News: Full-Motion-Video Classics Become the Next Great Game Adaptations

(Hollywood, California) No longer the beeps and bloops of Pac-Man, video games are growing up. Cable and streaming services, emboldened by HBO’s critically lauded The Last of Us, are hoping to find similar success by adapting games that already mix in the magic of movies and TV: they're the full-motion-video masterpieces of the 1990s. 

"With its harrowing vision of everyday people struggling to survive in the face of a devastating apocalypse, The Last of Us represents a new apex for video games and great original stories in general," said Gregor Madison, a pop-culture critic who also believes that The Walking Dead invented zombies and that Harry Potter was the first ever fiction about a wizard school. “Audiences want to see more of that, so studios are seeking out the finest games to adapt for TV.”

A second season of The Last of Us is already on the way, but HBO hopes to deliver another game-inspired and binge-worthy series while fans wait: Night Trap, based on Sega’s 1992 FMV adventure game, premieres this summer. The series explores a house full of young women menaced by vampire-like creatures called Augurs, with Scarlett Johansson starring as agent Kelli Medd and Daniel Day-Lewis emerging from retirement just to take on the role of Commander Simms. 

“You usually don’t think of video games as having actual stories,” said Randy Evans, lead writer for the Night Trap series. "Most of them are just dots on the screen. But there was a whole variety of these amazing full motion games in the 1990s that brought together movies and video games in amazing ways.” 

Night Trap is only the first of several Sega FMV games optioned by studios and streaming services. Apple TV recently announced a Sewer Shark limited series starring John C. McGinley as Ghost, while Hulu is currently developing an original movie based on the zombie-filled Corpse Killer

Not to be outdone, Netflix revealed plans to adapt a number of FMV games, including the cyberpunk thriller Burn Cycle, the monster-themed horror tale It Came From the Desert, and the surreal action saga Duelin’ Firemen.

If audiences like what they see, there’s plenty to feed future series. The FMV genre enjoyed its heyday on consoles like the Sega CD and Panasonic 3DO during the mid-1990s, when developers used the then-new CD format to create entire games with footage of live actors. Though some derided these games for their crude production values and limited interactivity, many in the entertainment world now see them as the ancestors of modern high-budget titles like The Last of Us—and perhaps their successors as well. 

“This forward-looking full-motion-video stuff was the closest that video games ever got to quality television until The Last of Us came along,” explained Netflix producer Terry Stein. “My daughter told me about this game called Undertale that seems to be popular with a lot of kids. But when you look at it, there's nothing to work with. The graphics are all just these pixels. Nothing looks real. The main character, you know, the hero of the story, doesn't even have a name."

Stein instead decided to adapt a standout of the FMV era: the rollicking and risqué comedy Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties. Netflix has already renewed it for a second season. 

Indeed, a popular video game doesn’t necessarily make for good TV. Square Enix’s Final Fantasy series was long known for its cinematic sequences, but when Starz producer Jayden Morgen dove deep into the company’s catalog, the pick of the litter was obvious: the 1997 adventure game Another Mind.

“Final Fantasy might work as a video game,” Morgen said, “But we wanted something that could deliver the impact of truly good television, with real actors that rise above that whole cartoony kiddie pool of most games.” 

Other studios are willing to take a few risks when it comes to adapting full-motion-video games. Amazon Prime has optioned several 1980s FMV games that employ animated footage instead of real-life actors: the mystic fantasy Strahl, the post-apocalyptic revenge tale Road Avenger, and the whimsical sci-fi adventure Time Gal.

"It might be hard to adapt a video game that doesn't slavishly reproduce the atmosphere of a routine prestige television series or an Oscar-bait film," admitted Crystal Meyer, director of the Time Gal series. "But I think we can pull it off with a great cast, great storytelling, and the appropriate level of contempt for the source material." 

Even so, the current trend of studios sifting out the best and brightest of video games has some hiccups—or glitches, perhaps. Netflix recently canceled plans for a series based on the 2018 cinematic adventure game Detroit: Become Human due to what an anonymous source describes as "the amateurish source material."