On storytelling: The Girl with All the Gifts vs The Last of Us



  • I recently saw a tweet from one of my favorite writers saying how much he enjoyed The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey (he gave it 5 stars on Goodreads), and I remembered that I tackled this subject some time ago with my friends (they were mystified and listening to my rant, mostly).

    So I read The Girl With All The Gifts last year, and I noted the high praise it received from both critics and film directors (it's got a Joss Whedon blurb inviting us to pick it up). I saw people everywhere singing it’s praise and originality.

    50 pages in, I could see them. The similarities to The Last of Us, that is.

    While The Girl With All The Gifts was published a year after The Last of Us was released, I really don't think that the author might have gotten his inspiration there. He says as much, and I believe him.

    For starters, the plots are very similar. A post-apocalyptic future where the Cordyceps fungus has mutated and moved up the food chain, infecting humans. The population was decimated, there are only a few survivors still left, and at some point they discover children with a resistance to the zombifying fungus.

    One of the characters escorts a little girl to a laboratory where they might probe her and eventually find a cure.
    And with that I described the main ideas behind both the book and the video game. Where the two branch out though, is in everything else except the basic plot.

    I will mention here that The Last of Us holds a dear place inside my heart, I was an emotional wreck for I don’t know how many days after having finished it.

    I didn’t like The Girl With All The Gifts. At all.

    My problem and irritation don’t come from the fact that the plot is more or less the same, I was actually really interested to see how the author handles the same basic plot.

    Well, badly.


    (Some book spoilers follow.)


    The setup is that “hungries” roam the world and humans live in closed off areas. In one of these bases, children which are hungries but still retain their mental capabilities are chained off, taught in classes every day and experimented upon.
    Our story follows Melanie, one of child hungries, and her group of protectors as they flee the base after an incident.

    The characters are one-dimensional caricatures, we have the mad evil scientist performing horrible experiments on the children, ending up killing them in gruesome ways, the gruff Sergeant feeling no empathy at first, but then slowly starting to trust Melanie, the psychologist turned teacher that complies to her orders but deep in her heart wants to save and protect them, the slightly dumb sidekick, etc.

    The only remotely interesting character is Melanie herself, but the author takes her into a disappointing direction that she seems to never fully flesh out as a person. Even if the point was to prove that they are still human at heart, her actions are so alien and strange that I couldn’t relate at all to her story.

    Other than that, the environments are bland (open fields, ruined cities, not much description going on), the plot twists can be seen coming from a mile away (the children were still intelligent because they were conceived after one of the parents got infected, humanity is doomed at the end because they burn the fungus and the spores spread, but it’s okay because now there will be a second generation of intelligent hungries, evolution, etc). The teacher stays with them and teaches them about the world.

    Exposition is delivered in the dullest way possible, through dialogue. Show, don’t tell. It’s far more subtle and refined, and it paints a more interesting picture than a character spouting unrealistic lines. My suspension of disbelief is completely ruined by moments like these and unfortunately it happens in a lot of media.

    Now, comparing that with The Last of Us, and the fleshed out characters, rich world, the compelling story and deep emotions, the refined exposition through visuals, intonation, reactions… From what is said as well as what is left unsaid.
    How I felt when playing it, when I was Joel and I blew the doctors’ heads off because they dared to hurt my kid, and his selfish but completely believable choice in the final scene. Yeah. Not even close.

    Having played through the game a year before reading The Girl With All The Gifts, I feel disheartened by this fact and my reading progress was really slow and dull. I barely had the will to finish it.
    And my blood slowly boils not because it’s a mediocre story from all points of vue, but because I see all the praise it gets for its originality.

    I may have appreciated The Girl With All The Gifts more had I not played through The Last of Us. As it stands, I could not help but compare the two, and the former falls flat and fails to inspire.

    Either way, it pains me to realize how few people reviewing the book, both critics and regular readers, have actually noticed this resemblance. I’m not expecting them to be fully aware of alternate forms of storytelling delivery, like games are, but I wish they were.


    Insert hopes and dreams.

    I hope for a world in which story driven games become more natural to the majority of people. In which they are known, acknowledged and taken into account, and inspire as much as the other mediums.

    I want the video game industry to be taken seriously. It’s the future of immersive storytelling, after all.


    PS - I apologise if anyone liked the book and might get upset at this post, this is of course my subjective opinion.



  • Great post @crimilde
    I haven't played the last of us nor have I read the book, but you presented your viewpoint quite well.
    I personally avoid post-apocalyptic scenes, mostly because they almost always involve some form of zombies/undead creature, which is so overused imo.

    But if you are into these kind of books, may I recommend: The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
    While it doesn't bring anything revolutionary to the genre, I enjoyed the descriptions of the bland setting but it focuses more on the characters. While the content might me somewhat predictable, the conversations between two major characters and their contemplation of the situation is brilliant.
    And best for me: no zombies. It shows that post-apocalyptic world does not need another nuisance, beside the core hardship that people must endure in such environment.



  • Youtube Video

    Trailer for the film.

    I find it disgusting that a film for this book was made before The Last of Us, who did it better and first.



  • I think comparing books and games we enjoy is difficult to do fairly. I'm not saying your wrong but they're fundamentally different. Games encourage and even require us to invest, engage and interact with the world via the characters whereas books are generally more passive. Watching Someone play the last of us would have been a much weaker experience than playing it, at least for me.



  • You presented your viewpoint really well.

    I haven't played Last of Us but I know it's a great game, I just am terrible at those types. I also haven't read The Girl with All the Gifts, but I have friends who loved it.

    I don't think though that one copied the other. Its likely a coincidence. But I think they both have merit, and are for entirely different audiences.

    This though will likely kill a Last of Us movie, which I think is fine, the game seems to be great enough and a movie would likely never match it.



  • @Abdul-M I kind of disagree with this, because if the idea is good, it all depends on how well that book is written. I can get very engaged in books, so much so that I can't put them down until I finish.
    There are very talented writers out there that are able to build vivid worlds in which you get immersed, complex characters, etc. and that are able to pull you in from the first phrase. Even if the tools of the trade are different, if the writing is good, that novel has greater chances to be good.

    The best example I can think of right now (for fantasy at least) would be Patrick Rothfuss and Joe Abercrombie. Very different styles but they accomplish what they set out to do in brilliant ways. You cry, you laugh, you care for the characters and the story because they are built and presented in such a way that makes you care.

    @Nillend Many thanks, have not read that one yet. Will give it a go.



  • @Nillend said in On storytelling: The Girl with All the Gifts vs The Last of Us:

    But if you are into these kind of books, may I recommend: The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
    While it doesn't bring anything revolutionary to the genre, I enjoyed the descriptions of the bland setting but it focuses more on the characters. While the content might me somewhat predictable, the conversations between two major characters and their contemplation of the situation is brilliant.
    And best for me: no zombies. It shows that post-apocalyptic world does not need another nuisance, beside the core hardship that people must endure in such environment.

    +1 for The Road, great book, emotional, intimate.



  • @crimilde that's fair. I wasn't trying to say one is better than the other or even that they can't take you to the same place more that the journey is different. With a half decent writer a book should be able to tell a better and richer story than most video games but conversely a video game can get you emotionally engaged or conflicted much quicker because it requires you to make decisions or just push the action forward