7 Video Games To Break the Cinematic Adaptation Curse

The likes of The Last of Us and Metal Gear would be perfect for big-screen adaptations. Right? We don't know anymore.


Video games are notoriously difficult to adapt to the big screen, the list is huge, Super Mario Bros. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, Hitman and Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time to name but a few. In fact, the video games have yielded such bad results at the cinema that there has never been a ‘fresh’ rated film on Rotten Tomatoes, the highest being The Angry Birds movie at 43%, the lowest being Alone in the Dark at 1%, directed by ‘auteur’ Uwe Boll.

But films don’t need critical success to succeed, as long as the make money. Well even there the video game genre falls short, with the highest-grossing being last year’s Warcraft with $433 million, but that is a pretty paltry return in today’s cinematic landscape. The genre seems to be at a low ebb – the recently released Assassin’s Creed seemed promising, with a stellar cast of Oscar winners and nominees, an up-and-coming director at the helm and the trailers gave reasons for excitement. But with a middling box office of $209 million, barely a profit and an even more disappointing Rotten Tomatoes score of 18%, the film will be considered a failure. So when even a huge franchise like Assassin’s Creed with a number of big name stars attached can’t come good, what else is there left to bring to the big screen that could finally be considered a good video game film?

There are couple of big titles in development at the moment, seemingly safe bets like The Division and Uncharted, the former with Jake Gyllenhaal attached, whilst Uncharted has been in production limbo for some time, it finally looks to be moving forward with Shawn Levy at the helm, and a Tomb Raider reboot with Alicia Vikander has already begun production. Whilst these may seem to be safer bets, there are also more risky projects in the pipeline, such as a Minecraft movie and live-action adaptations of Pokémon and Sonic the Hedgehog. Risky may be kind in this case, surely a live-action Sonic has disaster written all over it.

But what else is out there that hasn’t yet been put into production?



Mass Effect

The sci-fi RPG series from developer BioWare has proved a huge success with a critically acclaimed trilogy released between 2007 and 2012, and there is plenty here that would seem to lend itself to a cinematic adaptation: futuristic locales, exciting action, huge spectacle, colourful and diverse characters, and perhaps most importantly, the potential for a female lead. Being a role-playing game, it offers both male and female versions of the main character Shepard and the series follow his/her development from a raw soldier to saviour of the galaxy. Casting a female lead would be a great opportunity to create a strong female character and bring in a female audience to a genre that is generally considered to cater to the male 16-25 age group.

Though perhaps the most difficult part would be accommodating the game’s large supporting cast and condensing the game’s considerable playthrough time, which can take up to and over 100 hours over the three games, that’s a lot of cutting to fit into 6-7 hours of screen time for three films. This has actually proved too challenging in the past as a screen version has been in development since 2010, but has never gone past the script stage, with writer Mark Protosevich stating: “I will freely admit it was hard. Because – especially with ‘Mass Effect’ – there’s just so much material.”

In fact, the episodic nature of the game, which is apparent in any game that is structured with ‘missions,’ may lend itself better to television. It would certainly allow more time to be devoted to fleshing out individual characters rather than forcing them into an ensemble or removing them entirely, but the reduced budget and scale of the small screen wouldn’t be able to do just to the other facets of the games.

While there may be plenty of elements present in order to create a film of blockbuster proportions, it seems it would take an extremely talented creative team to take the best elements and condense them into a cinematic running time without disappointing fans.

Verdict: Handle with care


Deus Ex

deus ex

The ongoing series, with Mankind Divided being the latest iteration, is set in a dystopian, cyberpunk future featuring shady corporations, questionable politics and human augmentations which all provide thinly veiled social commentary. The series mainstay elements could easily lend themselves towards a good thriller, and there’s potential for action as well alongside multiple extravagant future-set locations to add the spectacle. But the complex nature of the stories can become convoluted if not handled carefully, it’s hard to incorporate the Illuminati with a straight face and pull it off. Remember The Da Vinci Code?

There are also elements of the game that would need to be excised, such as reading copious amounts of emails and crawling through air ducts – they may be good ways for the player to glean information, but they hardly scream cinema. It does seem that development wouldn’t be straightforward, as plans have been announced for a Deus Ex movie in recent years, with producer Adrian Askarieh hoping to have news for summer 2015, but nothing seems to have materialised. Complex narratives and what would have to be extensive and expensive CGI to create the futuristic setting are clearly a stumbling block so far.

Verdict: Approach with caution


Metal Gear

Metal Gear Solid V

The long running series from creator Hideo Kojima is a hugely celebrated and successful franchise, spawning iconic characters, storylines and even catchphrases. There is plenty here that suggests a successful cinematic adaptation: global politics, international espionage, supervillains and again plenty of location hopping and action have the makings of a stylish thriller that can also provide socio-political commentary. But despite the series’ potential, it is also hugely convoluted, with the series timeline threatening to eat itself like, well, a snake.

The series currently stands at eleven entries spanning fifty years of in-game history, and to make matters worse, none of the games have been released in chronological order. It’s hard enough to try and write a Metal Gear timeline, let alone a script. But perhaps hindsight may work in the series’ favour. If you were able to lay out in a more easy to follow order, the overall story could be wrangled back into control, or even perhaps a standalone version of one game that shows the best potential, the latest entry in the series, The Phantom Pain, worked well as a standalone story and was a huge commercial and critical success.

The series’ cinematic potential has not gone unseen though, with many attempts made in the past, by Kojima himself and others, with even Paul Thomas Anderson being rumoured to direct at one point, but obviously that never happened.

Recent developments have seen Jordan Vogt-Roberts attached, but we’ve seen plenty of projects enthusiastically announced then fall apart during development. Perhaps if Vogt-Roberts’s Kong: Skull Island proves successful he will get a confident financial backing and, more importantly, a larger creative freedom.

