Concluding Lost in Translation‘s look a adapting tabletop setting is Shadowrun. Originally published in 1989 by FASA, Inc, the game is currently on its sixth edition, called Shadowrun Sixth World and published by Catalyst Game Labs. The game is a cross between cyberpunk and high fantasy, with elves, dwarves, orks, and trolls being subspecies of humanity and dragons control major corportations.
The core idea is that magic returned in 2011 in an event known as the Awakening, an event marking the shift from the Fifth World to the Sixth as per Mayan calendars. This Awakening of maigc leads to a year of chaos across the globe and the first dragon sighted on Mount Fuji in Japan. However, this is just the topping to other problems going on. In the US, the Shiawase decision of 2000 allows for corporations to claim extraterritoriality, where a properly demarked site is its own corporate sovereign nation. With a pandemic in 2010, the economy is strained and governments collapse. In North America, the First Nations take advantage of the chaos to reclaim land, forming the Native American Nations. Naturally, Canada and the US take umbridge with that and strike back. What the military forces weren’t expecting was the use of the Great Ghost Dance to be magically backed.
In short, the world is hosed, governments have no power over corporations, and the threat of a new pandemic makes living look bleak. Relevant to our times.
In the game, players are shadowrunners, the cut outs and go-betweens as corporations use every possible advantage to get an edge over the rest. Shadowrunners are freelance deniable expendable assets, dirty deeds done for reasonable rates, taking on corporate security to extract valuable information or personnel for a paycheque. Characters can be magically active or they can be cybered so much they vibrate while standing still. Hackers, called deckers, can tear through intrusion countermeasure, or IC, like tissue paper. Riggers are the getaway drivers becoming one with their vehicles and capable of commanding an army of drones. Corporations, though, get the same access to equipment as player characters, possible more as business has the budget and characters have to find someone willing to sell or out and out steal the gear.
The default approach for a campaign is that player characters are shadowrunners, being hired for a number of jobs. The characters can come up with their own ideas, either for payback or to assist someone, but the typical game session will follow the same standard format. However, there are other possibilities. Characters can work for the main medical provider, Doc Wagon, as a High Threat Response Team, and be on the lighter side of grey. Or the characters can be members of a gang trying to protect their turf. Perhaps they could be corporate troubleshooters with a steady salary and medical benefits. There’s room for variation.
Adapting the setting shouldn’t be difficult. The presented game play is perfect for a movie; a heist along the lines of Oceans Eleven, Leverage, or The Italian Job provides the scaffold to build from, then add elements from the game. One of the characters is one of the subspecies. The muscle of the team has cybernetics. Use one of the Triple-A corporations in the game as the victim. Add the cyberpunk in, mix with the fantasy elements.
For television, follow a team of shadowrunners. Leverage was able to present a heist movie in about forty-five minutes in every episode. The draw was the characters and how they’d execute a job. Of course, the setting has its darker side, as if being a corporate-run dystopia wasn’t enough. With magic came beings beyond humanity’s ken. Insect spirits looking for host bodies. Blood magic. Magically changed viruses that lead to vampirism. Adding an episode or two to focus on the magical side of the setting allows for horror to be added to the cyberpunk/fantasy mix.
The main drawback to adapting the game is the setting. Describing it to Marketing would be trying to explain cyberpunk, Tolkien fantasy, heist movies, and then combining them. High tech and magic tend to sit in separate worlds, with exceptions such as Star Wars. Even that movie, A New Hope took time and effort before being picked up by a studio.
Once past the hurdle called Marketing, the next problem is budget. The different realms of the setting will have a different look. Reality is going to have contrasts between clean, glistening corporate enclaves and the grimy streets the characters live in. The virtual world is going to need its own look, with icons for everything without necessarily looking like a clone of Tron. The magical realm should look appropriate, beckoning, waiting, eerie, and dangerous.
