What’s Stopping Good Video Game Movies?

May 26, 2010 § Leave a comment

If recent news is anything to go by, it seems the critical panning received by almost every single video game movie adaptation isn’t enough to deter people. Logically there must be some fans out there devout enough to sit through 90 minutes of cinema garbage or else these movies wouldn’t continue to get made with what appears to be larger and larger budgets.

The latest video game movie reportedly entering production is Mass Effect, Bioware’s expansive science-fiction epic. The game joins an ever expanding list of adaptations which includes Naughty Dog’s Uncharted, Quantum Dream’s Heavy Rain and a sequel to 2007’s Hitman movie based upon the long running assassination series from IO Interactive.

Almost without exception video game movies are bad, regardless of budget, acting cast, or source material. Whose fault is this though? Is it the movie studios who’ll save their A-list talent for projects lacking in a built in audience, or is there an inherent problem with trying to convert interactivity into a wild roller-coaster ride of a film experience.

To my mind a producer is faced with an incredibly tough decision whenever he starts work on a film of this nature. They can either make a movie that gets as close to the source material as is possible, and refuse to change characters, locations and plot lines, or they can go in the opposite direction entirely, putting together something that takes a few key elements from the game, whilst reworking or abandoning other features that don’t work in a non-interactive medium.

The success or failure of a project depends on this decision, and ultimately both choices contain drawbacks that have so far not been surmounted by efforts made.

Option number one, to make a movie that acts more as an homage to the source material is risky because of the role original franchise fans play in any adaptation’s success. Mess with the source material too much and you’ll have fans hungry for blood, demanding to know why feature X, Y or Z from the game didn’t make an appearance in the movie, and why the plot has been changed the way it has. This original fanbase is crucial to the success of these types of film, and the loss of them can be potentially devastating to the success of the release.

Taking this option also tends to make your reasons for embarking on the project look a little morally dubious. As soon as you’ve changed the source material as much as many films chose to, it really begs the question why this film needed to be based on an existing IP in the first place. This route has a distinctive stench of the cash-in about it. More often than not this approach leads to a bland piece of cinema with no real identity to call its own aside from a few elements cribbed from its namesake in the gaming world.

The second option is for all involved to stick as close to the source material as possible, taking wholesale the characters, events, and art style that made the original game great. On the face of it this approach seems ideal, as it justifies wholly its existence as a tie in, and could potentially give fans of the franchise exactly what they want.

This path is pitted with potholes even greater than the other however, when you consider the insurmountable difference between what makes games and movies great. A film is an enjoyable experience when the characters in it are strong, charismatic, and just appealing to passively observe. Gaming protagonists meanwhile are – aside from in a select few instances – blank slates, who are for the most part defined by your interaction with them.

Jack Carver of Far Cry fame, taken purely how he appears in cutscenes, is a boring boring man, who only seems to exist to deliver a few lines of expository dialogue before lapsing into silence for hours at a time. When playing him however, he’s a far more interesting character, capable of taking out dozens of men at a time before jumping off a cliff and paragliding to safety.

The problem as I see it is that what makes a character like Jack Carver interesting is going to be completely different when seen through the eyes of different gamers, because everyone plays Far Cry at least a little differently from one another. My Carver, the sneaky assassin, is going to be the opposite of your gung-ho ‘Rambo’-esque hero. Trying to translate these differing characters into a single cinematic entity, has thus far resulted in bland, boring, atrocities of characters.

That for me is why film adaptations of games unilaterally end up being awful, regardless of the talent attached to them. Mark Protosevich may have written the script for ‘I Am Legend’ – a movie which I couldn’t help but enjoy – but unless he just so happens to be the visionary that makes this whole trend work, the Mass Effect film will likely make about as much noise critically as John Frusciante without the Chili Peppers.

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