Recently, a Super Mario movie was released in theaters. The critics were not kind to the film, but people embraced the idea (and the hype), breaking box office records. On the other hand, we have The Last of Us series, which coincidentally also broke viewing records, but unlike the first example, the critics loved the proposal. Both productions born from video games, but very different in their construction and narrative.
Perhaps a look at the history of character development in video games can shed some light on what we are experiencing today and what we may see in the future. Clearly, just as comics were once the stars of the screens, today it is the gaming world that is conquering the silver screen.
Let’s start by looking at the design and origins of Super Mario, which are quite unique: the technical limitations in the early ’80s forced Miyamoto, its creator, to define the “historical” background of the protagonist. It turns out that when he created Donkey Kong (arcade game from 1981), the technology of the time allowed only a few free frames and three colors to define the character we control.
Thus was born what we now know as Jumpman. The original design of Mario would be repeated in other games with slight variations: changes in overall colors, white gloves to make the character more visible, changes in size. It all depended on what the technology of the time allowed. And beyond the fact that Mario was a mix of what could be done and what could be ingeniously done, Miyamoto envisioned a whole story for his creation, creating something more than just a playable character, establishing a backstory. He was initially a carpenter, then he became a plumber with children, and later they had to cross kingdoms to rescue a princess, and so on, a long etcetera for an icon that, in almost 40 years, has provided us with endless entertainment for generations.
On the other hand, we have The Last of Us, a game born in 2013 when the technologies of that time allowed designers a wide freedom. There were practically no limits to what could be done in terms of design. It was even a time of a paradigm shift in game development thinking, a time of trying to move away from the concept of levels and bosses. Therefore, several games of those years focused on having a cinematic tone and deviating a bit from the typical struggle between good and evil. In that context, TLOU allowed itself to present much deeper and well-developed characters in an adult world full of nuances. That’s why the series is raw, direct, and dark. It naturally unfolds with solidity because the original material is like that or even better. With so many carefully crafted details in storytelling that it’s easy to overlook which components were taken from the game and which ones are original to the series.
We can see how initially everything was more basic due to technical limitations. There was a quest to overcome the barrier of simple avatars in a game and to have a backstory, although not particularly ambitious. It was enough for them to be eye-catching, charismatic, and practical enough to be placed in different life situations. Sonic, Mario, among many others… not only had to be heroes in their own worlds, but they also had to know how to drive cars, play sports, and solve puzzles. How seriously could they take themselves?
Time passed, and those who played as children grew into teenagers or young adults. This allowed the industry to introduce more elaborate and adult material into the scene. The characters no longer had childlike appearances, and everything could become much more complex. Deadly parallel universes, underground tournaments, geopolitical problems, and much more became the setups for games in the late ’90s and many years to come. This is how gaming became filled with stories worthy of books, comics, series, or movies, created by the minds of even well-known writers. Those times were a breeding ground for arguments and stories that we will surely see reflected in today’s silver screen.
And their social construction?
If there’s one thing I never tire of saying when I feel comfortable, it’s that the world would be a better place if people played video games more often. All this battle of woke culture and inclusion, the traditional and orthodox, all that trifecta falls flat if we look at what happens in video games. Let’s take the example of Mario and the famous damsel in distress. As early as Super Mario Bros. 2, the princess was a playable character and an active part who dedicated herself to saving her kingdom from the clutches of evil. There are also many prominent female characters, such as Samus, the heroine who saves the universe in the Metroid game series dating back to the mid-’80s. Non-binary characters have existed since the ’80s, such as the enemy Birdo. Protagonist homosexuals, like Tony in the famous GTA game series or Ellie in The Last of Us. There is even a game series that doesn’t carry the name of the protagonist but instead bears the name of the princess from the kingdom where the story takes place. All of these could be seen today as somewhat progressive or inclusive. But these are things that were done 40 years ago, a stage that has been surpassed in the gaming world and completely naturalized, at least in the creative aspect. It’s something that perhaps many should learn from.
The dilemma of a living universe.
There is also a problem in video games that makes it challenging to translate them onto the big screen. Video game characters are a living story, with different facets depending on the path we choose to take. For example, Mortal Kombat has a whole story, a whole development, but it all depends on which character we choose and thus lead to victory. In the first game alone, we had 8 characters, each with their own story development and outcome within the same universe. While there are more “linear” games, in general, there is a desire to give players choices to provide multiple endings that encourage playing day by day. If we want to adapt this to a more traditional medium, we have to choose one path, which means leaving behind much of the richness that a title can offer. To put it simply, in gaming, there is a lot of talk about “lore,” the countless stories that shape the universe in which we play the game. It’s talked about more than a specific storyline. For example, the writer of Game of Thrones was involved in Elden Ring, a game set in a fantastic world of knights, demons, and dragons. But it’s very difficult to find a defined narrative thread throughout the journey because Elden Ring is an open world with multiple endings and no main character. And that can be a problem when creating a narrative for the screen adaptation.
What lies ahead in the future.
In conclusion, we see that characters, stories, and their narratives have evolved over the years in the gaming world, transitioning from simple entertainment to complex and adult universes. As a result, we will witness film adaptations that are either flat in fresh and imaginative universes or mature approaches filled with shades of gray that feel novel because they come from a new industry in the history of our culture. We have already seen video games brought to the screen, but they have always made the mistake of adapting them with a more “cinematic” treatment, resulting in disastrous outcomes. Works like The Last of Us or the 2023 Super Mario film are more faithful to their origins, and the fan base responded overwhelmingly, resulting in solid blockbusters and breaking all kinds of records. That’s what I believe will continue to happen in the coming years, with productions under strong supervision from the original creators to protect their products and prevent the mishandling that similar works experienced in the past. Games such as God of War, Horizon Zero Dawn, Streets of Rage, the long-awaited Metal Gear Solid, Twisted Metal, and many others promise the “X” generation the opportunity to see stories that were once only well-imagined sprites come to life. It won’t be surprising to see films centered around gamer culture, such as the already mentioned Tetris, which narrates the events that led to its commercialization, or Gran Turismo, exploring its creator’s vision and what they believed their players were capable of. Undoubtedly, there will be mixed results, as not everything that shines is gold, but it is a good time for the generation that grew up playing video games. What was once a niche interest 30 years ago has now become (and will continue to be for many years) a prominent part of pop culture.
Writen by Pantenegro Marcos
Translated by Chatgpt. Corrections by Silvina Canon