On the difficulty of game adaptations (Destiny)

by Cody Miller @, Music of the Spheres - Never Forgot, Friday, February 04, 2022, 09:19 (902 days ago)
edited by Cody Miller, Friday, February 04, 2022, 09:22

There aren’t a lot of great video game film or TV adaptations. The old answer was that ostensibly Hollywood didn’t ‘get’ games. I don’t think that explanation holds up too much anymore, as there’s serious talent working on adaptations, both in front of the camera and behind. The real answer is largely academic, and I think I’ve cracked the code. It’s three major things:

1. Adaptation Set Theory
2. Narrative Differences
3. Focus on Lore

Set Theory

For set theory, think about what an adaptation is. You’re taking something from one medium and putting it into another. It seems pretty simple, but it all comes down to what you gain and what you lose. Book to movie is really easy to see this in. Books tell the story with text, and movies with sound and picture. The experience of reading a book is so dramatically different than watching a movie, such an adaptation is going to have a lot to offer. You can bring the world alive with images and sound, in a compelling, visceral, and immersive way. You can have actors breathe life into the characters. You lose something too though. Books can be atemporal, spending time on details that in a film would go by in a second. A glance, a thought, a detail, can be examined for meaning. Like, we all know the differences right? But the end result is going to be different enough, with the losses offset by gains, that the movie is its own, unique experience that is valuable on its own merits. Both can exist without one being better than the other, because they are fundamentally different, each with strengths. And most importantly, there are elements in each the other cannot possibly contain.

But think about game to movie. Let’s take Uncharted for example. What do we gain? Does the movie contain anything the game does not? The game is already using film to tell its story. The game’s got cutscenes, utilizing cinematography and editing. Characters are animated and motion captured, voiced by great actors. The game already contains film.

But Uncharted 4 has roughly 6 hours of cutscenes. Where’s the rest of the playtime? It’s in the things a movie can’t contain. The interactive elements. Ebert would have you believe no storytelling is possible when the black bars of the cutscenes end, but he’s wrong about that. Likely, he never really played games when he said that. Storytelling happens, but it’s a different kind of storytelling. Even discounting things like scripted sequences, and environmental storytelling, you’re connecting to the world through exploration. Curiosity. Watching a film you are interacting purely through interpretation of what you see, but your brain is in a totally different mode when playing a game. How do I solve this problem? Oooooo, what’s over here? You can switch between them seamlessly. Ebert wasn't just wrong, he was super wrong. Games might just be THE most capable medium for storytelling (IF the technology can improve significantly to facilitate more emotional interaction.)

I keep coming back to Tim Roger’s line in his Last of Us review, where he says that the game contains a lot of things a film editor would cut out. The guy can rant for literally ten hours about cyberpunk and say virtually nothing, and yet with one simple sentence cuts to the heart of why adapting these games is so hard. These moments wouldn’t be cut because they are bad; they would be cut because they simply don’t work when your brain is in interpretation mode. In Uncharted 4, there’s a level where you drive around a volcano looking for various things that will lead you to the next step of your quest. While you navigate the hilly, muddy terrain, Sam and Nathan talk to each other. They talk about a bunch of stuff. For a long time while you’re trying to find a way over that mudslide. In a film this would be deadly. 15 minutes of chit chat would kill a film. But here it’s fine. Because you’re not just sitting back and interpreting. You’re exploring and taking it all in. Your brain is engaged with active interaction.

So for modern AAA games, that utilize cinematic language to help tell their stories at all, you straight up lose all this when you adapt them to movies. And you really gain nothing in return. So at best, the adaptation can simply be a lesser version of the game. At worst, it’s just a boring disaster. Unlike book to movie, the experience is not different in a meaningful way. It’s merely a part of the experience.

You might have a few objections. What about games that don’t utilize cinematic language? Good observation, and we’ll get to those. For those games have a chance. Your other objection might be that of accessibility. What if I can’t play Uncharted? Wouldn’t the movie be valuable then?

Narrative Differences

Narratives in games and movies are obviously different. Movies ARE narratives, simply told with picture and sound. But not games. The narratives in games are not strictly necessary. They serve a different function. Story in games is there to give context to the interaction and make it more meaningful. Even the simple story of Doom enhances the experience. The levels make sense; This is part of the mars base. This is in the depths of Hell. Rather than a random set of rooms. The monsters are demon spawn, so shooting them feels good.

