As anyone unfortunate enough to have watched early 90s video game movies will attest, there are some games that should remain firmly in their original renditions, saving audiences from the pain of seeing their favourite franchises humiliate themselves on the big screen.
But studios and producers keep giving the video-game-to-film transition a go, with some, presumably, getting green-lit purely for the guaranteed box office receipts. But, with Unchartered hitting cinemas this month, it's worth asking: what chance do these films have of actually being good?
If we’re going to answer this question, we’ll need to first delve into the early history of movie adaptations being developed from video games. Let's travel back to 1993, when Super Mario Bros the movie was released. This adaptation was based on the wildly successful video game of the same name.
The movie wasn't received with the same universal delight as the game. Super Mario Bros the movie was given a budget of $48 million, but only managed to make back half that amount. Not only was there no profit, the movie was also declared “the worst movie of 1993.” This calamity would not lead to the demise of video game movies. In fact, in 1994 a Street Fighter movie was released. Although the movie wasn’t a huge improvement in quality compared to Super Mario Bros, it did bring in a huge profit, making $100 million after having spent just $30 million producing the film. The following year, the Mortal Kombat movie went further, taking $122 million with a budget of only $20 million.
These were not good movies. So why were they generating such huge profits even though the ratings were so low? It's simple: people who loved video games would pay any amount to see their characters being bad-ass on the silver screen. And why were these video game-to-movie productions rarely good? It seems that the low bar set by the very first game-to-movie titles was rarely raised. Plus, there's a problem even for gamers themselves. In video games, the player is the character. The player controls the hero, giving them a depth and a connection that cannot be achieved in the one-way medium of a movie.
Movies often try to make you like a character through the "Save the Cat" technique, coined by Blake Snyder. The idea is that audiences like characters who perform good acts – for example, saving a cat. Hellboy gives a nice nod to the "Save the Cat" idea when the title character saves a cat during an action scene.
Saving a cat doesn't work as well for video game characters transposed into movies because people have already played as that character. They’ve made a unique connection with the character after hours of controlling them on a smaller screen. Does this mean we’ll never see high-quality movie adaptations of video games? Not at all. In 2019, two video game movies, Angry Birds and Detective Pikachu, finally received over 60% on Rotten Tomatoes. And since then, this achievement has been far surpassed by the video game company Riot Games. In November 2021, the world was introduced to the first adaptation of the hit game franchise League of Legends, called Arcane. It shattered records set by any video game adaptation. Arcane was number 1 on Netflix in 38 countries and achieved a rare score of 9.4/10 and 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. It's regarded as a masterpiece.
But what did Riot Games do that no other movie had done? The approach didn’t assume you knew everything about the game's story; instead, the film's writers slowly developed its characters so that you wouldn’t have to love League of Legends to understand and fall in love with the story and its protagonists. As such, gamers and non-gamers alike heaped high praise on Arcane.
However, there have been doubts aired on the next mainstream release of a video game adapted into a movie. The movie in question? Uncharted, starring up-and-coming Tom Holland and veteran actor Mark Wahlberg.
Uncharted is one of the best-selling Playstation games of all time. It’s universally acclaimed and commercially successful. This means that the series story is already a success and a faithful adaptation is sure to be a box office hit. But it's guarantee of a critically acclaimed release.
And already, fans don't seem impressed. After the release of the first trailer of Uncharted, many were quick to voice their opinions on the movie. Some commented on the casting, lamenting that Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg are too far away from Nathan Drake and Victor Sullivan, the video game characters.
This initial feedback seems to indicate a return to the norm of video game movies: decent profits, but little to relish in terms of the content itself. But Uncharted may still see great success as a standalone action-adventure film, detached somewhat from its original gamer fanbase.
With Uncharted due for release in UK cinemas on Friday 11th February, we've not got long to wait until the votes are in on this latest adaptation of a much-loved game into a big-budget film.