At this point, it’s a truism that video game adaptations are typically disastrous. The Legend of Zelda cartoon, the live-action Mario and Mortal Kombat movies, and the Assassin’s Creed movie. But some entries have proven that it’s not a rule. The Sonic movies (surprisingly) were generally inoffensive, the Halo TV show has its merits (and yes, I will die on that hill — it’s so nice of you to ask!), and The Last Of Us TV show has blown nearly every other adaptation out of the water.
The question of when and how a video game adaptation can work sees complications in several details (not least of which is the question of whether or not it leans more toward adapting a game’s story, or toward creating a new story that just uses familiar elements and characters). One major detail is the format: movie or TV show. The Last of Us — with its large cast of characters and the episodic structure of Joel and Ellie’s journey, among other reasons — has made for a good TV show and is better as such than it would’ve been as a movie. In my opinion, the following five video games (for more reasons than just those listed below) fit that bill too.
The Mass Effect Trilogy
To me, the most interesting reason to put the Mass Effect Trilogy on this list is its social world — meaning everything from small-scale character interactions to the legacies of race wars and genocides, to (last, but certainly not least) social change.
Like The Last of Us, the Mass Effect Trilogy has a large cast … I mean, like, a huge cast — more than 20 major characters. Dozens of hours of story cover character interactions and development; helping to shape those characters’ personalities and relationships is a well-built political and cultural world of several species, agendas, histories, and more; and looming over this divided galaxy is the threat of total destruction by the Reapers — whose origin and existence is actually part of the story’s historical worldbuilding and its political themes of reconciliation and cooperation. It’s not for nothing that one critic said that Mass Effect could be the next Game of Thrones. (It even has a less-than-stellar ending.)
Explore the Universe of Mass Effect
One storytelling technique that makes a particular story better suited for the small screen than the big screen is the passage of time. In Mass Effect — unlike in The Last of Us — the characters’ journey takes them to many of the same places over and over again. But part of what makes Mass Effect so unique is that it’s not just the individual characters who change; the world around them changes, too — in fact, social change is a cornerstone of the narrative.
For example, it’s incredibly invigorating to revisit the Citadel over and over as the political situation there — and in the galaxy more broadly — changes over time, pushing the main characters into new interactions, new conflicts, new ideas, and new decisions.
As our social world changes, the physical spaces we inhabit start to feel different, too. With the length afforded by a TV show over a movie and the elongated sense of time that audiences bring to a TV show (the result of, for example, weekly airing schedules), a Mass Effect TV show could get its audience deeply invested in the physical spaces of the video game’s galaxy — the numerous planets, the Citadel’s neo-noir environment, and more — by fully fleshing out the game’s social world — uneasy alliances, bigotries, revolutions, and more.
God of War (2018)
The story in 2018’s God of War has gotten enough praise that I think it’s relatively obvious the game would make for a good TV show. And like Mass Effect, the passage of time is one overriding reason why it would make for a better TV show than a movie. Specifically, by helping the audience feel the weight of the passage of time within the story, the TV format would accurately convey the emotions and drama underlying the development of certain character relationships.
Story Opportunities from God of War
For example, the primary subplot of Atreus and Kratos developing a father–son relationship over time just wouldn’t work in a movie. A TV show has the advantage of having the audience wait for episodes, adding to the feeling that time has passed, and that that passage has weight and consequences. Thus, a TV show could position one particularly jarring sequence of the video game at the end of an episode as a cliff-hanger: Kratos returns from a short, individual side-quest to discover that Atreus, his teenage son, has aged drastically off-screen because, for him, it has actually been several months … alone. Then the next episode would be in a well-position to explore the tension that puts on their already-tenuous relationship.
Another opportunity comes from the character known as The Witch of the Woods. Over the course of the story, Atreus, and eventually, Kratos (and through them, us — the audience) come to care for and trust her. When she’s revealed to be Freya, mother of Baldur, the main antagonist of the game, Kratos, Atreus, and the audience feel it deeply — partly because it’s clear that her love for her son is not reciprocated (in fact, he wants to kill her for purely selfish reasons), and partly because Atreus and Kratos must face a very difficult choice.
“We must be better.”
They know that their enemy is the son of their friend and must decide whether or not they’re willing to kill him if it comes down to it — and Freya doesn’t know any of this, which means making any choice without informing her of everything is already something of a betrayal. And then, to cap it off, near the very end of the story, she decides to side with Baldur; and when Kratos — who had initially been so hesitant to trust her and become friends with her — kills him to save her life, her hatred and desire for revenge hit so much harder.
Without the passage of time, and the TV storytelling structure that allows for things like cliffhangers, none of this could feel as meaningful.
Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag
Like the Mass Effect Trilogy, Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag makes for a spectacular sociological story — specifically, one centered on how capitalist imperialism corrupts people (especially White men), and how today’s histories distort the truth about how people can overcome that corruption.
At the center of all of this is the main character, the pirate–(gradually) turned–assassin: Edward Kenway. Set in the Caribbean during the first half of the 18th century, the historical fiction that is Edward’s life is a magnificently historically accurate correction to popular ideas about pirates and their relationship to the ‘civilization’ of Western societies. And by placing a White male pirate with lots of pirate friends (including a few women and a formerly enslaved Black person) at the center of this story, it also manages to be a tragic tale.
Because as the years pass, more and more of these same friends become Edward’s enemies as they come to realize something ultimately rather elementary: if you want to steal things, no one does it better than a colonizer. The genuine freedom of pirate society (more democratic than most Western societies for several decades to come, as experts like Marcus Rediker have pointed out) was, however, also very capitalistic — just like the notion of freedom that has long defined the United States of America and most other Western countries.
