Thanks in part to the commercial and critical success of The Last of Us, movie and TV adaptations of video games are really hot right now. So Netflix's plans for a live-action adaptation of the Gears of War franchise, one of the best Xbox games ever and a series I've played to death on various Xboxes including my current Xbox Series X, should have me positively frothing at the mouth with excitement.
And I was, until I watched Halo on Paramount Plus.
The Netflix project is still in its fairly early stages but it's already attracted some top talent including Jon Spaihts, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter who co-wrote Dune and Doctor Strange.
"Gears of War is one of the great all-time action games," Spaihts told Variety.
He's right. That's why I'm worried.
What The Last of Us tells us about video game adaptations
I've rolled my eyes a few times at the people saying that The Last of Us finally means we can take games seriously as art, as if games haven't been one of the most thrilling art forms we've had for decades. But The Last of Us is different from many video games in a very significant way, and a way that really matters when it comes to adapting it.
The Last of Us isn't a very good video game.
Don't get me wrong. I love it, and the sequel. The story is incredible, the performances too, and some of the set-pieces are jaw-dropping. But what makes it a great piece of art isn't the gameplay. If the TV show were true to the game, most of it would involve trying to position ladders and moving Ellie about on floating wooden pallets.
The Last of Us is no Halo. Which is why it makes for much better TV than Halo.
Without giving any spoilers, some of the most significant things in The Last of Us on HBO are the least action-packed. The third episode that had everybody crying, the episode based on the Left Behind DLC... they were all about the characters, not the evil zombies they're fighting. As the cliché goes, they were all talk and (for most of their stories) no action.
If you've played the game, you'll remember the huge battle just before the end. It's one of the most important bits of the game, and the TV show skipped it altogether. Because ultimately, what you needed to see in that episode was what happened after that battle, not the battle itself.
To oversimplify it, what The Last of Us filmed was the cutscenes, not the game. And in action games such as Halo, the cutscenes are the bits you skip. Or at least I do. The only Halo game I didn't skip cutscenes in was the oddest, least Halo game in the series, Halo ODST. I don't really know what the stories in the other Halo games are. Same with Destiny, Gears of War and the rest. The story gets in the way of the shooting.
That makes it hard to film action games. Strip away the sci-fi and they're just war movies – and that means they need to have really great characters and storytelling, and incredible spectacle, to stand out from the very many action movies we've seen before. And for me, shows like Halo really don't. Sure, it has the shield recharge bleep and the thrilling music and the weapons you love. But it didn't feel to me like it had a heart.
And that's why I fear the Gears of War movie and its spin-offs won't be very good. The Last of Us is no Gears of War in the action department – but Gears of War is no Last of Us in the story department, because ultimately it's about big grunty space marines killing big grunty space aliens for wave after wave after wave. As a game it's a spectacle, but I'd rather play it than watch it: given the choice of watching somebody else chainsaw the Locust in GoW or doing the chainsawing myself, I'll go DIY dismemberment every time.
Gears has been in development with various firms for around 15 years now, and I think there's a reason why it's yet to make it to our screens. For the sake of the fans, who I know are among the most passionate gaming fans around, I hope I'm wrong.
Maybe I am. I was wrong about Tetris, after all, which Apple TV+ has turned into an entertaining Cold War thriller. But then, Apple didn't do what game adaptations usually do and try to adapt the source material for the bigger screen: if it had, it'd have cast various people as Tetris blocks and bounced them around the screen for two hours. For Gears fans' sake, I hope their movie also thinks different.