For the longest time in the film industry, movie adaptations of video games were considered a death-sentence for movie studios. The first theatrically-released video game movie in the United States was Super Mario Brothers: The Movie in 1993 which attempted to capitalize off the wild success of Mario Brothers video game franchise which has amazing games like fruit blast online. However, the movie was a critical and commercial bomb upon release and has since become notorious for how horribly it butchers the source material. The production was also so troubled that Bob Hoskins openly admitted that he and John Leguizamo would get drunk each day before filming their scenes (this can also be seen in their performances in the final cut of the film). The colossal failure of this film set the precedent for other flops such as Double Dragon (1994) and Wing Commander (1999). While these movies have since gained a cult-following for their cheesiness and 90’s aesthetics, they are generally considered guilty pleasures rather than genuinely good films.
However, in the past few years, the trend of bad video game to film adaptations has slowly been shifting. Movies like Sonic the Hedgehog and Detective Pikachu broke the mold by enjoying both commercial and critical success. On top of this, streaming series like Castlevania and Arcane have proven that video games can be adapted into quality TV shows. What is it that separates these adaptations of video games? How have they avoided falling into the same pitfalls as previous attempts to adapt video games into film and TV? In this article, I will present three observations I have made which separates a good video game adaptation from a bad one. I believe that these observations can help filmmakers and showrunners learn how to adapt video games into adequate media.
Keep in mind that these are not hard-and-fast rules, but rather my opinion based on observations that I have made. Also be aware that I will only be referring to intellectual properties that existed as video games first. Therefore, I will not be including shows like The Witcher which was first a book series. I also won’t include properties like Wreck-It Ralph or Ready Player One since they make references to video games but don’t adapt the story of one particular game.
A Series is Often Better at Adapting a Game’s Story Than a Movie
One of the reasons so many video game movies fail is because, generally speaking, the stories of video games are too long to be adapted into a single movie. The average video game typically takes between twenty to thirty hours to complete, minus any side content. To try to cram that much story into a standard-length movie is a monumental task. Obviously, this is not always the case as games like Sonic the Hedgehog or Pokémon have simple enough plots that making a standard-length movie out of them isn’t too difficult. However, for lore-heavy games like Halo, Mass Effect, or League of Legends, a standard two-hour movie is not going to be long enough to do the story justice.
The greatest advantage that series have over movies is runtime. Taking Arcane as an example, the show currently has nine episodes at an average of about forty-two minutes each. At first, that may not sound like much time but that is actually a total of approximately six hours and twenty minutes. That is essentially three movies-worth of time that has been condensed into just one season of a TV show. This length allows for a lot more time to be dedicated towards fleshing out the characters and the world so that the audience can be more invested in the conflict. The popularity of streaming services also demonstrates that modern audiences are more willing to invest in series and to binge-watch hours of a show at a time. With more time to develop the story and increased public interest in streaming, it only makes sense to adapt video games into shows rather than films.
Animation is Better at Capturing the Essence of a Game than Live-Action
Another common theme that I have noticed in good video game adaptations is that most of them are fully-animated. From what I have seen, animation is generally better at capturing the aesthetics of a video game rather than live-action. This is because video games are already an animated art form so it is easier to translate one form of animation into another form. For years, people have been making “cutscene movies” on YouTube by stringing together the cinematics from video games in order to tell the story of the game without the need to play it. This same principle is also applied in “machinima” which is the use of a video game’s assets and gameplay to tell an entirely new story. With all of this, it is shocking to me that studios keep trying to adapt games into live-action that wouldn’t work.
For some properties like Tomb Raider or Uncharted, live-action can work well enough since those games are already grounded in our modern reality and are attempting to emulate Hollywood movies. But for most video games, live-action is not able to effectively capture the mechanics and style of a game. It is the same reason why so many live-action adaptations of anime fail to adapt the source material well. There are just too many quirks specific to the art form of video games that don’t translate into an non-animated medium.
Taking Arcane as an example again, I couldn’t imagine making a good live-action version of that show. So much of the hook of the show is the stylized action and the absurdity of the world. The world of Arcane is so bizarre and genre-bending that adapting it to live-action would make it difficult for the audience to suspend their disbelief. This is a show with a dark gritty tone while also having a sub-plot revolving around a two-foot tall 300-year old goblin with a mustache. Some things are just inherently difficult to transfer into live-action without it becoming goofy. This was one of the fatal flaws with the live-action Super Mario Brothers: The Movie. The movie attempted to take the colorful fantastical world of Mario and adapt it into a dystopian Blade Runner aesthetic. There is frankly no way to take a world of talking mushroom people and put it into live-action without it being completely ridiculous.
Another clear example of this principle is the original design for Sonic in the 2016 movie. Since dubbed “Ugly Sonic”, this version of the character took the internet by storm and spawned intense backlash against the film. The backlash from fans was so massive, that the studio completely overhauled the design of the character in response. While I am always iffy about studios making decisions based on social media outcry, in this case, the change saved the movie from disaster. When comparing the old Sonic design with the new one, the problem with the old one becomes obvious. The biggest issue with the old design is that it is attempting to ground the character of Sonic in the real-world by giving him more realistic proportions and features. However, the result is an uncanny valley monstrosity that can’t be taken seriously. As a general rule of thumb, video games that are grounded in modern reality should be given a grounded adaptation while those with fantastical environments and characters should be given an adaptation to match.
Staying True to the Heart of Game Will Always Yield Better Results
While this should go without saying, it is shocking to me the number of video game adaptations that do not pay any care to the source material that they are adapting. The benefit of adapting a video game into a movie or show is that the property already has an established fanbase that will be interested in seeing an adaptation of the game that they love. Therefore, it stands to reason that the adaptation of a video game should should preserve what people enjoyed about the game to begin with. It is important to understand that in most adaptations, a degree of change to the source material is necessary. Certain story beats may need to be shortened for the sake of runtime and certain elements may not work as well in a movie or show as they do in a video game. However, fans can generally tell between a change made out of necessity and a change made to chase the trends of what is currently popular.
Recently, the Halo series has recently been receiving severe criticism for changing critical components of both Masterchief’s character and the lore of the video games. While the creators have specified that the show is its own separate continuity, that will not please fans who fell in love with the original storyline. I could also spend the rest of this article detailing adaptations of games that miss the point of the appeal of the original game they are adapting. Whether it be changing the demons into zombies for the Doom movie, or removing the cynical edgy humor for the Ratchet and Clank movie, changes that alter the identity of the property should be avoided. All in all, adapting a video game well requires an intimate knowledge with the source material. It requires knowing what can be changed to fit the mold of a new medium and what is essential to the identity of the material.
Overall, I have been greatly encouraged by the direction video game adaptations have been taking in the past few years. It is clear that these properties are being given to people who enjoy the games and want to adapt what they love about them into a new art form. As video games continue to grow as an art form, I believe we will see better adaptations being created more consistently. Keep in mind that this is all my opinion and feel free to comment your own thoughts on the subject. What are some game adaptations that you enjoy and what are some games that would you like to see adapted into a movie or series? Thank you for reading and God bless!