Anghus Houvouras on why video game adaptations don’t care about gamers…
You know that game you love? The one your poured hundreds of hours into until your fingers were sore? The one where you completed every side quest, talked to every NPC and read every piece of in game lore to better understand the world you were completely immersed within? Turns out they’re adapting it into a TV show for one of the eight hundred streaming services currently vying for your attention. And you know what? They don’t care if you like it or not.
Video game adaptations are becoming more common as studios and streaming services look for recognizable intellectual properties to turn into movies and shows. Over the last few months there have been announcements for movies and shows based on the Horizon Zero Dawn, The Division, Super Mario Bros. and Dragon’s Lair. The Halo series just concluded its first season and The Last of Us is slated to premiere next year.
The gaming industry is full of great stories and striking visuals that could easily be the foundation for an entertaining series. Unfortunately, gamers often find the adaptations of their favorite games to be lacking, citing a departure from the source material and a lack of fundamental understanding of the lore. But there’s something that a vast majority of gaming enthusiasts don’t consider when discussing the live action version of their favorite video game;
They weren’t made for fans of the game.
In theory, it sounds crazy. Why would a studio invest money in a video game property if they have no interest in making the show or movie appeal to fans of that series? Let’s pull up the map, find the quest marker and see where this journey leads us.
It makes perfect sense that the harshest critics of video game adaptations are fans of the series. They’re the ones who have invested hundreds of hours into the game. Spent countless hours finding every easter egg and finding items that teach them about the deep lore of the game. Completed every side quest and talked to every NPC. They’ve bought the merchandise. Read the novelizations. Watched hundreds of hours of videos about the games discussing the most miniscule details that most casual gamers couldn’t care less about.
So when Hollywood comes a calling, buys the rights and openly declares that the writers and showrunners didn’t bother playing the game, it offends their sensibilities. How can you adapt a video game if you don’t even bother to play the game itself or explore every facet of the fictional universe? The answer is simple.
Video game adaptations aren’t trying to win over fans of the game; they’re trying to find new fans who haven’t played them. They are attempts at using the familiar elements of the intellectual property to attract new viewers. It’s no different than adapting a novel, comic book or Broadway musical. The goal is to take something immensely popular and refashion it for film or television. The harsh reality is that owners of these intellectual properties have already made their money from the gamers. Now they’re looking for new fans in new mediums.
The process of adapting a book, comic, musical or video game can be perilous. Rarely do studios bother obsessing over the details like the most ardent fans. They are very comfortable strip mining the property for the most marketable elements and doing whatever else is required to make the project a success. That can mean making radical changes to characters, completely ignoring story elements and making wholesale changes to decades of established lore.
The only certainty with any adaptation is that it will probably fail to impress the most hardcore fans. Hollywood is very comfortable with this concept.
Take the recent Uncharted movie starring Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg, based on the extremely successful Sony PlayStation franchise. From the moment the project was announced, fans of the game immediately started pointing out ‘glaring errors’ made by the Producers.
“Tom Holland is too young to play Nathan Drake.”
“Why didn’t they cast Nathan Fillion?”
“Why doesn’t Sully have a mustache?”
The choices made by Sony for the movie version of Uncharted was designed to attract potential viewers unfamiliar with the game. while Nathan Fillion would have been a hit with fans, he isn’t exactly the same box office draw and current pop culture phenomenon as the guy who currently plays Spider-Man.
Uncharted is the perfect example of how video game adaptations are engineered to attract new fans. You take the basic elements of the story, borrow some action set pieces from the game and cast A-list talent. There are parts of Uncharted that will be familiar to fans; like the cargo plane sequence used to start the film and brandished on the poster. Those who have played the Uncharted games will probably find the cinematic adaptation of this sequence to be far less thrilling. The movie version will never be as immersive. But for those who have never picked up a controller and played any of the games, this could feel like something original and entertaining.
In the polarizing Paramount+ series Halo, game fans are constantly criticizing the show for moments where the Spartans take off their helmets. In a first person game, where the player experiences the stories through the eyes of a character, there is precious little need to see the character’s face. But on a TV show, the audience might struggle to connect emotionally with characters whose faces are always hidden for the audience. You can spend all day arguing whether these choices are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Fans of musicals can spend hours rightfully telling you everything wrong with movie versions of Phantom of the Opera and Cats. These decisions are not always highly intelligent and a great deal of the time they don’t work out as intended. But once you make the simple that these adaptations are made to appeal to a broader base than fans of the original, they make perfect sense.
Those shepherding these projects from one medium to another are making choices based on what they believe will draw in new viewers. The established fan base of these properties are presumed to already be accounted for. Fans of the game will no doubt watch the Halo show either out of interest or morbid curiosity. It’s those unfamiliar with the franchise that are being sought. If the gamers are happy with the end product, its an added bonus.
Take what is possibly the worst adaptation ever: The Lawnmower Man. An adaptation of a short story by Stephen King that took the author’s notable name and the fact one of the main characters mows lawns and turned it into a 90 minute treatise on the perils of technology with some of the earliest and cringiest FX work of the 1990s. That is what studios are looking for when they adapt video games. They want name recognition and some cool visuals. They want the surface level elements that can be marketed to new fans.
What would be best for fans of the games is to not think of cinematic adaptations as an extension of the thing they love, rather than the mainstream representation of it. I think that’s the aspect that most gamers struggle with; the belief that the movie or show is somehow the ‘legitimate’ iteration of the IP. Something I refer to as ‘medium envy’. This indignation probably stems from the fact that the mainstream media devotes far more time and attention to movies & shows. There is still a level of prestige for cinema and streaming services provided by the media. Video games are still a medium seen by old media as a niche, in spite of the fact that the gaming industry makes more than feature films and streaming services combined. Gamers and gaming culture is still something painfully misunderstood by the media clinging to visions of elderly man-children sitting in dimly lit basements wearing headsets and still cited by crackpot pundits and hack politicians as the potential cause for mass shootings.
So when Hollywood takes these popular games and tries to turn them into the next streaming phenomenon, fans of the game see it as an extension of the thing they love. When in reality, it should be viewed like any other adaptation; an entirely separate entity with only the barest of connections to the thing you love. The existence of a mediocre Uncharted movie shouldn’t lessen your enjoyment of the games. It’s simply a watered down, mass-market version of the thing you like intended for a completely different audience.
I think a lot of gamers would benefit from embracing this philosophy. The number of very popular streamers and creators who seem to be perpetually freaked out by mediocre-to-abhorrent video game adaptations and their lack of adherence to the source material. Accept the fact that Hollywood adaptations are not meant for the gamers… they’re meant for everybody else.