“If You’re Looking for Fun!”: Arcane, Cuphead, and the World of Video Game Adaptations

I was afraid of playing video games as a kid. I liked their puzzles, I liked their stories, I didn’t like dying. I remember the first time I did, how the controller started twisting in my hand with this terrible buzzing sound, like what I did in the game had some real-world consequence. But I had to finish the story, somehow. I would hand the controller to the nearest person anytime a game would get stressful, just so they could do the fighting part, and I would keep the side quests. This worried my parents slightly, to the point where they would tell people to stop playing for me. If I wanted the story, I had to play the game. Obviously, I am not afraid of video games anymore, I am currently working through Hades (2020), but I still avoid most fight games. Hades is perfect because it’s a fight game, but it doesn’t matter if you die, in fact, the game often wants you to die so you can level up and meet characters. Other fight games are just not my type; the stakes are too high, and I get too involved. I realized as a kid, however, that I enjoy watching other people play games, because that way I still get the story and can shout out suggestions, but I don’t have to be that involved.

While I don’t watch Twitch or any of the other game streaming services, I know just based on their popularity that I am not the only person who enjoys watching video games. Not the only one who wants to sit back and enjoy chatting with someone as they play, seeing their reactions. Maybe some people watch so they can get better at a game, but others may watch to see more details about the world and characters. Video games offers these expansive worlds filled with complex narratives that radically shift depending on a player’s choices. It’s no surprise that many of these games have film and television adaptations, as like any of the adaptations I have mentioned on this blog, they have a readymade audience. The appeal is already there, but with that, high expectations.

“Let me guess… Murder?” – Hades

Seeing as every player will experience a game differently, depending on their choices in the story, they go into these adaptations with unreal expectations. This obviously presents a challenge for creators, because while they want to capture some of what the game offered, they also have to either abridge the vast narrative or alter it for the screen. It’s why we often see two types of video game adaptations: the direct and the inspired. The direct is where the adaptation literally adapts the entire narrative, trying to stay as consistent as possible. The inspired is where an adaptation tries to move away from the game to establish something new. This could either be a story which happens before or after the events of the game, a story with different characters but the same universe, or a story where it’s the same characters on a new quest.

Both forms have advantages and disadvantages. Netflix’s The Witcher, for instance, is a somewhat direct adaptation of the popular novels and subsequent video games. I’ve read that it’s largely consistent with the original material, but as a downside, anytime the series tries to rework a character or add a new plot line, certain fans get angry. Because the series takes such a direct route, these fans want an exact translation of what they like, in fact, it gets very personal for them. I’ve spoken before about toxic fan culture, specifically fanboys, but it’s impossible to not acknowledge it when talking about video game adaptations. These fans feel involved with the game, it’s not just that they sat down to watch something, they controlled the character. Having a director or TV executive involved doesn’t always go well because it’s akin to giving someone else the controller. When things take a different route in what was initially presented as a direct adaptation, this toxic and often quite sexist crowd emerges, feeling like they should have a right to this story.

An inspired adaptation faces a similar dilemma, in that fans might get angry because it is a different story than what they are used to. This is perhaps the more freeing option, however, as the adaptation can do whatever the creators would like and doesn’t have to follow every event in the games. I think this is where TV adaptations really shine, because they have the time to build a story and universe without having to cram information about this world into a two-hour span. Keep in mind, these games come with expansive lore and rules about magic and weapons, and near impossible to an explain all of that in a film. Take Warcraft (2016), a fantastic film which never tries to explain absolutely everything. I would argue that it doesn’t have to, I went into the film having never played World of Warcraft, and still understood what was happening. It doesn’t simplify things, but also doesn’t include everything, because how could it? It trusts its audience, both devoted fans and new ones. Some fans enjoyed this, others didn’t. The film was not well received with critics who had not played the games. Eventually a toxic fandom emerged and launched an unfair campaign against the film. It seems that no matter what you do as a creator, there is always going to be an angry viewer, someone who hates the project and then turns around a starts some online campaign because they weren’t personally consulted.

