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Trouble Shooting: Video Games into Movies

By (May 1, 2009) No Comment
As an advocate of the artistic value of video games, I have to guard against choosing to endorse a game simply because it is a game, and not because it has artistic value. I have to resist the temptation to toe the party line in some sort of cultural debate, especially since one of my goals is to blur some of those party lines. So, in the interests of proving my good faith, I will admit something about video games: they seem to make really, really terrible films.

And when I say really, really terrible, I’m still being extremely generous. Initially I was worried that I was generalizing, that there must be some good video game films out there that I simply hadn’t seen. Maybe recent memories of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li have led me to cast unfair aspersions on some high-quality cinema. So I observed my journalistic responsibility and did some research.

The results were not heartening.

Using Rotten Tomatoes, a site that specializes in providing metacritic (i.e., culled from many sources) scores for films, combined with Wikipedia’s list of video game films, I trekked across the critical wasteland that is video game film adaptation. I gathered the metascores for each and every motion picture I could find that was adapted from a video game I (except the Pokémon series, which would have thrown off the calculation by sheer weight of numbers), and I averaged the scores, resulting in a meta-meta score, if you will, that roughly estimates the total critical view of these films.

The score, for every major American motion picture based on a video game, is 15.2%. Abysmal.
But I’m not about to just leave it at that. Such a remarkable trend invites the question: Why? Why are video game movies so incredibly poor? Let it stand as a mark of my dedication that I dared to watch some of these films specifically to suss out just what was amiss.

Okay, so I admit, I chose to watch some of the better-rated films, the ones that fell above the horrific average. Journalistic integrity is not quite enough to make me sit through BloodRayne II: Deliverance. But I did watch Resident Evil (34%), Silent Hill (30%), Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (40%), Mortal Kombat (24%) and, because I care so very much, even Wing Commander (9%, ladies and gentlemen).

I have since developed a few hypotheses, none of which are totally independent, so I will start with the most inelegant and obvious before moving into the realm of abstraction.

Hypothesis 1: Demographic

Gamers are usually thought of – maybe not unjustly – as adolescent, testosteronically overloaded males who want nothing more than mindless action and ample cleavage in their entertainments, with a solid dose of implicit homoeroticism. This would certainly explain 1995’s Mortal Kombat, with its bare-chested fighters locking sweaty fists, delivering crippling kung fu kicks and equally crippling dialogue. To the theory’s credit, it was a box office success, and successes of this kind may have laid the path for what would become the “form” of video game cinema. This hypothesis seems pretty sound when you consider the kinds of games that tend to get adapted, heavy on horror and action, mostly lacking in plot elements. To call the game version of Mortal Kombat plot-light is being kind. Its “plot” is more a context for a complicated series of keystrokes and button combinations, which are physically and mentally demanding, and become viscerally rewarding when your enemy explodes into a shower of, well, viscera. Accepting this, we can forgive video game movies of this type for being so bad, because they are not made to be good. They are designed for a specific demographic, and all they want to do is deliver. Trash entertainment films, like those made by Uwe Boll, dominate this list, bringing the average crashing down. This brings me to the next theory.

Hypothesis 2: Material

Maybe it’s simple: A bad game makes a bad movie. Or, rather, a narratively weak game makes a narratively weak film, which produces an awful film from what could still be a decent game. Super Mario Bros. is a fantastic game, but it’s not exactly the richest narrative territory, at least not without some really visionary intervention. Some games aren’t suitable for adaptation. But since some of them are, it should be possible to create a video game movie, using rich source material, that could be considered a good film. You’d need a really superb, psychologically powerful narrative, which some video games possess. And you’d need to translate it to the screen. Probably it’s just that no one has bothered.

Right? Wrong.

Silent Hill (the game) has received numerous critical accolades. It is terrifying, deeply psychological and shot through with symbolism. Having the characters traverse projections of their own twisted mental space makes playing the game an exploration of the psyche. It so impressed director Christophe Gans that he spent five years trying to attain the license to make it into a film, and worked closely during pre-production with the team that made the. The result is Silent Hill the film, a messy jumble of creepy imagery loosely joined by a disorganized plot, performed by actors who seem to have no better idea of what’s going on than the viewer.

So what happened?

What the film Silent Hill has going for it are, in fact, those things it borrowed directly from the game: its aesthetic and its music. And, while the film is visually stunning and has an excellent score, in every other regard it is lacking. While the narrative of the game Silent Hill is strong, and while Gans did everything in his power to reproduce that strength in the film, something crucial is lost in translation. This brings me to my third hypothesis.

