The Problem with Video Game Movies
(Editor’s note: I procrastinated so long in finishing this article that there are a million articles on video game/film adaptations and why they haven’t worked now, after Tomb Raider came out and flopped. I apologise that it looks like I’m jumping on the bandwagon. In the future I’ll try not to eat so many big sandwiches and get fatigued and fall asleep on the sofa)
It takes a great director and a lot of talent to make the audience care about a character in about two hours, let alone set up the premise, a satisfying payoff, and appropriate context in a satisfying way. This is without having to draw from source material. When it comes to movie adaptations of pre-existing stories, they have to be simplified to fit the runtime. The same is true for video games.
Video games and films have had a rocky history. Very few have landed on their feet, and none were particularly memorable (other than for how bad they were). They try to hit the same beats that the game has, and end up having to rush all the exposition, character development, setup, and payoffs to create a solid narrative and a quick introduction to the world. This usually results in an oversimplification of the source material to the point of replicating only the most relatable and recognisable parts of the experience.
So why do people turn games into films? Why make Pixels, when the only plot point is ‘nostalgia’ in big neon letters? Why call it Super Mario Bros. if it’s going to be completely disconnected from the source material? Why make games into films if it only shackles the adaptation to dead weight? To answer this, I need to begin with a oversimplification of the current perception of video games.
Despite having a huge audience and an estimated US$91.5 billion industry value, it’s safe to say that games still aren’t considered equally among other forms of media. They are criticised in ways that other media is not. Films are viewed as a higher art form, even as cinema tickets slip for all but the most wide-appeal franchises. Films (along with television) are certainly the most accessible form of media, but not every story fits this format the best.
Video games, and one’s experience with them, can stay with you for years after the fact in a way that films less often do. Not only does this apply to the narratives, the characters, and the gameplay, but also to the emerging narratives which spearheaded by player agency. These allow for a whole host of possibilities unanticipated by the creators, and which are inimitable in any other genre.
Games can do things that are impossible in film, such as direct interactivity, cooperation (and sabotage), and actions independent of the developers’ intention. Emergent narratives are not possible in film. Films follow a linear path, and they don’t provide the same experience that a game can. You can watch a film a million times, but it will always start, progress, and end the same way. The same is not necessarily true for a video game.
For example, at the beginning of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, once you leave the starting room there’s a shot of glorious landscape stretching on for miles and miles. When the title card fades in, its minimalism complementing the simplicity of the landscape, the camera turns towards some ruins and a campfire in the near distance. The presumption is that you, the player, will follow the obvious visual cues to walk towards the campsite, find out a little of the plot, and be pushed in the right direction. Instead you can jump off the cliff and die in a crumpled heap. It takes about four minutes to kill yourself. So ends the epic tale of the hero Link.
In Overwatch, there’s a character called Winston. He’s a big gorilla with the ability to leap across huge distances. My favourite thing to do in that game is to deliberately leap out of bounds, say the voice line ‘how embarrassing!’, and then giggle to myself at his drawn-out death scream (1:30). I’m laughing just thinking about it now.
That’s one of the joys of video games; going completely off-script. You can create your own narrative. If you decide that Pac-Man is avoiding the manifestations of his regrets by taking pills to suppress them momentarily, then that’s what’s happening. If you want to drown your Sims in the pool or watch them starve to death in the room you trapped them inside, you can do that, you sadist. In Crusader Kings II, one of my characters was 71 years old, had one hand, cancer, was cynical, chaste, a hedonist, hated by his vassals, and severely depressed. He decided to end it all by deliberately losing a duel with a rival. The rival in question was a possessed 8-month pregnant woman whose husband he had murdered for voting against him on the council. Only a game, outside of reality, could create such a ridiculous, but organic narrative.
