Welcome to Lost in Translation‘s quick series about the ins and outs of adapting games to television and film.* As seen since the first post, if something is popular, someone else will want to adapt it to a different medium. Today, 2013, the most likely medium to adapt from elsewhere is the Hollywood film.
Part I – Video Games
Part II – Boardgames
Part III – Tabletop Role-Playing Games
Part IV – Adapting Games to Games
Video games are a visual medium. With console gaming, adapting a video game to television is just changing where the input comes from. Early video games were fairly linear; computing power and no storage for saved games combined to keep the play simple enough to avoid overloading the console but challenging enough to keep players interested. Over in the microcomputer world, graphics were still primitive, but games could be saved, allowing for longer play.
Console games did allow for recognizable characters. Icons such as Pac-Man, Mario, and Donkey Kong became household words, first through the video arcade, then through home console adaptations.** With the focus of early console gaming on kids, naturally the early adaptations were animated. Pac-Man, Q-Bert, Super Mario Bros. Super Show, and Dragon’s Lair led the way in North America. Accuracy to the games more or less meant taking all the named characters and using them in similar roles as they had originally. Thus, Mario fought Bowser, Pac-Man dealt with Inky, Blinky, Pinky (no, not that Pinkie). The nature of the medium, though, meant that you just couldn’t show the game being played; at the minimum, advertising regulations would have to be ignored. In the case of Mario, the Princess needed to be part of the cast; she couldn’t be “in another castle” off-screen. Plots had to go beyond the game but still keep elements. Mario kept a cheesy Italian accent and had a boing sound effect whenever he jumped. Pac-Man became invulnerable when he ate a power pellet.
As the technology evolved, so did games. Graphics improved mainly because gaming demanded better. Eight bits gave way to sixteen, and sixteen to “holy crap, that’s a lot of pixels!” As storage became less of an issue, going from none for the Atari 2600 to external memory cards for the Playstation to gigabyte rated hard drives common today, more information could be saved. More information could also be stored on the game’s physical media, having gone from cartridges to CD-ROM and, later, DVD and higher density formats. This allowed games to go from basic plots such as, “Defend the Earth from invaders,” “Rescue the Princess from the castle,” and “Eat everything while running from ghosts” to more complex plots. Even 2D fighting games received elaborate backstory and each character had a history. Video games started to mature.
Adaptations of video games? Not so much. The early silver screen adaptations were Super Mario Bros., Double Dragon, and Street Fighter/. Street Fighter is reaching cult classic status, mainly through Raul Julia’s performance. Super Mario Bros. wasted a good cast including Bob Hoskins and Dennis Hopper with a set that oozed brown. Double Dragon reached the worst rating at Rotten Tomatoes. However, Mortal Kombat reversed the trend, becoming the first Hollywood video game adaptation to keep the spirit of the original game and not drive audiences away. Meanwhile, on television, Pokemon became a juggernaut, expanding the world of the game while keeping to the gameplay.
The problem with adapting a video game is that the player has an active role in the plot of the game. By turning from an active audience (the players) to an passive one (the viewers), the onus is now to draw in and keep the audience. Characters have to be, if not pleasant for the audience, interesting. Few works have a dull protagonist.*** In a video game, though, the less personality a character has, the more the player can infuse, adding an extra level of enjoyment. In Mass Effect, the player has full control over Commander Shepard’s reaction to shipmates and events; the gameplay encourages the player to make these decisions. A Mass Effect movie focusing on Shepard would have to decide on which Shepard, male or female, renegade or paragon, even where the character was born, details that get decided by the player in the video game.
The next problem to deal with is the plot. Most video games have a plot of their own, one that the player either completes or abandons. Adapting the plot essentially spoils the ending of the game for the audience. Some games, such as the Tomb Raider and Prince of Persia series, are based around an activity that is repeatable, such as exploration. Franchise games can lend open up options; Mario may be a plumber, but Nintendo has managed to have him rescue princesses, race cars, and prescribe pills. Not all franchises can do this. The appeal of The Sims series is the open sandbox the games provide.****
I’ve touched on a few key elements – plot, setting, characters, and gameplay. A successful adaptation of a video game needs to at least acknowledge these elements. Missing on one might not hurt the adaptation. Missing on all and the movie is an adaptation in name only; a good example is Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li. These days, the audience expects more from adaptations. Mediocre films don’t last in the theatres. Big budget busts such as Battleship, which recovered its budget plus some, are seen as exploitative of the fanbase. The fans already exist; that’s the main reason for doing an adaptation. Studios need to respect the fans.
Next week, part II looks at adapting boardgames.
* And theatre, though I’d be surprised if someone made that leap.
** At some point, there will be an ourobouros of adaptations when a video game is made of a TV show based on a movie inspired by a video game that was ported from an video arcade game.
*** Insert Twilight joke here.
**** And yet, a Hollywood studio has optioned the game.