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Are Streaming Services the Perfect Place for Video Game Adaptations After Decades of Hit-or-Miss Attempts?

David Satin

The history of films and TV shows adapted from video games is littered with failures. From Jake Gyllenhaal’s regrettable stint as “The Prince of Persia” to the recent flop of “Resident Evil” at Netflix, it has been notoriously hard for Hollywood to bring huge video game franchises to life on screen.

But that trend might finally be in the process of changing. Although franchise purists unleashed no end of online vitriol at Paramount+’s live-action “Halo” series when it was released in March 2022, the show was an unqualified success for the platform. At the time of its debut, it became the second-most watched original series on Paramount+ behind the “Yellowstone” prequel series “1883,” according to Variety. A second season was greenlit by Paramount before the first even premiered.

Then there’s “The Last of Us.” The new series adapted from the wildly popular Playstation franchise is proving to be quite the hit for HBO Max. The show’s first episode was the second-largest cross-platform debut in the history of HBO and HBO Max, garnering 4.7 million viewers. Episode 2 only increased the show’s success, growing its audience by 22% to 5.7M viewers across linear and streaming platforms.

The triumphs of “Halo” and “The Last of Us” show that perhaps streaming services have finally cracked the formula for successful video game adaptations. Previous attempts at adaptations have always suffered from the same double-edged sword: most people who never played the games didn’t care, and most people who did play the games were rabidly opposed to even the subtlest of changes to stories they already knew and loved.

To be sure, not all video game adaptations originating with streaming services have become smash hits. Netflix’s 2022 adaptation of the “Resident Evil” franchise was the most anticipated game-based series of the entire year, according to The Wrap. But the series didn’t manage to bring in an audience approaching that of “The Last of Us” or “Halo,” and fan anger around changes led to just 45% of Netflix users who started watching to actually finish the whole season.

But there can be no more doubting that streaming services have the ability to churn out excellent video game adaptations. Streamers also give creators a platform to let their story unfold more organically, with a whole season’s worth of episodes instead of in a two-hour movie that tries to cram in hundreds of hours of gameplay. While there have been video game films — including the big-screen “Resident Evil” franchise — that have found success, more often than not, by trying to pare down expansive worlds and epic stories to the fairly limiting confines of a movie does a disservice to the story being told in the game.

That can impact not only the fans’ reactions to the adaptation, but also the quality of the product. So, it seems like a TV series — especially one on a streaming service — might be the perfect way to allow the narrative that people fell in love with initially to unfold naturally. Streamers also have the content budgets to do justice to alien environments or high-stakes action sequences, and to lure highly recognizable actors — like “The Last of Us” star Pedro Pascal — who are likely to draw in otherwise-apathetic audiences.

That’s the audience segment that streamers will need to continue capturing when bringing popular game franchises to the small screen in the future. Even if they are only watching in order to complain about what has been changed, devoted players of the game are going to show up for a TV adaptation, at least initially. To truly turn these shows into massive successes, streamers will need to keep giving viewers who have never played the games reasons to watch by offering them a quality series with recognizable talent and realistic special effects.

Treating series like prestige TV is also a big factor in helping streamers turn out video game-inspired shows that appeal to wider audiences. “Halo” was treated as more of a genre sci-fi series by Paramount+, which is part of the reason that reviewers only gave it a 70% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. “The Last of Us” is definitely genre content, but similar to other media adaptations like “House of the Dragon” and “The Walking Dead” which take place in the sci-fi/fantasy class, it is treated by its adapters like a genre-transcending prestige show. That’s a big part of the reason reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes have showered “The Last of Us” with praise, with 96% of reviews of the show being positive.

Video game adaptations have been a tricky minefield to navigate for media companies for decades. But thanks to the rise of video streaming in the entertainment industry, content providers might finally have found a formula for making high-quality series based on games like “Halo” and “The Last of Us.”

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