Dungeons & Dragons, the tabletop fantasy roleplay game developed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in the American Midwest in the 1970s, is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Its popularity has been a slow burn. There was an initial boom, then a blip during the so-called Satanic Panic of the mid-1980s, when D&D, alongside horror movies and heavy-metal records and everything else beloved of teenage boys, was accused of being a precursor to ritualistic murder. But now it’s bigger than ever. (Spookily, or not, the Satanic Panic was itself a precursor — to QAnon. Coincidence?? Wake up, sheeple!)
Sales in D&D paraphernalia — the players’ handbook, starter sets, merch — increased by 30 per cent in 2020, but the game was on the rise already, popularised by Stranger Things, Netflix’s hit show. After series four aired last year, Google searches for “how to play Dungeons and Dragons” rose by 600 per cent. Next week sees the release of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, the first official live-action movie, starring Chris Pine. You know, that well-known nerd.
Sadly, none of which, not even Captain Kirk himself, will do anything to lessen the stigma attached to D&D. I should know. I have been a devotee for a few years now, and no matter how progressive society claims to be, no matter how many series of Stranger Things arrive, people will always snigger when I tell them I play. They look at me as if I’ve said I’m marrying a cow. But they don’t understand the pure joy of it. The creativity, the brotherhood, the feeling of fulfilment when you finally vanquish the necromancer.
It was a slow burn for me, too. As a younger man I was aware of D&D, but only in the abstract. Like Texan barbecue or oom-pah music, it was something I knew other people were into, but not anyone I was likely to encounter. Then, a few years ago, an old friend, Jack, told me he had been “running campaigns” (playing D&D) since university, so I asked if I could join his next game. I couldn’t — it doesn’t really work like that, but Jack offered to “DM” (Dungeon Master) a new campaign (game) for me and some of our friends. A few weeks later, our inaugural quest began over crisps and Kronenbourg in his south London kitchen.
Like all good games, Dungeons & Dragons is both simple and rich in nuance. To get the most from it, you need to be dedicated, attentive and perhaps very slightly stoned. Each player has a character which has either been assigned to them or which they have created. It could be an orc with an insatiable bloodlust, or a hoary old wizard, freshly divorced and out on the pull. You could even be a mewling sous-chef, armed only with a ladle, the ability to shower enemies with cooking grease and a need to make your estranged daughter proud: meet “Malcolm Lightfoot”, a character created by my friend Tom, a TV executive in his mid-thirties.
Some characters are fighters, others are thinkers. Some are at one with nature, able to command woodland creatures to their bidding, while others can raze whole forests with the swing of an axe. There are races, classes, attributes, skills, incantations, evocations, Faustian matriculations… Everything you do is down to chance, and every action has a reaction. Essentially, you can do anything, so long as the DM allows you to try and luck is on your side. That luck is tested by the roll of one of seven dice, ranging from four- to 20-sided. Crucially, you can die. If your “hit points” (life) diminish below the requisite level, then you’re out. End of story.
The thrust of the game is the quest, and the DM is its omniscient architect. He or she designs the loose storyline (generally a mission to retrieve, save or discover something), the world in which the story happens and the obstacles met along the way. The DM also plays all the NPCs (non-player characters). King of the nerds? Truly. But that’s what you want: someone deep in the culture who relishes the quest and takes it completely seriously, no matter the ick. And there can be an ick, especially early on. When someone speaks in their character’s voice, for example, it stings cynical ears. But therein lies the magic. If you can get over that cringe, then you are free. You’ve been red-pilled. But instead of waking up next to Larry Fishburne in a burned-out hellscape, you just pretend to be an elf and laugh uncontrollably.
That first campaign lasted well over a year, with the four of us meeting in that kitchen once every couple of weeks. The only real requirement was to be as dumb and funny as possible, and the quest would sort itself out. It was joyous. Not just for the sheer puerile idiocy of it, but because four grown men were able to relish in play in its purest sense. Like we were six years old again.
