In 1993, Super Mario Bros became the first mainstream movie adaptation of a video game. Starring Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as Mario Mario and Luigi Mario respectively, the film was a failure critically and commercially, with Hoskins telling The Guardian in 2007 that it was the worst thing he ever did.
Thirty years later, movie and TV adaptations of video games are now the darlings of Hollywood. The success of The Last of Us has all but guaranteed that Hollywood producers will be mining video game libraries with the same enthusiasm as record producers waving hot pants and label contracts outside the Neighbours stage door post-Kylie.
But how did we go from video games as something for kids to rot their brains with, to the source material for the biggest prestige drama of 2023? That’s the question being asked by many culture critics who have neglected video games for decades, only to have this golden age sneak up on them.
Kiki Wolfkill is no stranger to games or TV. She’s been working in game development since the Nineties, and was executive producer on the Halo 4 video game. She’s now executive producer on the Halo TV series, and spoke to me from the set of the second season in Budapest. She says it’s about time Hollywood started to take games seriously as a narrative medium. “I think it’s unfortunate it’s taken Hollywood so long to recognise the depth and the richness of these game worlds. The level of complexity, history, depth and detail that goes into building these worlds in some ways, because it’s been sustained for so long, can be a lot deeper.
“We’ve spent our careers as game developers designing worlds for people to fall in love with and stay with for decades. I think that was something that Hollywood just didn’t do the work to understand.”
There are a lot of reasons for ‘why now?’. Studies, like the IGEA Digital Australia report, show that seventeen million Australians play games, with the average player aged thirty-five. The games industry makes more money than the film and music industries combined. Plus, while it’s really only been this year that video game adaptations seem to have gone full mainstream, there’s been more than a decade of high quality, well-reviewed box-office successes like Detective Pikachu, the Resident Evil franchise, Sonic the Hedgehog and Tomb Raider.
Of course, the more cynical online pundits will suggest that it’s because Hollywood has just run out of old movies to reboot, or beautiful animated films to turn into photorealistic nightmares. Wolfkill can also see it from that perspective. “I do think you [can] see a trend in Hollywood right now where new ideas are much harder to come by. When you have a medium that has suddenly exploded in terms of the demand, the amount of television that people need to be out there right now is exponentially bigger than it used to be. Not to mention, the platforms where people can engage in this content. So, in some ways, it’s not a surprise that the independent, creative and new IPs and new ideas are having a hard time keeping up with how much content is being put out there right now.”
Roar Uthaug, director of the 2018 adaptation of Tomb Raider, agrees with Wolfkill. “There is more respect for video games out there, [there’s] more to draw from than there has been before, at least going way back. But definitely also it’s the IP aspect of it — that it has this built-in audience and it has a name or a character that the general audience have heard about or have a relationship with. So, it’s easier in the marketing for a movie and getting people to see it.”
The truth is that video games have had narratives for as long as technology has been able to support them. Video games are uniquely qualified to tell stories in ways that completely immerse the player. Games bridge that divide between books and movies — main characters are presented visually on screen, but the player can often change their appearance to suit their own imagination and preferences. And, much like books, they are rich in detail and source material, with a rhythm that’s unique to the medium. Translating all that nuance into film is impossible.
Games bridge that divide between books and movies — main characters are presented visually on screen, but the player can often change their appearance to suit their own imagination and preferences.
Unlike other mediums, the audience (in this case the player) has some control of the narrative (and maybe even other characters). Linear stories like The Last Of Us and Tomb Raider have some element of choice, but the big beats are always going to be the same. However, in an RPG (role-playing game) like Cyberpunk, or a first-person shooter like Halo (to an extent), player choice is a huge mechanic, and your game experience is unique to you. For games like Halo, it means that your personal playing style will influence how the main character Master Chief handles different situations. Players of Cyberpunk 2077 and other RPGs will have completely different appearances, backstories, middles, and endings in their games compared to their friends — making single-narrative screen adaptations all the trickier.
For Bartosz Sztybor, Comic Book and Animation Narrative Director at CD Projekt RED and screenwriter on the award-winning Cyberpunk Edgerunners show on Netflix, it was a reason to leave the character of V to the games, and instead tell new stories in the adapted world.
“The biggest challenge is to find the essence of the IP. To learn what are the core elements of the game, starting with the philosophical concepts and rules behind this imaginary world and ending with visual style and NPC (non-playable character) behaviour. You need to know if this world is a postmodern reality, a cynical commentary or a realistic reportage. How people joke in this IP, what’s their approach to morality and what their wildest dreams and worst nightmares are.”
That’s the same approach taken by the makers of the recent Dungeons and Dragons movie. Tabletop RPGs and MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) have expansive worlds built on rules, mechanics and lore, but give the players almost complete freedom. That allows writers to make up whatever story they want, as long as it fits within the established lore and doesn’t break any key rules. MMORPGs and tabletop RPGs are, at their core, structured make-believe where players collaboratively tell a story.
