how to improve quality of future video game movie TV adaptations to the level of The Last of Us HBO - Metal Gear Solid film Horizon Zero Dawn Netflix Duke Nukem

How More Video Game Adaptations Can Succeed Like The Last of Us Did

The first season of HBO’s The Last of Us is over. A massive hit with critics and audiences, it’s not perfect, but series co-creator Craig Mazin and his team use prestige TV storytelling techniques to honor and elevate the already very filmic source material. Having original game creative director and writer Neil Druckmann onboard as co-creator to script, and even direct some of the episodes, certainly helped. The Last of Us, the series, takes what worked about The Last of Us, the game, and creates something unique and satisfying to fans of both.

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There have been just under 50 major films based on video games since the original Super Mario Bros. movie in 1993. They are pretty much all bad — even the ones that aren’t tax schemes! The ones made by fans of the games, like Silent Hill and Warcraft, can be fun, and a few get a pass for being kids’ movies that adults can enjoy, like Pokémon Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog. But they’re not Citizen Kane.

Despite the consistent box office failures and critical hatred of video game adaptations, studios are always looking for franchises with built-in fanbases. There are dozens of TV and movie video game adaptations coming up — a new Mario movie is right around the corner — so how do we get more adaptations like The Last of Us and fewer like Max Payne? Let’s consider a few upcoming video game adaptations for discussion.

how to improve quality of future video game movie TV adaptations to the level of The Last of Us HBO - Metal Gear Solid film Horizon Zero Dawn Netflix Duke Nukem

Horizon Zero Dawn TV Series Adaptation at Netflix

The obvious choice: Very little “Aloy vs. robot dinosaur” action, mostly terrible sub-Game of Thrones “intrigue” to keep the budget down

The more interesting choice: The story of how the world ended

The first Horizon game is just too much of a video game to work in any other medium. The concept — cavewoman in the distant future battles robot dinosaurs — is so unbelievably goofy that the creators’ insistence on taking it deeply seriously is baffling. A show about a woman in dreadlocks shooting a bow and arrow at crummy CGI robots for nine hours would get boring and expensive fast. So I’d expect a show that directly adapted the first game’s plot to stuff it with long, boring scenes concerning the politics of the different tribes.

The best storytelling moments in Horizon Zero Dawn have Aloy delving into ruined corporate offices and doomsday bunkers to uncover the cause of the apocalypse. The mystery works and the boardroom politics are actually pretty interesting. The most interesting and affordable option would be to set the show entirely in “the past” of 2064 and show the boardroom battles between Elisabet Sobek and Elon Musk-alike Ted Faro that eventually lead to the apocalypse. A show about an evil sci-fi corporation that didn’t take its premise too seriously, sort of Succession meets Westworld, could really work.

There were rumors that Netflix was thinking the same thing and that the upcoming show would be called Horizon 2074, but “Horizon 2074” is confirmed as the working title for season 4 of The Boys. Get ready to spend nine hours with actors dancing around the appropriation of Native American culture, explaining the difference between “the Carja” and “the Shadow Carja.”

how to improve quality of future video game movie TV adaptations to the level of The Last of Us HBO - Metal Gear Solid film Horizon Zero Dawn Netflix Duke Nukem

Metal Gear Solid Movie Adaptation

The obvious choice: Solid Snake infiltrates The Rock.

The more interesting choice: Get weird.

Oscar Isaac’s dream project has been in development limbo for years, which might be a good thing. While the original Metal Gear Solid is a relatively straightforward military fetishist simulator, especially compared to later games in the series, part of the immortal charm of the franchise is the weirdness hiding in the margins. What starts as a plot ripped right from a Jerry Bruckheimer movie — terrorists have taken over a military research facility and seized the hyper-advanced walking nuclear tank stored there — is stuffed with colorful characters like a psychic in a gas mask named Psycho Mantis.

Metal Gear Solid is a rare video game with cinematic ambitions that could adapt to a movie pretty easily. The setup is tasty and could be a refreshing action thriller throwback, like 2022’s Ambulance.

Leaning into the weirdness of Metal Gear would certainly set the movie apart, but what if they parodied the game’s obsession with military hardware and interminable live-action cutscenes explaining nuclear proliferation? The currently attached director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, has a track record of subverting expectations in military-focused movies with the excellent Vietnam War allegory Kong: Skull Island.

Both Isaac and Vogt-Roberts have been protective of their vision for Metal Gear Solid: something that sticks to the game’s anti-war message and psychedelic “descent into darkness” storytelling. It will probably never come out, but it’s a fun idea.

how to improve quality of future video game movie TV adaptations to the level of The Last of Us HBO - Metal Gear Solid film Horizon Zero Dawn Netflix Duke Nukem

Duke Nukem Movie Adaptation

The obvious choice: A cheap action flick starring Dwayne Johnson

The more interesting choice: Austin Powers with John Cena

Duke Nukem isn’t a character as much as a collage of references, a deeply dated slice of ‘90s macho bullshit that, in small doses, is pretty fun, especially when he’s along for a kickass retro FPS ride. Duke Nukem 3D is the only reason anyone thinks of making a movie with the character in 2023. Duke’s attitude made him a superstar in 1996, but subsequent releases forwarded Duke as a character and lost the sense of fun. When Duke Nukem Forever was finally released in 2011, he’d become a full-on creep.

Thinking Duke Nukem is cool is a mistake. Duke Nukem isn’t cool; he’s a sexist loser who also happens to be very good at killing aliens, and the idea that the earth is stuck with him because he saved the planet is deeply funny. A movie about Duke Nukem, a raging roidhead jerkoff forced to face up to his own failings as a human being now that there are no aliens to kill, is a tremendous opportunity to tackle misogyny in general and misogyny in video games specifically.

Yes, this sounds a lot like Peacemaker, but great artists steal and Duke Nukem‘s whole thing is there’s nothing original about it. Taking the Austin Powers route while still having a lot of action with the iconic Duke Nukem 3D weapons would be rad as hell.

There are so many upcoming video game adaptations. The potential for one of them to be truly daring and do something more interesting with its source material is possible. Or they’ll make Mario into Minions 7.

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Colin Munch
Colin has been writing online about storytelling in movies, TV, and video games since 2017. He is an actor, screenwriter, and director with over twenty years of experience making and telling stories on stage, on the page, and on film. For The Escapist, he writes the Storycraft column about, you guessed it, storytelling in movies and video games. He's on Threads @colinjmunch