The Last of Us HBO show has major timeline change from video game — here’s what’s different

Pedro Pascal in The Last of Us
(Image credit: HBO)

The Last of Us finally premieres on HBO this week (and check out our The Last of Us review for all of our thoughts on it), but fans familiar with the video game should prepare themselves for some significant deviations from the source material. While many of the biggest alterations remain under wraps, the reason for a major timeline change has now been explained. 

Last year promotional material (opens in new tab) for the series confirmed that The Last of Us HBO show would swap the initial setting of 2013 for 2003. In the original game, the cordyceps pandemic begins in September 2013, but in the chronology of the show that earth-shattering event instead takes place a decade earlier. 

As the bulk of the story takes place 20 years after the fungal virus spread globally, this tweak means the show primarily takes place in 2023 instead of 2033 as in the video game. While this timeline switch has been known for a while, the exact reason for the change had remained a mystery until now. 

The Last of Us co-director and the series’ co-creator, Neil Druckmann, recently explained the timeline was shifted to “help make [the story] more real." Druckmann also revealed the idea originally came from fellow showrunner Craig Mazin who felt setting the events in a more familiar timeline would make the story feel more grounded.  

In a roundtable interview with our sister site TechRadar (opens in new tab), Mazin said: “This was something I talked about with Neil very early on. It's a subtle difference. But I have this thing about jumping into the future. I feel like, if I'm watching a show and the year is 2023, and the show takes place in 2043, it’s just a little less real. Even if I'm watching a show in 2023 and it takes place in 2016, it’s a little less real. So I thought it might be interesting to just say, ‘Hey, look, in this parallel universe, this is happening right now. This is happening this year.”

It also seems that Druckmann was on board with the idea, adding “if it helps make [the show] more real, then it's a worthwhile change.” Mazin was also quick to note that the change has not impacted the overall tone or aesthetic of the show’s interpretation of the video game. In fact, Mazin even suggested the biggest change it brought about was a “slightly different palette of prompts and set design and car choices." 

So fear not avid fans of The Last of Us, even if the timeline is slightly tweaked, the spirit of the original game is being kept very much intact. Of course, that doesn’t mean that everything else will be the same. Druckmann has confirmed that certain episodes will “deviate greatly” from the original source material. In particular it's been reported the show's third episode (opens in new tab) will make several big changes that may shock some long time fans. 

The Last of Us is set to debut on HBO and HBO Max on Sunday, January 15. And if you want a refresher in the meantime, The Last of Us Part I, a ground-up remake of the PS3 original, launched on PS5 last year, and it’s the perfect way to (re)experience one of the best video games ever made. 

Rory Mellon
Deals Editor

Rory is a Deals Editor at Tom’s Guide based in the UK. He covers a wide range of topics but with a particular focus on deals, gaming and streaming. When he’s not scouring retailers for PS5 restock or writing hot takes on the latest gaming hardware and streaming shows, he can be found attending music festivals and being thoroughly disappointed by his terrible football team.