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Games on Film

With games increasingly being adapted into films and television series, we consider whether we might be about to see a step up in quality.

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As the many entertainment subscription platforms get more and more saturated with cinematic adaptations of video games, it's time for us to ask ourselves the question; could we be about to enter a golden age of cinematic video game adaptations?

Screen adaptations of video games are hardly new phenomena. We've been given decent (and less so) films based on games over the span of four decades at this point, with Super Mario Bros., Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter back in the 1990s paving the way for those to come in the years that have followed.

Despite many of the adaptations going on to become cult classics, very few fared well critically and most were (and still are) seen as so-called B-movies; offering more laughter than immersion to viewers, often because of over-acting, horrifying effects, and cheesy storylines. Films such as the Resident Evil series, starring Milla Jovovich, or the Hitman movies (pick your 47 - neither Rupert Friend nor Timothy Olyphant nailed the role) flattered to deceive and failed to advance the cause of games in Hollywood. The less we say about Max Payne, Alone in the Dark, and Doom, the better.

Somewhere along the way, however, things took a turn for the better, and as we've passed through the end of yet another decade, the market for films and TV shows based on games is becoming bigger with increasingly well-funded productions. We're seeing plenty of crossover projects hopping onto the Netflix train, such as the newly released Ni No Kuni feature, the Castlevania series, and the acclaimed series based on The Witcher (which despite being based on the books of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, its success and widespread popularity is clearly drawn from the beloved CD Projekt Red game series).

And so, to the question at hand.

Is the boost in quality that we're starting to see a sign of the times? Has the realm of video games finally bridged the media gap and can it now be considered commonplace? We're starting to see more and more serious actors becoming involved with these adaptations, with Superman-actor Henry Cavill stepping into the shoes of Geralt of Rivia, Spider-Man actor Tom Holland set to portray Uncharted's Nathan Drake, Ryan Reynolds taking on the role of an exceptionally dapper Pikachu, and Alicia Vikander walking in the hiking boots of Lara Croft.

Games on Film
Photo: IMDb

This sprinkle of stardust directly reflects the casting within the game industry as well, as in-game performances have evolved greatly throughout the years. Developers aren't working with the technology of the 1990s anymore; Lara Croft looks more like an actual human being than a lego dame with a pointy chest. The animations of in-game characters aren't stilty or stiff like they used to be - any character can look into the in-game camera with emotion on their face, almost breaking the fourth wall in the process. The reason for this is, of course, motion capture technology, stunt work to create realistic movements, and state-of-the-art acting techniques that bring the likenesses of actors to their digital counterparts like never before, and with this maturation of the art, developers have been able to attract big-time actors to work with them.

This, of course, isn't particularly new either, however, the use of widely known faces in video games has become more impactful in recent years as the technology has evolved. We've seen iconic Hollywood actors such as Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe in Beyond: Two Souls, Jon Bernthal in Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, and Keanu Reeves in the upcoming RPG by CD Projekt Red, Cyberpunk 2077. And let's not forget Freddie Prince Jr. as Dragon Age: Inquisition's Iron Bull, Max von Sydow as Skyrim's Esbern, and Sir Patrick Stewart as Oblivion's Emperor Uriel Septim, even if the latter three were hardly photorealistic portrayals.

Games on Film

Thus, the gap is getting smaller between cinema, television and games. That's due to a collaborative effort from both sides, where the success of one prompts mimicry from the other,
and it's surely enough to make us excited, especially as developers get even better at telling truly cinematic stories. Remember Keanu Reeves' appearance alongside the showing of Cyberpunk 2077 at E3 last year? Of course you do, and of course you got excited, just like we did. The world is starting to take games seriously now, and with that new-found respect, we're starting to see developers operate with a bit more swagger, and that confidence has made the wider entertainment world sit up and take note.

So, are we headed toward a golden age of cinematic video game adaptations? Well, we're certainly being treated to higher quality films and series, although there's still a long way to go before the gap has been well and truly bridged. The successful adaptations of today are proving popular because of their links to the video games that inspired them, with fan service delighting those in the know. Yet it's hard to argue that we're at a place where non-gamers can start getting truly excited about crossover projects based on production values alone, and as we've seen from big-budget attempts to bring Hollywood and gaming together in recent years, like the Assassin's Creed, Tomb Raider and Warcraft movies, there's still some way left to go.

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