Even the mundane world will require work. To reflect the game setting, the core metahumans – elves, dwarves, orks, and trolls – need to be seen. With how metahumanity came about, it’s possible to have a Caucasian dwarf, a Black elf, an Indigenous ork, or an Asian troll. Diversity is going to be needed; everyone gets downtrodden except the one percent. That said, unlike BattleTech, there aren’t centuries of history to choose from. It’s easiest to take the world as per the current edition. Shadowrun is always in the now, whether the now is 2050 like in the first edition or the 2080s of Sixth World. It may be easier to hand wave the technology in the setting by using the later date.
Shadowrun would be a challenge for a studio to adapt, but the setting is rich enough to make the effort pay off. As with all adaptations, the success depends on the effort made by studios to recognize why a work is popular and to keep that the heart of the new work.
Continuing Lost in Translation‘s look at adapting tabletop gaming settings, let’s jump into the future, a future where mankind has been at war somewhere in the galaxy for several hundred years. A future where feudal lords vie for control of all human space. Welcome to BattleTech.
Lost in Translation has covered the BattleTech animated series. While the series had issues, it did show off the then-current Clan Invasion metaplot the game was going through. In universe, the cartoon is anti-Clan propaganda by the Lyran owned Tharkad Broadcasting Company, with the characters based on real people in the setting. The BattleTech setting has several hundred years of history, providing a number of eras of play for players, from the Aramis Civil War and the end of the Star League in the late 2700s, the four Succession Wars, the Clan Invasion of the 3050s, the FedCom Civil War of the 3060s, and the Word of Blake Jihad of 3067. Conflict is built into the setting.
BattleTech has something few other tabletop games provide, giant stompy mechs fighting each other. No matter what form the adaptation takes, the draw will be war machines stomping their enemies into paste. The MechWarrior series of video games has focused on putting the player into the pilot seat of a BattleMech, controlling one of the engines of war. The recent BattleTech video game puts the action at the lance level, giving the player control of four `Mechs to fight against enemy units.
The question becomes, what level should an adaptation look at? Will the adaptation follow a lance of ‘Mech pilots getting in over their heads? Or will it take a top level approach, using the different Houses and their machinations to become the one ruling the known galaxy? Are the Clans threatening to invade, a threat not yet looming, or a pacified enemy that is now in competition with the Great Houses?
At the lance level, the best choice of unit is mercenary. House units tend to be in garrison unless either the war arrives on their world or they’re sent to the front. Mercenaries have more choice on what sort of job they take. In film, it’s almost traditional that the hired guns aren’t told the full story about what they’re getting into. The plot could be taken from other genres, from heists to Westerns. The smaller cast allows for more focus on just the unit, not worrying about the politics going on at the galactic level.
However, with the Great Houses, it’s possible for a BattleTech version of A Game of Thrones, The five Great Houses – Steiner, Davion, Kurita, Liao, and Marek – along with some Minor Houses such as Centralla of the Magistracy of Canopus, Calderon of the Taurian Concordat, and O’Reilly of the Marian Hegemony. Not only is there conflict between the Houses, there is conflict within the Houses. Conflict that bleed out to the battlefield, fought by BattleMechs. To continue the comparison with A Game of Thrones, the Clans can represent the White Walkers, lurking, ready to strike.
The Clans provide yet another approach to the setting. The Clans themselves are alien in thinking to the Inner Sphere, but they are still human. The differences is how Clan culture evolved, with scarcity, ritualized combat to prevent unnecessary losses of MechWarriors, and a stratified caste structure placing warriors at the pinnacle. Following a Star, the Clan equivalent of a lance, of new MechWarriors as they fight for position in Clan society, figuratively and literally, and dealing with how the Inner Sphere does things provides a conflict to build a plot on.
Suffice to say, BattleTech provides a wide range of potential for adaptations. The catch, like with most tabletop games, is that the game isn’t widely known. The video games, however, give the setting a boost in recognition. The other problem is the expense of special effects. The animated series had a limited number of BattleMechs for use during the enhanced imaging portions of a battle. Granted, the cartoon came out when CGI was in its infancy; it’s possible to have more models available for scenes now, especially if there’s assistance from the video games. Introducing the setting to a new audience shouldn’t be difficult; all works need to go through that, especially genre fiction, original or adapted.
