The video game industry has exploded over the past twenty years, going from niche market to dominating entertainment medium. In that time, Hollywood has tried and failed repeatedly to cash-in on its success. With the current comic book movie boom in full-swing, video game adaptations remain the white whale in Tinseltown. Whichever studio, theatrical or television, that finally cracks the nut will set off a tidal wave of copycats.
So far, Hollywood has tried two extremely different kinds of “video game” adaptations. One is the uber serious, dark and gritty take that fails to understand the inherent silliness of all video game plots and usually focuses on all the wrong things. This is what failed the Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia movies, for example. The other, is the “video games are dumb, kids stuff so just cram as many cliches and out of place sound-effects into the movie as you can, nevermind the plot.” Here’s where I would talk about Pixels if I had the stomach for it.
Instead let’s talk about some video game franchises that deserve The Witcher treatment. By that I mean, video games that should be adapted into TV shows with a respect to the source material and a hook to make it easy to appeal to non-players. The Witcher was clearly pitched to Netflix (and by Netflix to casual viewers) as “our version of Game of Thrones.” Not every adaptation should try to be as epic, dramatic, and intense as a Game of Thrones knock-off. There are plenty of other styles to choose from…
Metal Gear Solid
A movie based on MGS has been in development hell for twenty years but for one reason or another has never materialized. The biggest problem has been trying to adapt the convoluted plotline into something workable as a two-hour movie. It can’t be done, and until recently a TV show was not feasible either, due to the tremendous cost it would incur to do the premise justice. Nowadays, shows are commanding budgets that rival feature films, making a Metal Gear TV show something feasible for the first time ever.
Do it in the style of Mission: Impossible.
In other words, instead of trying to adapt Kojima’s scripts into something that makes sense in the traditional sense, just scrap all but the essential elements. Make the show about Snake and his work as a black ops super spy, working to stop Metal Gear from destroying the world. Each episode could work as a stand-alone mission with a season-long story arc being developed. It might not be faithful to the plots of the games, but it would be to the spirit of them.
The Legend of Zelda
If there’s one Nintendo franchise its fans have wanted to see adapted it’s Zelda. Sure, we had the short-lived cartoon series, and it lives on today in meme form, but beyond that, Nintendo has been typically protective of seeing its properties given to Hollywood after the fiasco that was the Super Mario Bros. movie. They’ve relaxed a bit recently, allowing Detective Pikachu to be made and commissioning Illumination to create an animated movie based on Super Mario Bros. I can’t be the only person who hopes we’re slowly setting up an Avengers-style Smash Bros. crossover movie. Maybe The Legend of Zelda isn’t far off.
Do it in the style of Kubo and the Two Strings.
Even if we never get a Legend of Zelda movie, we will at least have Laika Animation’s fantastic stop-motion masterpiece to serve as the next best thing. The film’s plot, personality, Japanocentric style, felt the way I always imagined a Zelda movie would. Give the rights to Laika, let them make a ten-episode storyline that loosely adapts the plot of any of the main-line games, and let the magic run wild.
Two movies starring Angelina Jolie failed to become a major franchise. A recent reboot only barely limped to profitability. Despite that, Tomb Raider remains an idea with great potential, probably because its central idea has already been proven to work…
Do it in the style of Indiana Jones.
Indy was always meant to evoke the old cliffhanger serials, with quick action and a hero always getting into and out of mortal danger. The Tomb Raider movies have failed by being overly reliant on plot. The series doesn’t need a sprawling mythology or a decade’s worth of backstory. It just needs a charismatic adventurer, a tomb to raid, and hijinks to follow.
Whoever it was that decided to adapt Assassin’s Creed into a movie with a focus on the one part of the game series that everyone agrees is awful—the stuff involving the modern day and the animus—should be fired, full stop. The series is begging for a proper adaptation as the concept is tremendously easy to work either as a movie or a TV series.
Do it in the style of American Horror Story.
By that I mean, make it an anthology series where each season tells a story before everything is scrambled and done differently the next year. Put one season in ancient Rome, put another in colonial America, put another on the high seas in the age of sail, put another in Venice during the renaissance. The nature of the game’s central plotline—the ages-long battle between the Templar and the Assassins—demands a story told across multiple timelines. Making it work as a TV show is easy following the AHS approach; re-use actors and redress sets to save money, then focus on the writing to keep the show fresh and engaging.
Obviously, if you wanted to adapt, say, Final Fantasy IV or VI-X, you could get a season’s worth of story out of those games. You could, theoretically, do an anthology style series, adapting a game a year, but the plots would still have to be trimmed down into something reasonable that would work in ten, forty-minute chunks. In the end, it would probably be too much of a headache to make work, especially since those games have massive casts and backstories for each character. There is a way to do it, though.
Do it in the style of Stranger Things.
Since every major Final Fantasy release offers a brand new story, there shouldn’t be any pushback to a show that bears the name but has an original plot. In that case, writers are free to adapt the concepts of the game that have resonated so much with players over the past thirty years. Final Fantasy endures because it features disparate characters that come together for a common purpose. Along the way some of them bicker, some of them bond, some of them fall in love, but the core theme is friendship against a threat too big for any one of them.
That’s the secret to Stranger Things’ success.
Take that concept and put it either in a highly-stylized medieval setting (if you want to adapt the older FF games, or FF IX) or in a retro-futuristic setting (if you want to do something akin to FFVI-VIII). Maybe throw in a magic crystal or two, maybe a gunblade or buster sword if you want to pull from the lore; as long as you have an eclectic group of people, each with their own motivation for taking down the baddie, and a chance to bond together as a family-like group along the way (a death or two along the way wouldn’t hurt either), you’ve got the recipe for a fun Final Fantasy TV series.
One thing is true: Hollywood is persistent at chasing potential dollar signs. They will keep trying to make video game adaptations work until they stumble on a winning formula. Hopefully along the way they try zeroing on the core concepts that make those stories fun and worry less about adapting the plotlines to games that even those fans recognize are too bananas for TV.