Video games have come a long way in terms of public opinion and exposure. From being only in arcades to taking over the living room to now becoming mobile in smart phones, games have gone from being a relatively simple hobby to a multi-billion dollar industry that has rivaled film in terms of gross income. It is only sensible then that video game developers would look towards film as a different means of pushing their brand and characters to serve as a mutually beneficial endeavor. Video games and film media, however, have not been kind to one another to say the least. Movies based on video games traditionally have done poorly at the box office and with an average Rotten Tomatoes approval rating around 18% for international releases have also not fared well in the eyes of critics. While the video game industry's success cannot be questioned, what is it that has kept movies based on video games from being successful? All the signs seem to point towards the lack of commitment to great writing and storytelling that differentiate film and movies.
Video games as a medium are still in their relative infancy compared to films, theater, and novels and therefore have often dealt with several technical limitations and problems. Much of early video gaming history can have direct parallels to the era of early film, where software developers experimented with the process of what gameplay mechanics work well and which do not. It is important to keep in mind that it would take decades for film theory standards to really be established in the medium such as the establishing shot, montages, and other editing and perspective techniques that students of film can now have readily available in their toolbox to help themselves contribute and express themselves in the medium easier than ever before.
Consequently, the medium of storytelling in video games has generally been slow on the uptake, favoring game-play over story. Many of gaming's most iconic characters such as Mario and Link are generally silent protagonists so that players can project themselves easier onto said characters. Their games are also generally lauded for their technical achievements and therefore are benchmarks for video games as they set the standard in their genres which to this day are still looked back to for guidance and insight, not necessarily from the perspective of game narrative. In the realm of film, however, these interactive elements no longer are an element of driving the story, leaving a hollowed mass of characters which have not been fleshed out and given more nuance and direction that great characters in film often have.
Most of the video game industry's iconic characters are from games similar in these respects to being great games from a technical standpoint but often lack a large storytelling narrative or are difficult to replicate in film. The Legend of Zelda series is known for its dungeon crawling, memorable characters, and sense of adventure and exploration, which can also include a lot of backtracking to acquire everything that is required. The entirety of the game is from the perspective of Link, who is a silent protagonist, and conversation is done indirectly through a companion of some sort that Link has with him. These choices make it easier for a player to assume the identity of Link but make it difficult to translate the stories to film, where Link would need to develop a stronger sense of character and individuality as well as fully flesh out secondary characters that exist. The world of Hyrule created in the series of games has plenty of material to inspire a series of films or television series but the elements that have made the series successful cannot constrain what is necessary for the narrative to be more effective.
This is ultimately the key to the puzzle for adapting video games to movies: play to the strengths of the medium while not losing sight of what makes them great.
This is not to say that video games have not made strides in terms of storytelling potential. Games such as The Last of Us and The Mass Effect series have shown that an engaging universe can be made in video games that also has excellent narratives. It is no coincidence that these series have also been in talks to be translated to film. At the time of this writing it is unclear how these films will turn out. The key to translating video games to film is to focus on storytelling and that is something that would take more investment especially on classic video game franchises which do not follow the formula these more cinematic games have taken. The important distinction is that video game as an art-form needs to be taken seriously by the communities of other mediums for high caliber directors to take on the mantle of adapting these iconic characters for the big screen.