Opinion: 'The Last of Us' shows it pays to take gaming seriously


Strong word of mouth caused viewership to jump from its first to second episode by the most of any HBO show. — HBO/TNS

To measure the place of video games in the pop-culture zeitgeist, consider that Gen Z is more familiar with Fortnite than Friends. The medium’s cultural reach is now at its peak, driven by the critical and commercial acclaim being heaped on the HBO TV hit The Last of Us.

The show, which tracks the journey of an emotionally scarred father and his surrogate daughter across a post-pandemic, zombie-blighted US, began life as a game on Sony Group Corp’s PlayStation 3 a decade ago. The faithful adaptation has made the story both a cross-generation success and water-cooler conversation — must-see TV in an era where few programs rise above the noise. It marks a year in which gaming has ascended to the level of the culturally unavoidable, a shift that will have major ramifications on where television and movie executives look for the next big thing.

Adaptations of games to both the small and big screens have a notoriously patchy history. For every success, such as the unlikely 2020 box-office hit Sonic the Hedgehog, there are multiple failures. Netflix Inc’s adaptation of Capcom Co’s Resident Evil bombed last year, while attempts to make movie franchises of the likes of Activision Blizzard Inc’s Warcraft or Ubisoft Entertainment SA’s Assassin’s Creed have all flopped.

There was always reason to believe The Last of Us wouldn’t suffer the same fate. With a budget exceeding Game of Thrones and the series helmed by the game’s director and one of the producers of HBO’s Chernobyl, this is one of the few adaptations to take the source material as seriously as adapting a book. The focus is less on the zombies and more on morally complex characters and situations.

Even so, the show’s critical and commercial success is startling — drawing more than 20 million viewers an episode in the US, above The Sopranos at the mob drama’s height. Strong word of mouth caused viewership to jump from its first to second episode by the most of any HBO show. That was before its breakout third offering, which mostly put the zombie story aside to depict a decadeslong romance between Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett’s Bill and Frank. The network has already greenlighted a second season; star Pedro Pascal just hosted Saturday Night Live.

Such multimedia franchises, with dedicated fan bases across multiple platforms, are the Holy Grail of entertainment media. Walt Disney Co may have bungled its Star Wars sequel trilogy, but the US$4bil it paid to buy out George Lucas continues to pay dividends in its Disney+ shows Andor and The Mandalorian. It’s the reason that Amazon.com Inc is willing to spend $715 million on a Lord of the Rings spinoff, or why Warner Bros Discovery Inc, which owns HBO, is so desperate for J.K. Rowling to create more Harry Potter content, to which it also holds the rights.

“What are the movies that have brands that are understood and loved everywhere in the world?” asked Warner chief executive officer David Zaslav on the firm’s most recent earnings call, citing the likes of Superman and Game of Thrones as properties it expects to provide profits. “We’re focused on franchises.”

The Last of Us will convince Zaslav and his peers that games, with their powerful brand awareness among younger generations, are worth financing with significant budgets and top-level talent. It’s a two-way street; this week Warner Bros will launch Hogwarts Legacy, a marquee video game set in the Harry Potter universe.

For games publishers, they can look at the success of The Last of Us and think more about how to finance creator-driven properties that can succeed outside of the medium — whether that’s in the form of a big-budget show or movie, or an anime adaptation, as with the Netflix tie-in of CD Projekt SA’s Cyberpunk 2077, which triggered a resurgence in sales of the game. Executed correctly, the success of shared universes across different media can feed into one another.

Sony might have an advantage in this field, having spent decades in mostly failed attempts to find synergies among its movie, gaming and music divisions after acquiring CBS Records and Columbia Pictures in the late 1980s. But after The Last of Us, the company is reportedly next set to release an Amazon Prime series based on the God of War franchise — another narrative heavyweight that uses a fantastical background of Norse gods to tell a surprisingly human father-and-son story.

We might not yet even have seen the most culturally significant video game adaptation of the year. In April, The Super Mario Bros. Movie, a CG animated film based on Nintendo Co's Italian plumber, will hit theaters. While the casting choices (Chris Pratt as Mario, Seth Rogen as Donkey Kong) have raised eyebrows, Nintendo’s careful selection of partner Illumination Entertainment Inc, the studio behind Minions, and the Kyoto firm’s close involvement in the production suggest it can equal the success of the source material.

And with Illumination founder Chris Meledandri having joined Nintendo’s board in 2021, the Mario maker will be keen to ensure it’s no one-time hit. A successful movie would feed back into the Super Nintendo World area in Universal Studios theme parks in Japan, Hollywood, California, and in the future, Orlando, Florida, and Singapore, all helping to bring more fans to the game, as well other IPs that can be adapted. The next big thing might already be on your Switch or PlayStation. – Bloomberg Opinion/Tribune News Service

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