Hollywood has gotten hot for video games in 2023, with live-action television adaptations of The Last of Us and Twisted Metal debuting on major streaming services and the animated Super Mario Bros. Movie banking over $1 billion in theaters. Hell, there was even a movie about Tetris this year.
And yet, few direct adaptations of video game properties preserve the bizarre and specific ways video game worlds differ from our own, or how the psychology of playing through a story differs from that of watching one. For that, you often need to look at films that are not specifically based on video games, but are inspired by their form or aesthetic.
That inspiration may be obvious, as in the pixels and power-ups of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, or subtextual, as in the grinding repetition of Edge of Tomorrow. As the generations who grew up with games as part of their regular narrative diet become filmmakers, the influence of video games becomes so pervasive it may not even be a conscious creative decision. Throughout behind-the-scenes featurettes included with its home video release, John Wick screenwriter Derek Kolstad describes his intention to build a pulpy comic book world of gangsters and assassins. Whether he meant to or not, what he actually created was cinema’s most perfect representation of a video game world, a surreal space governed by a set of clear, often unspoken rules.
The John Wick series follows the eponymous hitman (Keanu Reeves) as he’s drawn out of retirement by the senseless killing of his beloved dog, a parting gift from his late wife, Helen. John himself is a textbook video game player character, a man of few words and little emotional growth but incredible, superhuman skill and a single, iconic look. Once John reenters the secret world of international assassins, neither he nor the audience ever step outside of it again. The world under the High Table has its own economy and social structures that exist alongside the real world but essentially do not interact with it. The vendettas and political power struggles that take place under the Table have grave repercussions within their world, but appear to have no visible impact upon anyone outside of it, even when logic would dictate they would.
Apart from Helen, who appears only in recordings and in John’s memory, nearly every single character with a name or a line of dialogue across all four John Wick films is a part of this secret society. Like a player character in an RPG, John only interacts with people who are part of the game. The streets are full of people going about their days, but, as seen during John’s frantic escape from the city in the first act of Chapter 3, approximately one in five New Yorkers is secretly an assassin. The rest barely acknowledge the violence happening around them, and as is the case in all but the cruelest shooting games, bystanders never catch a stray bullet.
John Wick could no sooner harm an unarmed civilian than a Pokémon trainer could have their Arcanine incinerate a gym leader. That’s not how the game works. Curiously, despite their stock and trade presumably being the murder of politicians, business leaders, and other noncombatants that some party would pay handsomely to see dead, never once across four films do we see or even hear about anyone getting paid to kill someone outside of their own criminal society. So far as the audience is concerned, there is zero collateral damage under the High Table.
Those who serve under the Table have their own currency, the three-inch gold medallions usually referred to as “coins.” Coins do not have a direct or consistent monetary value. A coin might buy you a night’s stay at The Continental (the hotel chain for assassins that has a location in every major city, and the setting for the Peacock limited series of the same name premiering this week), or a drink at its basement speakeasy.
In John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, High Table treasurer Berrada (Jerome Flynn) explains that the coin represents “the commerce of relationships.” Like with many video game currencies, you can’t simply buy a stack of gold coins; you have to earn it through interacting with important people and completing specific tasks. It’s also the only currency that we see characters exchange over the course of the series. Contract killings have a real-world monetary value, which is presumably how assassins afford their homes, cars, and non-tactical apparel, but it doesn’t appear to have any use within their own society.
Not that John Wick’s peers seem to have much use for the outside world, either: In fact, they seem most at home within the walls of The Continental, where “conducting business” is forbidden under penalty of excommunication. In gaming terms, The Continental is a safe room, the place where the player character automatically recovers from damage, levels up, resupplies, and receives their next quest. Just as combat functions are typically disabled in these types of spaces, the moment John sets a foot (or even a fingertip) on Continental grounds, the action is over. He has completed this chapter. Now, it’s time for him to get a refreshing drink, and to pick up new intel or equipment from Charon (Lance Reddick) or his mentor Winston (Ian McShane). In Chapter 2, John avails himself of the Rome Continental’s in-house tailor (Luca Mosca) and “sommelier” (Peter Serafinowicz), who outfit him with the latest weapons and armor. It’s here that John acquires his “tactically lined” dinner jacket, which allows him to take gunfire without spoiling the sleek silhouette of his suit. It’s a tremendous stat buff that, against all reason, does not affect his appearance, like when a game allows a player to equip heavy armor but disable any cosmetic effect it should have on the character.
John Wick’s enemies also level up gradually over the course of the series, with new equipment being introduced to raise the difficulty of combat. Not long after John receives his tactical suit, we start seeing other characters use it, leveling the playing field. In Chapter 3, when John provokes the ire of the High Table, their souped-up foot soldiers wear heavy body armor that’s bulletproof everywhere but the neck. (Nothing says “video games” like a bad guy with one weak spot.) Chapters 3 and 4 both feature a climax in which John has to fight his way past enemies up multiple literal levels to the top of a structure, where a final boss awaits him, Donkey Kong-style.
The John Wick series may not have begun with the intention to mimic video game structure or atmosphere, but it’s come to embrace the comparison. Series director Chad Stahelski cites the 2019 top-down shooter The Hong Kong Massacre as the direct inspiration for a similar sequence in John Wick: Chapter 4. Stahelski is set to adapt Ghost of Tsushima, while Kolstad is developing adaptations both of the recent Sifu and the classic Sega beat-’em-up Streets of Rage.
Still, it’s hard to imagine any of these projects striking as perfect a balance between video game structure and cinematic storytelling. After all, part of the reason why John Wick’s surreal video game rules work is because they evolved gradually out of the premise, over the course of multiple films. An original movie quietly imitating video games is novel, but a video game film adaptation does itself no favors by trying to be more like a video game. John Wick can get away with employing these same gimmicks because most audience members aren’t looking for them. Like the films’ noncombatants, we’re content not to look too closely, and let the man in the bloodstained suit go about his business.