Samm Tembo
7 min readJan 23


Image: HBO

On Jan 15, 2023, HBO released the first episode of the long-anticipated TV adaption of the 2013 smash-hit video game from Naughty Dog studios, The Last of Us, from Chernobyl creator Craig Maizin and creator of The Last of Us video game, Neil Druckmann.

The show started strong with 4.7 million viewers, cementing itself as HBO’s second-largest debut after the 2022 Game of Thrones spinoff, House of The Dragon, which opened to a whopping 9.98 million viewers.

HBO’s The Last of Us couldn’t have come at a better time, as the world is currently going through a “renaissance” of sorts when it comes to video games making the jump from interactive medium to TV or film after the success of shows like Cyberpunk Edgerunners, an anime adapted from CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 video game. And Arcane: League of Legends, adapted from the MOBA (Multiplayer online battle arena) video game published by Riot Games. These two aren’t the only successes we’ve seen in the last couple of years, Sonic and Pokémon with Detective Pikachu, both got movies that performed and were received well by video game lovers and non-gamers alike. The former, even getting a sequel in 2022 with Sonic the Hedgehog 2; with a 3rd sequel announced for 2024; and a spin-off series to follow shortly after.

For the longest time, adapting video games to film or TV was uncharted territory no filmmaker dared to go. Sure, video game adaptions are nothing new, a lot of adaptions can be traced back to the 80s and 90s, but rarely were they made right or nearly as good as the video games they were adapted from; which led to the coining of the term “the video game curse.”

What is “The video game curse?” the video game curse was a long streak of failed video game adaptions in Hollywood, that predetermined the fate of all video game adaptions, from the 2005 DOOM to the long-running Resident Evil franchise that spanned 7 live-action films, (none of them great.) and a Netflix series in 2022 that deviated so much from the source material, it makes all the sense in the world why it got canceled. So you can understand the skepticism and the scrutiny that came with the announcement that HBO was adapting The Last of Us, arguably the greatest video game ever made, for TV.

HBO always felt like the perfect fit for how grounded the game is and how raw HBO shows tend to be; as they never shy away from violence and other mature themes. An HBO budget rivaling the likes of Game of Thrones also felt like a confidence boost for most fans; plus, the news that Craig Maizin, the acclaimed creator of the award-winning miniseries, Chernobyl, came as a great confidence boost for fans, who felt reassured that the show wouldn’t suck completely. But the cherry on top was the reveal that Neil Druckmann was not only going to be a co-showrunner on the show, but also a writer and a director.

After the lackluster 2022 film, Uncharted, (another Naughty Dog IP) failed to live up to the smash hit franchise it’s adapted from, it was easy to understand why Neil Druckmann playing a huge and active role in the development of the show felt like a big deal; despite having little experience working in film or television. The Naughty Dog and The Last of Us fanbase needed to know that the show was in capable hands. Hands that wouldn’t shit on the source material and preserve everything that made the original story as beautiful and complex as it was. And so far, after episodes 1 & 2, it’s evident that Craig Maizin and Neil Druckmann crafted this story for TV with utmost care and intention; keeping it close to the original as possible, often choosing to mirror the game shot for shot; while adding a lot of new story beats and context to moments fans are familiar with.

Now that we’ve confirmed that the showrunners weren’t being perfidious about honoring the source material, I’m curious to see how the show handles one of the most heartbreaking stories from the game (If they do include it in the show that is.) I’m not talking about Left Behind, (we already got confirmation of that in the trailers) I’m talking about Ish’s story.

If you’re reading this, and you’ve never played the game, your mind is probably already wondering: who’s Ish, and what’s his story? Ish is a character you get to meet in the later part of the game. Just not in the traditional sense. You get to know Ish through a series of letters or notes and child drawings that the player discovers around the world. Ish’s story is fleshed out through environmental storytelling, rather than dialogue exposition, as proof of his existence and his community’s existence becomes this ubiquitous presence that you see as you navigate the sewer level of the video game when you come across traps, children’s drawings, corpses, clothes, wash lines and other giveaways of human presence long after this community’s met its downfall.

During the outbreak, when the cordyceps virus spread to a suburb known as Waverly Township, one of its residents, Ish, did one of the smartest things anybody can do in that situation: leave the mainland in favor of water. Ish loaded up a fishing boat and took to the sea where he was safe and survived for a time before his boat started to give out and his supplies dwindled; eventually forcing him to return to the mainland where he found himself beached back in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.

After returning to Pittsburgh, Ish marveled at just how far humanity had decayed. While the infected remained a looming threat, it was the surviving humans that were the even bigger threat Ish came to realize when he learned of hunters, a group of hostile survivors that hunt other surviving humans for their supplies-in what turned out to be a survival of the fittest-kill or be killed way of life. Realizing that the Pittsburgh suburbs were not safe and that the way of the hunters didn’t fit with his personal beliefs, Ish took refuge in the sewers just outside the city, where he made his home, a place that saw little to no infected and was easier to defend from the attacks of hunters and infected alike.

One day during a supply run, Ish came across a group of people that didn’t immediately shoot at him. Ish and these people, a man named Kyle, and his kids, traded supplies with each other before going their separate ways. Overcome by loneliness from staying alone in the sewers for so long, and weighed by the thought that good people still existed in the world after being a recipient of Kyle’s kindness, Ish set out to look for Kyle and his family the next day; proposing that they return to the sewer with him for safety away from the hunter ravaged suburb that was no longer safe for Kyle and his family.

Ish’s letters, The Last of Us (Naughty Dog/ Sony)

Ish would end up growing his solitary sewer home into a community of around 50 people after Kyle and his family. It became a functioning society with rules and laws, and kids going back to school, just like it was pre-outbreak. And Ish and a man named Danny, guarded this community that thrived…until one day, someone complacently left a door open-allowing a horde of infected to penetrate; killing a large population of the community in the process. During the attack, however, Kyle managed to escape into a room with some of the children, barricading the door behind him quickly before the infected could reach them.

While locked in the room, Kyle could hear the infected pounding at the door, trying to make their way in. During this time, Kyle hoped that Ish and a few other survivors would come and save them, and when it came apparent that no one was coming, Kyle took a gun and ended his and the kid’s lives; a fate more merciful than being mauled by infected.

More letters (Naughty Dog/ Sony)

While Ish, and a few other members of the sewer community, like Susan, survived the attack. The loss was still far too great. And this grieved Ish. Despite it all, after seeing what he managed to accomplish for a time, Ish chose to persevere for the sake of Susan, and her surviving kids, who all returned with him to the suburbs to survive another day.

Piecing this story together instead of having it explicitly told to you is what makes Ish’s story of what happened in the sewers all the more heartbreaking. Coming across the skeletons of women and children mangled on the floor as you try to make your way out of the city as the player character leaves you with an unshakeable sadness. They’re a lot of harrowing stories in the world of The Last of Us. And Ish’s story is arguably the most heartbreaking of them all.

I can’t help but wonder if the Showrunners chose to include this storyline in the TV show, and I’m even more curious to see how they approach it if they did and whether or not it translates just as well to TV.



Samm Tembo

Samm Tembo is a Freelance content creator, aspiring filmmaker, entertainment and lifestyle writer, from Lusaka, Zambia; sharing his worldview through words.