Watching the trailer for HBO’s The Last of Us is honestly an eerie experience. For years, video game fans have become accustomed to sifting through early footage from TV and movie adaptations for familiar details; little hints that may indicate genuine affection for the source material. But here the resemblance is uncanny and everywhere. Even in live action, The Last of Us is instantly recognizable by its tall greenery and planks on the roof; his horseback rides and gloomy car rides on quiet highways with Ellie in the passenger seat; the triggering sound of the clickers, halfway between a Geiger counter and the revolving rattles at a 1960s football game. Even the logo’s familiar typeface, with its stubby tail to the “L,” is present and correct.
In a way, it’s no surprise. Those who have closely followed the development of the prestigious drama know that the fastidious screenwriter behind Chernobyl, Craig Mazin, shares showrunner status with Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann. Never before has a game creator been so closely involved in its adaptation for television. Yet it’s still surreal to wake up in an era where showrunners and game developers are finally working together, for mutual benefit.
It serves no one to sift through the rubble of past failed adaptations – at the time, the television and film industry’s disrespect for the younger mediums of video games and comic books reflected a common sentiment in mainstream Western culture. Only now does a higher echelon of game studios have the cachet to dictate the terms under which their work is translated, and command enough respect from screenwriters to engage in meaningful collaboration.
Many developers will try to follow CD Projekt Red’s model. On the one hand, the studio’s close supervision of the Netflix anime Cyberpunk: Edgerunners has resulted in a one-to-one recreation of Night City reminiscent of HBO’s The Last of Us; on the other hand, there was no need for a donation from a game director like Druckmann, and the resulting loss of creative bandwidth that would entail. Instead, CDPR appointed its own comic book and animation director, Bartosz Sztybor, as writer and producer on Edgerunners – and picked an anime partner who was clearly in love with his game. Tokyo’s Studio Trigger requested a save file where they could freely roam the CD Projekt Red game world and cruise through Night City as if they were looking for locations. tell a story.
“The theme of social inequality and violence, which terrifies us even in the real world, is portrayed in great detail in the game,” Studio Trigger co-founder Masahiko Otsuka said in a Netflix making-of. “We made sure to focus on these themes in the anime as well.”
Edgerunners required a much smaller investment from CDPR than a Cyberpunk expansion or sequel could, but reaped immediate dividends. After the hugely successful launch of the show on Netflix, the developer separated references to its parent game into one Edgerunners update, and enjoyed “visibly affected unit sales”. The anime helped CDPR achieve its goal best financial quarter once, and perhaps more importantly, has gone some distance to repair the studio’s damaged reputation. Quest director Paweł Sasko took to Twitter to emotionally thank the tens of thousands of new players who left “Very Positive” user reviews on Steam – an unimaginable scene when Cyberpunk 2077 launched in 2020.
Over the past few days #Cyberpunk2077 received a deluge of very positive reviews on Steam from the new players 🥺 You can’t imagine what it means to me 🥺 pic.twitter.com/bz3xElKixTNovember 25, 2021
Of course, there’s more than one way to show respect for the material, as evidenced by CD Projekt and Netflix’s other shared big hit, The Witcher. Counterintuitively, Lauren Schmidt Hissrich’s show has succeeded by keeping its distance from the games.
When Hissrich first described her series as an adaptation of the Witcher novels, rather than the games that had popularized Andrzej Sapkowski’s stories outside Poland, fans interpreted her comments as a disapproval. But in reality, the clear space between CDPR’s stories and the Netflix show has made them perfect companion pieces. Consciously or not, a temporary dividing line has been drawn. Since the events of the Witcher games all take place after the end of the novels, Hissrich’s writing team was free to reinterpret Sapkowski’s writing as needed without accidentally rearranging CDPR’s furniture.
As a viewer, it’s all upside down. None of the choices you might make on Geralt’s behalf in Wild Hunt are negated by the show’s plot. And seeing the background of characters like Ciri and Triss on TV only deepens your emotional understanding of who you’re up against in the games.
Where Netflix has expanded the books, it’s delved further into its central cast’s past, rather than meddling in their gaming future. When the show extrapolated an entire origin story for Yennefer from Sapkowski’s scattered mentions of spinal deformity and a miserable education in Aretuza, fans of The Witcher 3 were thankful. Finally, they had a good idea of what drove the woman they’d been chasing across the continent, and what connected her to Geralt (their stolen youth or a genie’s wish, depending on who you ask).
This month’s Blood Origin spinoff takes a similar approach, in that it deals with 1,000 years of history – an era of the Witcher world that CDPR has never canonically messed with, and probably never will . Even if, as early whispers suggest, it’s not quite up to snuff, Blood Origin’s archival nature means it’ll be easy for game fans to take or leave as they see fit.
Then there’s Arcane: League of Legends – the Netflix adaptation overseen by Riot Games that tells a relationship-driven story that the parent game could never do over the course of a 40-minute MOBA match. After the show dethroned Squid Game to become Netflix’s most-watched series at the time, LoL champions Jayce and Jinx’s voting percentages soared when players suddenly saw something new in them.
Marvel’s Midnight Suns, meanwhile, has pulled the opposite trick, reviving the half-forgotten Hulu series The Runaways by having actress Lyrica Okano reprise her role as Nico Minoru, a central figure in the Suns. There’s a sense that developers and TV writers alike are finally looking for opportunities to take each other to the next level.
Perhaps showrunners are also discovering that the best adaptations don’t really adapt. Instead, they tell the stories developers are unwilling or unable to tell in an interactive framework, enriching beloved worlds by playing to the strengths of serialized television, rather than completely mimicking another medium. Mind you: we’ll always have a soft spot for that bit in the Doom movie that goes first