These inspired adaptations have a mixed success rate, and I think that boils to their format. The famous Super Mario Bros. (1993) film, for instance, is an indirect adaptation, but to an extreme level where suddenly there are dinosaurs and mushrooms, both on set and off apparently. There is relatively zero connection between the game and the film, other than them sharing character names. That said, the film has an established cult fanbase, and it’s certainly unique. You can’t even say they got the story wrong, because it’s clear, they were never interested in ‘that’ story. They just took the game’s vague parameters and went with it. It in someway mirrors what Clue did with the Hasbro board game, as it took the character names, the basic idea of a murder mystery party, and went crazy with it. The result there is an incredible film that manages to be both a compelling mystery and a parody of mystery films.

“Everybody Wants to Be My Enemy” – Arcane

The closer (or more closely resembling) inspired adaptations are often set before the events of the game and are done as a TV series. These seem to be the more successful. Take Arcane (2021) as an example, which has managed to exceed all high expectations. The show is amazing, the animation alone is superb, and that is in addition to the incredible story and characters. Like Warcraft, I have never played League of Legends, but I believe the series takes place before the events in the game, the sort of build up to the war featured there. We meet the game’s established characters in a new way, learning more about who they are, but also establishing them in a TV format. There is some necessary revision on certain characters, meaning that the video game and show characters slightly differ. There hasn’t been much backlash to this, however, as the characters are building towards who they are in the game, so there is room for change. Perhaps by the time we get to the events in the game, or those positions, fans will be ready for those changes, as they have already dedicated time and multiple seasons to these character arcs.

One of the major changes Arcane makes is Jinx’s characterization, as from what I understand, she is often compared in the fandom to figures like Harley Quinn, simplified to that ‘I am crazy dangerous and sexy’ thing, which often gets played up in male driven narrative. When women are involved, or at least involved in the intended viewership, these characters typically become far more complex and viewed in a different light, which is what happens here. Jinx’s costume is different, she is younger, and she has a complicated and surprising character arc with her sister Vi. The show also focuses more on Jinx’s undiagnosed schizophrenia, PTSD, and mental health rather than recreating the one-dimensional ‘I am crazy and see things’ trope. She has complicated relationships with other characters, and often showcases the show’s more extreme style and colour pallet. The gaze is different here, it tries to move away from the male gaze often found in the game’s reception. Arcane also has possibly gay characters and relationships that will hopefully continue to develop in the following season, I think it’s likely given specific moments in the first season, like the show is allowing these relationships the room to grow. It’s enough to make you forget that the games have a reputation for terrible chat logs filled with every horrible homophobic, sexist, and racist comment you could think of. In fact, there is a running joke that people who enjoyed the show are now trying to play the games and are realizing how horrible players can be.

Arcane manages to create a world that is both connected and distanced from the games, taking inspiration and building rather than trying to recreate. Some of the shots and sequences are so masterfully edited, almost like a graphic novel or video game, where you can tell that detailed thought has gone into moving the frame, where to jump, what happens in between, to transition frames, and where to position the camera, which is difficult when talking about animation. It really takes advantage of the medium, because although it’s cinematic, it also does impossible things with colour and vantage, things that would be incredibly difficult to film. That style is another consideration when making a video game adaptation. Some of the most successful adaptations, like Arcane and Castlevania (2017), are animated in a similar style as the game. Even the Sonic (2020) films keep Sonic animated. This decision led to a huge controversy because the film’s first version of Sonic was too uncanny, a mix of animation and real which just didn’t work. There are some successful live action video games adaptations, Witcher being a prime example and Werewolves Within (2021), but they run the risk of not adapting the very basic qualities of the game, like how the houses look animated versus real. How magic looks versus special effect magic. It really depends on the game, because something like Fallout would work well in live action or animation, but other games would only work in animation.

“You know what I do when I’m not so sure? I double down!” – The Cuphead Show!