In the winter lockdowns, I found solace in weekly D&D sessions via Zoom. My day job was, as it remains, to cover fashion and luxury for this magazine. My other hobbies matched those of many other standard-issue thirty-something men, during those days: I ran more; I baked; I rewatched The Wire and tended a meagre garden. But on Wednesdays I would cocoon myself in the back bedroom, arrange my dice and notepad and settle in for a couple of hours of Tolkienian escapism. Nothing beat the ennui of a looming real-world annihilation like a tussle with a gnome.
Our lockdown crew was stringent in the observance of the rules, which only made the campaigns more fulfilling. The interchanging DMs spent hours drawing maps, creating multifaceted NPCs and writing stirring speeches. Our sessions were chapters, rather than get-togethers, and each time we finished there was a feeling of genuine achievement for each of us — four fairly disparate men, linked only by Zoom and a love of Odyssean storylines.
We tore through the campaigns, and as we went along, my characters became much more complex. When they died, as they often did, I felt the loss keenly. Hjelme, a thuggish dragonborn (humanoid dragon, impervious to fire damage) with a chequered past, sacrificed herself to save another member of the team. In the grip of a pandemic, it’s deeply sad when something you’ve channelled the last of your dwindling creativity into gets mauled by goblins.
Having said that, I was recently ousted from my usual gang on the grounds of perceived low attendance. Invited back only as an occasional cameo. Too much time at fashion shows, perhaps. So I am now at something of a loose end. If you hear of any maidens needing rescue from a curse, you know where to find me. And to those who pour scorn, “na’ga rahn fenedhis!”
See where The Super Mario Bros Movie stands in the long and complicated history of video game adaptations.
If you were a big-ticket Hollywood screenwriter, one of the toughest gigs you could get is the task of turning a video game into a coherent movie. Usually, video game stories are meant to be played and interacted with—not just consumed. It’s why running and jumping as Mario feels amazing... but hearing him talk in full sentences with Chris Pratt’s voice is unnerving.
Most games also tend to run about 30 to 60 hours long—if you don’t get addicted—and reducing all that to a tight 90 minutes is a nearly impossible task. Video games are also inherently ridiculous. You upgrade stats, collect coins, complete quests, and play out an experience unique to what you make of it. It’s something a fixed medium like film can’t even seem to get something simple like Sonic the Hedgehog right. Remember some of his adorable and cool friends like Tails and Knuckles? Well, they don’t even show up until the sequel.
But perhaps most daunting? People love their video games. The characters, the storylines, the visuals: they're all subject to insane scrutiny because you invest your time and energy and 3am. bags of Doritos to be part of these worlds. Now, we have a new adaptation to put under the microscope: The Super Mario Bros Movie. Read on to see where it stands in the long and complicated history of video game adaptations.
Jean-Claude Van Damme is one of the best action stars Hollywood has even seen, so it was only logical that a guy who starred in dozens of Die Hard clones would eventually get to work with the film’s scribe himself, Stephen E de Souza, on an adaptation of Street Fighter. Outlandish and full of impressive fighting choreography, the '90s film made for an incredibly campy rework of the 2-D arcade fighter. Especially since it (awkwardly) favored the one American character as its lead over its Japanese protagonist. Still, Van Damme can sure kick ass.
Bet you didn't think Pixels would be on here, huh? 2015 probably told you to hate anything and everything Adam Sandler. Well, it's 2021 and we like the Sandman again. Pixels is a loving, if... uneven ode to the arcade classics of the '80s (think: Pac-Man and Centipede). Plus, it stars Brian Cox and Peter Dinklage. And Michelle Monaghan. Yeah. Pixels deserves a replay.
Uncharted had so much going for it. A genuine star in Tom Holland, who plays the leading adventurer, Nathan Drake. Mark Wahlberg as his co-star. Plus, an apt director in Ruben Fleischer, whose breakout film, Zombieland, is still massively rewatchable. We hate to report that Uncharted is half of what it could've been. Which means that there are still some quips, gargantuan action setpieces, and various acts of Tom Hollanding would seeing. It's just all wrapped up in a film with scattershot pacing and not much character development for its lead.
The creative team behind the Assassin's Creed film took the correct approach. Ubisoft, the game studio, decided to snag the creative reins of the project itself and attach a reliable talent who believed in the potential of the franchise. This talent, of course, was budding Hollywood leading man Michael Fassbender. What he did with the film may not have been exactly a box office pleaser, but it was an example of a video game movie that was done artfully, made with a deep, meticulous understanding of the game series’ lore.