BattleTech has a rich setting to plunder for adaptations, with the only common factor being oversized walking tanks ruling the battlefield. The BattleMechs are the draw; the story is what will keep the audience. Getting the existing fans onside shouldn’t be difficult, especially with the volumes written about all the factions that exist within the setting. A studio just has to choose an approach.
Last week, Lost in Translation looked at ways to adapt a Dungeons & Dragons setting. Dragonlance was built around the War of the Lance and its aftermath, so the plot tends to be locked in. This week, a look at a different D&D setting, The Forgotten Realms.
The Realms, also known as Faerûn, was created by Ed Greenwood in 1967 as a setting for his children’s stories. When D&D came about, he adapted the setting for his home game, expanding the setting. He sold the setting to TSR, the owner of Dungeons of Dragons, and continued to contribute to the setting through published setting books detailing parts of the Realms and through Dragon magazine in his column, “Pages from the Mages”. The Realms are the epitome of D&D fantasy – high magic both arcane and divine, warriors wielding magic weapons and wearing magic armour, and rogues sneaking around with magical cloaks. Unlike Dragonlance, the Realms had no ongoing plot, just various organizations both good and evil plotting.
Through novels set in the Realms, a number of characters have become breakthrough stars, from the dual-wielding drow elf Drizz’t Do’Urden to halfling bard Olive Ruskettle. There isn’t one core cast, which will help with any adaptation. DC Comics took advantage of this when they published the short-lived Forgotten Realms comic, bringing a mix of characters that wouldn’t feel out of place at the gaming table.
The question becomes, what can be done? The different parts of the Realms provides different answers. Waterdeep allows for intrigue and has an entrance to the Underdark, the part of the Realms under the ground where monsters roam. The Dalelands are a pastoral area with a number of nations around it looking at invading, not all of the potential invaders being evil. There is a nation, Thay, ruled by evil wizards, including an undead necromancer. Any number of fantasy antagonists can be cooking up a plot that needs to be thwarted.
The advantage of the Realms as a gaming setting becomes a drawback for adaptations. There is so much potential, where would a studio start? Movie or TV series? Start in a large city or in the middle of nowhere? Dungeon crawl or surface quest? With a film, the story can get to the action faster, showing the characters in action, then introducing the main plot, along the lines of a 007 opening. Television gives time to develop the characters, show them growing.
Dungeon crawls are what people associate with D&D. At some point, the adventurers head underground to clear out monsters. Even the 2000 Dungeons & Dragons movie had a couple of dungeon crawls including a decent scene at the thieves’ guild. But all dungeon all movie means a cramped movie where the expectation is that the full screen will be used. Even if at the end of the crawl is a dragon’s layer – the game is called Dungeons & Dragons after all – a crawl doesn’t allow for many character moments.
Television is much more set for character moments. What would be seen as a filler scene in a movie becomes required on TV. There’s room to learn more about the characters, give everyone a moment to shine, even episodes focusing on a specific character. The drawback is budget. Television episodes don’t have the budget that film can get. There may not be an appetite for a fantasy TV series. A Game of Thrones succeeded, but was on HBO, so ratings weren’t as important as new and returning subscribers. Broadcast TV lives and dies on ratings, even with the ability to shift when an episode is watched.
The Forgotten Realms has name value among fans, but audiences might not have heard of the setting despite the sheer number of tie-in novels released. The result could be a flop; it doesn’t matter how good a movie is if no one goes to see it. With television, the stakes are higher; if ratings for the early episodes are low, a network will cancel to replace with something else. That said, the Realms provides a wide open sandbox to play in. There’s no overall plot to worry about when creating new stories in the setting, giving the Realms a slight advantage of Krynn.
