Somehow it seems fitting that the biggest-selling game of the last month anchors its fiction in the deadly aftermath of a pandemic. Certainly, Sony's blockbuster hit The Last of Us 2 was always destined to fly off the shelves - coming from a studio with an impeccable pedigree, built on a budget north of €100m and taking more than five years to produce.
Sony shifted four million copies in three days, making the gritty, 18-rated revenge saga the fastest-selling PlayStation exclusive ever. Its chilling echo of the empty streets of Covid-19 lockdown has its own strange resonance, with cooped-up gamers turning in ever-greater numbers to their favourite hobby since March.
All indicators suggest gaming is poised for a bumper year, further abetted by the expected launch before Christmas of ultra-powerful new consoles from Sony and Microsoft.
Estimates last week from analyst firm Newzoo predict a 9.3pc spike in global revenue for the sector to €141bn by the end of the year. That's more than the €90bn annual take of the movie and streaming industries put together, according to Variety. Not bad for a pastime that still flies under the mainstream radar and is frequently dismissed as toys for teenage boys.
The Newzoo research identifies gaming as a broad church, encompassing 2.7 billion people by the end of 2020 - one-third of the world's population - with by far the biggest segment being players on phones.
What has happened during lockdown to game-playing mirrors the surge in other entertainment media such as TV. But having a captive audience exposed a new shift, specifically for console makers such as Nintendo, PlayStation and Xbox that had still depended almost as much on bricks-and-mortar retailers as on digital downloads. Consumers confined to their homes were hungry for new experiences but couldn't visit shops to buy boxed products.
According to market-tracking body GSD, which monitors 50 countries including Ireland across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia (known as EMEAA), sales of boxed games fell by a few percentage points but digital purchases shot up, by as much as 80pc in the UK in the first week of lockdown. Console machines were snapped up in the EMEAA region at a dizzying rate, surging by 155pc in mid-March.
In the US, the picture is similar, with physical and digital sales up 55pc year-on-year in April, according to market researcher NPD, while May's figures jumped 67pc year-on-year.
All across the industry, the big firms recorded significant spikes not just in sales but also engagement - including where consumers watch others play via free streaming sites such as YouTube and Twitch.
US giant EA - home to iconic brands such as FIFA, Madden and The Sims - confirmed to Review that it was experiencing skyrocketing demand.
"In April, EA Sports had double the player engagement of the same month last year, and play overall is up more than 30pc year over year," says a spokesperson. "We've seen unprecedented growth in viewership across EA Sports FIFA content from last year with 260pc growth (comparing May 2019 to May 2020 watch hours on Twitch).
"The Sims has seen more than 2.5 million new players join the community in the past two months and has also seen a peak high of nearly 10 million playing the game monthly in the past quarter."
Nintendo could not have chosen a better time than March for the launch of the latest instalment of its bucolic farming/lifestyle simulator Animal Crossing. Its whimsical world set on a fertile desert island has captivated players, selling more than 13 million copies - more than any other version of the popular long-running series - and surprising even its Japanese masters. More than half its sales were digital, a significant uptick from the norm.
"Many more consumers are purchasing the title than we had initially expected," Nintendo president Shuntaro Furukawa told investors at its AGM last month. "Once consumers experience the convenience of digital downloads, they tend to continue to choose digital downloads in the future."
Microsoft was caught off guard in March by the gush of users logging into its Xbox Live service, resulting in several short-term outages as multiplayer gaming soared by 50pc. Just as Netflix reduced streaming quality in Europe, and Sony throttled download speeds for PlayStation owners around the globe, Microsoft was also forced to juggle resources to ease internet congestion.
It rerouted critical cloud infrastructure for customers such as governments and energy providers who needed priority in the Covid-19 crisis. So it slowed Xbox Live services by transferring workloads out of high-demand areas in Europe and Asia to data centres elsewhere.
"There's no question that in those regions the people who were on the frontlines of the Covid-19 efforts really needed that capacity more than us," wrote Casey Jacobs, who manages reliability for Xbox operations, on the company blog. "We simply knew that we can't do harm to internet bandwidth that's needed for first responders, business operations or commerce."
Ireland is home to the local arm of several major players in the industry, including Riot, Blizzard and EA. But we have a sizeable Irish-founded contingent, from bigger players such as the 70-strong Digit in Dublin - bought last year by US firm Scopely - to the nine-person team of 9th Impact, based in Galway.
Mark Quick is co-founder of 9th Impact, which has been making officially licensed games on mobile since 2014. He was in the peculiar position of finalising the launch of a game tied to the Big Brother TV show just as the shutters came down on Irish society in March.
"We haven't been in the office since the start of March," says Quick. "Of any industry, we're probably best positioned to do something like that. But it's challenging in some areas. It must have been awful for every other industry because it was bad enough for us."
Happily for Quick and his team, the lockdown failed to halt their progress on what is, effectively, a lockdown simulator. The game, which has been three years in the works in partnership with Endemol, had a soft-launch on Android and iOS in Ireland at the end of May, with a prize of €5,000 up for grabs among players competing in a virtual Big Brother house. The next step later this year is to roll the competition out globally, where the cash reward for the winner will reach six figures.