The Cuphead Show!, for instance, had to be animated. The game is based on 1930s cartoons, like the Betty Boop and Popeye collections, and so the show is related to both the game and these cartoons. They have actually added grain to the footage to make it seem like these old cartoons. The video game itself is unique for having been hand drawn, which is unheard of in games. I’ve spoken before about my love for cartoon logic, the idea that anything can come alive in this style. A house, a flower, a clock. The universe itself is constantly fluxing in these cartoons, there is even an episode where Betty Boop goes to hell and gives the devil a literal cold shoulder, thus freezing hell over. They are the definition of chaotic fun because even the characters cannot control or anticipate these environments. That said, it is important to note that these cartoons are also racist and sexist, and I want to make it clear, when I discuss this animation style, I am largely discussing the broader influence that animation went on to have. It’s crucial to acknowledge that these hateful stereotypes are present rather than pretending that they aren’t there, as some would prefer. I know Disney has edited and destroyed some of their early cartoons, possibly because they don’t want to ‘tarnish’ the legacy of Walt Disney. Warner Brothers took an alternate route when re-releasing their early work, attaching a notice to each cartoon which highlights that these elements are present and were unacceptable then and now, but that it is still important to recognize that they happened. One creator sat down and saw Betty, created something else, and then someone else saw that and so forth. The question now is, what do we do with this style? How do we recognize every terrible thing created in this style while also recognizing what that style went on to influence, and still move forward with the style while recognizing that? It’s a broader conversation all film creators and viewers should be having because the very way we position a frame in someway relates to these issues. So, how does this go back to Cuphead you might ask?

Several of the reviews I have seen for The Cuphead Show! have heralded the show as having returned to a classic animation style. That is an interesting word choice. It’s vague, you could title really any decade as ‘classic’ animation, everything from Looney Tunes to Scooby Doo. You could even call the cartoons that I grew up with in the early 2000s as classic Cartoon Network. It’s so non-specific, and I think that is purposeful. This animation style arrived in the ’20s and ’30s, but that carries certain connotations that I think the reception doesn’t really want to talk about. The style’s chaotic fun is perfect for a video game, and the show can go even further and continue to refer to this universe.

Having only watched the first three episodes, I can already see references to Red Hot Mamma (1934), Silly Symphony – The Cookie Carnival (1935), and Steamboat Willie (1928), just to name a few. When talking about this style, you have to acknowledge it’s influence, you can’t just widely call it classic animation because that doesn’t refer to anything. The show makes these specific references, like the game did, and so it knows exactly where it’s coming from. Take Cab Calloway’s work on the Snow-White (1933) Betty episode, which might be one of the greatest and most commonly referenced (even taught) animated sequences. Although this style is so easy to spot, and so widely taught, there is not much ’20s or ’30s style in modern animation. Part of that is probably the amount of time it takes to create them, hand drawn, then the worry that modern audiences would prefer something slicker, and finally the issues I mentioned above, and a show’s apprehension for even going near a style that comes with that baggage (even though this style essentially defined all subsequent animation).

Cuphead doesn’t feature many ‘humans’, it mixes animal, mineral, and humanoid constantly. There are a few ‘humanish’ characters, including one who looks a lot like Olive Oyl from Popeye, but it mainly stays with animals and cups, and I think that is how it informally distances itself from the issues around this style. Even characters who are supposed to look like Betty characters are objects instead of people, like King Dice as a variety of Cab Calloway characters, and Hilda Berg/Cala Maria as versions of Betty. The TV show is also somewhat different than these early cartoons, the chaos is more restrained, even a bit Looney Tunes like (or more likely the modern Mickey Mouse series 2013-2019) because objects are not just springing to life, they are already alive. There is a living phone for example, but also normal phones that never come to life.