And since the 2000 Dungeons & Dragons movie was mentioned, a new D&D movie has been filmed and is due for release March 2023. The new film was originally scheduled for July 2021, but was pushed back first for the latest Mission: Impossible entry then by pandemic response. Normally, a film being pushed back is a cause for alarm, but the last two years have seen many movies, good and bad, delayed thanks to COVID-19.
Lost in Translation has covered a Dragonlance adaptation, the 2008 animated film, Dragons of Autumn Twilight, based on the novel by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, which itself was based on the DL-series of modules released starting in 1982. The published adventures and the novels covered the War of the Lance as the heroes, Tanis Half-Elven, Raistlin and Caramon Majere, Goldmoon, Riverwind, Flint Fireforge, Tasslehoff Burrfoot, Sturm Brightblade, and, later, Tika Waylan, work to unite the nations of Krynn and recover the fabled Dragonlances, magical weapons capable of killing dragons. The story is an epic battle between good and evil, where gods walk the world.
The animated film showed the problems of trying to fit a novel into a ninety minute movie. The movie was accurate, but lost details and depth trying to get as much story on screen as possible. However, the world of Dragonlance, Krynn, has much more to it than shown in the novels. Game settings need a world for players to adventure in, even if the novels’ heroes are doing the heavy lifting. The setting includes two elven nations at odds with each other; the Silvanesti being insular and hidebound compared to the Qualinesti, who are hostile to outsiders. Yet, there’s room to deal with the corruption of the Silvanesti by the green dragon Beryl. Evil isn’t just afoot, it’s on the march.
There’s several ways to adapt the Dragonlance setting. The obvious one is to adapt the novels and learn the lessons from the 2008 animated movie. The core of the novels is the interaction between the characters; this draws from each character being played during playtesting of the modules. Film run times, even the longer ones at 150-180 minutes, don’t have the space for deep characterization, especially with a large cast. Add in battle scenes and there’s even less time for character moments. However, as A Game of Thrones demonstrated, television has the time to delve into a larger cast of characters. Unlike A Game of Thrones, the War of the Lance is complete. No waiting for the next book to be written.
Another option is to have new characters in a different part of Krynn as they fight in the War of the Lance. The drawback will be that the adaptation won’t have the characters fans are familiar with. However, DC Comics did have a short-lived Dragonlance comic in 1988 that featured new characters. Again, the best route would be television; a movie’s run time won’t be enough to get the background info across without taking away from screen time for the main plot.
If a film adaptation is needed, the best approach would be to break down each book to find good break points. This will turn a three book series into a six movies or more, but the loss of what the fans want will be minimized. The large cast will still be an issue, but might be handled better with the run times of half a dozen films.
The setting has a history and a future. Works have been set before the Cataclysm that marked the withdrawal of the gods from the world; others have been set after the War of the Lance. Dragonlance Legends involved magical time travel, so there are possibilities. The drawback is introducing the setting to a broader audience. Fans will know what the Cataclysm is; someone new to the setting won’t.
Dragonlance is a popular setting, with a greater success through the novels released, There is a fan base, but the setting can be closed to a more general audience. A successful adaptation will have to take the characters fans love and introduce the plot in a way that doesn’t leave the broader audience scratching their heads.
Lost in Translation has looked at the difficulties inherent in adapting a television series to a movie before. However, challenges exist to be met. Let’s take a look at one of the challenges, expanding the audience to pull in more than just the core fandom.
Movies are expensive to make, with the 2015 Jem and the Holograms being an outlier at only US$5 million to make and today’s blockbusters regularly exceeding US$200 million. An adaptation cannot afford to turn away potential audiences, but word of mouth by fans can also break a movie. This is one reason why superhero movies start at the origin; while fans are well aware of how a character got his or her abilities, the average person might not.
