Why This Summer’s Best Movie Was a Video Game

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At least six years in the making, with a crew of thousands and a budget likely in the neighborhood of $100 million, Sony’s The Last of Us Part II could easily be confused with a big-screen action epic. In fact, although it’s a video game, TLOU2—as fans have dubbed it—has served as a stand-in for multiplex megahits in the weirdest summer in Hollywood history. The game shattered sales records, and videos of the action quickly racked up tens of millions of views on YouTube as fans binged on the 30-plus hours of gameplay much as they might do with a top-tier Netflix series. “Video games have reached a level of realism where in-game cinematics can now rival blockbuster films,” says Matthew Kanterman, an analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence. “Big studios are even using game development tools to make movies these days.”

Video games have long included snippets of prerecorded video or animation to advance the story, but TLOU2 raises the bar by crafting a cinematic experience from start to finish. The plot unspools in the time after, yes, a pandemic, which has turned most of Earth’s population into zombies. The characters make their way through richly detailed landscapes of Wyoming’s Grand Teton mountains and across fields and forests to a post-apocalyptic Seattle where buildings, bridges, and highways are rendered as lushly overgrown ruins. The movement is on par with the best animated features, the characters are nuanced, and the dialogue is mature and compelling, says game critic David Milner.

Just as important, TLOU2 goes beyond typical run-and-gun button-mashing to address gender roles, tribalism, and the true toll of violence in ways that other games avoid. The main protagonist, Ellie—a teenage secondary character in the game’s first installment, released in 2013—has matured into a badass lesbian who leads a racially and sexually diverse cast, including a transgender youth. Although TLOU2 triggered intense criticism among some gamers, who accused the creators of courting controversy to goose sales, it earned critical acclaim in a deeply conservative industry that tends to eschew heroes who stray too far from a certain macho male stereotype. Fans have embraced the characters, snapping up merch such as the coffee mugs they drink from ($25), the canvas jackets they wear ($150), and even a $2,300 guitar modeled after the one Ellie plays. “It’s a testament to Sony that they’ve backed such an uncomfortable megabudget game,” Milner says.

TLOU2 offers a preview of what’s to come as game consoles and computers grow ever more capable. This fall, Sony Corp. and Microsoft Corp. will introduce a new generation of their game machines, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, which will allow even richer graphics and more realistic movement. Just as significant, says Kantan Games analyst Serkan Toto, TLOU2 heralds what promises to be a wave of titles that break down race and gender barriers, mirroring the way Hollywood is slowly opening up to nontraditional leads—as in the latest Star Wars trilogy, which proved sci-fi adventures can find commercial success even when focused on a female protagonist.

In June, Sony introduced its initial slate of games for the PS5. In an effort to extend the console’s appeal to a broader demographic, they highlighted far greater diversity. There’s a Spider-Man game where the lead character is Black; Kena: Bridge of the Spirits features a girl followed by a legion of diminutive companions; and in Stray, the player inhabits the body of a homeless cat. “If TLOU2 were a small indie title, nobody would care,” Toto says. “But this is a marquee archetype, making it a groundbreaking experience that will surely encourage other studios to come up with storylines that go against what users have been served in recent decades.”

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