Cuphead draws (literally) on so many different cartoons that are all easy to access on YouTube, some are even in the public domain now. These references are obvious, in fact the show and game want you to recognize them and see how much work they have done to return to this style. I find it interesting that there are some who try to broaden this style as just ‘classic’ rather than recognizing that it has specific moments in mind. I think Cuphead, both the show and game, do an excellent job of moving this style forward while still actively acknowledging where it came from. It doesn’t necessarily discuss the issues and stereotypes that appear in these early cartoons, but it is obvious that this discussion has happened behind the scenes just in the way the creators have rendered this universe.

“We All Make Choices, But In The End Our Choices Make Us.” BioShock

Netflix has the rights to multiple video games, including most of the series I mentioned above. Witcher has likely shown that these games can draw huge viewership, and Arcane’s success has undoubtedly proven it. They just announced this week that Bioshock will have a Netflix film adaptation, and I know lots of people who want Guillermo del Toro to direct, because let’s be honest, he would be perfect for it. BioShock is one of the games I enjoy watching other people play, it’s an intense horror game with a huge setting and story. I am a sucker for Art Deco meets creepy ’20s/’30s, in fact, the ’30s is one of the stranger eras to depict in film. The Great Depression and aftermath of WWI, the buildup to WWII, and the brutal racism and sexism of the era all combine to this unprecedented upheaval that so many stories work from. We are still seeing the consequences of that era now. The horror genre is especially prevalent here, even Fallout, which takes place in an alternate ’50s, includes music and objects from the ’30s. So does the popular point and click game, Alice is Dead (2009), which really proves just how creepy ’30s music can be. Bioshock does an excellent job of presenting this twisted world, where things are gold and pretty on one side, but there is also a brutal violence and desperation underlying every turn. I suppose video games often present this dynamic because Arcane does the same, and it too has ’30s designs like the record player with Art Deco disks.

What draws me to video game adaptations is that I can finally enjoy the story without feeling that the character’s fate depends on me. It’s not even that I become the character when I play these games, I always feel like they are separate person, making me some immoral game master in control of their every move. It’s as though every game is a version of Sims, but I am not the only person taking away the ladder in my Sim’s pool, and suddenly it’s my job to find the ladder before they drown treading water. That control is fine for a puzzle, but a fight? Simply put, these shows and films give you time, it is like watching someone else play the game, or control the story. You see as they do and aren’t just focused on hitting the right button at the right time. You are involved with the story because you want to be, not because if you stop paying attention the story stops and you must go back. The story continues without you, it exists beyond your control, but like any piece of media, you are still involved with it. You are playing along just by watching, you are noticing details and forming these characters in your head. It’s not a game exactly, but it is participatory in that you are reading the film or show, picking up on foreshadowing and keeping track of the story.

Storytelling is never passive, there is no such thing as a passive audience, even if you are on your phone and just listening. You are still involved to an extent, which is why video game adaptations are so varied. Unlike a book adaptation, which every reader has pictured differently but weren’t in control of where the story went or how the characters behaved, a game requires a player. To translate that to the screen is innately challenging, but it’s a quality which many games already have. I enjoy watching games, other people enjoy playing them. These adaptations try to unite that, and often become as though someone else is playing the game. I have no problem that, some do. That is arguably an issue every adaptation will face, because each person will have those unreal and personal expectations, along with some control issues.

Video game adaptations, like any other, are made for the story. Made to expand what is already there, and has been explored, into something new, something that might even make the game better. They function independently from the game, as people who play the game might ignore the adaptation, and vice versa. I do believe, however, that the very attempt to make something new with what is already there is a form of recycling, without the game ever being classified as trash. It’s creating a new idea from an established one, and that offers so much potential. Its what The Cuphead Show! does with ’30s animation style, taking something recognizable, both a game and style, and transforming it into something else. We are in a promising era of video game adaptations, and even shows which try to recreate video game mechanics. Stories are moving between different mediums at such a rapid pace, from game to series to film, and all the different combinations of that. It’s hard to tell if this is a new form of transmedial storytelling, if you will need to watch one version to understand another. I would argue that it’s not just one single story, it’s several different iterations of an ever-expanding story which works both collaboratively and independently. The story just keeps going, like a controller being passed from one player or creator to the next.