In much the same vein, children’s video games have always leant themselves to the more easy-going adaptations, that original Super Mario movie aside. In the games, Mario is a plumber who frequently saves a princess from a redheaded leather daddy. A turtle-ish creature that walks on its hind legs. But Mario is also a tennis player, champion fighter, Olympic competitor in every sport, and kart racer. And while he is one of the most recognisable characters of all time, few could tell you much about his personality beyond “Italian” and “collects coins”. That gives writers more freedom, but also a level of pressure — given the significance the character holds in so many childhood memories.
While he is one of the most recognisable characters of all time, few could tell you much about his personality beyond “Italian” and “collects coins”. That gives writers more freedom.
The same goes for Sonic the Hedgehog. Casual gamers will be aware of his propensity for speed, his love of golden rings, and the fact that he looks nothing like a hedgehog. But unless they’ve played the most recent Sonic Frontiers games, they wouldn’t know too much about Sonic’s backstory or personality without watching the animated TV show, reading the comics, or watching the two hit movies.
The lack of consistency in the source material can be both a blessing and a curse. There is no such thing as a good script that’s easy to write. But, for Wolfkill, the biggest difference is the amount of expectation and venom in the fanbase. “I think so much of it has to do with audience expectation and how flexible an audience will be to see a game world brought to life differently,” she explained.
To her, the best example is Detective Pikachu. “How I feel about Pikachu is love, excitement and adventure, but really just love for this adorable character. So, as long as I get that, [I’m happy]. I don’t have a deep understanding of Pokémon lore, so there’s nothing to break there for me. For a lot of younger audiences, that’s probably true as well. What they cue off of are the emotions and not necessarily the details of canon. So, I think that in some ways makes it easier. Or at least the audience can be more accepting of what they’re going to get.”
She says that adult audiences have more complex emotional ties to the characters and lore of their favourite games. “I mean, that’s kind of the whole point of some of these games, to build a complex emotional connection to what you’re experiencing from a gameplay perspective. So that tie is harder to break. But it’s a firmer understanding and expectation, so if you go in a different direction from that I think it can feel more tangible.”
In all interviews for this story, when asked what the hardest part of taking a video game story to another medium was, each of the interviewees pinpointed the fanbases. Three distinctly different games, genres and mediums (live action TV, live action movie, and anime), and all three jumped straight to audience expectations as the most challenging aspect.
Sztybor says you just have to tune those expectations out. “It’s better not to think about expectations because there’ll always be someone who’s unhappy. If the story is true to the world and you’re pouring your heart into it, everything should be fine. As a writer, I’m never a cynic who thinks what percentage of this or that element I should put into the story to make someone happy. If you love the world you’re creating, then you know what you’re doing. You’re a fan too, so it’s about your expectations as well.”
However, not all fan reactions are bad. Uthaug had a positive experience. “In general, I found the fans really supportive and excited for the movie. And also when the trailers came out, and they saw she had a pickaxe like she has in the game, they were like ‘woohoo!’ and to me, that was really inspiring. Maybe it also is a different time now, where everything’s more polarised than five years ago. But I really didn’t feel that fan heat that I can see online these days.”
The other thing creators have to balance is how explicitly they acknowledge the source material’s original medium. Some critics questioned the decision to not include dice, or game mechanics like ‘Inspiration’ in the Dungeons and Dragons movie. In Tomb Raider, Uthaug included some small nods to the gameplay, like puzzles and slow-motion moments that players would recognise as ‘quick time’ events. But still, he felt the need to keep the mediums separate. “I don’t think I thought that much about the fact that we were making a video game movie when we were making it. I think it was just certain shots that I thought were cool to bring from the video games. It’s like you’re behind Lara and she’s running or stuff like that, where you’re in the point of view that you would have in the game.”
Whatever the challenges, and whatever the reasons, movie-goers and TV audiences are in for a deluge of game adaptations in the coming years, with dozens of iconic game franchises set to make the jump to a new medium. Basically every big PlayStation exclusive title from Gran Turismo to Ghost of Tsushima is in production, and there are screen versions of Minecraft, Duke Nukem and Borderlands coming in the not-too-distant future.
The big benefit of this will be that potential new players and fans will be given a choice of ways to enter these worlds. However, it will be interesting to see whether this rush to make more adaptations will change which kinds of narrative games get greenlit, and how new players are introduced to iconic game worlds. Will this mean more big narrative games will get made? Or will it make video game executives more conservative in their choices, overlooking the “weird” games that ‘could only ever be games’, in favour of those IPs that lend themselves to bigger, splashier adaptations? Only time will tell.
This article features in the June-August 2023 issue of Rolling Stone AU/NZ. If you’re eager to get your hands on it, then now is the time to sign up for a subscription.
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