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The Rocky History Of Live-Action Shows Based On Games

by Connor Trinske on Apr 16, 2016 at 06:07 AM

This feature was originally published April 13, 2016.

The intersection of live-action shows and video games is a strange thing. There have been plenty of animated shows based on games, but the live-action adaptations have often been odd, awkward attempts at bridging games and the real world. However, they’ve also changed dramatically with time – from the cringeworthy live-action/animation hybrids like The Super Mario Bros. Super Show and Captain N all the way up to more modern takes like Defiance and Bright Falls. Dozens of live-action films based on games have been released throughout the years, but serialized TV programs are comparatively rare. With the recent launch of Quantum Break and its own unique use of live-action in a game, we’ve decided to share a brief history of live-action shows based on games to see how the concept has transformed up to today.

Video games were getting popular in the late '80s and '90s, and that made them a prime target for a number of Hollywood cash grabs. Most of these were one-off movies that were loosely based on their games, like Street Fighter and Double Dragon in 1994. Live-action shows based on games were few and far between, but the best (or worst) example of television’s shaky grasp on video games may be Mortal Kombat: Conquest. No, that’s not a typo – it was really called “Conquest” and not “Konquest." Aside from that glaring problem, the show was about the exploits of a young Kung Lao and a host of other Mortal Kombat stand-ins, which served as a weird subplot to the games. Most of the scenes involve two characters in ridiculous costumes saying a few sentences to each other before an embarrassing, prolonged fight to canned rock music. The show was panned for its poor acting, dumb dialogue, wire-fu choreography and lack of violence, lasting only one season between 1998 and 1999 before promptly being cancelled.

It wasn’t all bad in the '90s, though. One live-action show based on a game actually ended up being a rousing success: the Carmen Sandiego show. Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? was a quiz show inspired by the educational adventure game of the same name. Each episode, three kids would be contestants and answer various geography questions to locate a thief and win prize money. It included many of the game’s token characters and criminals, along with the titular villain Carmen Sandiego as the focal point of every episode. Besides being an educational program that wasn’t painfully boring, the show was recognized for its outstanding performances, set direction, graphic design and production values, winning six Daytime Emmy Awards overall. Oh, and it had an amazingly catchy theme song, too. It spawned five seasons that stretched for 295 episodes, and was followed up by a history-focused series titled Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? in 1996.

Despite the rare accomplishment of shows like Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, live-action shows based on games were nowhere near successful enough to last into the new millennium. Plenty of lackluster video game movies were still being made, but producers weren’t willing to back the long term investment of a live-action TV series based on video games.  A lot of things had to happen before we saw people acting out video game characters on the small screen again: a decade passed, the internet became widespread, and games merged with popular culture like never before. While the live-action shows of the '90s were only roughly based on video games, a real crossover between television and video games finally came along in 2013.

Defiance was a true marriage of TV and games; it essentially started out doing what Quantum Break is doing now. The show was released in conjunction with the game, supplementing its universe and introducing many characters that were important to its events. The fragile coexistence of human and alien species on a morphed, battle-scarred Earth was generally seen as interesting by critics, who also liked the impressive special effects as well as its great casting and performances. However, the show itself was considered to be pretty derivative of other sci-fi works and received mostly middling reviews. Still, the project illustrated how the two mediums could progress side-by-side.

Publishers and fans alike also started creating new, higher-profile additions to different game universes – this triggered a rise in the number of miniseries. Some of the most notable examples are Dragon Age: Redemption and Fallout: Nuka Break in 2011, both of which were well-received webseries made by fans that even earned the recognition of the games’ developers. They were seen as innovative live shows that were authentic to their respective games, which was an exceptional compliment at the time. Publishers like Microsoft also jumped on board and weaved live-action miniseries into the launches of their games, with big names and high production values attached to them. These included Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn and Halo: Nightfall before the release of Halo 5, involving people like Ridley Scott and starring talent from the Narnia films and Jessica Jones. The trend of live-action miniseries has continued up to today with shows like the ongoing Street Fighter: Resurrection, boosting the quality and popularity of live-action shows based on games even further.

Most recently, the interconnection between live-action shows and games is unfolding through Remedy’s Quantum Break. Remedy is no stranger to combining TV and games – the Alan Wake prequel series Bright Falls was their first foray into a real live-action program, and it was a surprisingly good one. They’ve referenced and incorporated parts of TV history into their games as well, especially with the heavy influence of Twin Peaks and The Twilight Zone in the Alan Wake series. Quantum Break’s player-driven gameplay and choice-based episodes show how far the idea of live-action within games has come from its earliest days. You can get the details on Quantum Break and its narrative approach in our hub, where we talked with the game’s creators about everything from the future of interactive storytelling to Aidan Gillen’s little fingers.