Chances are your favorite video game will become a movie or TV show.
Thanks in large part to the efforts of PlayStation Productions and the success of movies like sonic the hedgehog and TV shows like Esoteric, there will only be more adaptations of your favorite video games to come. We have reached a sort of climax with The last of us on HBO, a premium television version of one of the most famous video game titles. It’s got legit stars, a big budget, Chernobyl showrunner at the helm, and rakes in viewers. Only three episodes have aired as of this writing, but it’s already poised to succeed, both in terms of ratings and critical accolades.
It’s great for the game’s reputation as a medium that audiences without prior knowledge can enjoy one of our most famous games in a way that, so far, generally succeeds in translating its narrative into a episodic format on the small screen. It proves to people who haven’t played a single video game that they can tell great stories. For everyone else, adaptations are still struggling to circumvent what makes video games such a compelling narrative medium: storytelling enhanced by interactivity.
Prior to The last of usfrom, showrunner Craig Mazin and The last of us co-director Neil Druckmann has made the rounds in mainstream media touting that this is the “greatest story ever told” in video games and will finally break the curse of the video game adaptation , although it hasn’t been for about a decade now. Much of the focus has been on storytelling, which makes sense as the show’s foundation is built on game-exact story beats with the promise that it will expand on them throughout the season. .
In the video game as in the series, The last of us begins with chaos. We’re put into the perspective of Sarah, a teenage girl from Texas who, along with her father Joel and uncle Tommy, tries to escape what becomes known as Outbreak Day. The mysterious infection had been building for some time, causing people to act aggressively, and the day of the outbreak is when everything boils over. Sarah sees lines of police cars with their sirens on and people running around screaming. She gets in the car with Joel and Tommy, and from the back seat, we see things escalate, culminating in a literally explosive setting where several planes are falling from the sky.
In-game, having the player sit in Sarah’s seat instead of Joel’s is a way to immediately take control away from them. Games are about control – what you have influence over, what you don’t, and what that means – and literally putting you in the back seat as the world crumbles shows how the situation outside is dire. Even when you finally get some semblance of control later in the game, you can’t drastically change your circumstances. The problem is too vast and overwhelming to be handled by one person. Even though you can walk through an infected horde, you haven’t destroyed the outbreak. There will be more threats in the future.
Games are particularly good at conveying this kind of terror. Since the player has some semblance of power over the experience, developers can either remove interactivity or increase it to elicit different emotional responses. Where The Last of Us games have always shined is in producing a dark atmosphere that weighs on the story, and that by removing player agency during pivotal moments. This opening scene is a prime example, so it’s no surprise that the HBO team is doing a shot-for-shot remake for the adaptation’s pilot episode.
However, what even the best video game adaptations lack, either due to medium constraints or ignorance, is the way power dynamics fit together with a game’s narrative. in games isn’t just in dialogue or storytelling. It takes into account interactive elements to tell this story, to convey to the player a point about the world that he will probably inhabit for tens of hours. The last of us may copy scenes from the game, but that does not mean that their resonance will fully translate.
Resolution for interactivity
The challenge of a great video game adaptation is to find a way to fill in the gaps that appear when the interactive element is removed. It’s a tricky balancing act, as it means directors have to find a way to appeal to an unfamiliar audience while still paying appropriate homage to the source material. Incorporating the “gamey” aspects of video games is hard to do, but some adaptations may have done it well.
Detective Pikachu is the gold standard for this. He understands that most people in the audience know how Pokémon games work and incorporate that, whether it’s with visual background gags or major plot points about Tim not having a Pokémon partner. The Sonic the Hedgehog films incorporate the core element of its gameplay – that the hedgehog runs fast – while utilizing its long-running plot and colorful cast of characters. Sonic never talked about his backstory, but the beats are so established that you can do whatever you want as long as you follow the basics.
Meanwhile, Esoteric goes in the opposite direction and removes almost all references to League of Legends playability. Considering the game is almost entirely gameplay and little narrative minus what you get from character stories, this was the right move. Viewers always have the joy of seeing familiar faces in an original story. The creators understood that it would be difficult to adapt League of Legends on his own and instead played with whatever other stories he might tell in-universe.
Another way adaptations have tried to pay homage to the source material is to focus on visual influence with varying degrees of success. The Halo The TV show filmed portions of its Spartan battles from a first-person perspective in an effort to replicate the gameplay (creating some of the only entertaining aspects of the show’s first season). Halo has a lot of issues stemming from the way it crafted its own narrative away from the games – and does it poorly with a chosen generic story and gun-to-the-face subtlety – but it also doesn’t understand what made the games so loved in the first place. Halo could never have been a faithful adaptation because it shines in its gameplay, not its storytelling or visuals. The show’s team failed to figure out how to get around this problem in its first season.
In a way, it’s an impossible task for studios and streaming services to replicate. Movies and TV are static mediums that capture the imagination and keep you focused, unlike video games. However, adaptation teams can do better to recognize what makes video games unique and why they are worth adapting for other audiences. While the mainstream media is starting to catch up with what gamers have known for decades, it’s not enough at this point in 2023. We’re still getting adaptations that miss the most important thing.
The medium is able to combine interactivity, traditional storytelling, gameplay, design, production, art, and everything in between to create a singular work of art that can delight millions of players. And it can go further and extend to other mediums, if only others have understood it.
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