As his friends join up with the European militaries that once deputized pirates to fight in their wars, and then criminalized and hunted them when their assistance was no longer needed, Edward grows, and grows older, becoming increasingly disillusioned and ambivalent towards the notion that freedom means the freedom to acquire wealth.
What Assassin’s Creed brings to television
The Assassin’s Creed franchise, at its best, carries a truly anarchist notion of freedom; that no person should rule over another, and that such a society requires cooperation and selflessness. Black Flag takes this idea — practically anti-normal compared to what generally passes for ‘freedom’ in today’s world — and combines it with a practical lesson for every White man (and others) in the audience.
Edward Kenway spends over a decade of his life fighting for his own self-interest, and all it nets him is a heart-wrenching flash of a hallucination at the end of the game: as Edward prepares to sail off to the start of a new, honest life, he envisions over a dozen of his fallen friends, whatever side they were on in the end, seeing him off — as they would have, in more carefree days.
It hurts, deeply; we identify particularly strongly with these characters because we too have learned and believed in their same capitalistic and imperialistic notions of freedom — and we also feel how ironic that identification is, because we’ve also all learned and believed in the narrative that these pirates were the bad guys and the empires, the ‘civilizations’, were the good guys.
But by learning from a woman named Mary Read, and from his ‘Black best friend’ Adewale, Edward becomes a fundamentally different person. Whether you’re a White man or a wannabe billionaire of any other color or gender, Edward Kenway’s life is a warning and lesson in why and how all us civilized, liberal pirates must learn what it truly means to be a thief.
“No one honest has an easy life, Edward; and it’s aching for one that causes the most pain.”
Red Dead Redemption 2
While The Mandalorian has started to lose some of its shine since its first season took pop culture by storm, it’s still a strong example of what a Western can be on the small screen. RDR2 shares the father-son dynamic — Mando and Grogu, Arthur Morgan, and John Marston. The adventure-genre trope of traveling to many different places and encountering numerous characters and cultures, and the tension between the protagonist’s character development and the traditions of his ‘family.’ Mando’s banishment by his clan and Arthur’s growing discontent and disillusionment with Dutch van der Linde and his gang.
But the main reason I put RDR2 on this list — and the reason I think it can actually surpass The Mandalorian — is that it adds an element that has rarely appeared in that show: anti-imperialism. RDR2 is something of an anti-Western; the main plot — deeply interwoven with Arthur’s story-long redemption arc and his eventual rift with Dutch and his gang — is the late-19th-century efforts of the U.S. government to expand westward and remove indigenous peoples from their homelands, and the role that normal families and groups of regular Americans — like Dutch’s gang, including Arthur — played in that colonization.
In this story, Arthur and Dutch’s character arcs reveal Manifest Destiny as the process by which the identities of Whiteness and masculinity have been fundamentally shaped by state control and expansionist ambition. The divergence between the two characters — Arthur on a positive arc, and Dutch on a negative — shows (like with Edward Kenway) how we who live in the shadows of a seemingly unchangeable government and of historical injustice can redeem ourselves, and why we should.
Adapting L.A. Noire is the most difficult suggestion on this list; primarily because so much of the fun of the game is in actually playing the game — searching for clues, driving, interrogating. But even without that factor, an L.A. Noire TV show can pull plenty from the game in order to be engaging. Historical dramas and police procedurals are a dime a dozen; and shows like The Shield, The Wire, and We Own This City have proven that anti-hero cops and police corruption can rake in high ratings and critical acclaim.
And speaking of The Wire and We Own This City, there’s one rather obvious historical issue that L.A. Noire never really touched on: policing and racism immediately post-World War II (the time period in which the game is set). The history of Whiteness and policing makes for a fascinating story and is much more involved and important to how our society works today than most people know.
Police departments have long been a key social institution in:
- Controlling and homogenizing ethnic Whites. “Mafia”, “bratva”, and the like were criminal organizations in which a shared, non-WASP European heritage was a key factor in membership. Plus, the modern urban police departments formed in the 19th century specifically to suppress the labor unrest of the rapidly growing, and disproportionately poor, immigrant European population.
- Providing a path to middle-class socioeconomic status for lower-class White families. (In the past and present, military service and becoming a cop are two of the jobs that play this role the most.) Part of this included assimilating ethnic White cops, shepherding them into mainstream American notions of what it means to be White.
- Providing membership to extralegal White supremacist groups and activities (the KKK, the Black Legion, lynch mobs, and so on). As you might imagine, cops were (and are) especially good for this because they’re trained in violence, and they’re protected from consequences by their badges, and by the loyalty of other cops, who won’t go after them.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s was, to a great extent, a response to the anti-fascist struggle of World War II and the various ways in which the United States failed to live up to that legacy in the years and decades following the war. An L.A. Noire TV show can rather easily shift the story of the game to base its character dramas and political-thriller plot on race relations and the coming of America’s second Reconstruction.
As I said above, these aren’t all of the reasons I would give for adapting these five particular video games into TV shows; nor are these the only video games that I think would make for good TV shows. (Don’t get me started on The Legend of Zelda — I won’t stop.)
This is just meant to be an inspiration. As adaptations (comic books and video games) increasingly fill our screens and our popular culture — The Last of Us first season is over, and the new Mario movie is coming out on April 5 — there’s more room and financial will than ever for the adaptations that so many of us have been wanting to see for so long. Now’s the time for both audiences and creators to push for adaptations that do justice to the stories, characters, and gameplay we love.