Video Game Movies – Why don’t they work?

Video Game Movies – Why don’t they work?

There’s a long-running belief in both the video game and movie industries, which is that films based on games (and usually vice versa) just don’t work. Yet many video games are extremely deep, story-driven experiences with a wealth of material from which to draw inspiration. So where does it keep going wrong?

Compelling Stories

Some, in fact many, video games have all the story and character development of a brick. That’s totally fine, as many games are purely about the gameplay experience and pay only lip service to explaining why you’re shooting those mutants in the face.

However, there are plenty of examples of cinematic games which have huge extended universes rich for exploration.

Mass Effect

When the first Mass Effect game released in 2007, it came off the back of Bioware’s success with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Many people (including myself) picked it up as some form of spiritual successor. While Bioware changed the mechanics of the game to a real-time third-person shooter, the incredible environments and strong character development remained. The core gameplay was arguably the weakest part of the game by far, yet it managed to capture the imagination of players by establishing a galaxy filled with characters that we cared about.

The Illusive Man in Mass Effect 2

The Mass Effect series is renowned for its galaxy spanning story and deep characterisation. Let's just not talk about the ending of Mass Effect 3.

While its sequels tightened up the shooting elements, they continued with the story-driven gameplay and deep characters that by then had become the series' defining feature. I’d go as far as to say that the series was my favourite gaming experience of the last generation.

With such a rich, diverse, and deep universe, Mass Effect would seem to lend itself well to development as a movie franchise. Although considering the quality of storytelling in Mass Effect: Andromeda, maybe there’s still some work to be done.

Metal Gear Solid

In terms of sheer breadth of material, few gaming series have anything quite as deep, or bizarre to choose from as Metal Gear Solid. Hideo Kojima’s series has a fanatical following, despite being absolutely bonkers. Given some of the rather strange plot twists and “creative choices” we’ve seen made in video game movies before, it’s perhaps a little surprising that MGS hasn’t been developed into a movie before now. You’d think there would at least be a bonkers B movie out there somewhere.

Sadly, now that Hideo Kojima is no longer part of the franchise, it remains to be seen whether a MGS movie is ever likely to hit the big screen. And if one does, would it be worth it without his trademark panache?

The Last of Us

There are plenty of post-apocalyptic zombie films out there. Some take an action slant, some go for horror, or social commentary. Some even play for laughs. But they keep on coming. Given the critical lauding of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, and the current popularity of undead cinema, not to mention the heart-wrenching story, it’s surely a prime candidate for transition to the big screen.

Terrible Adaptations

There’s plenty of evidence for the prosecution. Since the idea of translating a game IP to cinema was stumbled upon, Hollywood seems to have done its best to ruin the dreams of gamers across the world. Here are a few of the worst (in my opinion) examples:

Super Mario Bros.

Selecting Mario for the first(?) video game to movie adaptation was a bold move, but the interpretation of the material was so far removed from the games that it completely alienated any fans. Unfortunately it rather set the tone for many video game movies to follow.

Max Payne

In my opinion, this was the best chance for success yet. There are so many great noir film stories about a detective on the edge uncovering a shady conspiracy, so why the f**k did we get Marky Mark and some ridiculous hallucinations of Valkyries? Keep it simple, dark, gritty, and you’ve got yourself a brilliant detective noir film that ties into one of the great games of the early 21st century.

Mark Wahlberg in Max Payne

Given the incredible styling of the Max Payne games and the rich classic noir story, it's perhaps surprising this didn't work out better

Alone In the Dark

One of the renowned horror genre games could have translated fairly well to the big screen, but one crucial mistake was made. Uwe F**king Boll. Do I need to say more?

Resident Evil

It’s impossible to mention the horror genre of video games without the granddaddy of them all: Resident Evil. Taking a fairly sensible (in gaming terms) plot, Resident Evil seemed like a great candidate for a movie. Unfortunately in its translation to cinema, it was given the typical Hollywood treatment, and its main characters were ditched, story changed, and it became yet another example of a good gaming concept being totally bastardised by Hollywood.

Now, I actually rather like the Resident Evil films (at least the first few) as a bit of a no-brainer guilty pleasure. I fully accept that they are complete and utter mince though.