The story is there to facilitate the interaction. But most games, especially AAA games, have a limited set of interactions largely based around running, jumping, shooting, or punching. So stories often focus on giving you the opportunity to do those things. But this doesn’t translate very well into film; lots of mindless action is very dull. People connect with films emotionally, through their characters and theme. Action scenes are the icing, and the character conflicts and emotional arcs are the cake. Think of how many scenarios in Uncharted are set up in order to give you something fun to do. Scenarios which would otherwise be superfluous if you weren’t asking the viewer to interact. The whole general narrative construction would simply be different.

Even in adventure games like Life is Strange, or Detroit, which focus heavily on the characters and the emotional aspects of stories, the scenarios are still set up to facilitate the interaction of player choice. Plots and set pieces are created to present the player with the opportunity to effect the outcome with their choices. This distinction may seem unimportant, but it’s generally at the heart of why so many game stories just don’t work when straight adapted to film. They weren’t built for them.

So Change It

So far the best adaptations have skirted both issues. Take a game that doesn’t use cinematic language, and craft a totally new story built for film that utilizes the essential elements and iconography of the game. It’s the Angry Birds / Sonic method. Werewolves Within, the current highest rated video game adaptation on Rotten Tomatoes does this too. The game is essentially VR mafia. So the movie takes the simple premise, and write a whole story about it. League of Legends is a dumb MOBA, but take the characters and write stories for them? You get a hit with Arcane.

It seems like at least so far, you’ve got to do both things. I can’t really think of say, a visually simple game whose story is straight up adapted, that worked. Nor can I really think of an AAA game that uses cinematic language already, but whose adaptation basically writes a new story using the game’s essential elements (I guess that will be Halo, we’ll have to see). The most successful adaptations seem to require both, visually simple games and a totally new story, likely because in such a case the adaptation has most to gain.

The Trap of Lore

I didn’t much care for Mortal Kombat 2021. I think it falls into the lore trap, where they try to incorporate tons and tons of it into the adaptation in order to show that they ‘care’ and want to do it ‘right’, but it just ends up derailing the story and being dull. In games, because finding and reading lore occurs during play, it’s okay to ‘derail’ the narrative as I’ve explained above. But you can’t do that in a movie. Lore is superfluous, lore is poison, unless it directly affects the characters or the story. Mortal Kombat spends something like 17 minutes at the beginning setting up the histories of Scorpion and Sub Zero, and yet the main narrative really has fuck all to do with any of that. The 1995 movie did more in 3 minutes to meaningfully set up only what you needed to know about the characters and their motivations.

For film, more information isn’t always better. Time spent isn’t always worthwhile. Look at Dune. We have the first adaptation largely considered successful, and what do you get? Most of the lore is removed. The intricate politics explained in so much detail in the book are barely mentioned; just enough to let you know what’s at stake. Chapter 2 of the book has the Baron explaining the plot, and the intricacies of the political relationships to Feyd, in order to teach and groom him as a successor. This is totally absent in the film, as are much of the details from the book. Why? Because they bog down a film which requires continuous, real time presentation. Flipping back and forth through the footnotes and appendix is fine while reading. But stopping a movie kills everything. You just need to know enough to understand whats going on and why you should care.

Where does this leave Bungie?

I know the temptation is going to be there with the grimoire. I know this is where all the effort, all the writing, and all the world building went. Destiny already has cutscenes, but not really to the degree of other more story driven games. The story is totally not suitable for a straight up adaptation. This is why I think the first thought is going to be to go to the grimoire. But I think that’s mistake. The grimoire is like a history book. It’s events; facts without dramatization.

This must be resisted. It seems like the only way forward is to take the elements, the setting, the iconography of Destiny, and just craft a story inside of it that stands alone and has characters with emotional complexity. Like sure, incorporate some of it, but if it’s just side stories or pieces of lore Love Death Robots style, an anthology of grimoire, I can’t really see that working too well.


Obviously this stuff is important to think about and consider. Time and time again game adaptations fall into this trap. Even with Sony behind them, that’s no guarantee if the wrong choices are made (See the upcoming Uncharted movie). One of the most cinematic games ever made… looks really uninspiring as an actual movie.

i would love nothing more than for Bungie to succeed with this, and I think a little look at what has worked and what hasn’t could go a long way. There’s a kind of revival of game adaptations lately, and I want Bungie to be on the side of the best of them.

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