FFor a long time, it was an accepted truth that video games just didn’t work on screen. Remember the quasi-cyberpunk Super Mario movie from 1993, starring Dennis Hopper? It was so bad that basically everyone involved has disowned it. And the television? Kids from the ’90s will remember the incredibly annoying voice of Sonic the Hedgehog on Saturday morning TV, or the permanent reruns of the Pokémon anime series, but other than that, the entertainment world never took to the games. really.
Now, however, things are different. In recent years, Hollywood has managed to produce some actually watchable video game movies, like Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog 2. And hardly a week goes by without another game being picked up for TV. – all of which are aimed at adults, not children or tweens. There’s a sci-fi series based on Halo, the 2001 first-person shooter whose original fans are in their 30s or older. There’s a Netflix adaptation of Assassin’s Creed, the historical action game that has you running around in elaborate simulations of ancient Egypt or Renaissance Italy, joining the streaming giant’s 15-rated version of The Witcher, starring Henry Cavill, who is almost as dirty and violent as the source material. And in an Inception-level example of games and TV taking inspiration from each other, there’s even a series based on Cuphead, a much-loved but niche run-and-gun game that’s itself an homage to early 20th century cartoons. the 1920s.
What has changed? Why is the TV world suddenly so interested in game-based shows? And this time, will they be good?
The simplest explanation for the rise of game adaptations is, unsurprisingly, money. Video games are bigger business than ever: the games industry was worth $175 billion in 2021 (for context, the entire global film industry is worth $100 billion). The audience that plays them has also grown since the heyday of Pokémon; 80% of US video gamers are over 18 years old and more than half of them, 52%, are between 18 and 45 years old, the “key demographic” that executives like the most of TV.
“Video games have gone from being a fringe activity to becoming mainstream entertainment, and Netflix is looking to retain and acquire subscribers by connecting to what’s popular with younger audiences,” says Joost van Dreunen, a longtime gaming industry researcher. long time. “As streaming services compete for content, they look for categories that give them an edge. So HBO and Amazon Prime have been developing series based on games… When done right and taken seriously, these adaptations can serve everyone, including the audience.”
That last point is crucial: audiences (and critics) can smell it when a show is a cynical cash. Fortunately, the first generations who grew up with games are now in their 40s and 50s and have risen to power: speaking to people in the TV and gaming industry, it’s clear that the writers and directors of these new shows are people who they really play games. , and I really love the source material, like Supernatural showrunner Andrew Dabb, who is fronting Netflix’s Resident Evil series that premieres in July and says it’s his “favorite game of all time.” They appreciate video games in all their empowering, exciting, and often unintentionally hilarious weirdness. There’s a much better chance of them making TV worth watching.
However, when a game is selected for television, the original creative team is often not involved. So people who spent years creating the game itself (on big-budget projects, the storytelling team alone may be 10 or 20 people) are usually left sitting nervously on the sidelines. That can be a harrowing experience, especially given the track record. Bruce Straley was the co-creator of Naughty Dog’s hard-hitting and critically acclaimed post-apocalyptic game The Last of Us, the story of a teenage girl named Ellie and her reluctant father figure Ella Joel on a journey through the devastated remains of America. When The Last of Us was picked up by HBO in 2020, he had mixed feelings.
“Years ago, we used to think that making a movie about a game we were working on was ‘making it.’ I don’t think about it anymore,” she says. “Our industry has proven its worth and doesn’t need other means to validate us… I have no problem with accommodations. But in my experience, and I think in all of our experience, there’s always something that falls short with the execution… I know very little about the production, but it’s hard for me to fully support it.”
This is partly due to the difference between writing for games and writing for television. “With The Last of Us, I wanted the player to feel the same feelings that Joel and Ellie might feel at any given moment,” says Straley. “That meant the player had to be 100% present throughout their journey, participating in all the ups and downs, twists and surprises of their survival and joys. I thought that taking so much history out of the scenes [non-interactive sequences] and instead, creating playable cutscenes allowed us to create a significantly more impactful experience than you might have had in a TV show or movie. So we have to ask ourselves, what makes a game great? And will an adaptation add to the core experience or diminish it?
The chasm between writing for a linear medium like television and an interactive one like games is at the heart of what makes these adaptations so difficult. “With film and television, every moment is precious. If something doesn’t serve the overall narrative, it’s going to get cut,” says Sam Winkler, Senior Writer at Gearbox Entertainment, creators of the Borderlands series, most recently Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, a wacky Dungeons & Dragons-inspired adventure through the mind. of a cheerful teenage psychopath. “In games there’s a lot more room to breathe, and I think that’s why comedy has such a different flavor. In Borderlands we have to be prepared for the player to do something weird in the middle of the main story, we have to be prepared for a joke to pop up at any moment, and it has to read well in any situation.”
As a result, the best adaptations are often those that focus on channeling the atmosphere of the original game, rather than obsessing over its plot. “Those that people have responded well to, like the TV series Castlevania, take the setting and the characters and try to give viewers the feeling that players had the first time they played these games, without sticking to the story. Winkler says. . “That’s the biggest mistake anyone makes, and I’m honestly surprised people keep making it, it’s kind of wild. Of course, it all depends on how something is greenlit: is it a passion project from someone who played the games and wants to bring it to life? Or an executive who realizes that games make more money than movies and says we have to get a piece of it? It’s sad when a project is a cash grab. You can always tell when the people behind a project care and understand the source material.”
Most people in the games industry echo this cautious skepticism when it comes to adaptations, and it’s not unwarranted. Game developers, long sponsored by the rest of the entertainment industry, are wondering what motivation the television world has to do their stories justice. I hear several stories of pain-deaf releases from production companies that have no idea what a studio’s games were all about. “A team put together a sneak peek for a proposed adaptation of The Last of Us that was this B-movie, slasher/horror in the nose,” says Straley. “It was beyond his conception that a post-apocalyptic game could generate genuine emotions.”
It’s true that games haven’t always had the kind of stories or characters that provoke thought or empathy (has anyone given much thought to the motivations of Doom’s demon-slaying super-soldier?). But these days they do, another reason, perhaps, why the television world is showing more interest. The challenge now for people making game-based shows isn’t pulling a good script out of paper-thin plots; it’s to honor the genuine emotional connection players feel when they’re in a character’s shoes, with a gamepad in their hands.
“The most amazing and the most difficult thing about games is the interactivity,” says Straley. “It’s so powerful to be able to take the player into a world and let them create an experience of their own. I really think there is a different mental wiring and a different connection than when we sit in front of a television. With this power comes a lot of problems for developers. It’s one of the hardest mediums to work with, if you care about telling a quality story, and if you really think about what it takes to make a good story in a game, it’s pretty baffling that it ever works! But when he does, it’s pure magic.
“We have to ask ourselves: what is the purpose of a screen adaptation of the game? I don’t want the inferior version of the game experience, I want something that introduces new fans to what makes that game great.”
Resident Evil is on Netflix on July 14; Halo will be at Paramount+ this summer