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Prepare for the Prestige Video Game Adaptation

‘Uncharted’ isn’t quite that, but its quality relative to its predecessors—along with the influx of new movies and TV shows coming—signals we may be on the verge of game adaptations that aspire not only to satisfy fans and make money, but to be award bait

Square Enix/Sony Interactive/BioWare/2K Games/Bethesda Softworks/Robert Kurvitz/Ringer illustration

Midway through Uncharted, a bedraggled Nathan Drake and Chloe Frazer, played by Tom Holland and Sophia Ali, shuffle out of the ocean, having narrowly survived a sky-high set piece by parachuting to safety. The high-altitude action they’re walking away from is familiar to fans of the games that gave rise to the movie. So is the face—and the voice—of the man they meet on the beach: Nolan North, who played Drake in digital form in several interactive Uncharted adventures released between 2007 and 2016.

“Whoa, what the hell happened to you two?” North’s not-Drake asks, the picture of leisure in a lay-flat chair.

“Fell out of a car, then fell out of a plane,” Holland deadpans.

“Huh,” says North, the human Easter egg. “You know, something like that happened to me once.”

The same thought had gone through my mind minutes earlier, as I lounged like North in a theater recliner and watched Holland clamber across shipping containers tenuously attached to a cargo plane in a sequence inspired by a famous scene from 2011’s Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. The callback and cameo were intended as treats for fans of the games, but for this Uncharted veteran, they evoked the decades-old existential question underpinning projects of this sort. Are TV or movie versions of video games independent entities that can complement or transcend their source material, or are they doomed to be redundant, derivative vehicles for “DiCaprio pointing meme” moments?

Uncharted is the latest in a long line of adaptations that support the second view. But a trend toward new or renewed development of adaptations of games that have been celebrated for their stories and world-building—including big-budget blockbusters like The Last of Us, Mass Effect, Fallout, and BioShock, and indie standouts such as Disco Elysium, It Takes Two, Life is Strange, and Sable—suggests that we may be on the verge of a new phenomenon: the prestige video game adaptation that aspires not only to satisfy fans and make money, but to be award bait. “There used to be this stigma that video games as source material couldn’t be those smart, character-driven types of films and TV shows,” says Dmitri Johnson, founder and CEO of dj2 Entertainment, a production company that specializes in video game adaptations (most notably Sonic the Hedgehog). “And because the art of storytelling in gaming is continuing to evolve, complete 180 on that. And I am of the belief that [we] not only can, but we will win Emmys, we will win Oscars, and the source material will be based on games.”

Uncharted is far from Oscar material. The case against an Uncharted adaptation was summed up years before its release by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who turned down repeated entreaties to write a screenplay for the film. “It’s just going to be Indiana Jones,” Goldberg said in 2013. “If we could figure out a way to make it not Indiana Jones, it’d be awesome.” The game series’ debt to Indy and National Treasure (a frequent comp in some of Sony’s leaked emails) is why it was optioned; as Uncharted producer Charles Roven of Atlas Entertainment tells me, “what drew me to it was how cinematic of a game it was.” But although the original Uncharted’s movie-like look thrilled gamers in 2007, the cinematic version had no chance to stand out for simply looking cinematic. Moviegoers are used to seeing stunts involving action heroes, cars, and cargo planes, and spectators who aren’t controlling a character on screen have higher story expectations than players who participate in the action directly.

Knowing that a pure port of Uncharted from one medium to another would be underwhelming, the adaptation’s producers and creatives took pains to differentiate the film while at first largely following the format of the games. “For a long time we worked with the characters and tried to come up with something that would honor the franchise, honor the game in a certain way but still be fresh,” Roven says. “But we were using the characters as they existed in the game versus what we finally ended up with, which is the characters before they existed in the game.”

The prequel approach they eventually landed on seems sound in theory, but there’s still something missing from this movie adapted from a game inspired by movies. (If that sounds confusing, consider that North also narrated the audiobook of the novelization of the movie adaptation of the game.) Uncharted solves its source material’s conflict between Nathan’s canonical chumminess and the violence he perpetrates by having Holland’s Drake be comparatively pacifistic. (The one time he kills someone, it’s in self-defense, and he apologizes profusely.) But until its semi-promising second stinger, the movie whiffs on the appeal of the established bond between Drake and Sully (Mark Wahlberg), and its fictitious lost treasure, which loosely resembles the pirate stash from Uncharted 4, has less to do with Drake himself than did the titular fortune in the series-starting Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune.

