Why are video games so difficult for studios to adapt?


Tasha Acres (she/her) investigates why most film adaptations of video games fail to impress their fans

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By Tasha Acres

As game developers create more complex and immersive narratives, film and television studios have identified them as accessible sources for their next projects – but why are the majority so bad? Does the blame lie with the film studios or is the medium of a video game inherently difficult to adapt? With many more beloved games set to be transformed into films in the near future, how high should we set our expectations?

In recent years, the release of video game adaptations has increased exponentially: from Assassin’s Creed in 2016, to Five Nights at Freddy’s in the last month. However, only a few of these adaptations have been critically acclaimed, such as HBO’s The Last of Us series that was released in early 2023. Many have failed to immerse the audience or portray a faithful reconstruction of the games that they were based on.

Lara Croft is a character that has been redeveloped in games since her creation in 1994; Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of the character is undoubtedly a strong one, yet the plot of 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is stitched together with a string of action-adventure tropes that become more predictable as the years go on. 2018’s reimagining of Tomb Raider has an increased budget and is a brilliant example of a brave and adventurous female lead, however the mass of exposition was difficult to sit through, and there was still a distinct lack of charm.

Uncharted is another adaptation that was released in 2022, to many fans’ disappointment. Tom Holland attempts to play Nathan Drake faithfully, having been enthusiastic about the role, but what’s been created is a film that’s like a memory of Uncharted– certain scenes are ripped from the games, merging action sequences in a timeline that just doesn’t make sense. The film is supposed to be a prequel: it seems unlikely that Drake would encounter a pirate ship or fall out of a plane, and survive, more than once in his career. It’s clear that the creators of the film have not taken the care required to preserve Drake’s timeline, or at the very least made the story logical. The wrong casting for Victor Sullivan, I believe, also led to the film’s demise. It became a product of Hollywood, and I genuinely believe that the failure of these films can be blamed on a fundamental misunderstanding of the source material. If you interpret Uncharted as an Indiana Jones story rather than focusing on Drake’s narrative itself, you’re going to end up with a movie that just does not feel like the original game, and is drowned by uninspired side characters. Chloe’s character was also let down by the creatives behind the film – to me, it seemed like they couldn’t decide what to do with her. They didn’t want her to be completely trustworthy but as a result, the fickleness of her character isn’t reflective of her intelligence that we see clearly not only in Drake’s games but also in The Lost Legacy.

Assassin’s Creed came out in 2016, and was an astounding disappointment – poor visuals, a plot that seems like Assassin’s Creed on paper but in practice lacked any sort of style, and more fanservice than a faithful narrative. This film is only Assassin’s Creed by name – the creators carelessly constructed a screenplay that is uninspired. Again, I maintain that it is the result of a misunderstanding of the meaning of the source material that ruins adaptations. Directors seem to get too excited by the idea of adapting a video game and proceed to write a story based on their interpretation of the game, with boring plotlines and convenient plot armour.

An adaptation that has succeeded, however, is HBO’s The Last of Us. While it is not faultless, it is an adaptation that has potentially revived video game cinema... except it was a television series. This format could be a valid reason for its success, giving exposition and action room to be balanced and considered carefully. Neil Druckmann, the creator of the original game, also had an incredible amount of involvement in the series, which undoubtedly helped to ensure the series’ success. Changes to the plot of the game were thought through carefully, which meant that they didn’t lead to plotholes or soulless exposition, but rather, they enriched the viewer’s experience and built the universe in a way that fit perfectly with the atmosphere and meaning of the game. Druckmann knew what he wanted the adaptation to highlight in the game, and this meant that it became one of the most critically acclaimed television series of the year. It’s not surprising that fans prefer adaptations that are faithful to the original plot. The formula that’s been used to adapt video games in the past needs to change. Clearly, studios need to discover a new way to replace the gameplay element of their source that doesn’t include shakily stitched together exposition without communication with the game’s developer.

Perhaps as ‘triple A narratives’ develop, adaptations will be able to deliver a more complex film with a charm that allows it to be as beloved as the games they came from. With more adaptations set to be released in the coming years such as BorderlandsDays GoneDeath StrandingDead by Daylight, and Ghost of Tsushima, we have to hope that these creatives understand the source material before they begin to adapt. After cinema’s history of reducing games to cliched films with no depth, beloved games like these deserve better.