It’s fair to say that we’re living in a golden age of geek cinema. Marvel movies bestride the cinematic landscape, showering billions of dollars upon studios and producers. Star Wars, although it’s not had a flawless few years, is experiencing an unprecedented cinematic renaissance. Transformers has somehow gotten so big it has spawned spin-offs. Basically, every Hollywood producer and their dog is raiding the vaults of geek culture looking for their next hit franchise, and if it can support a Marvel-style shared universe, all the better. Despite all this, video games remain woefully under-represented on the big screen.
Remember Doom? Silent Hill? Pixels? The beautifully, cultishly awful Super Mario Bros.? The most successful videogames franchise on the big screen has arguably been Resident Evil and its umpteen sequels, but that parted ways with the narrative of the games a loooong time ago. Heck, Hollywood can barely even make Tomb Raider work, and that’s basically just Indiana Jones starring a beautiful woman – it ought to be a sure thing.
As gamers know, there’s a rich trove of narrative, characters, drama and cool ideas in the world of games, but Hollywood just hasn’t figured out what to do with them. Short film makers, though, they get it. Fans and indie filmmakers have brought us some diamonds over the years. Here are five of the best.
Portal: No Escape
Portal is a great example of a game ripe for the short film treatment. With an original, eerie setting and cerebral premise along with extremely cool visuals; it also doesn’t burden any would-be writers or directors with too much plot. Just a cool concept and a nice open space in which to slot a story.
Widely regarded as one of the best fan-made Portal films, No Escape was directed by Dan Trachtenberg and starred Danielle Rayne. It depicted Chell waking in a room with no memory of who she is and how she got there. Under constant surveillance, she begins to unpick the problem of what’s happening. Eventually she discovers the portal gun and… well, we won’t spoil the rest.
Part of what makes No Escape so great is the quality of the production. There’s a real attention to detail that shines through, despite its extremely modest budget of a few thousand dollars. Thank a full year and a half of post-production before its 2011 release for that level of quality. Well, that and some truly excellent source material.
Before Roar Uthaug brought us Alicia Vikander’s wet-behind-the-ears Lara in 2018, we had Croft. Directed by Trevor Addie and starring Cassandra Ebner, we get a ‘hero’ (you won’t find her named in the cast list as Lara Croft – thank copyright laws for that) a few steps closer to reality than Angelina Jolie’s superheroic turn as the character. Sure, she’s a total badass, but there’s a real humanity to her portrayal, too. She’s scared, she stumbles, she moves like someone who really doesn’t want to get shot.
Clearly influenced by Crystal Dynamics’ 2013 reboot of the series (or maybe the trailers for it, given that Croft only came out a few months after the game) this short gives us a Lara who’s vulnerable and grounded in our world.
The Hall of the Fallen
Vikings are well represented on television, the HBO series has fans all over the world, but why aren’t Vikings as prominent in films? Gabriel Esling’s 2017 short film exploits a gap in the market, centring his film around a young Viking named Endre whose family is killed in a raid. As he comes face to face with the man who murdered them and took everything he held dear, Endre fights for his life to avenge them in a brutal clash of swords and shields.
The Hall of the Fallen isn’t explicitly a videogames adaptation, but it certainly has a games-y vibe. Possible candidates for influencing this one include the tactical RPG, The Banner Saga, by Stoic Games and the Vikings online slot – a three-row, five-reel, 243 bet ways video slot that includes a Shield Wall feature, a Hotspots feature and a Raid Spin mode.
Metroid: The Sky Calls
About as epic as fan films can get, The Sky Calls is a large scale sci-fi epic packed into a tiny little 11:38 runtime and a shoestring budget.
Directed by Sam Balcomb for Rainfall, the short stars The Nerdist’s Jessica Chobot and has Halo 5: Guardians’ America Young performing motion capture. One of the coolest things about the film is its old school sci-fi aesthetic that’s reminiscent of the likes of the Alien films. Balcomb reportedly used scanned 16mm film stock along with VHS transfers to get the finished look, so despite its heavy use of CGI, it gets the grittiness of 70s James Cameron rather than the eye-watering brightness of 21st century James Cameron.
The Sky Calls is all the sweeter for the fact that barring the odd Manga, Nintendo has shied away from officially licensing its stable of characters for other media since Mario and Luigi made their turns in animation and on film.
Sonic the Hedgehog
OK, so it’s not perfect, but you have to credit Blue Core Studios and director Eddie Lebron for having a go at doing a live action take on what has to be one of the least filmable videogame characters of all time. Many fans think this 2013 release features a better rendition of Sonic than what’s been seen of Jeff Fowler’s officially licensed take for Paramount. This Sonic doesn’t exactly seamlessly blend into the real-world environments they used, but he looks pretty faithful to Team Sonic’s portrayals of the character and certainly wouldn’t look out of place in a DreamWorks production.
Where some fan films might have tried to steer away from some of the character’s goofier aspects, Lebron leans into them. This is a Sonic who’s funny, fast and not afraid to be a little silly. Throw in some high stakes and this is a short that’s a great love letter to a beloved character.
In a way, we might be thankful that Hollywood shies away from adaptations of amazing games – it leaves the field open for some awesome and lovingly produced fan shorts that are made with more care than you might realistically expect from a lot of Hollywood studios. If they do ever want to bring those Hollywood dollars to the world of games, however, these fan films show what can be done with some attention to the source material and a little creativity.