Assassin’s Creed

One of the usual criticisms levelled at video game movies is that they lose track of the core subject matter, usually due to having little concern for the source material, or involvement from the owners of the game IP. So when Assassin’s Creed was announced, and furthermore being created under the full supervision of Ubisoft, it seemed like finally we would get a video game movie that would stay true to the source material and capture the (admittedly rather bonkers) premise of the games.

Fight scene from the Assassin's Creed movie

Assassin's Creed has a rich background, striking imagery, and some compelling characters, so why didn't this translate to film?

But it was a mess. There were some great action scenes, and some nice effects, but it seemed to miss so much of the point of the games that it just turned into another daft sci-fi effort. To their credit, Ubisoft have stayed with it and brought the storyling into canon in Assassin’s Creed: Origins, but it could have been so much better.

Did Ubisoft have too much control? I would imagine that game studios don’t really know the first thing about making films. Was this the issue? And if Assassin’s Creed had just been a movie without being derived from a game, would it have been any better?

Case for the defence

However all is not lost. There have been a few projects over the years that add a glimmer of hope for the future of game and movie/TV tie-ins. Here I look at a few efforts that do a great job of teasing a future where games and quality film/TV can live hand in hand:

Halo: Forward Unto Dawn

The launch of Halo 4 was extremely well publicised and supported across various media. One of the best surprises in this PR campaign was the release of a tie-in miniseries that acted as a prequel of sorts to introduce one of the game’s main new characters, Commander Lasky.

Forward Unto Dawn followed a young Lasky and his gang of fellow cadets as they attempted to graduate from a renowned UNSC training academy before the onset of the war with the Covenant.

Still of the cadets from Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn

Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn provided a human story set in the fantastical Halo universe.

Where Forward Unto Dawn succeeded is that it showed a smaller scale, more human story could work with the rich material offered by the Halo universe. The effects were extremely well worked, looking practical and believable, even once the Covenant show up with their range of wacky weapons and races. Bringing the monstrous Elites to the screen in a way that made them both terrifying and realistic was a great achievement, as was the inclusion of a certain 7-foot plus armoured Spartan.

There’s been chatter of a Halo movie for a long time, with a new series supposedly in development at the moment. Forward Unto Dawn showed that not only could it be done, but there was actually the potential for a damn good story as well.

Quantum Break

Quantum Break was widely publicised by Microsoft leading up to its 2016 release. Not only was it the new IP from Max Payne and Alan Wake creators Remedy Entertainment, but it was exclusive to Xbox, and had a stellar cast, along with a number of innovative gameplay features. The real unique point though, was its blend of gameplay with a proper episodic miniseries. This crossover between game and TV took the form of a series of TV episodes that book-ended chapters in the game, linking into the game’s story through a number of characters.

Some found it jarring, others found it annoying, and it took up a massive chunk of Xbox One HDD space. But it was an extremely brave creative choice, and one that, in my view, worked incredibly well. I thoroughly enjoyed the added character development and story offered by the TV episodes, and it brought me deeper into the game universe and the characters therein.

Screenshot of one of the live action TV episodes from Quantum Break

The use of live action TV in Quantum Break alienated some, but I really enjoyed it.

While it didn’t have the impact of creating a whole new way of creating interactive media stories, it did provide further evidence that video game stories, characters, and universes could translate to the small screen in a way that worked well.

The Witcher

Well done Netflix! A couple of missteps but overall a really good show that demonstrates how good an adaptation can be. There is of course the caveat that the series is based on the books, rather than the games, which gives even greater depth to the characters and world, but still, this is a demonstration of how to make the transfer work and stay close to the source material. I’m really excited for the second series.

And Cut!

Until Hollywood treats video game adaptations correctly, with care and respect for the source material, then it’s likely to be an ongoing struggle. This has all been experienced by comic book movies – look at effect of the first two X-Men films, as well as the Dark Knight trilogy and Marvel Cinematic Universe in establishing super hero films as being able to be compelling entertainment on their own.

The TV format seems to be having more success, which is arguably the case for more established, non-gaming franchises such as Star Wars. Maybe it’s having more time for character development, and being able to properly tackle world building and character motivations. Or maybe there’s just less pressure on TV series to hit the right demographics etc.

Whatever the reason, I’m encouraged to see some big name series and films based on games getting in on the act. Hopefully we get some titles worthy of our favourite gaming franchises.

At the end of the day, some films are just shit. Maybe video game movies aren’t unique in that regard.

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