Why Video Game Adaptations Suck (And How To Fix Them)

You know what Pedro Pascal is? An amazing actor. You know what The Last of Us is? An amazing story. You know what The Last of Us TV adaptation starring Pedro Pascal is going to be? Garbage. Let’s get into the why.

Video game adaptations are notoriously some of the worst dregs of bad cinema out there (and I’m going to be lumping The Last of Us in with them here, even though it’s a TV version, since it’s such a rare outlier as a non-cinema piece) . Even those movies that take on allegedly good games – like Silent Hill – often end up, at best, a pale imitation of the original, and, at worst, downright embarrassments to the name of their spawning titles. There’s a reason that Uwe Boll has done a lot in this genre, is what I’m saying.

But why is that? Why is it that, even great games with great stories and great people both behind of and in front of the camera, that these movies so consistently fucking suck?

I’m a softcore gamer-adjacent type these days, and I have to admit, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, what with the adaptations of The Last of Us and the Nathan Drake series on the way – two game series that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, and would pretty much recommend to anyone in search of solid storytelling, compelling characters, and addictive gameplay. And yet.

When you’re in the midst of playing a video game, it demands a level of attention from you that simply watching a movie does not. Great games, like the upcoming adaptations I mentioned above, can put you in the place of the character experiencing the game’s story in real time, first-hand, and that is just something that even the greatest movie is going to struggle to do. And when you’re living out the story not just alongside these characters, but inside them, stories that might otherwise feel pretty predictable take on a way more compelling edge.

Because let’s be real – both Uncharted and The Last of Us hit pretty predictable story beats of their respective genres. The Last of Us is a pretty straightforward found family story, Joel is a pretty straightforward lead, the whole story takes place against a pretty straightforward zombie apocalypse backdrop. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, in any way – in fact, I think they’re both brilliant game series – but if you sit back and look at them as objective pieces of storytelling, you could pretty much predict the major beats they’re going to hit from start to finish. And what is making a movie of these stories if it’s not sitting back and looking at them from an outside perspective? These games work because of the medium they come packaged in, and taking them out of that, putting them up against movies, which are naturally structured to work with outsiders looking in on the story, just serves to shine a light on how important the first-person experience is to their brilliance.

Is there a way around this? I think so – by fitting movie plots not slavishly around the plot of their source material, but finding a space in the same world to tell a new story, instead. In amongst the long-discussed BioShock movie adaptation (which shall never be, probably for the better), the thought of adapting the story of the original game seemed silly when there was so much else to explore – so much that those playing the game would never have seen – and that always made a lot of sense to me. Why regurgitate a story which you have proof of working in one medium but no promise of fitting into another, when you could tailor something specific to the big screen?

But it’s one that few video game adaptations are brave enough to take on, probably because not many games have the lore or depth of setting to support it. Not to mention the fact that players often fall in love with games because they connect with the characters they play with, and the thought of going into a film version of this world without getting to enjoy them as real, live-action people might well put a lot of them off.

But I think the best thing that a movie adaptation of an iconic game could do is to move away from this idea of slavish recreation of the game’s plot, and into a broader take on the world in general. Great games are often great because of what lies beyond our main story, the tantalizing idea of what else is out there. I truly think The Last of Us and other games like it (Silent Hill. I’m talking about Silent Hill) would be better served on the big screen not by trying to meticulously cast just the right person to act out our player character, but by exploring the enormous world that made those games feel so compelling and exciting.

Since I have you here, I’d like to let you knmy next book, about love, sex, vaginismus, and more after sexual assault, is available for pre-order right now! Please consider grabbing a copy at a pre-release discount right here! If you enjoyed this article and want to see more stuff like it,  please consider supporting us on Ko-Fi. You can check out more of my work on my personal blog, The Cutprice Guignol!

By Louise MacGregor

(header image via Entertainment Weekly)

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