Hypothesis 3: Form

Maybe video games just don’t work as films on the level of form. The narrative’s interactive element is what makes games uniquely valuable, and this element is necessarily lost in the transition to film. Without this interactive component, is the soul of the game lost?

I would say yes, at least in the case of Silent Hill. It adopted the virtues of its source material, but it failed to transmute them. Adaptation is just that – changing to suit the environment. To be a good movie, the adaptation must harness those qualities that make film such a powerful medium in its own right, without relying on the necessarily absent qualities of a video game.

Which is why even the best-received video game movies are still so poor as movies. As mentioned, they generally follow simple plot lines and focus on action and combat. Action and combat are things that video games already have, and they’re often more effective in that format, because they’re more immersive and less encumbered by plot and pacing. Even those games created by individuals who are dedicated to the game itself (the game and the movie versions of Wing Commander were made by the same man) tend to fall short. The essential difference in form makes even direct, faithful translation a recipe for failure.

I’m not saying that all game movies are doomed, that this structural disconnect is insurmountable. But making a truly good video game movie would require starkly different methods. The highest-rated video game movie in my ranking system is the one that I think comes closest to using such methods, although it still fails, mainly through lack of ambition. Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children clocked in at 40%, more than double the general average, despite the fact that it is, alas, a shameless graphics-fest designed to delight die-hard fans of the game.

Advent Children‘s most visionary stroke is its decision to springboard from the game’s story rather than simply retell it. Most video game movies use a great deal of time and energy repositioning the game’s reality onto a big-screen narrative. While this is doubtless a less redundant approach than simply copying the games blow for blow, it’s not much less redundant, and it’s still crippled by the fact that movies aren’t interactive the way games are. It’s a compromise anyway, since, if you depart from the original plot entirely, you’ll alienate the game fans who form your film’s core audience. Advent Children sets itself up as a kind of sequel to the game, using its characters and settings, but producing an entirely new story – compatible, but divergent. The same, but different.

That said, Advent Children‘s plot is pretty damn silly, and probably utterly mystifying to a viewer who did not play the original game, but this is a problem future filmmakers should be able to overcome. These filmmakers should take on the concept – a separate, complementary plot line within a recognizable, established setting – and create a film independent of its parent product. Not every game can be adapted in this way; a story about the life and times of a Koopa Trooper in Mario‘s Mushroom Kingdom would be about as ridiculous as it sounds. But games that could support such a distinct plot might do so marvelously as movies. It’s certainly worth trying.

I’m even lucky enough to have an example. The Purchase Brothers released a fan video, Escape from City-17, in February, set in the continuity of the game Half-Life 2. It doesn’t involve any of the game’s main characters, but instead focuses on the struggles of a handful of new characters embroiled in the events triggered by the game. In the movie, an authoritarian, dystopic regime topples, and as the city’s power structure rapidly destabilizes, members of the former resistance attempt to escape oncoming disaster. The video’s fidelity to the game is evident to anyone who has played Half-Life 2, but familiarity with the core plot line isn’t strictly necessary to enjoy the film. The events speak for themselves, easily fleshed out in dialogue and character development. While far from an independent, fully realized film, Escape from City-17 has got precisely the right idea. There is room in the world of Half-Life 2 (and, by extension, in the worlds of lots of such games) for new stories to be told, without encroaching on the territory of stories already told by the game. The Purchase Brothers are trying to tell one such story, and their source material serves as a foundation rather than a constraint.

Escape still relies on action as entertainment, and it doesn’t always give an uninitiated viewer the background they’d need. But Half-Life 2 itself drops the player in media res, forcing you to piece together the details on the way, and a successful adaptation could employ the same scarcity, leaving all the more time to focus on the actual intricacies of character and human drama and delve into the allegorical power of dystopia. The potential is there, and Hollywood’s previous high-cost failures show that the budget is there as well.

I’m not saying it would be easy. I’m not even saying it will happen. But I know it can happen if it’s done the right way. A successful video game film might, in the end, look much less like Independence Day and much more like Alien, or even Blade Runner. But that’s the point. Extra-terrestrials and androids can be artful, violence emotionally moving, spacecraft more than just something to shoot at in an arcade. All you need is a good story, and the desire to tell it.

Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous reviews for Open Letters were on Grand Theft Auto IV and BioShock.

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