Total Knightmare: the perils of adapting video games for TV

Ask your average player what it is they prefer about video games compared to other forms of entertainment, and chances are that the word ‘interactive’ will eventually crop up. Where movies, television, and literature are generally passive, video games offer us the ability to affect their characters and locations with change – or at least the illusion of it.

This hasn’t, however, stopped a small portion of producers from attempting to rework video game concepts for a television audience on numerous occasions. Games are tough to adapt in any medium, so we spoke to the few experienced creatives – past and present – with a track record of getting it right.

There are two ways video games have surfaced on television over the years. We’ve seen shows centred on the discussion of video games (GamesMaster, Games World, and Gamezville, to name a few) and programmes that are either inspired by or directly focused on a single game or genre.

The gap left by the former has unequivocally been filled by the glut of personality-driven channels on YouTube, but it’s in the latter where the idea has arguably been more fruitful. ITV’s Knightmare is perhaps the best example; between 1987 and 1994, it inspired the hearts of fantasy enthusiasts with its unique blend of real-space dungeon crawling, puzzle-solving, and virtual reality adventure.

Oooh, nasty

“I’ve always been a games player”, says Tim Child, Knightmare’s creator and long-time producer, when speaking about his inspiration for the show. “Games like Atic Atac and Dragontorc introduced me to the mini world of dungeon exploration in 48kB. Of course, the image side of these simplified worlds was at best minimalistic, but the depth of gameplay and invention was highly impressive.”

Child originally worked as a line producer for a regional current affairs programme at Anglia Television, occasionally taking up reporting and presenting duties. It was while doing research for this that he picked up on the “then-current boom in home computing”, as well as the games appearing on computers like the BBC Micro, Commodore 64, and Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

Knightmare was then sneakily conceived over time from as early as 1984, with Child recognising that Anglia’s “powers that be” neither knew nor cared about its concept: of an interactive game that took place in a virtual world. As such, he tested the first studio pilot under the heading ‘experiments in chroma key for weather forecasting’.

The iconic Knightmare helmet rendered its wearer blind, leaving navigation to the other three team members.

“That sounded so boring that none of my then-bosses bothered to turn up for the sessions,” reveals Child. “No one clocked that our caption camera was pointing at a hand-painted dungeon scene rather than a weather map, and that our ‘live-action’ camera was pointing at a man dressed as a medieval warlord rather than a weather presenter.”

Knightmare tasked a team of four contestants – one playing the game, and three acting as their guide and advisers – to traverse the vast unknowns of a dungeon. Directly inspired by fantasy properties like Dungeons & Dragons, Knightmare required contestants to use their wits and communication skills to overcome various puzzles and obstacles, all while interacting with the many unusual characters they’d meet along the way.

Think Skyrim, only with less ‘Dovahkiin’ and more ‘bickering’.

The keys to success

Knightmare was one of the earliest shows that managed to demonstrate how the design philosophies and ideas popular in video games could work for a TV audience. Knightmare also enjoyed an impressive extended run of eight seasons – not to mention the further revivals it’s had in the years since its 1994 cancellation.

When asked what he thinks made Knightmare resonate with people, Child cites the show’s unpredictability, and the cast and crew’s willingness to think on their feet in whatever scenario the contestants placed them in. “Everyone got an enormous lift,” he says. “And when [the team] ended, either in glorious defeat or victory, the whole studio would be on their feet applauding.”

Equally important was Child’s own familiarity with the workings of contemporary video games. Knightmare tapped into the accomplishment that players naturally enjoyed about puzzle-solving and co-operative play; it just helped that this was all dressed up in a way that felt faithful to the fantasy world it depicted, coupled with an early glimpse of what virtual reality and games could achieve together.

Chroma key tech used for weather forecasts powered Knightmare’s dungeon settings.

While technology may have been key in helping Knightmare succeed where other attempts to bring video games to TV had failed, replicating that success in more recent years has represented a formidable challenge. The most obvious question any television producer faces today is, ‘Why bother?’.

If a video game fan can simply turn on, say, Skyrim or a Resident Evil sequel, and become immediately immersed in a virtual world, why would they bother to watch something similar on television? Similarly, why watch a television show about video games when there are already an army of successful streamers to choose from on YouTube and Twitch?

Audience expectations

Ryan Paul Meloy, producer on CBBC’s Last Commanders, thinks the answer to that question comes from a place of video game literacy – offering up a television concept that proudly leans on its digital influences while having the confidence to take risks.

