Is it finally game on for video game adaptations?

Jake Coyle

NEW YORK (AP) — Is there a more woebegone movie genre than the video game adaptation? This is the pantheon of Max Payne, Wing Commander and Assassin’s Creed. In the 27 years since the first video game movie, Super Mario Bros, these adaptations have been so regularly mocked that you might think the genre was – like a teetering fighter in Mortal Kombat surrounded by chants of “Finish him!” – on its last legs.

And yet, Hollywood is increasingly viewing video games as one of the ripest, richest veins of intellectual property outside of comic books. Even as much of the film business slowed over the last year, the hunt for the kind of IP that has fuelled an overwhelming share of worldwide box-office ticket sales has continued unabated.

The video game movie isn’t finished. It might even be just pressing “Start”.

Today, Warner Bros will release a new, rebooted Mortal Kombat 26 years after the first adaptation of the martial arts fighter. It was then just the fourth video game movie, coming on the heels of Double Dragon and Street Fighter, with Jean-Claude Van Damme. This was well before the IP land rush started by Marvel’s success more than a decade later. Apollo 13 was the number two film at the box office in 1995.

Now, a bloodier, R-rated Mortal Kombat signals a new cycle for video game adaptations. After years of misfires and flops, it’s lately seemed like a new level has been unlocked for one of the movies’ most derided genres. In 2019, Detective Pikachu, based on the Nintendo game, grossed more than USD400 million worldwide for Warner Bros. Last year, Sonic the Hedgehog became the genre’s highest grosser; a sequel is already underway. Netflix, which on Wednesday suggested it may invest more deeply in gaming, has found one of its biggest hits – the streamer’s answer to Game of Thrones – in The Witcher. The Henry Cavill-led series is based on a fantasy novel series that found fame as a popular video game.

Detective Pikachu, voiced by Ryan Reynolds, in a scene from Pokemon Detective Pikachu. PHOTO: AP

No one is engraving Oscars or Emmys yet. But it may be that video game adaptations aren’t cursed, after all. They were just going through some growing pains.

“Comic-book IP is the biggest IP in the world right now and yet it took 40 years to really get into the spotlight and it took 50 years to become the biggest thing,” said venture capitalist and former head of strategic planning for Amazon Studios Matthew Ball. “Video game adaptions have been happening since the early ’90s but we see a lot of evidence that people are learning – they’re training. At some point in the near future, I would be shocked if we didn’t have on a recurring basis one of the biggest films and TV series of the year coming from video games.”

Hollywood’s hunt for IP with built-in global fanbases has found more dead ends over the last decade than new directions. But gaming is unique in its scope and growth. Last year, the gaming industry was worth more than USD150 billion. By 2023, revenue will reach USD200 billion, Juniper Research has forecast, exceeding the size of the film industry. A study released this week by consulting firm Deloitte found that the top entertainment activity of Gen Z – those aged 14-24 – is playing video games, ranking over movies or music by a wide margin.

“There’s an appetite and desire to make things that might have seemed more niche at some point,” said Mortal Kombat filmmaker Simon McQuoid, an in-demand director of commercials who’s previously worked on ad campaigns for Sony’s PlayStation and Halo. “I get the feeling people are OK pushing that forward and being a little mainstream with things.”

Many video game adaptations have had prolonged or even torturous developments, suggesting the industry is still figuring out how to tackle these properties. Mortal Kombat was in development for a decade. Infamously, Sonic the Hedgehog was forced to redesign its animated protagonist after an outcry from fans. There are reasons that video game movies get ranked from “least bad to absolute worst”.

Some have suggested the mediums are inherently distinct. Roger Ebert maintained video games aren’t art and “by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control”.

But someone, eventually, may crack the code of the video game movie. In the years since Ebert wrote that in 2015, games have developed in atmosphere, narrative and character. They are more cinematic. More filmmakers are gamers, themselves, and they’re interested in plumbing virtual worlds while staying true to a game’s spirit.