I have never been as tense during a show as I was during the last episode of Game of Thrones. Over the course of 90 minutes our heroes tried to stop the Night King’s undead army at Winterfell in a brutal, unrelenting battle that pulled the breath from your body. I didn’t eat or drink or get up to go to the bathroom. All I could do was watch in hope and horror as the whole bloody mess unfolded.
The only thing I could compare it to is playing the PlayStation zombie classic The Last of Us. In fact, I’d say we more or less got the film version that everyone has been clamoring for last night.
Whenever I go back and play the game, I’m amazed at how tension is used as an aesthetic. The true genius of it is not necessarily the storytelling, but the feeling of creeping through cramped hallways or sneaking across open country feeling the dead* all around. That tension is a drug, addictive and amazing.
I feel like Game of Thrones went all out trying to make connections to apocalyptic zombie games and movies. I’ve seen plenty of people compare the movements of the wights to the undead waves that were the hallmark of World War Z. The appearance of a wight giant, as well, was right of out the Last of Us where giant, nigh-indestructible bloaters serve as mini-bosses.
It was the library scene that really drove the point home. Arya – played by Maisie Williams, long the rumored favorite to be Ellie in a Last of Us film – finds herself in a quiet space that is crawling with an unknown number of wights. She has to stealth her way through the level without gaining their attention.
There is not overstating how video game-y this scene is. I’ve seen it compared to Metal Gear Solid, though I personally felt like it was closer to Thief. Arya even uses a thrown object to distract the creeping wights and they converge on the noise. It was exactly the same tactic I use in the Last of Us, though I usually wait until they converge on the sound and hit them with a nail bomb or Molotov cocktail. Then again, maybe Arya just wants to preserve the books.
At one point, Arya is hiding under a table with the blood from an earlier wound dripping down onto the floor. The noise attracts the wights, and she is faced with a hide-and-hope or run moment. I’ve been in that moment in The Last of Us so many times, and usually it leads to a gruesome death scene or an all-out fight… that usually ends in a gruesome death scene (I’m not a very good gamer).
In the end, she makes it out after distracting them, only to be cornered by a wight. Her instincts kick in and she shanks the zombie with before it can alert the others. Again, it’s right out of Last of Us, where stabbing zombies quietly is a necessary skill to progress if you don’t want to fight a wave of the damn things. And how does the scene end? With Arya safe behind a door, just like nearly every horror video game. Beat for beat, it’s a game level.
Of course, there’s a lot going on in the episode that has nothing to do with recreating a zombie video game. Mostly dragons and Bran doing… whatever Bran is doing. I do think it’s worth noting how much gaming has changed film and television, though. There is just too many concurrences for it to be a coincidence. The tension of play and the techniques of movement through a hostile space are being mimicked in Game of Thrones, and it made an already great episode even better for me.
Maybe we’ll never get a Last of Us movie, and even if we did maybe it won’t be any good. The better thing, though, is watching film and TV take the beats of gaming and apply them to wondrous effect. Just as gaming harnesses cinematic narrative, so does it work in the other direction. Arya served as a player cipher as well as a beloved character. We’ve always screamed at horror protagonists to do things, but the pacing of the library scene was the closest I’ve ever seen a movie or show come to actually recreating the sense of play. It was remarkably well done, and I’d love to see it more.
*I know the clickers are not actually dead, but for the sake of narrative they’re zombies.