Game Over: Video Game Challenges in Cinema

The first attempt to turn a popular video game into a movie was made in the early 1990s. Super Mario Bros. (1993) movie became the first one in a series of unsuccessful films based on video games. We know about numerous similar attempts.

by Anna Shagarova


Nowadays, this topic is more relevant than ever, in connection with the establishment of PlayStation Productions company – a new division within the Sony Interactive Entertainment hierarchy designed to convert popular PlayStation gaming properties into television shows and movies. In general, making a film adaptation of a famous video game is a thankless task. There will be a lot of criticism from both video game fans and from the audience not familiar with the original. Look at Silent Hill (2006), for example. The first film was somehow accepted by the public, but the sequel, which turned out to be essentially a mockbuster, was destroyed by negative reviews and after that, the Silent Hill franchise was curtailed. Then Lara Croft's film history was recently rebooted, and the film with Oscar-winning actress – Alicia Vikander – failed at the box office. Even the original film adaptation with Angelina Jolie was accepted much better. Speaking of game adaptations, you can't get around Resident Evil. The audience loved the first two movies, and despite that people hardly endured the triquel and then, Milla Jovovich and her husband could not be stopped with their conveyor production. All subsequent movies immediately received tons of rotten tomatoes. Action film Need for Speed: Need for Speed (2014) was just somehow coldly received. But despite all the shortcomings, video game film adaptations are still commercially successful, and we will see a lot more of them in the coming years.

As a video game lover myself, I couldn't understand why films based on games are generally bad? A lot of them have unique worlds and engaging stories, but it seems to never work on a big screen. So, here I will try to determine some crucial factors which make writing a good movie script based on a video game a very tricky task. I will also take a closer look at a few examples of recent video game adaptations to see what went wrong during the production and what decisions were actually good.

Difficulties in adapting a video game
In comparison to the gameplay process, a film sometimes has less to offer. The interactive nature of video games is extremely important, and it has a strong influence on the narrative of a game. It's even safe to say that gameplay and narrative are in a conflicted relationship because of their opposing natures. The narrative has a secondary place in a video game, while gameplay and interactivity are the most important part of it. Stripping a game of its interactive features leads to certain problems.
Interactivity and constraints related to it
In Lory Landay's study about interactivity, this term is defined as the involvement of users in the exchange of information with computers and the degree to which this happens. The physical movements, whether it is mouse clicks, joystick movement, kinetic or haptic control, provide input that affects the text. In a video game there can be a direct correlation between what the user does physically and what happens in the game. The feedback loop created by the physical participation of the user, the computer system, and the text is a particular kind of communication and control. Here we are talking about the transaction of information between two systems and the key is that these transactions should be, in some sense, circular. Otherwise, it's merely a reaction. The most important is a sense of agency, the ability to effect change. It's safe to conclude that interactivity may be the element of video games that best distinguishes them from other media and cultural forms, such as visual art, cinema, and literature.

Due to the absence of interactivity, which is the essence of video games, the main problem of video game film adaptations is lack of engagement. Characters in video games, especially the main ones, typically aren't distinctly written. Sometimes they don't even have their voice or face when the game utilizes first-person POV. It's made the way it is easier for each player to associate him/herself with the character and to morph into it. So, the player endows this character with his/her own emotions and thoughts. Seeing someone "playing" as this character on the big screen always seems like it's not enough, like something is missing. The reason is that most of the time we are missing a well-written character, which was determined by the nature of a video game but doesn't work the same way in cinema. In games, we are the hero of the story. In movies based on games, we're forced to experience the world of a game through someone else's eyes.
Narrative vs. gameplay
As Kristine Jorgensen argues in her analysis of PvP Battlegrounds in World of Warcraft, the gameplay is not a feature designed into the game alone, but an emergent aspect of the interaction between the game system and the player's strategies and problem-solving processes. The author defines gameplay as how the game is played, delimited by the game rules, and defined by the dynamic relationship that comes into being when the player interacts with these rules. For Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern the ephemeral quality of gameplay, the experience of manipulating elements within a responsive, rule-driven world, is still the most important part of games. Perhaps it is the primary phenomenological feature that uniquely identifies the computer game as a medium.[4] Where gameplay is all about interactivity, the narrative is all about predestination. It is the reason why there is a pervasive feeling in the game design community that narrative and interactivity are antithetical.

