‘The Last of Us’ Is Just the Beginning of Hollywood’s Big Video Game Gamble
Back in 1993, Hollywood had the shot of a lifetime. A shot at an opportunity to change the movie industry forever. They had all the ingredients: the rights to the highest-selling Nintendo video game and an untapped market greedy for more content. But they missed. The arrow didn’t even hit the board.
Super Mario Bros. was meant to be the first of many video game movie adaptations but instead has been relegated to the attic of our consciousness, the door only to be flung open when used to uphold the video game movie curse as fact.
“A film like the 1993 Super Mario Bros. had a tough job. Nobody knew what a video game adaptation could or should look like, and the original games were made for fun and bouncy gameplay, not narrative coherence,” says University of York professor and author of Gooey Media, Dr. Nick Jones.
For three decades, Hollywood has desperately tried to cut a slice of the gaming industry pie the way it has done with publishing. Hollywood successfully created a book-to-movie pipeline ensuring they always have the bestselling books in production expeditiously, with the likes of Gone Girl, Twilight and Fight Club. While there has been some success in the video game movie adaptation realm such as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Resident Evil and the recent Uncharted, critical acclaim has eluded these movies, and they are exceptions rather than the rule when it comes to box office success.
It feels as though Hollywood’s pipeline dream for gaming has been under construction — until now.
The Last of Us premiered to rave reviews and the second-highest viewership in HBO’s history (after House of the Dragon), something that hasn’t happened for video game adaptations in the past. While Sonic the Hedgehog 2 made over $400 million at the box office, it wasn’t exactly a critical darling. But The Last of Us has cinched success across the board. The TV series is based off of the video game of the same name. Players were immersed into post-apocalyptic America as they guided Joel, a smuggler tasked with escorting a teenage girl, Ellie, around a dilapidated zombie-filled world.
The Last of Us was first released in 2013 by the video game developer Naughty Dog. The game has since sold 20 million copies and is widely considered one of the most cinematic video games ever created.
“There have been a lot of lackluster adaptations from video games but one could say that about any genre of movie or show,” explains Raj Patel, Senior Brand Lead of Relic Entertainment, which is a SEGA studio. “I think there is a lot of potential in adapting games to other media like this, but it does require some level of creative risk. You also need to balance how sacrosanct the source material is too, and how you treat existing fans. Is this for them or a new audience? How far are you going to stray from the origins? Are you going to take it super seriously or have a bit of creative fun with it? It’s a balancing act that can be difficult to get right, though we’re seeing a lot of people really stick the landing lately.”
He adds, “The Last of Us is the kind of game that already presents itself very much like a movie and tells a story in that same way. It feels like a natural fit for adaptation, compared to other games which may require more outside-the-box thinking to adapt, like Super Mario for example.”’
Hollywood has tentatively dipped its toes into the gaming industry but now it seems it’s ready to take a deep dive with almost 60 video game adaptations to come in the next few years. That’s more content than they produced in the last 30 years. We can expect God of War on Prime Video, from The Wheel of Time showrunner Rafe Judkins; Prime’s Fallout series, courtesy of Westworld duo Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan; a Borderlands film, co-written by The Last of Us’ Craig Mazin; Peacock’s Twisted Metal TV series, starring Anthony Mackie; Sonic the Hedgehog 3; Netflix’s BioShock film, directed by Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire); and film adaptations of Duke Nukem, Minecraft, Space Invaders, Splinter Cell and Streets of Rage.
Nostalgia and familiarity are the drugs Hollywood is doping audiences with. It’s a tried and tested strategy that often works.
“Hollywood has become ever more dependent on recognizable brands, whether it’s a comic book character or a nostalgic reboot,” offers Dr. Jones.
Hollywood indeed hit the jackpot when they invested billions into Marvel and DC movies, launching a universe of superheroes and villains with content that can last to infinity and beyond. Now, they’re mining the gaming industry for content — an industry that’s grown to 3.07 billion active gamers.
“People are willing to pay a lot of money for consoles, games and subscriptions, and I think Hollywood wants to figure out why this is, when it can be difficult to get these same people to go out to the movies for an evening,” Dr. Jones says.
The pandemic has only exacerbated the problem.
“Hollywood is starting to turn to the gaming industry more for content because transmedia has become very popular, allowing people to experience fictions through multiple platforms,” says Patel. “If you like the movie, maybe you’ll like the game, or the graphic novel, or the podcast, for example. It’s a great way to create larger experiences with established fanbases already primed with interest.”
One’s familiarity with video games can prove to be highly intimate, since playing an intense survivor game like The Last of Us and controlling the characters makes users begin to feel as though they’re inside it due to its immersive nature.
“One thing games do very well is they give you a deeper, more personal experience. You know, you can be a leaf on the wind. When you’re controlling the Tetris block, you are the Tetris block,” says Harry Steele, co-host of the podcast “Games on Film,” which celebrates video game movies. Steele’s brother and co-host, Rory Steele, adds that the interactivity of the games allow for deeper emotions to develop. And Hollywood can harness that emotional connection and convert it into money. And it appears they’ve learned from their past mistakes.
The Last of Us works so well because it’s a collaborative effort between the video game’s creator, Neil Druckmann, and TV writer Craig Mazin (Chernobyl). In the past, the creators on either side were divorced from one another.
“They haven’t just grabbed the title for recognition value and in order to make something mostly unrelated in tone and approach,” maintains Dr. Jones. “This indicates a respect for those who have played the game as a potential audience and, given this game’s popularity, this is a huge audience.”
Rory and Harry Steele both tell Rolling Stone that video game movies are a way for these stories to be accessed by those who may not have money to buy the consoles, games and subscriptions. Gaming can be an expensive hobby, but by turning these games into films or TV series, it allows more people to enjoy video games without breaking the bank.
“The access to these stories is sometimes behind not just which console you own, but also do you have a console yourself,” says Rory Steele.
He points to The Super Mario Bros. Movie, an upcoming animated film out April 7 featuring the voices of Chris Pratt (Mario), Anya Taylor-Joy (Princess Peach), Charlie Day (Luigi) and Jack Black (Bowser).
“It’s interesting that it will be 30 years since the live-action Super Mario Bros. movie that this new animated version comes out. So it does feel like all video game adaptations have been trying to build up to this,” says Rory Steele.
Harry Steele hopes this relationship will foster a greater respect for the craft of gaming.
“Hollywood isn’t perfect, but it’s given a level of respect that gaming doesn’t have, so I hope by them being closer pals, the respect that movies get rubs off on games,” he says.
Patel notes that there are positives and negatives to a close-knit relationship between Hollywood and the gaming industry.
“In the future, I would expect the relationship between Hollywood and gaming to strengthen with more back-and-forth, and even include more forms of media on top of that,” he reasons. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see those relationships grow stronger with games benefiting more from stronger integration with movies and shows, sharing creative, cast and decision-makers to some extent.”
But he is quick to add, “The negatives could be that one failure can sink multiple projects potentially so there can be added risk to the transmedia approach, but the positive is that one failure can also be cushioned by other things being good, and potentially lessen the impact. It can go either way.”