Say what you will about Paul WS Anderson, but he created a world all his own in the Resident Evil film series. The movies, frustratingly, diverge greatly from the storytelling of the games, but Milla Jovovich has become something of a screen icon thanks to her enduring leading role in them. While they take a lot of liberties with the Resident Evil franchise, the world-building in the films is captivating enough to make these a stand-out in the genre.
World of Warcraft is one of the most beloved video game series of all time. Its fan base is large, spanning generations of kids who, in some cases, have been playing it for decades. Duncan Jones’ take on the series showed, perhaps for the first time, what happens when a huge fan of a video game is given the keys to a film franchise. Jones is an outspoken WoW-head, and his knowledge of the series was apparent in this film.
We hate to say it, but Sonic the Hedgehog 2 doesn't go quite as fast as its predecessor, losing some of wit and charm from the first outing. That said, Ben Schwartz's gleefully chaotic work as Sonic, with a superb Idris Elba added to the mix as the echidna Knuckles, makes Sonic the Hedgehog 2 firmly one of the better films on this list.
Sure, the Mortal Kombat reboot was never going to reach the bloody, campy heights of its 1995 predecessor. But it's still a treat for gamers who grew up slicing and dicing back when the fighters were merely two-dimensional.
After Angelina Jolie’s lukewarm take on the franchise in the early 2000s, it seemed like Tomb Raider would never achieve its full potential onscreen. The series itself is extremely cinematic, and, aside from the burdensome exploitation and sexism in the games, it offers what could be a very strong woman-led Indiana Jones-type movie series. In 2018, Alicia Vikander starred in this much darker—and much more realistic—version of Tomb Raider, and she really nailed it.
The Super Mario Bros Movie is for kids. For. Kids. Please remember that, as you watch one mister Chris Pratt Mario cheese his way through Mushroom Kingdom. The Super Mario Bros Movie doesn't totally have a plot—does any Mario game ever veer too far from Mario-beats-Bowser, anyway?—so it leans on the hits. Meaning: a Mario Kart scene here, a Super Smash Bros moment there, and cameos that'll delight even the crabbiest of trolls. Just enjoy it, OK? Life's too short to dunk on an animated plumber.
Final Fantasy is another major gaming franchise that has a subculture all its own. For decades, fans wondered how their beloved RPG would look onscreen. Advent Children, the only film on this list that’s not live-action, answered that call in 2005. The imaginative and at times fully bonkers take on the beloved Square Enix series used computer-generated 3D graphics instead of real life actors, and it really blurred the line between film and gaming.
Listen, if I could give the top spot to "Speed Me Up"—the song of last summer, this summer, next summer, and the summer after that—I would. But my editor won't let me. Instead, props goes to the movie itself, which proved to be a surprisingly fun outing for the blue guy, despite months of production troubles. For better or worse, we'll probably always remember Sonic the Hedgehog as the last movie we saw in theatres before the pandemic.
OK. Wreck-It Ralph isn't technically a video game movie, in that Wreck-It Ralph doesn't exist as a game IRL. But the film imagines a world where arcade game characters meet up in a digital romper room, leading to a celebration of a film about video games and the bad guys that inhabit them. It's weird. It's wild. It has heart. And a Bowser cameo. What else do you need?
Pokémon as a franchise has always been a stalwart: there are the cards and the TV series and the animated films. Oh, and then there's the game itself, which has defined an entire generation. Even with all that, when Detective Pikachu was announced, there was some (rightful) skepticism about what a live-action film starring the beloved creatures might look like. Not only did the visuals deliver, but Ryan Reynolds and Justice Smith make the outing a blast to watch. Pokémon Go stream it now.
What is there to say about the Mortal Kombat movie that hasn’t already been said? It’s campy. It’s exciting. It’s dumb. It’s brilliant. The spirit of the '90s is alive in full force in this film, and to this day, the techno-futuristic-cage-match title still stands as the most satisfying video game movie to date. Sure, it may not be the most “high-art” example on this list. But Mortal Kombat perfectly captured the essence of a game franchise, and it cannot be beat.