The key problem is that narrative in a video game doesn't play the same role as narrative in a film. Dominic Arsenault in his study about narratology in video games cites Celia Pearce: "It is very important to understand that narrative has a profoundly different function in games than it does in other narrative-based media. Although there is much to be learned from traditional narratives, and a great value in drawing comparisons between the two, without understanding the fundamental differences, the discourse becomes ultimately irrelevant because it entirely misses the fundamental point of what games are about."[5] Some video games include a story and expend great effort to make it the most important point of the experience they offer, while others feature a very limited story, or even better, no story at all. Focus on a story also severely limits the replayability of the game. If communicating the story is a focus of a game, then knowing the plot a gamer will less likely play the game again.
Freedom of exploring
Rafael Chandler in his "Game writing handbook" argues that all structures of interactive narrative provide ways of balancing the usual conflicting demands of a story and a game. These structures may be placed at any point on an axis between two poles, which can be identified as logocentric design and mythocentric design. Logocentric design is linear and controlled, and it has been plotted out and documented by the designer. While mythocentric design is wide-open and free-ranging, and it consists of arenas for player action that have been created by the developers. The player, as the author of the core experience, gets to choose the goals and means of the game experience. Unlike logocentric design, the developers are facilitators, not creators, of the events that transpire.[6] In other words, logocentric design is typical for games with a linear plot, and mythocentric design we see to a certain extent in open-world games. These types of video games imply a certain level of freedom to explore its open world. Of course, some guidelines exist, but still, these games have a few distinct plot lines, and we are not obligated to strictly follow the main one.
Video game running time
Relatively often for adaptation purposes, studios tend to choose story-driven games. With this type of game, we are talking about hours of content, from 11 – for example Control (2021) – to around 100 hours, like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015) and even more.

Craig Sherman in his study "From Movie to Game (and Back Again?)" says that the process of adapting a movie into a video game is all about expansion. But it's the opposite for video game-based films. That's why we generally see more successful video game adaptations amongst series on Netflix or other VOD platforms than in cinema. But making only series inspired by video games is not a solution to the problem. As I've mentioned before, lots of video games have simple stories and, with a well-written script, more often than not, there is no need to prolong the running time of a movie to series scale.
Ways to approach a video game film adaptation
Video game genres are extremely versatile in their ways of approaching a story. So, there are a few different ways to transform these different genres or types of games into a movie script. We can roughly divide all video games into story-driven and non-story games. These are abstract terms, but usually "story-driven" describes a game that is built around its story. Its main goal is to shift players' focus on the plot instead of anticipating them to only enjoy the gameplay just for the sake of it. It can be done regardless of what the gameplay is like. An open-world game can be story-driven, and a linear adventure game can be gameplay focused. Nonstory games, on the other hand, are games focused primarily on gameplay. It can be a battle arena, arcade, or an open-world game as well. Story-driven games are often the first choice to transform into film, because of a rich base of characters, events, and lots of information about the fictional world of a game. But strangely enough, when producers choose to shoot a film based on a non-story game, they have more artistic freedom because there are no strict guidelines on compliance with the primal source of material anymore.

In the same way, films also differ in their approach to the original content from the game and their use of it. There is a possibility to write a screenplay based on the plot of a game, to use some main plot lines as a base for the new story or to use a video game world and its lore to create something completely new.
Analyzing examples: three video game to film adaptations and their approach to adapting the story
Uncharted (2022)
The recent release of the long-awaited Uncharted film about Nathan Drake's adventures was the one to inspire this analysis. Uncharted is a classic example of a story-driven game with every new part of it being richer and more inventive than the previous game in terms of its plot, gameplay and puzzles. There are five Uncharted games for a Sony PlayStation console and a few more for PS Vita and mobile phones. The Uncharted franchise follows a group of treasure hunters who travel across the world to uncover various historical mysteries. The series features historical fiction, elements of fantasy and folklore, and fictional characters alongside real-world historical figures and events. The recent film adaptation of the game has an interesting structure, where the main plotline was taken from the Uncharted 4: A Thief's End (PS4, 2016) game, some events we've seen in the Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception (PS3, 2011) and some parts – mostly ending – are newly written. The film was made to be an origin story of the bromance of two main protagonists: Nathan Drake and Viktor Sullivan. At the same time, it copies a lot of events we've seen in the fourth and the third games of the series, which was a rather confusing choice for fans of the game franchise .