Television deals with the problem of getting new viewers up to speed every week. Continuity lockout harms a TV series, preventing new audiences from jumping into the show. Streaming can help, with older episodes available on the network’s website, but that’s a recent technology. In the past, streaming and even video tapes weren’t available to the general audience. Television worked around that, with characters painted with broad strokes and creative use of opening credits. With the broad strokes, characters can be described using short phrases, such as the angry guy, the jokester sidekick, and the long-suffering spouse, all of which is easy to portray in a two-minute clip.
Opening credits, though, can set up the situation faster. While not in use as much today, the expository opening theme outright states what’s going on. Classic examples of such opening credits include Gilligan’s Island, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and The Powerpuff Girls. Handy, efficient, and not used much in film since the Sixties* as technology progressed enough to overlay titles on action sequences, allowing the film to get to the plot right away.
At the same time, if opening credits aren’t going to be used, how can a film get a new audience up to speed without having fans yawn at old information? Time is limited in a film; few people will sit through a five hour movie. For this analysis, let’s take a look at Mystery Science Theatre 3000. MST3K had a ten year run with three different broadcasters, starting at KTMA in Minneapolis, then moving to Comedy Central and ending at the SciFi/SyFy Channel. During its run, the show used an expository theme song to let audiences know what its premise was. The opening theme was flexible enough to account for a cast change, going from Joel to Mike and even adjusting for a network required ongoing plot. The short version – evil mad scientist inflicts terrible movies on a victim trapped on an orbiting station; the victim builds friends out of spare parts to help make fun of the terrible movies.
Mystery Science Theatre 3000: The Movie, released in 1996 and riffing on This Island Earth, didn’t make use of the opening theme the TV series had. Instead, the movie opened in Deep 13 with Dr. Clayton Forrester, played by Trace Beaulieu outright telling the audience what will happen. Normally, the adage is “Show, don’t tell,” but this time, the telling was just part of the equation. It’s what is going on while Dr. F is telling the audience what to expect that shows what the movie will be about. As Dr. F monologues, he’s walking through his lab, showing that he’s not all that effective at being an evil mad scientist. Up on the movie-budget upgraded Satelite of Love, Mike Nelson, played by Michael J. Nelson, is in the middle of a 2001: A Space Odyssey parody, running on a giant hamster wheel with Gypsy(Jim Mallon) and Cambot observing when Tom Servo(Kevin Murphy) arrives to warn him about the latest nutty thing Crow T. Robot(Trace Beaulieu). Crow, who has seen one too many World War II prison camp movies, has decided the best way to escape the SOL is to tunnel out. In these two scenes alone, the situation is introduced, the characters are shown for they are, and the movie has started. It took a little longer than the TV series’ opening credits, but here, the audience is brought into the movie, ready to put aside any suspension of disbelief and establishing the film as a comedy.
Given the nature of the series, MST3K has some extra challenges most TV shows don’t have. Most shows use commercial breaks to generate revenue and drop in a minor cliffhanger. When adapted, the show changes to match the format of the big screen, keeping the plot moving through the beat structure of film. MST3K, though, used commercial breaks in part to have the characters react via skit to what they saw and in part to give the audience a respite from the featured movie**. A feature film, though, doesn’t have real commercial breaks; audiences would riot. MST3K: The Movie had to use other means to get to the skits, including a broken film and Mike and the bots just walking out of the theatre to find Servo’s interociter. The result was the same, a break from the film to let the characters react to what they saw and a break for the movie audience from This Island Earth, a slow-paced film that had far too much telling and too little showing, with the alleged main character just along for the ride.
Of course, the movie wasn’t only for new audiences. Long-time viewers could find in-jokes throughout the film, including the use of “Torgo’s Theme” from Manos, The Hands of Fate as Mike uses the external graspers. The movie didn’t rely as much on callbacks as the TV show did, making it a good introduction to new viewers. Any callbacks in the movie, such as “Torgo’s Theme” can give a veteran fan an in to circulate the tapes*** to a new fan. Continuity is important, but a new viewer, especially watching the movie of the TV series, needs to be able to understand what’s going on without needing a ten-page synopsis of the show.