Another Indiana Jones would have been a better outcome than the film director Ruben Fleischer and cowriter Rafe Lee Judkins (among many others) delivered: Not only does Uncharted lack the originality of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it also fails to replicate the charisma, rapport, and world-changing stakes. Critics have understandably dumped on the movie, though the public has responded more positively, judging by its B+ CinemaScore, strong Rotten Tomatoes audience score, and box-office-topping total of $44 million in its opening weekend. Maybe Wahlberg’s latest post-credits scene in a video game movie will actually presage a sequel, unlike the one in Max Payne.

The movie’s moderate success despite its protracted development and weak reviews is the latest show of strength for video game IP. Uncharted debuted at a boom time for game adaptations, in which Hollywood has finally figured out both that video games are desirable adaptation targets and that those adaptations don’t have to be bad. Pokémon Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog were well-made, fun-for-all-ages efforts that grossed hundreds of millions of dollars and earned well-deserved sequels. Castlevania and Arcane built a template for animated TV success. (The former, a precedent-setting series that demonstrated the potential of TV as a more natural fit for game adaptations, was the first adaptation to secure a “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.)

Throw in Wreck-It Ralph, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and Werewolves Within, and you have enough commendable entries to make a “best video game adaptations” listicle less depressing than it would have been until a few years ago. Some studios are even making quality series and movies about video games: Mythic Quest on TV, and Free Guy—from Shawn Levy, one of the directors who got away from Uncharted—on film. Granted, animated genre shows tend to be undercovered by mainstream critics, and both animated series and “kid-friendly” films face an uphill climb on ballots. (Castlevania’s campaign for an Emmy nomination went unrecognized.) But it still seems significant that the generic-but-competent Uncharted, which once would have represented the ceiling for a video game adaptation, now feels like the floor.

Even so, the difference between the past and present often amounts to the difference between, say, the 1995 Mortal Kombat and the 2021 Mortal Kombat. Ironic nostalgia for the former aside, the latter is superior in nearly every respect, but it’s still a Mortal Kombat movie, with all the campiness and gratuitous gore that entails. There’s a place in TV viewers’ and theatergoers’ hearts for mostly mindless action—escapist entertainment is always welcome, with or without fancy statues and acceptance speeches—but until recently, that was all video game adaptations offered. As League of Legends prequel Arcane proved, it’s possible to base a narratively fulfilling and emotionally rich series on a video game that’s not known for those qualities, but the less the game gives you to go on, the more work and care are required. Adapt Angry Birds, and from a narrative standpoint, you’re starting in a spot that’s closer to The Crows Have Eyes III: The Crowening than The Birds.

The so-called video game adaptation “curse,” then, was only partly a product of slapdash productions by directors and writers who were motivated more by a desire to cash in on a name than a respect for the source material. Sometimes that material was part of the problem. The games that got adapted in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s were generally those with the greatest name recognition. And the games with the greatest name recognition were often those that dated back to the beginning of video games as a popular pastime, when technical limitations and the need to keep players feeding quarters into arcade cabinets often precluded sophisticated stories. Thus, those decades were dotted with adaptations drawn from genres that prioritized quick-twitch action and violence at the expense of speaking protagonists and anything more than rudimentary narratives—predominantly platformers, fighting games, shooters, and survival-horror fright fests.

By the standards of, say, Super Mario Bros., Double Dragon, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, House of the Dead, Doom, or DOA: Dead or Alive, Uncharted truly was sophisticated and, yes, cinematic. Nathan Drake’s adventures arguably boast the richest preexisting stories of any game series adapted thus far, but that says more about the adaptations that preceded it than Uncharted itself. Strip out the franchise’s smartest interactive elements and the fondness that forms over 40-ish hours of playtime, and what’s left isn’t notably better written or more thematically ambitious than the average action movie. It’s a great hang, but it’s not trying to say something profound.

