Why films and shows based on video games with no plot are actually better

Despite years of faltering quality, recent adaptations have bucked the trend

Hit video game Among Us is set to be adapted into a TV show. Photo: Nintendo
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Everyone loves Super Mario.

More than just a video game character, he’s an icon for many generations. His staying power is not just impressive, it has also created a benchmark for how popular video game characters can become.

But in 1993, during the height of Super Mario’s global rise, a film titled Super Mario Bros was produced that showed exactly what not to do when adapting video game characters to the big screen. For starters, the film was a grungy live-action adaptation, which was a huge departure from the cutesy aesthetic of the games.

Secondly, the film attempted, and failed at, achieving a coherent storyline. Ask any child who played the games at the time what the story of Super Mario is, and they’d tell you plainly: plumber must save princess from evil turtle, using mushrooms to power up.

That was not the case for the film. It took a simple premise and turned it into a convoluted and incoherent mess that even adults, let alone children, were turned off by. The set up involved a magical pipe that transported the two Mario brothers from New York to a parallel dystopian dimension populated by bizarre creatures.

Luckily, things were different last year when a new animated film starring the beloved Italian plumber arrived on screens.

The Super Mario Bros Movie understood and executed something very simple when it came to adapting the characters. The premise is ridiculous and arbitrary to begin with, leaning into the wacky mania rather that trying to make sense of it. Following the basics established in the games, Mario is transported to a magical land and is given special abilities that allow him to jump high and run fast.

There's no immediate difficulty in understanding what's going on, because most of it is familiar, and what is new is not a complete departure. The film was all the better for it, and audiences responded positively.

The stark difference between the films presents the question then: how best to adapt video game characters and storylines to the big screen?

Over the weekend, a news story broke announcing the voice cast of an upcoming TV adaptation of the famous video game Among Us, which became a sensation during the pandemic for its simple and fun approach. The news seemed a bit fat-fetched, considering characters in the game are armless cartoon astronauts.

And the premise is simple. In the game, players take on one of two roles – Crewmates or Imposters – who look similar. While Crewmates try to complete assigned tasked, Imposters try to kill the Crewmates. It's then the Crewmates's mission to identify which ones are Imposters and vote them out of the game.

Immediately, debates about video game film adaptations began. Is this a step too far? The game it is being adapted from doesn't have much in the way of characters or storylines. But we’ve seen huge success from the Super Mario film as well as the Sonic the Hedgehog films, so why not Among Us?

Video game fans might point to the recent Last of Us show by HBO as the marker of a great adaptation. And as good as that show was, there was little in it that was not presented better and stronger in the game. Some of the best video games today are already incredible cinematic experiences. Translating that to a television or cinema screen often diminishes its quality.

Take for example the Uncharted film starring Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg. A film adapted from a series of games that were heavily influenced by great movies such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Romancing the Stone. Despite its big stars, Uncharted didn’t work because it took some of the most fleshed out and exciting experiences in the game and compressed them to fit a 116-minute film.

The Uncharted games aren’t just cinematic, they thrill on multiple levels, presenting players with emotional scenes that can’t be translated just by viewing them. It is precisely why a film adapted from a simple game like Among Us can have the potential to become a better adaptation.

Filmmakers and scriptwriters are very creative. They want as blank a slate as possible to play with, they want to inject their ideas and visions. With well-established video games that have a clear narrative and storytelling style, the creatives are already obstructed. There’s no need to create a straightforward adaptation and there’s no way to succeed with the fans by diverting.

In adapting Among Us, there’s potential to create stories and build narratives without being beholden to a sacred text some video games are treated as. And that’s how video game adaptations should be chosen and approached, picking the ones with the simplest and wackiest plots rather than stories that are better told in their original format.

Published: March 22, 2024, 9:34 AM