Other movies adapted from a TV series reviewed here at Lost in Translation made an effort to introduce the characters to a new audience. Star Trek: The Motion Picture made sure that the audience knew that Kirk and McCoy were still friends, despite whatever had happened prior to the movie, and that Kirk and Spock were friends, but something happened to the latter before he rejoined the crew of the Enterprise. Likewise, with Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, the opening scenes establish who Eddy and Patsy are, two women who refuse to grow up, with Eddy rolling out of her car drunk after a fashion event.
Introducing the characters and situation isn’t a problem for just TV series adapted into film. Other media have the same problem, letting the audience know what’s going on and who the main characters are. With television, though, the medium is similar to film, both being visual, that it can be too easy to forget that the characters need to be re-introduced. Failure to do so locks out a portion of the potential audience, leaving them outside and not watching. Without the extra audience, the film could flop at the box office.
* There are exceptions, such as the entire 007 film run, and even Die Another Day turned the traditional Bond titles into a plot-relevant sequence.
** The series riffed on older B-movies, serials, and shorts, where the quality of the featured film was guaranteed to be bad but with hooks for the riffs. Alien from L.A. was but one film, but represented the type of work found on MST3K, bad but watchable with people having fun with it.
*** The series encouraged fans to circulate tapes of the episodes because of the limited access early audiences had. Not all cable companies carried Comedy Central at the time, and international audiences had to deal with a complex web of rights and licenses that the MST3K crew didn’t have to worry about.
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.
Tabletop Role-Playing Games
A relatively new form of gaming, tabletop role-playing games (RPGs) evolved from fantasy wargaming. The grandpappy of RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons came from adding elements to the Chainmail rule set allowing for individual characters to gain experience. From those humble beginnings, RPGs have spread to cover almost every conceivable genre, from swords & sorcery to space opera, historical romance to post-apocalyptic horror, Wild West to hard science fiction. Players take on the role of their character, unravelling the Game Master’s (GMs) plots.** The simplest and oldest of plots is the dungeon exploration, where a group of specialists go into a structure to kill the inhabitants and take their belongings.
For the purposes of this week’s entry, I’ll be including tabletop wargaming. RPGs were originally an offshoot of wargaming. Several franchises, such as Warhammer and Battletech have related role-playing lines. Other franchises, such as Traveller had tactical and strategic wargames based off the RPG’s setting.
I’ll return again to the four elements noted in Part I – plot, setting, characters, and gameplay. Each of these need to be acknowledged and included for an adaptation to succeed. With RPGs, though, the plot and characters are created by the players. Some games, notably Steve Jackson’s GURPS and Hero Games’ Champions, come without a setting in the core rules. Gameplay may be critical; players will want to be able to duplicate what the characters do on-screen.
If plot is player created, then what can the writers do? Ideally, they can figure out the sort of adventures player characters (PCs) are meant to go on. A fantasy game tends to imply an epic. Dungeons & Dragons should also include a dungeon*** and a dragon; some items are just expected. Meanwhile, the cyberpunk/Tolkien-esque fantasy fusion Shadowrun should involve a group of specialists hired to be expendable assets who break into a mega-corporate facility to retrieve the plot coupon, as in the shadowruns the title implies. Not all RPGs provide such inspiration, though. The various editions of Traveller allow GMs to create a huge sandbox for the players to wander in, to find adventure both in space and on the ground. The writers will have to pick a potential plotline out of supplemental material. Other games, such as TSR’s Boot Hill and R. Talsorian’s Mekton, bring their genres to the table to play in; in the examples given, Westerns and giant mecha anime, respectively. At this point, why license (other than to get the name)?
