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AAA Games Coming to the Big Screen

By Alison Lanier | TV | July 13, 2023 |

By Alison Lanier | TV | July 13, 2023 |


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We are on the brink of exiting the glutted cultural dominance of the formula superhero comic book movie, as Marvel shifts more and more into TV and its blockbuster releases seem to get less and less traction. But fear not-the next trend is sprinting in behind it. And it’s the AAA video game movie.

For those non-gaming nerds out there, first of all, what are you doing? And secondly, “AAA” is a colloquial video game industry to describe the big, blockbuster games, franchises like Assassin’s Creed, Last of Us, The Witcher, Horizon Zero Dawn, etc. You know, those games that have a budget of like $200 million.

We have quite a few major game adaptations coming down the pipeline: God of War, Ghost of Tsushima, Bioshock, Death Stranding, BorderlandsSuper Mario Bros is adjacent to the trend-but it isn’t the prestige-driven AAA game that I’m talking about here.

Last of Us is probably one of the most familiar adaptations for non-gamers, for the very good reason that it was an excellent interpretation of one of the best games out there. HBO delivered proof of concept on a struggling premise: translating the immersive, gameplay appeal of video games into watchable non-interactive media.

Video game movies have, notoriously, generally sucked over the course of the last twenty years. Take for instance the Assassin’s Creed movie, which despite boasting serious talent with Michael Fassbender in the lead role and being one of the most narratively and cinematically interesting game franchises at the time. Prince of Persia failed fabulously with … Jake Gyllenhaal as the titular prince. We’re not pretending that makes sense. More recently, there’s been Mortal Kombat. Which…Yeah, we don’t need to talk about that.

Tomb Raider is technically a video game adaptation, but honestly it’s hard to put it in the same category, with the blockbuster movies taking the games’ premise and lead character and running off into the Hollywood stratosphere. While the games remained popular, the movies moved off to become essentially their own entity.

The Witcher similarly is associated with a massively successful video game franchise (one of my favorites, but I’m pretty biased over here), but the show itself isn’t an adaptation of the games but of the book series, which the games then riffed off of.

More contemporary adaptations, including Last of Us, are helped along significantly by the movie-like framing and cinematics around the game’s story. Last of Us as a game embraced a guided camera with fully acted cut scenes. For contrast, consider Diablo IV-fixed camera angle with an extremely limited number of cut scenes. Last of Us was primed to be adaptable, visually and narratively.

But still, Last of Us did more than just translate to screen. I’m thinking specifically of the series’ third episode, which was both an unexpected treat and a departure based around artifacts you as the player/Joel can discover strewn around the game’s post-zombie-apocalypse world. As someone who spends chunks of my day writing narratively driven item descriptions for games, with the vague hope that some completionist player will one day pay enough attention to item descriptions to string together the story on a Reddit thread, that episode made my heart very happy. Well, it also broke it. But you get what I’m saying.

It was an impressive bit of innovation that used the series format to really explore and enliven the tragedy of the game world, moving away from the central characters and the action/suspense to delve into the richness of the storyworld’s humanity. Basically, a reinvention of what a game adaptation could look like.

Still, there’s the tricky nuance of capturing the immersive appeal that brings you inside of a game’s story. I spent a lot of my higher education listening to people try to define/explain the experience of immersion, but it remains elusive as ever in my opinion. We can talk about the elements that contribute to it-a sense of experiencing movement through simulated space, for instance. But exactly what immersion is feels deeply phenomenological to me. The experience of it is the thing itself.

I’m thinking about moments like the finale of Bioshock (spoilers, spoilers!) when the player helplessly watches from their first person perspective as their hands-the hands they’ve been controlling for at least seven-ish hours of playtime at that point-are suddenly out of their control. It’s a seriously jarring moment in the story, and a disturbing one in an already-disturbing game.

That’s the kind of experience that’s difficult to lift into a movie or a TV show. It can’t be done in a one-for-one translation-it has to be adapted, in the sense of being transformed for a new environment. Capturing the thrill of an Assassin’s Creed leap from staggering heights, or the sense of exploration in Ghost of Tsushima’s open world … How to take central, experiential aspects of a game and bring it into another medium?
That’s the golden question. I guess we’ll see just how well it can be answered.