There is certainly great potential with Metal Gear, but it would require somebody to streamline it into something more easy to comprehend.

Verdict: Streamline and simplify.


The Last of Us

The Last of Us ending

The huge critical success from developers Naughty Dog, the game is set in a post ‘event’ world where humanity is struggling to survive. There is precedent for this kind of story in the zombie genre, but The Last of Us doesn’t quite fall into it -frankly the enemies are much more terrifying than mere zombies- but that genre’s large fanbase would surely be an incentive to capitalise on its success.

Perhaps, though, the game’s best element that lends itself to a cinematic version is its story as it’s straightforward in a linear sense, and focusing on two central characters would be less of a challenge to condense into a standard film’s running time. The characterisation here also gives a great opportunity to actually make a good film as video game characters can often be accused of being thinly drawn – they are often avatars for the gamer to place themselves into. Here the main characters offer real depth to the experience.

So the important pieces for making a great film are here -a good, straightforward story and great characters- so surely a film version isn’t far away? Well, there has been a version in development, with Sam Raimi (no stranger to horror) attached, but since the film has been quoted to be “in development hell” with creative differences also being cited, this could mean any number of things. It could be important to note in this case that the game’s horror elements would surely mean the film would be rated R/15-18, and the dystopian setting of the film wouldn’t be cheap to create, so trying to distil the film to a lower rating would certainly be divisive. There is great potential here, the game lends itself well to the cinematic medium, but it seems that it will take the right group of people at the right time to move it forward.

Verdict: A steadying hand required.



Infamous Second Son
Source: mattbrett.com

The slacker/superhero series from developer Sucker Punch could prove a great opportunity to capitalise on the burgeoning superhero genre currently monopolised by Marvel and DC comics. The superhero elements of the game would provide great action and the main character provides room for development, with his story being essentially someone who gains powers but doesn’t want them before having to learn to adapt to them and, more importantly, decide whether to use them for good or bad. Another plus is the game’s locations, based on New York and New Orleans, which would lend a great sense of atmosphere, but, perhaps crucially, would be expensive to create.

Despite character potential, the series’ overall story is the biggest problem in terms of adaptation, featuring time-travel, underground organisations and conspiracy theories which all don’t quite fit together. Within a game’s running time, there is more space to comprehend all the pieces of the story, but it would be a struggle to fit it into a film’s structure. This does seem to have been a problem with a film version announced around the time of the original game’s release in 2009, but development has never moved past the script stage. inFamous definitely shows potential, but it, like many other projects, cannot get past the initial development stage.

Verdict: Work needed


Shadow of the Colossus

Shadow of the Colossus
Source: YouTube

A cult favourite from developers Team Ico, Colossus perhaps represents a more difficult adaptation. Despite the game’s critical success alongside stunning visuals and scope that would easily transfer to the big screen, the story would struggle to fit into a cinematic format. The game follows the main character having to kill huge roaming beasts or ‘colossi’ in order to bring his partner back to life. This could prove repetitive for a film version and surely other parts of the game would have to be embellished. With a film full of what is essentially boss fights, it may struggle to have any effect beyond surface appeal if time is not afforded to fleshing out other parts.

Again, this is another game where a film adaptation has been announced, but again has struggled in development, director Josh Trank was attached at one point, but left to direct a Star Wars spin-off, which fell apart during the Fantastic Four debacle. So while the game shows potential, can its format be worked into a big-screen version? It remains to be seen.

Verdict: Structural work needed.


The Legend of Zelda

Ocarina of Time art
Source: DeviantArt

Even if you’re not a big gamer surely you’ve heard of the legendary series from Nintendo, one of the most famous and successful video game franchises of all time with Ocarina of Time generally considered the greatest game of all time. Surely there is potential here? Well, there’s plenty of action and adventure along with fictional mythology that would lend itself to the fantasy genre, which has often produced successful films, but there are plenty of points that could prove troublesome.

Firstly, in what seems to be becoming a recurring theme, the game’s structure needs work. The main character has to navigate various temples to acquire certain items and skills to progress the story, which would need condensing to fit into a film, and may prove to grow repetitive. Then there is the main character of Link himself, mute throughout the game, which would surely need to be addressed. The silent type character can often be effective as even Tom Hardy has some lines in Mad Max: Fury Road; he would have to open his mouth every now and again. His costume may also be problematic: the elf hat and tunic may work in the game, but translated literally may prove laughable and would need updating for a more realistic look. The main villain Ganondorf -a hugely imposing figure- could also be afforded more time, which would also add more dialogue.

If these problems are perhaps too much, perhaps there is another entry in the series that would lend itself better, maybe The Majora’s Mask. Its structure follows repeating the same three days in order to save the world from a crashing moon. A more time-focused structure is certainly more suited to cinema, with the obvious example being Groundhog Day, but the game still focuses on navigating temples. Perhaps in a more condensed, time focused structure, a film version could be navigable. Despite the series’ iconic status and a sure fanbase to draw on, there are definite problems that may prove too problematic for a cinematic adaptation and if it were to been done poorly, it would mar the game’s legacy. Nintendo seem to know this, with rumours of a big-screen version being few and far between.

Verdict: A bridge too far.

A pattern seems to be emerging that the video game structure is extremely difficult to transfer to film, with many projects falling at the first hurdle, the script stage of development. Are video games and films too different as mediums? The episodic, interactive, sometimes repetitive structure of games, and of course much longer overall running times continue to throw up problems. When even hugely successful and critically acclaimed titles struggle to get made, or if they do, fail, it is hard to see where a good film version is going to come from, but there is still plenty of potential out there. With the right team of people involved perhaps a great video game adaptation will finally emerge.


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