Why did The Last of Us Change Pittsburgh to Kansas City? An Investigation
What’s behind Joel and Ellie’s detour?
The Last of Us has been garnering praise for being accurate to the game it’s based on. Even when it did divert from the action of its source material, it was for cinematic journeys like Bill and Frank’s story from Episode 3. It was obvious why that change was made: Bill and Frank were minor characters in the game, and the series allowed for a more in-depth exploration of their life together.
But other choices are harder to understand. In Episode 4, Joel and Ellie are forced to abandon their vehicle and venture into a city, but the city has shifted by about 800 miles. As explained by The Last of Us’ showrunner, here’s why a major game location was rewritten for logistical reasons.
Episode 4 and the upcoming Episode 5 of the HBO series adapt the fifth chapter of the game, commonly known as just “Pittsburgh.” The chapter follows Joel and Ellie as they navigate the city with Henry and Sam while trying to avoid raiders.
The show makes two big changes. First, it has a major villain in the form of Kathleen, the leader of a fallen QZ after a revolution. The other significant change is the city itself: what once was Pittsburgh is now Kansas City.
So why the change? Did the creative team have insider knowledge that Kansas City would be in the Super Bowl the same weekend Episode 5 dropped? Probably not. The first clue can be found in the show’s companion podcast, where co-showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann explained the many factors that led to the Kansas City decision.
“What it came down to was the ‘Pittsburgh-ness’ of Pittsburgh wasn’t necessarily important. We had locations [in Canada] where we were filming and it looked closer to Kansas City. It was just harder to manufacture Pittsburgh in that place.”
But there are geographic reasons as well. Without spoiling anything, Druckmann and Mazin realized they needed characters to be at a certain location at a specific point of the year, and while the video game geography could be hand-waved away, TV audiences can be a bit more discerning. Just look at how viewers reacted to a lush, obviously Canadian forest being described as “10 Miles West of Boston.”
So we know the Canadian filming locations didn’t contain the “Pittsburgh-ness” of Pittsburgh, but what exactly is Pittsburgh-ness? The answer could be found in one of its nicknames: City of Bridges. Any glimpse of the Pittsburgh skyline will show plenty of bridges along the three rivers surrounding it. Kansas City is also on a river, but the heart of downtown — the part of the city we see in The Last of Us — is more inland, meaning the grim, dry cityscapes we see in the show are more suitable for Kansas City.
The Last of Us has kept so much of its story the same, so every single change, whether it’s how a character dies or where Ellie finds a dirty magazine, stands out. A complete shift in location is especially notable. Though the difference between locales may be arbitrary, it’s an example of how much a location can affect a production, and how much thought the minds behind this show have put into it.
The Last of Us is now streaming on HBO Max.