The reason I believe video game adaptations fail so consistently is because they are inseparable from their branding. Branding is what allows the films to get funded, regardless of quality. Branding is what drives people into the cinema, because they want to see the thing they like. Branding means the scriptwriters don’t have to write an original film, and instead cherry-pick the moments people will clap at. If the film turns out terrible, branding gives the movie an excuse. ‘We just adapted the game,’ they’ll say. ‘It’s not our fault it doesn’t translate well.’
To compare, consider superhero films. How many times have you seen Peter Parker get bitten by a spider, or Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace break apart in a steamy alleyway? This repetition stems from a conflict between what the fans will want to see, and what is necessary for the casual audience. A casual audience will have no idea who, what, where, or why most of the things are happening if they are not given the appropriate context. This means a large chunk of the film is dedicated to bringing the audience up to speed, so everybody is on the same page.
For the fans, all this will be unnecessary; they don’t need a quarter of a film’s run-time dedicated to explaining something they already understand. Instead, they’ll want to see something new; a new story that plays off the already-established mythos of the source material. Maybe they’ll be some Easter Eggs peppered throughout; a background character mentioned in passing, or an allusion to a scene that couldn’t make it into the film.
When it comes to game adaptations, studios have consistently struggled to balance the two audiences. As a result, the fans are upset about the needless exposition and bastardisation of their franchise, and the casual audience is left not really connecting with the characters because they haven’t had enough with the world and characters before it’s finished. Ultimately, neither group gets what they want, and you’re left with a film that isn’t really for anybody.
Balance must be found to make the adaptation respectful to the existing audience and appealing for a new audience. When it comes to film adaptations, it’s as much to do with what was chosen as source material as it is the execution.
Having said that, film studios do make their money back, because the pre-existing audience will always want to see the thing they like. The games company Square did not. Now part of Square Enix, Square created the Final Fantasy series. In 1997, they created a film division, Square Pictures, which specialised in computer-animated films. Their mission statement: to incorporate the movie division's technical advances into its games, which would inspire movies, which would inspire games, and so on in a cyclical manner.
Their first and only full-length film, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, was a box office flop in 2001, contributing to the closure of Square Pictures and delaying their merger with Enix until 2003. A film adaptation cannot wholly tie itself to its source material lest it simply repeat its motions. However, The Spirits Within was so far removed from its source material that it was unnecessary to reference the game series in the film title at all, outside of recognisable branding.
In contrast, Square Enix have made other Final Fantasy films, but which act as supplements to the games and less of a standalone, as if it were an extended cutscene. Advent Children acts as a sequel of sorts but is very clearly produced for people who have finished Final Fantasy VII. In this way, it was successful because it targeted a specific, but enthusiastic audience that were already inducted into the universe presented.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider probably came closest to an individually successful entity, one which you could enjoy as a silly treasure hunt, and which did not follow the plot of a pre-existing game. The premise was simple: female Indiana Jones. Although by no means ground-breaking, it was entertaining enough to produce a sequel, and filled many a boy with feverish dreams of Angelina Jolie.
As I was writing this, I was made aware of a new Tomb Raider film, that appears to follow the narrative of the reboot that came out in 2013 (judging from the trailers). However, like the original series with Angelina Jolie, the potential for good comes from the source material. It makes sense to make a film from a linear, action adventure game with a compelling coming-of-age protagonist. Indiana Jones films will always sell, and the simplicity of the summary (Treasure-Hunter competes with bad guys to find the MacGuffin) allows for other avenues to be explored in tandem. However, if it flops, people will cite its gaming origins as the problem, rather than the adaptation.
(Editor’s note: Hi Past Alex! The film didn’t end up being very good (surprise, surprise) because it didn’t stand on its own legs. Its debt to the original material meant that there was little originality observable in the narrative. As a result, it’s Tomb Raider 2013: The Movie. If the film had decided to move beyond the source material, maybe it would have been salvageable, but it isn't currently).
