What an age we’re living in. Like many of you, I’ve finished watching Netflix’s amazing series, The Witcher. Between the amazing performances, the gritty world-building, and damn catchy “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” song, something dawned on me: I was watching a video game adaptation. A modern “blockbuster” series which won over the entire world.
This is something that’s been at the back of my mind, and something I want to discuss in this post: a “next big thing” in film and television moment. Potentially, something that could be as big as the superhero genre in years to come – and I think we’re at the start of it. So just why are we seeing a rise in video game adaptations?
To answer that, we’re first going to get context for some of the major hurdles the genre had to tackle.
SO, YOU WANT A VIDEO GAME MOVIE?
Video game movies have had a real weird history, more in the West than Japan.
For the most part, Japanese media was able to better adapt out-there sci-fi and fantasy games for the big screen. We got strange animated adaptations of trademark characters like Super Mario Bros. Peach-Hime Kyushutsu Dai Sakusen! (1986) and Sonic the Hedgehog (OVA) (1996).
Around this time in the 80s and 90s we also got American animated series for younger audiences: Sonic Sat Am, Captain N: The Game Master, Legend of Zelda, etc. These were designed more for marketing purposes than anything else – heck, Captain N suddenly introduced a new character called Game Boy … the console itself was a character! Bet you could never guess what that was promoting …
Of course, by far the biggest one that made it successfully to the west was Pokémon as a 4Kidz dub of the original Japanese series, even seeing major theatrical releases across the US.
But these were more animated stuff exclusive for younger demos to sell merch and games. The battle for the big screen was insane. On the one hand you got more marketing like 1989’s The Wizard, which saw three young kids on a road trip to Universal Studios to become the greatest video game champion of all time. It also introduced the NES “Power Glove,” and appropriately described it as “so bad.”
But starting with 1993’s Super Mario Bros. The Movie we got the first story adaptation of a globally popular video game. This was a film that was universally panned by critics and audiences and raised questions about how you even adapt a video game for a mainstream audience.
Now, although everybody loves to pick apart this film, it wasn’t an easy adaptation. The original game is a platformer about getting to the end of a level, jumping on monsters, and rescuing a princess. It’s a fine game, but again, the emotional engagement comes from the gameplay; not the story.
We all remember the frustration of not beating Bowser, or joy at getting to the end of a level and hearing the victory music. But the appeal of video games had very little to do with the story. You aren’t invested in the character journey, you aren’t invested in the emotional stakes in Space Invaders or the relationships in Legend of Zelda, or even the marriage struggles of Pac-Man and Mrs Pac-Man – it’s purely about gameplay.
Especially back then, games were just 8-bit pixels with maybe some context in the manual; that made it all incredibly difficult to adapt for a blockbuster family film.
This is an issue that often occurred with games-to-movies back in the day. Street Fighter, Double Dragon, Mortal Kombat, Wing Commander, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Doom – just go on Rotten Tomatoes and see how consistently low these scores are. If you watch any of them, they fail to live up to the video game experience because the story engine is fundamentally different.
But as the technology improved, so did our ability to tell stories in interactive media. You could create vast worlds and conflicts, and have the visuals to back it up. From just a visual standpoint, playing a game is a far greater cinematic experience now than there could have ever been in 1986. Funnily enough, there are rumours of a Zelda series in development following the popularity of Breath of the Wild.
Then something interesting happened in 2010; an adaptation of aesthetics, with original stories.
AN AESTHETIC REVIVAL
The 2010s saw some weird developments in video game media, namely due to 80s nostalgia. The same decade that saw a rise in retro gaming, esports, and Let’s Plays also saw a rise in what I call “Pixel-aesthetic.”
We got movies that drew upon the video game aesthetic, whilst adding an original story for different audiences. We got Adam Sandler’s Pixels which was heavily marketed with an 80s pixelated Pac-Man in the posters, and even Disney’s Wreck-It-Ralph movies drew heavily on video game tropes and genres. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle also incorporated a video game mythos without ever having been a retro cartridge-based game. Interestingly, neither were adaptations. They just drew on the medium.
