The Renaissance of the Video Game Adaptation – Press Start to Continue

“Opening with lots of zeros, all we get are superheroes: Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Jedi man, sequel man, prequel man. Formulaic scripts, and after Fifty Shades of Grey, they’ll all have leather whips!” so cried Jack Black in 2015 on-stage at the Oscars.

Black, who this week highlights as Bowser in the atrocious Super Mario Bros Movie, was considered a joke during his interrupting rap. Yet, nearly a decade later, the truth of his words rings true. With the demise of the superhero franchise, profiteering executives are realigning their focus to the next trend: game adaptations.

Eight years later, with HBO’s The Last of Us a success in the high-end TV realm and eOne’s Dungeons and Dragons delighting audiences in cinemas, video games’ storytelling is being considered again.

Similarly to how Elektra and Blade from the early 2000s paved the way for the Marvel Cinematic Universe a decade later, the history of the video game adaptation in the 21st century can be seen attempting to erode the Hollywood system since the same period as those Marvel predecessors. 

Video game adaptations are back (Picture: Universal/Nintendo)

Comparatively, the fighting game adaptations of the 80s comment on how the hyper-violent Mortal Kombat game and subsequent 1995 movies were used to perpetuate a false narrative of inciting real-world violence, becoming the next scapegoat after ‘video nasties’. Their adaptations fit into the zeitgeist of socio-politics and the dynamics of how video games were perceived. 

Shifting focus then back to the video game adaptations from the 2000s onwards, when the gaming industry’s leaders Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo released consoles and handheld devices that changed the landscape of the gaming industry: Microsoft’s Xbox would launch in 2001, the same year as Nintendo’s Gamecube, whilst Sony’s sequel console, PlayStation 2 had already been on shelves since the turn of the millennium, with the PlayStation 2 selling over 152 million units worldwide.

The surge of gamers leading to entertainment avenues and storytelling possibilities is a fractional definition to explain the adaptations continuing into the 2010s with Assassin’s Creed, Max Payne, and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, attaching the likes of Michael Fassbender, Mark Walhberg and Jake Gyllenhaal respectively at a similar time to the introducing of self-awareness to its storytelling.

Opting to tell a story about how the story came to be, with movies crossing mediums from Liberace’s Behind the Candelabra (2013), Danny Boyle‘s Steve Jobs (2015), and a docu-drama about games company Rockstar, The Gamechangers (2015) anything that could be a film, was a film. Something mirrored most recently with Tetris.

Pedro Pascal carrying Bella Ramsey in The Last of Us (Picture: HBO)

Admittedly, none of these adaptations has captivated the watercooler moment as much as The Last of Us. The Naughty Dogs video game achieved fame a year after its Uncharted cinematic brother flopped severely. It is partly down to its new story, tying elements from the video game.

A new story that links with video games is a root these quasi-adaptations have tried to do before, with Gamer (2005) riffing off the popularity of 2003’s Second Life, whilst Nerve (2015) attempted to offer commentary on YouTube and Twitch being used for audiences to passively watch playthroughs.

The Last of Us, then applying a new and known story, first broadcast in January of 2023, drawing parallels immediately with its horror source and the effects of COVID-19 that were beginning to wean. A story where a world gets shut down after a viral infection, alienating communities and resulting in corrupt individuals of authority. A fictionalised dystopian reflection of our own reality, where for once, our world is the safer place to be.

Tru Valentino as Cuphead and Frank Todaro as Mugman in The Cuphead Show! (Picture: Netflix)

Unfortunately, given its success, there will no doubt be a slew of greenlit video game adaptations headed for streaming to meet the likes of The Witcher, The Cuphead Show! and The Last of Us, with God of War already in production. 

As BAFTA Games continues to spotlight the best of the industry, this year awarding the best game to Vampire Survivors, video game adaptations are the natural evolutionary route after comic books, with audiences’ mindsets shifting and appropriating the gaming industry with value, an opinion forced upon them continuously by games that encourage microtransactions after an upfront purchase fee.

It is a precursor for all we’ll soon see: Bomberman, Megaman, and Skyrim-Man. Someone get Jack Black prepped to do a reprisal.

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By Conor Riley

Conor is the Founder and Editor for Cinamore, a publication focused on giving power back to journalists. As a portmanteau of the word 'Cinema' and the Italian word for love 'Amore', Cinamore aims to highlight the love that we all carry for the art of the moving image.


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