“What I think Last Commanders does is speak to the intended age group without ever talking down to them or feeling patronising,” he says.“There are moments in the show which are really scary, almost like a found-footage horror for children – and the kids love this, they react to it and take delight in being thrilled this way.”

Described as first-person puzzle-solving with a sci-fi twist, Last Commanders follows the efforts of Skye, leader of the resistance; she helps groups of friends and siblings from across the UK guide her group of freedom fighters as they take on the rogue A.I. Sciron. It’s the kind of stuff that might seem a little clichéd in the context of a modern video game, but works perfectly well in the context of a TV show aimed at kids.

Last Commanders takes place on a remote station drifting through space.

And if Last Commanders’ setting looks reminiscent of retro shooting games, then Meloy makes no bones about the show’s similarities to nineties corridor blasters, and directly cites them as inspirations. “Standing in those long metallic corridors with neon lighting really felt like I was walking through Doom, Unreal, Quake… but in real life,” he says of the show’s set.

Last Commanders may indeed be a kids’ show with a few roots in mature titles, but Meloy has a good reason for referencing them. “Resident Evil and old point-and-click games played a role in how we integrated puzzles with the environment,” he says. “The Resident Evil games always used puzzles that felt like they belonged within the police station or the mansion, and so we wanted our puzzles to feel like part of the world rather than just a puzzle for the sake of it.”

This is just one example of how Last Commanders understands what elements from games can and can’t work in TV; Meloy and his team employed a similar strategy when looking at the shows that came before. “There was a list of dos and don’ts that we had in mind,” he says. “I’ve seen most of the video game shows that have been on terrestrial UK TV.”

In Last Commanders, Skye’s red attire was inspired by Claire Redfield’s look in Resident Evil 2.

The basic rule was to follow in the footsteps of the ones that work, and the aesthetic of one particular show made perfect sense for Last Commanders’ retro sci-fi setting. “GamesMaster drew me in as a kid,” says Meloy. “Although it’s a formatted review-based show, it still had this cool, cyber-gothic look and feel, very much like a nineties video game.”

The second series of Last Commanders aired in March 2019, and Meloy is convinced that some of its success can be attributed to it being a video game TV show that understands its audience, and also allows contestants to play remotely from anywhere in the country. “We send out a ‘Mission Pack’, and all kids have to do to play from home is power it up,” he says.

“Everything thereafter is set up on our end. There’s no pressure on the children or their parents to get to a studio or even set up the video communication technology. This means we can cast all over the UK. Kids who normally couldn’t take part in TV shows due to geography or disability can join the fight.”

The unknown road

As popular as shows like Knightmare and Last Commanders have been, there’s no denying that television shows based on video games are a hard sell for today’s networks. Few last long enough to acquire even a small following, meaning that the people behind them have to work hard to even get their ideas greenlit; for every successful show like Knightmare or Last Commanders, there are disappointments like FightBox, or any number of the other attempts you’ll find dotted around these pages.

When asked whether he sees the legacy of Knightmare live on in any video games or TV shows today, Child isn’t particularly optimistic. “I can’t honestly say that I do,” he says. “There are games played on TV today that borrow a bit from Knightmare, but the effects are overtaken by the cynicism that pervades modern TV production practice.

“Action is over-recorded, real-time problem-solving is almost non-existent, and the resultant entertainment elements are artificially enhanced by editing down by three to five hundred percent. With no real confidence in their formats, it’s all just polished up in post.”

Sciron is a rogue A.I. with forces lurking in the unlikeliest of places.

Meloy, by comparison, paints a much brighter picture. Having swept up awards for Last Commanders, his ambitions show no sign of slowing down. “I think the more we make it, the more we’ll be able to implement in the show’s storytelling, scene-setting, and puzzles,” he says. “Season Two had a more complex narrative, so you saw a more populated Space Station and how the NPCs on board each played a part in the twists and turns of the story.”

Will this dedication inspire future generations to take on the tough challenge of turning their video game passion into a package less daunting for mainstream audiences? Only time will tell, but there is at least already 21st century precedent for other television producers willing to make a show of their own. As Meloy highlights, “My hope is that Last Commanders feels like it’s made for kids of this generation.

“In the same way that Knightmare really spoke to me, I’d love it if in 15 or 20 years someone out there looks back on Last Commanders with that same fondness.”

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