How The Last of Us re-created a 2003 arcade with the help of true enthusiasts

How The Last of Us re-created a 2003 arcade with the help of true enthusiasts
Gaming & Culture
Mar 2023

The Last of Us' HBO series went to great lengths to re-create a 2003 mall arcade for a recent episode. Two of the arcade enthusiasts hired on for that scene have detailed the triumphs and technical limitations they encountered, at length, in an arcade history forum thread.

In the HBO adaptation of The Last of Us, a cordyceps outbreak overtakes the world in 2003, leaving things much as they were in the 2023 world through which Joel and Ellie struggle. In episode 7, a flashback shows Ellie and a friend powering up and exploring an early-aughts mall, complete with a beautifully neon-lit arcade, left just as it was during the first George W. Bush administration.

Production designer John Paino told Variety that "Raja's Arcade" took its name and frontal appearance from the game's Left Behind DLC, but otherwise the production team built it from scratch. All the games had to actually work because creators Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann demanded it, according to Paino. But the original games would have had cathode-ray tube (CRT) screens, which--as anybody using a camera back then would remember--can be difficult to capture. "We rebuilt them on LED screens," Paino told Variety.

Further Reading

"They bought 3 games from me and all 3 had beautiful working tubes. I hope they didn't trash them...," member shortcircuit wrote. They were, however, "extra stock," and "not needed," they later wrote.

Forum members JoshODBrown (Josh Brown) and ChanceKJ (Chance Johnson), who together make up The Canadian Arcade, consulted with HBO on the episode. Throughout an extensive thread, the duo unpacks a lot of the tricks, workarounds, and concessions necessary for the scene.

How The Last of Us re-created a 2003 arcade with the help of true enthusiasts

The Mortal Kombat II gameplay footage in the episode is their own, captured on a 46-inch OLED panel they rotated 90 degrees and then treated with scanlines, curvature, and rounded corners to look more like a real CRT. They set up a remote interface that would trigger each of their gameplay clips whenever the actors dropped a quarter into the machine, so the show could capture the actors reacting to the clips in real time.

"On the day we filmed it I'm actually lying on my stomach behind the ticket counter a few feet away with a 50 foot HDMI cable connecting the OLED to a MacBook Air running VLC playing those clips in real time as the girls interact with the game," wrote Johnson in a later message.

"While we got Mortal Kombat to MOSTLY look like a CRT on camera, it was an expensive process (time and money) and we did do it for a few other games in the arcade, but time was not on our side to make it happen for every game," Brown wrote. Some games had their monitors blanked, so as to not flicker on camera. Some games legitimately glitched or stopped working during the shoot, recreating something likely to happen in an arcade that had sat dormant for 20 years.