"We've made mini-games in just a weekend. This one has had our entire team dedicated to it for three years. It's a huge undertaking. This is built for 10 million simultaneous players. There's a huge amount of security around the integrity of the voting and stopping everybody hacking the game."
The Irish experiment far exceeded expectations for 9th Impact, according to Quick.
"The amount of time that people were spending in the game, the amount of communication that they were doing with the other players, the level of engagement was huge," he says. "I think part of that is definitely due to the external circumstances, for sure."
Some of the effects of Covid-19 on all walks of life will be temporary. But, for gaming, several trends have been accelerated. The increasing switch to digital downloads on consoles is a prominent one but the inescapable runaway train is the phone in your pocket, whose reach continues to rocket. Revenue from mobile gaming already dwarfs that of consoles and PCs thanks to the extraordinary march of iPhone and Android.
Many phone owners wouldn't consider themselves gamers but are happy to download a free-to-play title such as Candy Crush and drop a few quid on in-game items such as time-savers or cosmetic additions to their avatars. The figures involved in mobile are simply staggering, with income tipped by Newzoo to hit €69bn this year.
Top titles such as shooter PUBG Mobile - which pulls in an estimated €6.6m a day - cost nothing for users to install and make all their money from in-app purchases.
One less obvious trend is the co-option of gaming as the new social media. Instead of congregating in person and communicating via familiar platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram, younger consumers increasingly like to gather with friends in games such as Fortnite.
Newzoo's recent 2020 Global Games Market Report says the incumbent social networks have finally woken up to an enemy on their doorstep: "Facebook and Bytedance's TikTok recognise the opportunity (and threat), and continue to increase investment in games to unlock and explore their potential."
Whether in groups of four and five or by the millions for special events, players flock to Fortnite not just for hours of shoot-'em-up action but to chat about real life over their headsets and express themselves with silly dances. Fortnite owner Epic Games - which made €1.6bn from its wildly popular creation last year - has slowly evolved the shooter by adding a social space called Party Royale, hosting live music gigs, movie watch parties and game-related events attended by up to 20 million players. On July 4, it showed support for the Black Lives Matter movement with a talking-heads documentary about racism - inside the game on a big screen.
We've come a long way from Space Invaders.
During the first weekend of lockdown, siblings Luke (17) and Eva Barry (11) realised video game participation was set to rocket. Seeing that there was money to be made in gaming hardware, the pair from Rathmines in Dublin rounded up old consoles and controllers, reconditioned them, and sold the lot on Done Deal - making €350 overnight.
Through lockdown, Eva was playing more with Bloxburg, within Roblox which is a bit like Minecraft, in that, she builds a house and then invites friends over online - though some of them preferred to binge on the social media app TikTok.
Her brother, meanwhile, found practically every boy in his class was available to play Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto with lockdown in particular reigniting a love for Fortnite.
"In February, I might have seen 10 guys online, but now there could be 30 or 40. Now we can meet up, some days I won't play, but most of us are still playing way more."
Luckily, their brother Jack (19) used his savings to treat himself to a PlayStation 4, before they sold out, as dividing up shifts on the one console was proving contentious.
And the tussle for slots during lockdown will resonate with many families, but as an only child, Oran Glynn Donovan (13) was his own master.
Oran is part of a group of streamers/video creators called the 'Lunch club' and lately has spent more time watching people like 'CallmeCarson' and sometimes even his own dad Shane playing Nioh online.
There is no doubt video games sweetened the pill of staying home for many and they loomed large in my house. Wine o'clock was the signal for many parents to relax, but my golden time was 'mine o'clock' - every afternoon at 3pm when the kids played Minecraft for a few hours.
Previously, only my eldest was into gaming and I like them all playing together. They are committed to learning new tricks, intently watching YouTubers on HermitCraft to get ideas, and fervently discussing building plans when not playing.
Initially I was reluctant to let the toddler get involved but there was no way to stop this, and after observing his siblings, and practising in creative mode, he can build a pickaxe and his own house no bother.
As the eldest, John (11) gets to play after dinner with his friends - all of them showing up faithfully every night - a habit formed in lockdown that seems impossible to break.
And while the allure of the virtual world proved handy during lockdown, I find it tricky to impose limits and turning it off can get hairy. I worry sometimes that they play too much.
Professor Andrew Przybylski, of the Oxford Internet Institute, has carried out extensive gaming and social media research, and told me parents often feel unnecessary guilt around their children's video game playing.
He advises that they increase engagement with the gaming of their children in order to put their minds at rest. It is important to understand that they are learning a lot. "Find out what your kids are playing, sit down and try it, there can be scaremongering about the increased screen time but you will find it's a benign place to hang out, a bit like a massive game of tag or a digital water cooler," Professor Przybylski says.
"The fear that we are creating a bunch of virtual zombies is not reality - the evidence is not there. I have two children and it saved my sanity during lockdown, and for them it was a lifeline enabling them to hang out with their friends and help pass the extra free time."
Przybylski thinks once the real world reasserts itself, with school and other activities cranking up, this will naturally lead to a reduction in the time young people spend gaming though some trends may remain.
"It's likely kids may hang out online more and there will be fewer live football fans, with more following esports and streamers during lockdown, but this craze was not suddenly created - rather changes that were happening were magnified and put on fast forward".