Video game storytelling has continued to mature, and now that adaptations have demonstrated more moneymaking potential, game publishers are playing larger roles in adaptations (as Sony’s PlayStation Productions was with Uncharted), and writers, directors, and producers are young enough to have grown up gaming, the means, motive, and opportunity exist for a better, broader breed of video game–inspired projects. The next wave of adaptations, Johnson says, is “not just about explosions and set pieces, it’s about actually telling a story and building characters.”

The Last of Us, an adaptation of another Naughty Dog property, will come to HBO next year. Cowritten by original The Last of Us writer-director Neil Druckmann and Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin—who has also written for Mythic Quest and coauthored a screenplay for the forthcoming, star-studded Borderlands filmThe Last of Us is a prestige project based on a prestige, story-driven game. Netflix and game publisher Take-Two Interactive are working on an adaptation (and a “potential cinematic universe”) based on BioShock, which was viewed as a milestone in video game storytelling when it came out a few months before the original Uncharted. Amazon is reportedly trying to make a Mass Effect TV show and will soon be ramping up production of a Fallout TV series with Walton Goggins in a lead role and a long list of well-regarded series and films on its creators’ IMDb pages. The co-showrunners’ writing credits include Captain Marvel, Tomb Raider, Silicon Valley, Portlandia, Baskets, and The Office; Westworld’s Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy are executive producing.

All of the above are based on Triple-A titles from heavy-hitting developers and publishers, but The Last of Us, Mass Effect, BioShock, and Fallout are all roughly as renowned for their fully realized worlds, character development, and twisty, suspenseful plots as their graphics or gameplay. This list of household names with substance to their stories could also include another adaptation in the PlayStation Productions pipeline, Ghost of Tsushima, which will be directed by John Wick’s Chad Stahelski and based on the 2020 game of the same name that was nominated for multiple narrative awards. (If you’re feeling generous, you’re welcome to lump in the upcoming, much-hyped Halo, which has already been renewed for a second season on Paramount+; Halo’s lore is deep by gaming’s old-school standards, but its serialized storytelling is often tough to follow.)

But even as the streaming giants snap up some of the biggest brands in gaming and try to turn them into tentpoles, they’re also ingesting indie IP. In addition to coproducing Sonic the Hedgehog, Johnson’s dj2 developed an upcoming Tomb Raider animated series for Netflix as part of a previous first-look deal with Legendary Entertainment. Last week, dj2 signed a new first-look deal with Amazon Studios to develop video game–related projects for Prime Video. Johnson says dj2 decided to partner with Amazon over Netflix because Netflix is already extremely active in the adaptation arena, whereas Amazon (which owns Twitch and Amazon Gaming) “hadn’t really tripled down on it on the adaptation side.” Amazon’s message to dj2, Johnson says, was, “We don’t have any interest in playing the volume game. We want to play the quality game. So you bring us quality IP from the gaming space, we will give you any and all support that you need to make that happen.”

The coveted pieces of IP that dj2 has optioned include Life is Strange, Disco Elysium, and It Takes Two, all of which have been highly decorated in the narrative realm. Life Is Strange and Life Is Strange 2 were nominated for Best Narrative at the Game Awards 2015 and 2018, respectively, and Life Is Strange won a Peabody- and Facebook-sponsored Futures of Media Award for “excellence and innovation in digital storytelling.” Disco Elysium led all games with four award wins, including Best Narrative, at the Game Awards in 2019. And It Takes Two won Game of the Year and was nominated for Best Narrative and Best Game Direction at the Game Awards 2021. Johnson’s company has a separate first-look deal with Swedish indie publisher Raw Fury, and as part of that arrangement, dj2 is discussing adaptations of Sable (which won PC Gamer’s Best Narrative award last year) and the upcoming NORCO (which won the inaugural Tribeca Games Award for “its potential for excellence in art and storytelling”). Johnson says his company is also in talks with other big-name indie publishers, including Devolver Digital and Annapurna Interactive.

