Thoughts on Adaptations

It’s not easy to make a video game, as I’ve said numerous times already.  It’s even more difficult when the video game is based on something already established in another medium, whether as specific as certain characters or something as general as just the setting.  It’s no less difficult to take a video game and adapt it to another medium.

When done well, they pay homage to the source, perhaps bringing that source to a wider audience, or at least offer a way to broaden or deepen the source.  When done poorly, they can sometimes sour us to the source, occasionally even turning fans away.

The primary issue I feel that makes it difficult to adapt something else—say a novel or a film—to the video game format is keeping the “feel” of the original.  How can you implement everything the protagonist of the source embodies while still making it fun and challenging for the player?  That’s not an easy question to answer, especially if you have something that doesn’t have much precedent in games.

Even when there is, though, that doesn’t automatically mean it will be easy.  Take Spider-Man, for example.  He’s been in video games since the Atari 2600.  When it came to the game based on the second film, developer Treyarch completely redesigned the game engine.  The films offered the viewer the feeling of swinging with Spidey himself, of going through Manhattan with no limits—and the game was made to reflect that.

While the reviews for the three “main” versions of the game were generally good, as seen here, here, and here, one of the main complaints was that there was comparably little actual content.  Yes, the new engine was great, the city large, but—there wasn’t much there.  I didn’t mind it as much, as discussed here, but that’s edging into digression.

A character with interesting abilities may make for an interesting and even great film, but trying to format them for the game medium isn’t always easy—sometimes it may not even be possible, at least not in a way that’s fun and challenging.  further, part of what makes films and novels entertaining is being whisked away into a world and getting an almost voyeuristic chance to be the fly on the wall for spectacular events.

The reverse isn’t any easier, either—adapting games to another medium.  Just as there’s a reason why movie tie-in games are stereotyped to be bad, there’s a reason for the reverse stereotype.  Part of what makes video games interesting and fun in general is the sensation of actually taking part in the world—actually interacting.  You just don’t get that sense from a novel or a film, no matter what else it has going for it.  Sometimes a movie knows that to make a serious attempt wouldn’t end well, so they gleefully dive into campiness and over-the-top humor.

Take, for merely two examples, Mortal Kombat and DOA: Dead or Alive.  Both try to find the line and race across it at Mach Three.  Both start out with a scene or two that seem like the films are going to be serious, then speedily dive into camp and near-satire, taking refuge in audacity.

Perhaps unfortunately, the reverse can’t really be said to be true.  For a video game to wallow in camp and humor (that isn’t also a Duke Nukem title, that is), it usually has to do that at the expense of game play, game quality, and fun.  Sure, you can have a game where all you do is, say, chase women.  Well—only one franchise has ever made that work, but, as you can see here, it doesn’t work much anymore.  As gamer tastes have changed, we’ve generally wanted more out of our games.  We almost can’t really accept a parody anymore.

Developers know this.  Developers have the research studies, the input from testers and professional people-watchers, and all that.  Just because they have a decent idea of what we don’t like doesn’t mean they’ll be able to come out with something we will like.  (Of course, you also have external factors like financial limitations, publishing dates that have to be met, and more, but those are topics for another time.)

Developers know, more or less, what we’ll probably go for—or, on the flip-side of that, they may see a “niche” or the like that they may take a crack at exploring.  Either way, just because developers can have a decent idea of gamer tastes doesn’t mean they can easily adapt a movie or novel to our hobby’s medium, nor does it necessarily mean that they can help film-makers or novel-writers to adapt a video game.

As I’ve said many, man times—and as I will continue to say many, many times—making a video game isn’t easy.  It’s no less easy to adapt a video game.  Sometimes the adaption works.  Sadly, it usually doesn’t.  I’d like to see that change, though, and I really think it can.  I just hope it does.


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