Why Video Game Adaptations Don’t Care About Players

Anghus Houvouras explains why video game adaptations don’t care about players…

You know that game you love? The one you poured hundreds of ours into until your fingers were sore? The one where you completed all the side quests, talked to all the NPCs, and read every part of the game’s lore to better understand the world you were completely immersed in? 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 seek out recognizable intellectual properties to turn into movies and shows. Over the past few months, there have been announcements of movies and shows based on the Horizon Zero Dawn, The division, Super Mario Bros. and dragon’s lair. The Halo series just finished its first season and The last of us is scheduled to premiere next year.

The gaming industry is full of great stories and striking visuals that could easily form the basis of an entertaining series. Unfortunately, gamers often find adaptations of their favorite games lacking, citing a deviation from the source material and a lack of fundamental understanding of lore. But there’s something a vast majority of gaming enthusiasts don’t consider when discussing the live-action version of their favorite video game;

They are not made for fans of the game.

In theory, that sounds crazy. Why would a studio invest money in a video game property if it has no interest in making the show or movie appeal to fans of that show? Let’s go back up the map, find the quest marker, and see where this journey takes us.

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It makes perfect sense that the harshest critics of video game adaptations are fans of the series. They are the ones who have invested hundreds of hours in the game. I have spent countless hours finding each Easter egg and finding items that teach them the game’s deep lore. Completed all side quests and talked to all the NPCs. They bought the merchandise. Read the novelizations. Watched hundreds of hours of gaming videos discussing the finer details that most casual gamers don’t care less about.

So when Hollywood comes calling, buys the rights, and openly states that the writers and showrunners haven’t bothered to play along, it offends their sensibilities. How can you adapt a video game if you don’t even bother to play the game itself or explore all the facets of the fictional universe? The answer is simple.

Video game adaptations don’t try to win over fans of the game; they try to find new fans who haven’t played them. These are attempts to use familiar elements of IP to attract new viewers. It’s no different than adapting a novel, a comic book, or a Broadway musical. The goal is to take something hugely popular and reshape it for film or TV. The harsh reality is that the owners of these intellectual properties have already made their money from gamers. Now they are looking for new fans in new media.

The process of adapting a book, comic, musical or video game can be perilous. Few studios bother to obsess over the details like the most ardent fans. They are very comfortable strip mining the property for the most marketable items and doing whatever is necessary to make the project a success. This can mean making drastic changes to characters, ignoring story elements altogether, and making sweeping changes to decades of established lore.

The only certainty with any adaptation is that it’s unlikely to impress even the most hardcore fans. Hollywood is very comfortable with this concept.

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Take the recent Unexplored movie starring Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg, based on Sony PlayStation’s hugely successful franchise. As soon as the project was announced, fans of the game immediately pointed out “glaring mistakes” made by the producers.

“Tom Holland is too young to play Nathan Drake.”
“Why didn’t they choose Nathan Fillion?”
“Why doesn’t Sully have a mustache?”

The choices made by Sony for the cinema version of Unexplored was designed to appeal to potential viewers unfamiliar with the game. while Nathan Fillion would have been a hit with fans, he’s not exactly the same box office draw and current pop culture phenomenon as the guy. who currently plays Spider-Man.

Unexplored is the perfect example of how video game adaptations are designed to attract new fans. You take the basic story elements, borrow a few action pieces from the game, and toss some top talent. There are parts of Unexplored which will be familiar to fans; like the cargo plane sequence used to start the film and brandished on the poster. Those who played the Unexplored games will likely find the film adaptation of this sequence far less exciting. The movie version will never be so immersive. But for those who have never picked up a controller and played any of the games, it might seem like something original and entertaining.

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In the Paramount+ polarizing series Halo, gaming fans keep criticizing the series for moments where the Spartans take off their helmets. In a first-person game, where the player experiences stories through a character’s eyes, there is little need to see the character’s face. But on a TV show, audiences can struggle to connect emotionally with characters whose faces are always hidden from view. You can spend all day wondering if these choices are “good” or “bad”. Fans of musicals can spend hours rightly telling you everything that’s wrong with the movie versions of The Phantom of the Opera and Cats. These decisions aren’t always very smart, and most of the time they don’t work out as expected. But once you make it clear that these adaptations are made to appeal to a wider base than the fans of the original, they make perfect sense.

Those running these projects from one medium to another make choices based on what they think will attract new viewers. The established fanbase of these properties is presumed to have already been catered for. Fans of the game will undoubtedly watch the Halo show either out of interest or morbid curiosity. It is those who do not know the franchise who are wanted. If players are happy with the end product, that’s an added bonus.

Take what is possibly the worst adaptation ever: lawn mower man. An adaptation of a Stephen King short story that took the author’s notable name and one of the main characters mowing lawns and turned it into a 90-minute treatise on the perils of technology with some of the oldest and scariest FX work of the 1990s. This is what studios look for when adapting video games. They want name recognition and cool visuals. They want surface-level elements that can be marketed to new fans.

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What would be better for fans of the games is if they didn’t view the film adaptations as an extension of what they love, rather than a traditional representation of it. I think this is the aspect that most players struggle with; the belief that the movie or show is somehow the “legitimate” iteration of the intellectual property. Something I call ‘average envy’. This outrage likely stems from the mainstream media devoting far more time and attention to movies and shows. There is always a level of prestige for cinema and streaming services provided by the media. Video games are still a medium viewed by older media as a niche, despite the fact that the gaming industry does more than feature films and streaming services combined. Gamers and gaming culture are still something painfully misunderstood by the media that clings to visions of elderly man-kids sitting in dimly lit basements wearing headsets and still being quoted by pundits crackpots and hacker politicians as the potential cause of mass shootings.

So when Hollywood takes these popular games and tries to turn them into the next streaming phenomenon, gaming fans see it as an extension of what they love. When in reality it should be considered like any other adaptation; an entirely separate entity with only the smallest of ties to the thing you love. The existence of a mediocre Unexplored the movie should not diminish your enjoyment of the games. It’s simply a watered down, mainstream version of what you love for a completely different audience.

I think a lot of players would benefit from adopting this philosophy. The number of wildly popular streamers and creators who seem to be perpetually freaked out by mediocre to obnoxious video game adaptations and their lack of buy-in to the source material. Accept that Hollywood adaptations aren’t for gamers…they’re for everyone else.

Anghus Houvouras

About Douglas Torres

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