Perhaps the most poignant commentary on this was Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018), about a group of misfit nerds who live in a VR world that is inexplicably obsessed with all things 80s – most notably, video games.
The films that did try and adapt the game narratives often fell flat with critics and audiences. Perhaps the most significant being Warcraft, which failed to meet studio expectations as the next big fantasy franchise … despite winning over the Chinese market. Then you had the Angry Birds movies which sadly came too late to capitalise off of the mobile game’s relevance.
We even had adaptations that hardly even connected to their video games like Rampage (2018); a film more focused on its star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson than the glitchy pixelated NES game it drew from.
In fact, the biggest hit that that drew in a mainstream audience was the Detective Pikachu movie; amazingly winning over critics and audiences worldwide as a true “Video Game Blockbuster,” setting the stage for our current era of filmmaking.
WHY VIDEO GAME BLOCKBUSTERS ARE THE NEXT BIG THING
This year we have two properties gaining a ton of hype, and they’re part of a bigger movement in Hollywood. I’m referring to The Witcher and the upcoming Sonic the Hedgehog movie.
As with Detective Pikachu these have a real budget, star power, and a respect for the source material. In the case of Witcher it captured the gritty fantasy world from the acclaimed video game series, and in the case of Sonic, Paramount directly responded to fan criticism after the first trailer and has since managed to build hype prior to its February release.
Now, I’m not going to predict that Sonic will have as much “depth” as The Witcher (although I never rule anything out after The Lego Movie) but at the very least looks like a loyal-enough adaptation from the SEGA series. Bad Guy = Eggman. Good Guy = Sonic. Hijinks. Puns. Family Fun. Etc. It looks like it will deliver what it promises with a radical 90s ‘tude.
But this is only the beginning. We have upcoming video game movies on Uncharted, Monster Hunter, Minecraft and Doom slated for release in the first half of the decade, with more to come no doubt in development.
The question is, why now? What separates adaptations like Sonic the Hedgehog and The Witcher from Super Mario Bros. and Mortal Kombat?
It all boils down to audience and social media.
THE AGE OF CONVERGENCE
We live in a world where video games are becoming more cinematic and attracting countless views on platforms like Twitch and YouTube. There is a market here, and Hollywood sniffs blood.
Not only that, but there’s a greater push for interactive media. There were interactive experiments with the Sega CD, but ultimately the technology just wasn’t there yet. Of course, we have successes Black Mirror: Bandersnatch as a game/movie hybrid and then we recently have Erica – an acclaimed PS4 title that incorporates immersive cinematic elements with real-time choices. Video games are no longer pixels and synth noises; now, they can create a full cinematic experience; and with that makes it easier to adapt.
As for the audience, we have generations who’ve grown up with arcade and home console gaming – a nostalgia draw that just wasn’t there in the early console generations. There were Saturday Morning Cartoons, sure, but studios wouldn’t invest multi-millions into a Sonic the Hedgehog movie back then – especially after the dismal Super Mario Bros. Movie.
The 80s and 90s had a video game boom following the release of the NES, but now the audience has changed too. You can now watch your favourite YouTubers do Let’s Plays before watching the same movie on-demand. Based on YouTube Rewind 2019, Fortnite got 60.9B views, and Minecraft a staggering 100.2B views!
Imagine watching a YouTuber show off their latest Minecraft creation, before playing Minecraft Earth on your smartphone, as you stream Minecraft: The Movie on your 5G network … all from the same device! That’s a market convergence that was practically unfathomable in the time of the home video market, and something studios are taking note of. If there’s anything to get Gen Z from PC consoles to theatres, this is it.
It a solid market for Hollywood to tap into, and no doubt could be the start of a new era of franchises.