What Will a Successful Videogame Movie Look Like?

Hollywood wants to cash in, but the formula remains elusive.

Movies Features
What Will a Successful Videogame Movie Look Like?

There’s an evolution to every artistic medium that eventually sees it go from something regarded as solely for the geeky or immature to a multibillion-dollar corporate venture. People used to think acting in general was a low and disreputable profession, and now being a famous enough actor basically exempts you from accountability to your fellow human beings. Pearl-clutching elders used to think novels—novels—were scandalous, and now the most boring ones are required reading.

Film, right from the beginning, has been a medium that has happily adapted stories from other media. Some of film’s bedrock titles are adaptations of stage productions and novels. This is to speak nothing of Marvel Studios’ success, which stems entirely from adapting a century of comic books, with results that now seem to break box office records like clockwork.

So it’s understandable that plenty of people are wondering when we’ll finally get a good adaptation from the world of videogames—a genre that in my own short life has gone from being completely dismissed to being of the utmost importance to the same Hollywood executives who thought it was a good idea to try to adapt the board game Battleship.

You sunk my ill-conceived franchise!

For my own part, I think it’s worth asking what a successful videogame adaptation would even entail, since I sort of don’t care how much money a good movie makes as long as it’s good. I argue that we haven’t yet seen a perfect adaptation since 1995’s Mortal Kombat, and no, I am not joking about that. I can’t think of a studio today that, even when faced with casting a Chinese character who is provably the best martial artist in the world, would actually cast a Chinese-American actor like Robin Shou—who actually has studied martial arts and won some acclaim in the world of Wu Shu.

Pictured: An Asian lead portraying an Asian character. Who is about to fight an ice ninja.

Why we haven’t had what I consider to be a successful adaptation, even as we are seeing more and more attempts, will I think tell you a lot about the tough road ahead for those who want to try.

A Built-In Bias Remains
Remember the early-to-mid ’90s, when we got adaptations of The Shadow, Dick Tracy and The Phantom, comic characters basically nobody had cared about in decades? The impression one gets is that Hollywood tastemakers, who are old people, heard about those Superman and Batman films and said to themselves, “Oh, comics? You mean the things in bubblegum wrappers and the funnies pages?” and proceeded to greenlight a bunch of low-budget period pieces that filmmakers had no idea what to do with. How do you make a film aimed at a young market out of The Shadow in that landscape?

Similarly, there seems to be some kind of ignorance about what sort of franchise you should aim at if you’re going to adapt a videogame to the silver screen. What person thought it was a good idea to make an Angry Birds movie? In explaining the premise of the game to an acquaintance who knew nothing about it, I explained that there are birds, and they are angry because some pigs took their eggs. To be clear: This is a great premise for a videogame because it can be explained in ten seconds and supports hours of scenarios. These are precisely the same reasons that it is terrible for the plot of a movie. Try watching the thing if you can stomach it. It’s padding a basic concept into an hour and a half of licensed pop music references and dated references.

This is one reason why the 1993 catastrophe Super Mario Bros. remains, 25 years later, one of my absolute favorite cinematic oddities. You almost, almost, have to admire the unbelievably misguided direction the filmmakers took, creating some insane world to check all of the boxes established by a videogame created entirely out of the fever dream of a then-scrappy team of coders. (Though, to be fair, it isn’t the craziest Mario script that exists.)

We are, finally, beginning to get some more contemporary adaptations, but they make altogether different mistakes.

Name-Checking Game Elements Does Not Excuse Garbage
But that must mean that heavily plotted videogames are a better bet to adapt, right? All those details—that intricate world-building and deep characterization—are what we need to be mining for our melodrama, right?

Well, say hello to Silent Hill, the unbelievably prolific and bad Resident Evil series which has driven me to the brink of madness twicebefore, and one of the most disappointing showings by a promising director in recent years, World of Warcraft. All of these movies are somewhat true to the spirit of their source material, but all turn out to simply not be good, albeit for different reasons.

If you’re putting Pyramid Head into a situation where the character is not suffering with deep-seated guilt and sexual issues, you’ve missed the point entirely.

WoW vanishes up its own rear end trying to make a movie with no clear focus set in not one but two worlds that are completely alien to us. It made a bunch of money in China, and China is welcome to keep it. As I’ve written, Resident Evil movies are completely joyless affairs which make perfunctory use of the intellectual property to tell incoherent and forgettable stories. Silent Hill tried to nail some of the atmosphere of the ghoulish series on which it is based, and while it isn’t as totally irredeemable as other attempts, it’s light on the psychological scares that keep people coming back to play those games and, it must be said, the film’s overall quality just isn’t very good.

So that must mean that in addition to picking properties with some lore to spin out, we also need to actually care about doing them up right, right??

Money Can’t Buy You Feeling
As we have seen, throwing money at a film doesn’t really add up to success, even if you get freaking Michael Fassbender to star in it. And really, why should it? Assassin’s Creed is a movie adapted from a game series with a laughably convoluted plot that is based on climbing things, jumping off of those things, and then dying because the sword fighting controls are garbage. The crucial part of all of those activities is that you are the one who is doing them, and this is crucial precisely because the Assassin’s Creed series has become a venue to debut glossy skinner box games that entice you to keep playing them for hours at a time through a series of shiny rewards and attractive, chirpy noises. If you strip that away, you’re left with people in silly costumes running around Italy or Egypt or wherever, just as you’re left with an ethnically questionable Hollywood leading man running around in a vague Orientalist pastiche if you make a Prince of Persia adaptation.

Make his facial hair darker, maybe?

That is actually most exemplified in reviews of the recent Tomb Raider adaptation, which garnered generally middling-to-negative reviews, many which seem to repeat a couple of major points: Alicia Vikander as series lead Lara Croft did an admirable job, but that she did so in service to a boring movie.

Let me suggest why that is: When you pick up Tomb Raider, in any of its umpteen incarnations since 1996, you are putting yourself in Lara’s shoes as she tackles trial after trial and deadly combat after deadly combat. She isn’t tackling them of course, but you, the player, are. That’s what makes the sheer cliffs, underwater chases, treacherous jumps, and deadly traps so compelling and memorable. When you boot up a God of War game, Kratos may be angry, but the visceral tension of taking control of his flaming murder chain-machetes makes you, the player, pissed off at his enemies and just as desirous of ripping out their spines and playing them like xylophones as he is. Paying Jamie Foxx to portray him in a Gore Verbinski film won’t convey that same emotional payoff.

This, hilariously, is exactly why Mortal Kombat actually worked so well as an adaptation back in 1995. It’s a game solely about two characters walloping the crap out of each other until one of them kills the absolute hell out of the other, all with campy lore to provide justification for the bone-crunching bouts. The movie steered hard into the lore so viewers would feel some investment in the characters and then hired real martial artists and big-name stunt professionals to sell some entertaining fights that incorporated elements from the videogames. Watching Liu Kang beat up a bunch of ninjas and pull a stage fatality on Shang Tsung is why you play Mortal Kombat, and the movie delivered, on a technical as well as an emotional level. If it seems a low bar to clear, consider that freaking Angry Birds tripped over it.

Emotional Payoff It Is … ?
So, I suppose it’s time to focus on adaptations with emotional rather than mechanical payoff, like The Last of Us or BioShock Infinite or the like?

Oh, you mean games that are already just movies that are occasionally interrupted by murder?

Kenneth Lowe’s dominions are well-known to him, sorcerer. You can follow him on Twitter and at his blog.

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