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4 Reasons Video Game Adaptations Fail

By July 13, 2017No Comments


By: Beverly Peders

For those screenwriters who play video games or have discovered the wonders of Twine, a free interactive and non-linear story mapping site, you may have teased the idea of adapting a favorite video game to film. Sounds easy enough, right? Yet ever since the Super Mario Bros film in 1993, video game films have never received higher than a 44% on Rotten Tomatoes or a 58 on Metacritic.

Last year, Assassin’s Creed was supposed to be the savior of this cursed genre, but fell short despite A-list actors, incredible visual effects, and an estimated 125 million dollar budget. A fan writing for the Quartz  blames it on nauseous amounts of exposition which led to a lack of character and abandonment of a decent storyline.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter was this year’s hopeful glimmer on the horizon as it followed a disappointing Assassin’s Creed. I heard a lot of excitement about the cast and anticipation for better visual effects, yet this most current installment had the lowest debut of the franchise. A good number of critics said that the film franchise has become a cliché action flick that no longer stays true to the video games. While every adaptation has their own problems, what needs to be addressed is why we are intent on beating a dead business strategy and what we writers can do to avoid bad box office results.

The Gameplay

Forbes boiled it down to a problem with connecting to the audience. Intently playing a video game and munching on popcorn in a recliner are two different mindsets that don’t seem to be addressed by adaptors. While each cut scene or further development of plot is earned in a video game, strengthening the bond of player to their character, a movie doesn’t grip the audience’s attention in the same way. It makes it even harder when exposition which is cleverly spread over weeks of gameplay, has to shrink into two hours of screen time. For some writers the exposition seems unavoidable, but adapting books to movies is beyond that speedbump. Unlike with video games, book adapted movies lead to higher sales in books as people want to read it before they watch. However with video games, there is more time and effort put into playing and completing the game that not many will explore the world before watching if they haven’t already.

The Characters

Reviews commonly complain about weak or gutted characters that are shells of their video game selves. With DLC, comics, and other media video game worlds and their characters can spread into, its very difficult to fully flesh out a character in the short span of one film. Granted these are two different mediums and they do not translate perfectly. How the player’s character interacts with NPCs can also affect how the NPC reacts later and their character. This makes them more organic in a way films can’t and shouldn’t attempt to replicate. Choices make video games unique and films need to acknowledge that it’s important to reference, but difficult to do perfectly.  

The Fan-base

What can also harm any adaptation is the relationship of the film with the fan base. Most likely if the video game is worth having a film, it has a strong fan base. Everyone will have already made YouTube videos of their own dream cast and theories as to how awesome the movie will be. You can’t please them all. While it could be a huge factor in the films popularity, as a writer and adaptor you need to compromise. No matter what the fans disagree on, there’s one thing they all did — become enthralled with the world and characters enough to debate it and create art. Never ignore the fan base. While I don’t recommend reading fanfiction or wondering how you can appease all the shippers, if you don’t play the game or invest in the storyline, you need to know what worked and what didn’t work in the game. While there is always a chance what didn’t work in the game can work in the film, most likely an unsavory plot point or character attribute will sour the fan’s experience of your adaptation.

To clarify, you should always write for the story and not for the audience. If you focus on the story, then the audience should fall into place. With adaptations, fans are always something to be mindful of. A recommendation I have is, if you know someone who’s a fan, ask them out to lunch or coffee and pick their brain. Or play the game yourself! Engage in online discussion to discover more of what fans find intriguing or controversial enough to talk about.

The World

There are no rules for adapting a video game for film. The previously cited Forbes article suggests an open-world game, like Bethesda’s Fallout, would work best for screenwriters since they have many characters and plots to choose from. After all, the content and culture of the world is usually what draws in players. However, as a fan of BioWare’s Dragon Age, I watched both Felcia Day’s Dragon Age: Redemption and the animated Dragon Age: Dawn of the Seeker. While Redemption was a low budget mini-series, my sister and I enjoyed the numerous nods to the gameplay despite the story lacking and the laughable graphics. Dawn of the Seeker was clearly more canon and much better in all aspects. It fleshed out the backstory of a Dragon Age: Inquisition character, Cassandra (Allegra Portia Calogera Filomena) Pentaghast.  What I believe both these films do right is that they completely ignored the main quest line of the games. Dawn of the Seeker delved into a character’s past and Redemption explored the Mage and Templar tension. No fans got hurt because instead of comparing their glorified playthroughs to a budget-strict film, they experienced new information and more expansion in the world and culture they have attached to. With open world games like The Elder Scrolls, creating a separate story and expanding the world is completely do-able.

What’s Next

The human spirit is just as resilient as video game companies are to put their stories on the silver screen. Despite statistics stacked against them, there’s another Tomb Raider scheduled for 2018 and a Minecraft movie as well as an Angry Birds 2 set to premiere in 2019. While Minecraft definitely piques interest, The Angry Birds Movie from 2016 didn’t send all audiences home happy. Will one of those become the adaptation that breaks the curse? Or is that your claim to fame?