Video game to movie adaptations have never fared well. This issue is so prevalent in the film world that it’s given rise to the theory around the internet that there is a "Video Game Movie Curse". When you look at the track record of video game movie adaptations, it’s not hard to see why so many believe that there is a curse.
The best video game movie is probably Warcraft, and that movie is just okay. Most other projects are flat out terrible. Assassin's Creed bore the brunt of the curse with a disastrous film adaptation starring Michael Fassbender released last year. Filmmakers have yet to crack the code on how to adapt these games into movies. But is there one area of film that filmmakers and producers are not considering? TV perhaps?
Over the years, there have been some attempts to bring video games to the TV world. These attempts mostly consist of some animated projects aimed at younger audiences and some cheap online web-series. But never has there been a big and strong commitment from a major network like an HBO or even an FX to bring a video game adaptation to our airwaves.
Soon there will be an attempt from Netflix to bring us The Witcher (which is also a series of novels). But why aren’t there more attempts from other venues? The answer isn’t clear. By default, most people think of movies first when it comes to adaptation (of any kind: books, comics, games, etc.). This is, of course, because movies have been the dominant form of entertainment for decades. But now with shows like #GameOfThrones and #WalkingDead, we are looking at TV adaptations differently.
With that new mindset, it might be time to turn towards video games as a new breeding ground for future TV shows. Let's consider this question for a moment: is TV a better format for video game adaptations?
Why TV Over Movies?
There are many reasons why video game movies fail. Quite often, it’s simply because they are poorly produced and under-budgeted cash grabs that don’t attempt to be anything more than a cheap way for studios to make money (check out any the Uwe Boll directed video game adaptations for a perfect example of this). But, the more serious pushes to make games into movies, like a Warcraft or an Assassins Creed, seemed to suffer from a similar issue, and that issue is the focus. Big AAA games have the luxury of being able to present and tell their story over a large number of playable game hours. Assassin's Creed games main stories typically can be played for 15-30 hours, and that doesn’t include side missions. The Witcher has over 100 gameplay hours’ worth of material. If a major video game is under 10 hours, it’s considered short. So, when you’re a filmmaker trying to take a massive story from a video game (that can last at least 10 hours), trying to find a way to tell your story in 2 hours becomes tricky. It is not unlike taking a massive 800-page novel and trying to find a way to tell that story in 2 hours.
Warcraft was an adaptation of a popular video game franchise of the same name. The franchise is made up of 3 real-time strategy games, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (called World of Warcraft), an online card game, books, and a wealth of backstory and lore. Trying to take all of that and find a focus is a hard task. Unsurprisingly, the movie suffered from a lack of focus, and not enough time to flesh out its lore and world (not to mention characters and story on top of that). The first act of the movie felt incredibly rushed and compromised the entire film in a way it couldn't recover from.
Now imagine a network like HBO creating a series out of Warcraft. HBO then gives it a 10-episode commitment for the first season (not unlike Game of Thrones). That’s over 10 hour’s worth of story as writers and filmmakers you get to tell. This means there is no rush to introduce characters and lore, you can spread it out across the season. If the show is successful, then you can spread that across multiple seasons. All of a sudden there is breathing room to tell a good story and even multiple ones at that. This is just one example.
You could apply this to Assassin's Creed as well. The movie for Assassin's Creed didn't know how to balance the present day storyline and the period piece storyline. The two storylines ran so out of balance that the period piece story didn't get properly served. As a result, we were left with a mess of a film. However, telling that same story in a TV format, you give yourself more room to balance and develop the two separate storylines.
Many fans of the Metal Gear Solid game series worry that the long and complicated story of the Metal Gears and its lead character, Snake, is just too massive for any one movie to explore. Perhaps a TV series would be a better way to tell that story?
The State of TV
It also helps that TV is an industry that is thriving. There has been a record breaking amount of original series being produced here in North America. There has never been a time where TV was home to so many different creative voices telling so many different types of stories. The top shows on TV feel so unique and distinct from one another. The Walking Dead, Big Bang Theory, Empire, and Game of Thrones are some of the biggest shows on TV right now, each one different from the other. With that level of diversity, there is plenty of room for a lot of video game titles to enter the fray.
This diversity that is encouraged in the TV landscape could lead to video game properties getting more attention than they might in the movie world. With feature films, a lot of video game movies struggle to make a dent in the box office. This could be partly because movie studios don't know how to market these brands.
The Assassins Creed marketing campaign was universally panned for its confusing and tonally inconsistent trailers. With TV, there is an easier accessibility when it comes to potential viewership because viewers don't have to go anywhere. Even if the marketing for Assassins Creed would be confusing for a TV show, word of mouth could help viewership with each episode (and by extension each season). With easy accessibility and diversity of content, the state of TV could better serve these video games titles rather than having big box office dreams.
Unfortunately, there is a problem with going the TV route. There is a drawback in the potential of budget and visual effects. While not all potential video game adaptations would require a massive budget, there are few that certainly would, like a Bioshock or a Witcher (Netflix has yet to say how much they will be spending on the upcoming series). Most will point out the budget of Game of Thrones and how incredible that series looks as a counterpoint. While, yes, that is true, Game of Thrones is an exception, not the rule.
A whole season of Game of Thrones cost over 100 million dollars to produce. Not many networks are willing (or can) produce a series with that high of a budget. Would there be the proper budget to make a Bioshock show? With it's underwater setting, and "Big Daddy" characters it isn't a cheap game to adapt. Pirates of the Caribbean Director Gore Verbinski was going to produce a hard-R 200 million dollar Bioshock movie before the studio got cold feet. No TV production company will give any showrunner 200 million dollars to make a TV show.
Not every game would work best as a TV show. A game like Uncharted would make a much better movie than a show because of the structure of it's plot (despite how Sony is handling the project) and the same could be true for a massive title like Halo. However, with the growth of TV (and the lack of good movie adaptations), it seems that the untapped market of TV might be the best potential future for video game adaptations. At the very least it deserves the shot.
The video game industry has brought us great worlds, stories, and characters to love and explore. There is a way to adapt them into other mediums, and if movies keep on failing, perhaps it's time to change up the approach and go to the small screen instead.