For games that come packaged with a setting, most of the work is done. Typically, there’s still room left for GMs to add their own twists, but basic facts are provided to help out. Catalyst Game Labs’ Shadowrun and Battletech and Alderac Entertainment Group’s 7th Sea are good examples, coming with a well-formed setting in each game mentioned plus numerous supplements that expand options. In Shadowrun‘s case, the history of the world from 2012 until 2070 is given, including the return of magic, the fragmentation of nations, and the rise of the mega-corporations. Battletech provides the background of factions, the different types of gear, including the game’s king of the battlefield, the BattleMech, and the various fronts of the wars between 2375 and 3072. 7th Sea shows a fictional Earth, called Théah, its history, and the political alliances that form the backdrop to a campaign. An adaptation needs to remember these details; players will be looking for them. Some items, such as history, can be glossed over, be referenced in throwaway line, or even forgotten about if the characters don’t care about the matter. However, ignoring the fracturing of Canada and the US in Shadowrun/ or dropping an alliance from 7th Sea because it’s inconvenient to the plot will have players complaining, killing word-of-mouth.
Characters for an RPG adaptation gives the writers room to maneuver. In some settings, there are a number of key non-player characters, such as Elminster for the Forgotten Realms and Seattle Governor Kenneth Brackhaven in Shadowrun. They don’t need to appear necessarily, but their existance may provide some inspiration for writers. Ideally, the characters created for the adaptation should be possible under the game’s character generation system. That said, most games try to make it possible for believable characters. Even when the power level is stratospheric, there needs to be room for character improvement. The other question is how experienced the characters of the adaptation are. Level based games such as Wizard of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons and Palladium Games’ Rifts start new PCs as youngsters heading out to adventure at the beginning of their career. Even games that aren’t based around levels can start PCs as rookies; White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade had PCs start as recently turned vampires. Other games, the various Travellers in particular, had PCs begin play with a years of experience under their belt. Still other games allowed for a variety of prior life experience, from the hot-shot rookie to the world-weary veteran, before play started. The key here for writers is to make sure that the main characters reflect what’s possible. A D&D-based movie can have a mid-level**** character as the hero as long as his or her abilities match what they should be for a PC in a game of that level.
The last, gameplay, is going to be a sticky point. Game mechanics do try to represent the genre, but abstraction does happen. A PC in D&D can keep going without a drawback as long as his or her hit point total remains above zero. Loss of hit points represents minor scrapes, twisted ankles, fatigue, and luck, but there is no mechanical disadvantage for being wounded. On screen, people may have trouble setting aside suspension of disbelief and believing that the fighter who just took an arrow to the knee can still run. Some mechanics may have to be set aside. However, if the game system uses Vancian magic+ and a wizard in the adaptation keeps casting Fireball multiple times without stopping to pull out his or her spellbook, there’s a problem. Writers need to keep the mechanics in the back of their mind to prevent glaring mistakes.
There hasn’t been many movie and TV adaptations of RPGs. The main factor is that tabletop RPGs are a niche market. Many exist to let players play in a specific genre, so adapting one of those games can seem silly. The best known RPG has had two adaptations; Dungeons & Dragons was first adapted as a Saturday morning cartoon, then later as a movie. Vampire: The Masquerade was turned into an Aaron Spelling nighttime soap called Kindred: The Embraced, lasting eight episodes. Over in Japan, the fantasy RPG Sword World became the basis for the novel series and anime Record of Lodoss War, based on the creator’s home campaign. The mecha wargames and RPGs Battletech and Heavy Gear have been turned into animated series. At one point, Rifts was optioned by Jerry Bruckheimer, though that seems to be at least stuck in development.
Record of Lodoss War may be the route to use, at least for a TV series – base the series off an actual campaign that has been played. The characters will have been developed, the setting is already fleshed out, and plot lines will have flowed from events naturally. For movies, the best way may be to give the game a test play and see if the results were both fun and lead to exciting visuals.
Next week, part IV, adapting games as games.
* And theatre, though I’d be surprised if someone made that leap.
** Like a cat unravels a wool sweater.
*** Or other underground structure.
**** Levels 5 through 8 or so. Enough to start dealing with serious threats without becoming responsible for a town’s security.
+ Magic where spellcasters memorize a spell, then release it later, “forgetting” the spell afterwards. Named after Jack Vance, who used the method in his works.
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.