted to be noticed, while others serve as a distraction to surprise and scare guests from unexpected angles.
Druckmann has expanded the world of The Last of Us in ways that are not possible through traditional screen media. While players are already immersed in the game as they control Joel and make decisions, this new approach breaks the limitations of a 2D frame and allows them to fully experience the world in a more tangible way.
The critically acclaimed HBO show has introduced The Last of Us to a new audience, expanding beyond the devoted fans who first played the game 10 years ago upon its initial release. This experience is directly taken from the video game itself. According to Druckmann, it is an emotionally charged journey that combines intense jumpscares with the compelling story of Joel and Ellie. He also mentions that this limited-time experience adds a special touch for viewers before it eventually comes to an end.
Currently, there is only speculation about the existence of The Last of Us III game. However, we can assume that it will be released in the future. Additionally, a second season of the HBO television series is in the works. What will be the next adaptation after this horror-themed game? In a joking manner, Druckmann suggests “interpretive dance,” but then clarifies that he does not know and that Naughty Dog’s approach will always be to create a fresh and excellent experience for fans. If the answer is yes to all of these criteria, they will pursue the adaptation.