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Analysis | ‘The Last of Us’ shows that it pays to take gaming seriously


To gauge 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 acclaim and commercial acclaim of the HBO TV hit The Last of Us.

The show, which follows the journey of an emotionally scarred father and his surrogate daughter through a post-pandemic, zombie-infested US, began as a game on Sony Group Corp.’s PlayStation 3 a decade ago. The faithful adaptation has made the story both a cross-generational success and a watercooler conversation – must-see TV in an era when few programs rise above the noise. It marks a year in which gaming has risen to the level of the culturally unavoidable, a shift that will have major implications for where television and film executives are looking for the next big thing.

Game adaptations to both small and large screens have a notoriously patchy history. For every success, like 2020’s unlikely 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 that The Last of Us wouldn’t suffer the same fate. With a budget that exceeds Game of Thrones and the series is led by the game’s director and one of the producers of HBO’s Chernobyl, this is one of the few adaptations that takes the source material as seriously as adapting a book. The focus is less on the zombies and more on morally complex characters and situations.

Still, the show’s critical and commercial success is surprising – drawing more than 20 million viewers per episode in the US, surpassing The Sopranos at the height of mob drama. Strong word of mouth caused viewership to jump from the first to the second episode with the most of any HBO show. That was before the third offering broke, which largely set aside the zombie story to depict a decades-long romance between Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett’s Bill and Frank. The network has already greenlit a second season; star Pedro Pascal just hosted Saturday Night Live.

Such multimedia franchises, with dedicated fanbases across multiple platforms, are the holy grail of entertainment media. walt disney co. may have messed up its Star Wars sequel trilogy, but the $4 billion it paid to buy out George Lucas continues to pay dividends in its Disney+ shows Andor and The Mandalorian. It is the reason Amazon.com Inc. is willing to spend $715 million on a Lord of the Rings spin-off, or why Warner Bros. Discovery Inc., which owns HBO, is so desperate for JK Rowling to make more Harry Potter content. it also has the rights.

“What are the movies with brands that are understood and loved around the world?” asked Warner Chief Executive Officer David Zaslav on the company’s most recent earnings call, citing Superman and Game of Thrones, among others, as properties it expects to generate profits. “We focus on franchises.”

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

For game publishers, they can look at the success of The Last of Us and think more about how to fund creator-driven properties that can succeed outside of the medium – whether that be in the form of a big-budget show or movie , or an anime adaptation, as with CD Projekt SA’s Cyberpunk 2077 Netflix tie-in, which sparked a resurgence in the game’s sales. When done correctly, the success of shared universes across media can be mutually reinforcing.

Sony could have an advantage in this area, after spending decades of largely unsuccessful attempts to find synergies between its film, 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 set to release an Amazon Prime series based on the God of War franchise – another narrative heavyweight that uses a fantastic backdrop of Norse gods to create a surprising human father-and-son story.

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

And with Illumination founder Chris Meledandri joining Nintendo’s board in 2021, the Mario creator will be keen to make sure it doesn’t become a one-off hit. A successful movie would flow back to the Super Nintendo World area at Universal Studios theme parks in Japan, Hollywood, and in the future Orlando and Singapore, all to draw more fans to the game, as well as other IPs that can be customized. The next big thing may already be on your Switch or PlayStation.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Sony now has to prove that the PS5 is a real winner: Culpan & Reidy

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• Squid Hit shows Nintendo’s more than nostalgia: Reidy & Culpan

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Japan and Korea. Previously, he led the breaking news team in North Asia and served as the deputy chief of the Tokyo bureau.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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