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By Jack Wentworth-Weedon on

Why do video game adaptations fail?

Ahead of the Yorkshire Games Festival in February, festival coordinator Jack has been looking at why the two art forms of film and video games often don’t mix well—and how there may be a brighter future just on the horizon.

I have watched a lot of video game films in my time. While the majority are fun, inoffensive popcorn features, most aren’t going to win many awards and they generally don’t make enough money to get a sequel. Whether a film is good or bad is quite subjective, but in the case of video game movies we can objectively say that they fail to match the successes of the franchises they adapt.

Even mega-famous series like Mario, Tomb Raider and Assassin’s Creed have failed to produce film franchises that have matched the successes (and hundreds of millions of sales) that their game counterparts did, yet all have already tried.

Failure #1: Video games are already pretty much films these days

Have you seen a video game recently? In the past 20 to 30 years, games have innovated and progressed from 2D art with text-based narratives to photo-realistic graphics and fully performed characters. Whereas creators were previously limited by technology, with more power and visual clarity available, game developers began to inherit and adapt a filmic style in telling their stories.

Just take a look at this opening cutscene from Final Fantasy VII (1997)—generally regarded as one of the best games ever made.

And now watch the same cutscene in its 2020 remake.

Putting aside the clear improvements in graphics and animation, the same introduction with the same characters is told in an entirely different way, without changing the story. If video games are becoming—or already are—cinematic in nature, then why would audiences want to sit through a diluted two-hour version of a narrative that they’ve already experienced?

Failure #2: Moving backwards

Video games are difficult to translate because the joy of games is interactivity and choices you can make that affect the story. The idea of making a film based on a video game could be seen as inherently flawed, as games give the player more than the older form of cinema.

Just as film combined music and images to create an engaging new art form, gaming takes moving images and combines it with participation, puzzles and cooperation. Both film and gaming have their place, as do music and still images, but when you try and adapt backwards you take away the elements that contribute to the whole experience. Making a film version of a game like Breath of the Wild would be like trying to capture Forrest Gump through the medium of music or with a painting.

Video game scene with various characters assembled on a grassy space before a skull-shaped cave entrance
Breath of the Wild (Nintendo)

Not to mention that many of the elements of the story of video games are far more impactful because you are taking part in the story. It is your actions that drive the narrative, the consequences of your choices playing out—the film cannot end without you.

Failure #3: Talent

And then there’s the issue with talent. There is a lot of talent already within games, both ‘behind the screen’ and through celebrated voice and performance artists in their portrayal of beloved characters.

But what happens when you need to adapt that character? In most cases characters are recast because the voice actor simply doesn’t fit the look of the character on screen and in others they may be replaced with a marketable lead actor. What results is a character that hardly ever fits the bill, because it is nearly impossible to cast a character visually, while also trying to get a performance that will match or exceed the one laid out by another veteran voice actor.

Video game films and adaptations in general are also not popular with filmmakers and thus are not attracting high caliber creators. Those that do are few and far between, even though there have been many attempts that have failed to surface—such as Peter Jackson’s Halo project, Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski’s attempt at Bioshock and John Woo’s crack at Metroid. For one reason or another, when a big name gets interested in a game project, something seems to fall apart.

Failure #4: Unfaithfulness

This last point is quite simple, but it is not a simple problem to fix.

Very often, when a video game is adapted into a film, it never quite gets right the level of faithfulness to the original property, which often draws the ire of fans of the game. However, video games are still (incorrectly) seen to be relatively niche and filmmakers will often try and translate the story into something more generic and appealing to a wider audience. They might also keep in a few bits of ‘fan-service’ for the gamers but sometimes it is a little strange…

The problem is that games often have too much plot to be made faithfully into a film. If I were to describe to you part of a game that made me tear up, I’d likely have to summarize the 20 hours of context I’d played through to get to that part. Clearly, that would not make for a good film—because games aren’t designed to be good films, they are designed to be engaging over long periods of time.

Are things starting to change?

Luckily for lovers of both games and film alike, there is a silver lining at the end of all this. Recently, gamers have been blessed with a handful of adaptations that have been actually pretty good. In cinemas we’ve been treated to films that blended live action and CGI in both Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog, which both succeeded as fun family films. We can expect more of that on the way with The Super Mario Bros. Movie this April.

It also turns out that maybe film was not the solution all along, and just like books and comics have in recent years, gaming has finally found its stride in long-form (and big budget) television. This is actually quite natural when you think about it, because it allows for expansive plots and more character development. Game of Thrones was basically a video game anyway, because it went on for hundreds of hours, characters were often on random side-quests, and I’m pretty sure a character re-spawned at one point…

A game character with very long blue braided hair and lots of weapons
Arcane (Netflix)

Fantastic TV shows like Castlevania and Arcane have managed to use animation to capture the thrilling game series they’re based on, telling entirely original stories but remaining faithful to the source material. Most recently, HBO’s The Last Of Us raised the bar for adaptations by working closely with the creators of the game and retelling their (albeit already very cinematic) story set in a post-apocalyptic America. The adaptation boasts stellar early reviews and uncanny portrayals of the lead characters—so let’s just hope that more producers start to see the value in the wonderful stories that games already have the capacity to tell.

A man with a rifle over his shoulder and a younger woman glancing furtively
The Last of Us (HBO)

One comment on “Why do video game adaptations fail?

  1. Must admit THE LAST OF US is a big hit with gamers. Probably the best TV series and series2 yet to come !!!! I only know this because my son Jack is a serious gamer and critic of films. I’m 75 so I’ll take his word for it !

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