Assassin’s Creed on the other hand was too complicated. The premise was the same as the games, which was a problem. In summary, Assassins and Templars are locked in a war between freedom and control of the masses, and the protagonist must relive the memories of his ancestor to find a Piece of Eden, a powerful relic from an ancient civilisation that grants great power to its holder. Compare this to Tomb Raider, and already you can see how much more complicated any film adaptation of the franchise was going to be. Before you’ve even begun brainstorming the plot, you know you must have a modern-day story running parallel to a historical story, a sequence explaining the history of the Templars and Assassins, an explanation of how a person can relive ancestors’ memories, what Pieces of Eden are, where they come from etc. etc.
The game could take its time to fully establish the world it is set in. The film had to resort to plot dumps at the beginning. Additionally, the main conflict of the series means there is never a clear conclusion. There is never a definitive winner between the Assassins and Templars, and if it were ever to happen the series would end. Therefore the film's resolution is undercut by the inconclusive competition between these two factions, and the stakes are only ever raised to the level of 'those people are wrong, let's grab an apple.'
Because of how rushed and shallow the product ended up being, the film became characterless, as bland as the sepia filter they used during the historical sequences. The characters had no time to grow because there were only 116 minutes for the film to say everything it had to, resulting in a bad film that still grossed US$240 million from a US$125 million budget. The effect of branding is made quite apparent by this; no matter the quality of the product, if it says ‘Assassin’s Creed’ on it, people will buy into it.
Resident Evil spawned an entire series of films which spiralled off into their own entity, with their own original protagonist, and their own storyline that was drastically different from the games. This meant they could be enjoyed, ironically in most cases (although part of me enjoys them for real) entirely independent of the games, whilst still paying lip service to the source material. Indeed, both the games and films have influenced each other, and examples of this can be seen in this video ( warning: the music is not great).
Paul W.S. Anderson, the director, is now working with Capcom again to produce a Monster Hunter film, with murmurs of a film franchise. The plot is as derivative as it could be; an American boy gets transported via portal into the Monster Hunter world and begins training as an eponymous monster hunter. However, in a moment of screenwriting inspiration, some of the monsters also fall through the portal and into Los Angeles! Now it’s up to the surrogate audience member to put his new skills to the test, and there’s probably a romance in there somewhere, and his trainer dies at one point but not before the protagonist has won his respect blah blah blah. Uninspired and made to cast the widest nest possible, it’ll probably have nothing much to do with the source material, and that’ll probably work to its benefit. If it tried too hard, it would be inaccessible. If it was too lax, it would be entirely inconspicuous.
If a film studio is intent of producing a movie adaptation of a game, then there are few ways to progress. The obvious choices would be to adapt a game that is already very cinematic; Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series is an easily transferable idea that has simplistic archetypes (although its film was taken off release schedules back in 2016, so maybe it's not the best example). Alternatively, take a vertical slice of a game and build a narrative that respects the audience’s intelligence. Treat it as you would any other setting, and make sure the world develops naturally alongside the narrative. Otherwise, take inspiration from the setting and create a story that works for film purposes.
Warcraft would’ve been far more cohesive, if not necessarily better, if it had decided to be fully CGI or live-action. Assassin’s Creed would’ve benefited from forgoing the modern-day plot and focusing on the historical setting. Book adaptations are spliced to better fit the flow of the film, and there is no reason the same cannot be utilised more with regards to games.
One solution to this may not rest in film at all. Television instead could carry the torch. It’s a format that better accommodates long-form narratives and character development and has the potential to break away from the games in a way films struggle to do. The Witcher book series, following the success of the games, is being turned into a Netflix series, with more than a few CD Projekt Red (the game studio) staff involved. Sonic the Hedgehog has a long history of cartoons, and even Super Mario had Lou Ablano telling kids they’d go to hell BEFORE they die if they did drugs.
So maybe there is a future for game adaptations, just maybe not necessarily in film. This doesn’t mean that more films aren’t being made that adapt video games for the big screen. I just hope they learn from their mistakes, and eventually we get a film that is valued for its own merits instead of as a cash-in on a popular title.