Not too long ago, the concept of a video game adaptation was synonymous with box office poison. Critics and audiences alike scoffed at such “classics” as Street Fighter: The Movie(really creative guys) or Super Mario Bros.(the one without Chris Pratt). But recently, the tide seems to be shifting. Netflix has experienced tremendous success with the likes of Arcane, Castlevania and The Witcher(which is of course, technically based on the books, but I doubt it would have happened if the games weren’t a thing). Sonic the Hedgehog wasn’t outright terrible. Detective Pikachu was actually pretty damn good. And the dam seems to have burst with how many video game properties are now getting adaptations. But have Hollywood truly learned their lesson? Are video game adaptations going the way of superhero movies? I think not.
You see, all these successful adaptations I have mentioned have one thing in common: they are adapting a premise, not a story. To understand what that means, we need to look at the distinction between a story that’s good because of it’s premise, and one that’s good because it’s execution. Take The Sopranos, for example. It’s arguably one of the finest stories ever told in any visual medium, but, if I were to reduce it to it’s most basic plot elements, it’s just tale about a guy who’s a dad and also a criminal. The important part here lies in the execution, and if you were to adapt it to another medium, there’s no guarantee that any of what makes it good would carry over. Now, let’s look at Battlestar Galactica, which is another amazing story. It’s also a story that has been told twice already, and is about to be retold again, because, while a lot of what makes it great lies in the execution(at least as far as the Ron Moore version is concerned), it’s also a fundamentally interesting premise. Now let’s look at some video game adaptations. Tomb Raider? The premise is “Indiana Jones, but this time it’s a lady”. Not exactly thrilling stuff. Yet there have been two separate attempts at making it into a movie, both unsuccessful( which is a shame, because Alicia Vikander made for an excellent Lara Croft). Uncharted? “Lara Croft but she’s a dude”. Which in turn means that the upcoming Uncharted movie, is, um, bootleg Indiana Jones, I guess? If you adapt video games who’s premise is basic or unoriginal enough that your execution of it has to do all the heavy lifting, you’re probably going to fail.
Another thing all successful video game adaptations have in common is that they’re not adapting stories that have already been told. Arcane is taking the characters from League of Legends and telling a story based on their written lore. Castlevania and Detective Pikachu took some basic plot points from their source material and put their own spin on it. Sonic the Hedgehog is based on a franchise who’s “plot” is 90% catchphrases and 10% incomprehensible gibberish. Unlike books or comics, video games are already a visual medium. And when it comes to modern video games in particular, they’re not that far off from movies in terms of quality.
The point of an adaptation is to transpose a story to another medium, in order to tell it from a different perspective, or with a different focus. If you’re “adapting” something that’s already well made, recent enough to be accessible to your audience, and told through the same medium, what exactly is the incentive for your audience to not simply go experience the original? What are you bringing to the table that’s new? Is experiencing Assassins Creed with all the fun bits cut out really worth the price of admission?
So, what video games should be adapted to live action then? Well, the list is pretty big. Games which lack in visual storytelling, either because of the technical limitations of the time, or because of the constraints of their genre. Games with a great premise or interesting worldbuilding, but a limited narrative component. Games which draw more from literature than movies in terms of how they approach their stories( the upcoming Disco Elysium adaptation is a good example). Ultimately, there’s no shortage of good video games to draw inspiration from. Just, for the love of god, make sure it’s at least a better experience than just watching the game’s cutscenes on Youtube.