Fungal outbreak epic The Last of Us has done the double: the acclaimed, high-selling video game has morphed into a brilliant and much-watched television series.
To watch it is to feel sick with dread. But with audiences apparently not having gained enough exposure to pandemic-related tension in real life, viewer ratings for the nine-part HBO adaptation of the Sony-published gaming phenomenon are, ahem, mushrooming with each weekly episode drop.
Cordyceps-infected zombies, eh? You forget about them for a single minute and suddenly they’re all over the place, tendrils spilling out of their heads.
It’s all excellent news for the neglected fungi experts who are now being called upon by the media to explain why you probably won’t find yourself creeping through the desiccated remains of a Boston quarantine zone, armed and paranoid, amid Brutalist buildings overgrown with vines.
But the story of The Last of Us, available in Ireland on Sky and its streaming service Now, isn’t confined to mere smash hit viewership and second season renewal.
Such is the success of the post-apocalyptic survival game/drama, it is now being offered up to competition regulators as the reason why they should allow what would be the biggest tech deal in more than two decades to go ahead, thereby guaranteeing its status as near-future case study on business syllabuses everywhere.
The deal in question is Microsoft’s proposed acquisition of video games giant Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion (€63.9 billion), announced in January 2022. If this mega-purchase goes ahead, it will be a landmark moment for both the games industry and the broader technology one.
Microsoft has been desperately trying to secure the necessary regulatory clearances to complete it, but like The Last of Us protagonists Joel and Ellie, the deal has quite some distance to travel. The European Commission and the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority have opened up in-depth investigations, while in December, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) moved to block it.
Microsoft thinks this is a bit rich of Sony and has noted that there are almost five times as many exclusive Sony PlayStation games as there are Microsoft Xbox ones
Concessions, in the form of assurances that it won’t engage in various anticompetitive behaviours, are now expected from Microsoft to avoid the doom of deal abandonment.
Chief among the objectors to the whopping tie-up is Sony, which fears that Microsoft will make Activision’s shooter game Call of Duty – its biggest franchise – and other titles exclusive to the tech giant’s Xbox console, rather than keeping them multi-platform.
Microsoft thinks this is a bit rich of Sony and has noted that there are almost five times as many exclusive Sony PlayStation games as there are Microsoft Xbox ones. It also maintains that it has no intention of pulling Call of Duty from PlayStation, at least not immediately, saying it has offered Sony a 10-year contract to make each new release of Call of Duty available on PlayStation at the same time as it lands on Xbox.
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At one stage, its defence included the tactically self-deprecating line that none of Activision’s games are a “must have” for rival PC and console video game distributors – it just fancied paying $69 billion for them, presumably.
Only in regulatory battles do companies downplay their own power like this and make a concerted effort to attribute dominance to others – because the converse of the argument that there is “nothing unique” about Activision’s games is that Sony, by contrast, possesses something special in the shape of The Last of Us, developed by Sony-owned company Naughty Dog and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment.
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It has fallen to Lulu Cheng Meservey, executive vice-president of corporate affairs and chief communications officer for Activision, to do the honours here.
“Hi @FTC – did you catch last night’s episode of The Last of Us? It was incredible. No wonder the show is breaking records. It’s a true blockbuster, watched by tens of millions. If you haven’t already, you should check it out,” she tweeted after the third episode, before highlighting the game’s exclusivity to PlayStation.
“Sony’s talent and IP [intellectual property] across gaming, TV, movies and music are formidable and truly impressive. It’s no wonder they also continue to dominate as the market leader for consoles. In gaming, Sony is ‘the first of us’ – and they will be just fine without the FTC’s protection.”
Of course, Meservey’s conclusion that there is “no cause for concern” about the Microsoft-Activision deal suggests that Sony is the only one that hates it. That isn’t true.
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Nor will the fallout be restricted to the games market. In its preliminary investigation, Brussels found that the transaction could “significantly reduce competition” not only for the distribution of console and PC video games, but for PC operating systems too: Microsoft, by combining Activision Blizzard’s games and Microsoft’s distribution of games via cloud game streaming, “may reduce the ability of rival providers” to compete with Windows.
So Sony “will be just fine” is unlikely to cut it. And yet drawing attention to HBO’s The Last of Us is still clever – and instructive – on the part of Activision.
The original 2013 game and its revenge-fuelled sequel, released in June 2020, pushed boundaries and amassed plaudits for the skill with which it heightened player anxiety by interspersing full-on action with quieter moments.
When it comes to making a political point, however, being able to shove a television drama in an antitrust regulator’s face still has some edge. Not all government decision-makers will be gamers. HBO’s resolute favouring of once-a-week scheduling, meanwhile, means the hype surrounding the show will be sustained for nine weeks.
In the show, the video games industry is frozen in 2003, with Ellie excited to discover a Mortal Kombat arcade cabinet in an abandoned shop. In the real, non-fungal world, things have moved on a bit
The first half-hour of The Last of Us, adapted for television by Craig Mazin and the game’s writer Neil Druckmann, felt to me like nine weeks. Set in a primitive world – 2003 – in which Nokia is the handset maker of choice, the sense of foreboding would have been off the charts even if key characters hadn’t had a bad dose of low-down-the-credits-itis.
It then jumps forward to a present-day kaleidoscope of decay, filled with horrors such as martial law, firebomb sacrifices and camping. Luckily, the intervening two decades of chaos have somehow only made Joel (Pedro Pascal) more dustily handsome than he was before, while young Ellie (Bella Ramsey) is charmingly ignorant of pre-zombie times.
It is, in summary, worth watching by more than just the army of regulators currently scrutinising Microsoft’s ambitions and working out the extent of their “not so fast”. In the show, the video games industry is frozen in 2003, with Ellie excited to discover a Mortal Kombat arcade cabinet in an abandoned shop. In the real, non-fungal world, things have moved on a bit.