Unfortunately, Uncharted works properly neither as an action and adventure movie nor as a video game adaptation. Among action and adventure films, it doesn't have any uniqueness. Every plot twist, character arc, and puzzle leading to the treasure is a cliché we've seen many times before. Characters are rather flat and lack depth, so it's difficult to connect and sympathize with any of the protagonists. Uncharted is a game that takes you places, every chapter you get to travel around the world and enjoy some scenic views. A movie with a budget of $120 million shows us some trivial puzzles in an empty catacomb and a fight in Papa Jones. The film lacks picturesque locations and a larger scale, which are signature to the series.
Similar mishaps had happened to the Tomb Raider (2018) and Assassin's creed (2016) films. All three adaptations are heavily based on their origin games, and all three have a vivid and charismatic protagonist. For example, in a game, it's enough for us to know that Nathan Drake, Uncharted protagonist, is a skilled thief that loves adventures and money and misses his brother, but it's not enough for a character in a film. Even Tom Holland's charisma can't help and make Nathan Drake seem real and not just an Indiana Jones knock off. Victor Sullivan is a reliable friend and a partner in the game but he becomes just a greedy and selfish loser in the film. The outcome is that gamers were hoping to see a considerate and thoughtful film adaptation of their beloved game on a big screen, and non-gamers were looking forward to seeing a good adventure, but neither of them got their needs met.
Netflix's animated series Arcane is based on the online multiplayer battle arena game League of Legends. In these types of games, we don't get any kind of story or plot, so there was a lot of freedom for creators to make almost anything out of it. The main things that connect the Arcane series to its primal source game are characters and the lore around them. Same as Uncharted, Arcane's story is an origin story , but in my opinion, it was made with greater love for the game. The plot of the animated series focuses on events taking place in two cities – a prosperous, utopian Piltover and a seedy, oppressive Zaun. Both cities are part of the world of Runeterra, although otherwise they have significant differences. Tensions between the cities have risen sharply since the creation of Hextech technology, which helps each person control magical energy. In Zaun, a new drug turns people into monsters. The rivalry that exists between these two cities has caused enmity among people, which sometimes leads to discord even between close people. This animated series is very friendly to the audience not familiar with League of Legends games. From more than one hundred characters with biographies, creators had chosen around a dozen to work with. Each character gets enough time to be introduced, as well as to have their developing arc. Arcane works great on a character writing level, it has a strong narrative and stunning visuals.
Arcane (2021-?)
We've already seen a few more animated series made by Netflix which were inspired by famous video and computer games, such as Dota: Dragon's Blood (2021-?) series, which is similar to Arcane in its core, or dissimilar and gory Castlevania (2017-2021). The last one was inspired by the Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse game which was produced for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1993. The series follows the same plot, but since the narrative in the original game wasn't complex enough, creators had the freedom to add depth and life to the characters and adjust the story.
We live in the era of nostalgia for the 80s and 90s. Old franchises are being rebooted, films are being made entirely of references, and the most absurd ideas are getting out the drawer if only they have a touch of nostalgia. Rampage is an arcade game from 1986. The plot of the game wasn't complicated: as a result of biological experiments, three people were turned into a giant wolf, gorilla and Godzilla-like lizard. The game also was made for three people to play. The players were offered to play for the team of monsters: smash cities, crush the annoying military, demolish crowds of people, and get points for it. Since it was an old arcade machine game, it didn't have a complex story. So, the goal was to only adapt the concept: a trio of gigantic monsters are attacking a city and fighting against onslaughts of military forces. The blockbuster film of the same name from 2018 was pretty successful, and a lot of people didn't even know that the film was inspired by a video game. In terms of its plot, it's as full of clichés as Uncharted. The film begins with a space station flying in orbit where illegal genetic experiments are being conducted. Experiments are getting out of hand, and the whole station blows up. Three containers with a virus, which turns anyone into an aggressive monster, land on Earth. Three creatures breathed in this virus – a gorilla, a wolf, and a crocodile. The burden of resolving the gigantic-monsters-crushing-Chicago-crisis falls on Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. The film smoothly accomplishes the goal of adapting the main concept of the game, but there is nothing more to it. Rampage is a money-making blockbuster, and it doesn't have any outstanding ideas or anything extraordinary in it. The dynamic narrative becomes the main and indisputable advantage. Due to the rapid presentation of the material, the viewer easily succumbs to "hypnosis", which, for some time, hides the silliness and roughness of the plot. If there is anything to scold the authors for, it is for the raw script and the absolute invulnerability of Dwayne Johnson's protagonist.
Rampage (2018)
Video games and cinema are very close and very dissimilar mediums at the same time. Both of them are audiovisual mediums and both of them tell stories, but they do it in a different manner and pursue different goals. Interactivity, which is the essence of a video game experience, is the most crucial factor. Without it, every other aspect of a game falls apart. It leads to problems with character writing, trivialness of a story or its absence. On the other hand, sometimes video games have such rich and extensive worlds, that a two-hour film is not enough to fully introduce it to an audience not familiar with a game. But even though adapting a video game is not an easy task and the vast majority of these movies are not favoured amongst both gamer and non-gamer audiences, sometimes we get to see a few gems. In the last few years most of them we could've seen only on Netflix, as it gives creators more artistic freedom. Yet I want to believe that even the cinema screens will see good and exciting video game-based movies in the coming years.

[1] LANDAY, Lori. Interactivity.
In: Mark J. P. Wolf and Bernard Perron (eds.).
The Rutledge Companion to Video Game Studies.
New York: Routledge, 2014, pp. 175.

[2] SHERMAN, Craig.
From Movie to Game (and Back Again?).
In: Tobias Heussner (ed.).
The Advanced Game Narrative Toolbox.
«oca Raton: CRC Press, 2019, pp. 79.

[3] JORGENSEN, Kristine.
Audio and gameplay: An analysis of PvP battlegrounds
in World of Warcraft.
Game Studies (2008), 8(2).
Retrieved from

[4] MATEAS, Michael; STERN, Andrew.
Interaction and narrative.
In: K. Salen & E. Zimmerman (Eds.).
The game design reader: A rules of play anthology.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005, pp.643.

[5] ARSENAULT, Dominic.
In: Mark J. P. Wolf and Bernard Perron (eds.).
The Rutledge Companion to Video Game Studies.
New York: Routledge, 2014, pp. 476.

[6] CHANDLER, Rafael.
Game writing handbook.
Boston: Charles River Media,
2007, pp. 108.

[7] SHERMAN, 2019, pp. 77.

Made on