Johnson seems to see indie publishers’ lower-profile but narratively rich libraries as a market inefficiency from an adaptation standpoint. “One of the things that the indie games have done so well—and a big part of that is obviously limitations with budget—is because they can’t have these big, massive, open worlds that you can spend hundreds of hours in, they’re forced to really focus on story and character development. … So I think that limitation has ultimately been a big plus for us as producers looking at ways to adapt.” Another plus: In the wake of global smashes such as Squid Game and Money Heist, streamers with wide reaches are drawn to the international origins and audiences of many well-regarded games—blockbusters and indies alike. Even in advance of its opening in China, Uncharted has made more money abroad than it did in the U.S., and an earlier Roven-produced video game movie, 2016’s Warcraft, bombed with critics and domestic moviegoers but made almost $400 million overseas.

Although game sales used to dominate adaptation pitches, Johnson says that TV and movie studios have learned to look past raw numbers, partly because even many modestly performing games sell more copies than the acclaimed novels or graphic novels that have historically been seen as prime fodder for adaptations. At dj2, he adds, “Part of our pitch is, not only are we telling you that we don’t care about sales numbers if there’s incredible story and characters and a rich world, but we’re willing to bet on it before the game even comes out.”

Even if there are more narratively tantalizing video games on the market, and even if studios are more receptive to their charms, there’s still the small matter of figuring out how to turn them into movies and series that don’t disappoint. The proliferation of video game stories that stack up to acclaimed movies or prestige TV series seems like a panacea for the ills of adaptations past, but it presents a new conundrum. Why bother adapting a game whose presentation and story are satisfying in their original forms? Unlike other sources—podcasts, comic books, graphic novels, novels, short stories—video games already exist on screens, with ever-improving graphical fidelity, and their interactivity doesn’t translate to the realm of passively consumed scripted content. What’s more, games that consciously echo the aesthetics of other media already offer many of the traditional perks of adaptation, as a YouTuber named Grant Voegtle—who was later hired by Naughty Dog—showed when he released a series of “cinematic playthroughs” that essentially turned The Last of Us into a TV series using footage from the game.

“We make it a point to try to find opportunities for storytelling that is not a one-to-one, because otherwise why exist?” Johnson says. “Part of why you love Life Is Strange, part of why you love Disco Elysium [and] It Takes Two is they are to some degree narratively driven and have very strong story structure. So it’s looking at how do we adapt this in a way that even if you’re the biggest fan of this game, it still feels like a fresh story to you.” Johnson continues, “We want fans to feel like their experience in the game was real and counted … but we also want them to feel like they can come and enjoy the series or the movie and have that be its own separate experience that has shared DNA.”

That doesn’t sound so different from how Roven described Uncharted, which serves as a useful reminder that this grand future for video game adaptations is still speculative. There’s no guarantee that the aforementioned award winners or any other games of their ilk will work out well in TV or movie form, but compared to most adaptations of the past, it’s easy to imagine how they might.

“I never believed, ‘Oh, you can’t turn a game into a great motion picture or you can’t turn a game into a great TV series,’” says Roven, adding, “There was a time when people thought that you couldn’t turn a comic book into a motion picture too.” Roven, who coproduced each of the films in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy and has gone on to coproduce most of the movies in the DCEU, knows as well as anyone how ill-founded that pessimism was. “I would never bet against somebody really brilliant coming up with something that was not only amazing to watch for its stunning visuals but was of enough quality to win an Oscar.”

Then again, even if video game adaptations are following in the footsteps of comic book movies, award wins may lag behind box-office figures. “I’m not saying that it would be easy, and I’m not saying there would be many,” Roven cautions. The Dark Knight was snubbed for a Best Picture nomination at the 2009 Oscars, and although its omission prompted the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to expand the pool of nominations to 10, Roven notes that “we still haven’t had a comic book movie win an Oscar for best picture. And there have been some pretty great ones.”

We’re a ways away from being able to say the same about video game adaptations, but Uncharted’s predictable mediocrity notwithstanding, more breakthroughs could be coming. At the very least, it shouldn’t take relay teams of writers and directors 14 years to usher all of the recently optioned IP from small screen to big, as it did for Uncharted. (Which was long enough for the actor originally slated to play the younger lead to end up playing the older one.) Johnson says that considering the pedigree of games like Life Is Strange and Disco Elysium, their adaptations “absolutely should get the attention of voters, should win stuff, if we do our job right.” It’s well past time for the producers of video game adaptations to stop doing the job wrong.