Before 2020, if you sounded excited to see a movie based on a video game, you would’ve been met with a round of laughter. The video game industry, though making more money than Hollywood in recent years, has generally not been respected for its narrative capabilities, or their ability to take their stories from the arcade screen to the silver screen. However, much of that attitude changed upon the release of the Sonic the Hedgehog film in 2020, based on the beloved game franchise of the same name. Though the trailer was met with much controversy and little hope for its success, the movie was enjoyed by critics and audiences alike, as they believed it captured the fun and spirit of the original game series. This reintroduced a recurring question in the world of transmedia: can video game adaptations actually work?
The first live-action, English language game adaptation to hit the big screen was Nintendo's Super Mario Bros., released in 1993. Despite the original series’ popularity, it received an embarrassingly low score of 24% on Rotten Tomatoes, and set the stage for nearly two decades of failed attempts at bringing games to the local movie theater. In fact, not a single live-action game adaptation scored above a 50% on Rotten Tomatoes until Tomb Raider in 2018, which still only earned a 51%. Not one film has been able to even break 90%.
However, in 2017, a new challenger was released on Netflix. An animated series called Castlevania, based off of the popular Japanese game series of the same name, ran for four seasons, ending in 2021 with a score of 94%, with two of its seasons earning a perfect score. Audiences, both gamers and non-gamers alike, adored it, and it was heralded as one of the first near-perfect adaptations of a video game franchise. So what sets Castlevania apart? What allowed it to succeed where nearly three decades of game adaptations had failed?
The concept of adapting a video game to a television show is not a new idea. Japan has been doing it for years, with their video games often releasing with an anime to help fill in story details and outline more of the narrative for those who want it outside of the game. Animated children shows based on Super Mario and Sonic have also been released in America for a handful of years.
Netflix’s Castlevania, and the string of game adaptations that followed it on the platform, took a different approach. Rather than appealing strictly to younger audiences or those playing their games, they adapted video game storylines into a dramatic series that could appeal to even those unfamiliar with the source material.
The Witcher, which was also released on Netflix, though in live-action instead of animation, also did fairly well for itself, attracting audiences with big name actors like Henry Cavill. This pattern culminated in Netflix's animated release of Arcane: League of Legends, which earned a shocking 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and was instantly placed in IMDB’s top five animated series of all time. All three of these shows were gritty, full of compelling characters and drama, and marketed off of their excellent visuals and expertly written storylines to draw audiences in.
The answer as to why these adaptations work while others fail might be in the Netflix platform itself. Video games and their stories typically run between 20-50 hours of content, depending on the studio. The original Castlevania series has nearly 40 titles, The Witcher has 3 titles which each run just over 30 hours, and League of Legends is an ongoing multiplayer game that’s been running for nearly 13 years. The creators of these shows knew that if they tried to shorten these narratives into the typical 1.5-2 hour timeframe of a studio film, they wouldn’t be able to do the original story justice. Instead, they made their adaptations easily accessible on streaming apps, with longer episodes and seasons to keep audiences immersed – a key component of the gaming experience.
The issue lies with the fact that video games are an interactive media, which is to say that the enjoyment on the part of the consumer relies on their ability to play it and immerse themselves within the world and story. Film adaptors of these games have tried to maintain this feature, but shows and movies aren’t immersive in the way that games are, and it’s nearly impossible to replicate the experience on the big screen. Because of this distraction, these writers forget what is actually important to audiences watching a movie or show: the development of characters and conflict.
Video games excel at world building, but often cut themselves short of writing characters with unique personalities and motives, or creating dramatic plotlines that can work themselves out rather than relying on the actions of a player. This is where screen adaptations can shine, and this is where Netflix’s adaptations found their footing, using longer series to explore the already established worlds while also developing existing characters.
Castlevania explored the humanity, and lack thereof, of characters that were present in the games, but were never really fleshed out by the original creators. Who knew a show could make you feel bad for Dracula? The Witcher staged itself as a prequel, showing audiences the events that led to where the game characters are now, and exploring dramatic plotlines in a Game of Thrones-esque way. Arcane builds League of Legends’ lore from the ground up. Where the original series lacked any real story at all, Arcane built a world for the game’s well-known characters to explore, grow in, and interact with.
With films like Uncharted and the much-anticipated The Last of Us HBO show, a new question is being asked by audiences: as video games move closer to better narrative complexity, is there any reason to turn them into films? Though television and film tend to be cheaper and more accessible to general audiences, perhaps these stories are best told through a controller, not a movie screen.
Only time and experimentation will tell if there’s a future in video game movies. Television series based on video games, however, especially those that are animated, seem to be a new shining star on streaming platforms. They could be the key to bringing gaming’s best stories into the popular media limelight.
About the author: Myles is a 20-year-old English student, lifelong gamer, and ex-cowboy (in that order). When he's not binge watching Netflix shows or replaying Bioshock for the dozenth time, he's running the CBC Twitter page @ comicbookcuriou
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