The curious case of videogame movies

Why are they so hard to get right?

It’s hard to find any topic on which the gaming community stands in consensus. Perhaps you’ve noticed. But one area where there’s more agreement than most is videogame films and the fact that, try as they might, they just never manage to get it quite right. Over the years we’ve seen some modest successes like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and The Prince of Persia but I’ve yet to see a film adaption of a videogame that’s made me think “wow, they did that justice!”

Still, being such active industries, videogames and films are constantly evolving; creative limitations have expanded, there’s new ways to tell narratives and just enough time has passed since Max Payne that we might just be ready to trust again. Perhaps the film industry has sensed our defences dropping because it seems like there’s a deluge of videogame movies on the horizon for 2016. Assassin’s Creed, World of Warcraft, Angry Birds, Ratchet and Clank. Maybe this could be the year one of them gets it right and we see a truly great videogame film. Maybe. I’d really like to see it happen because I think there are some videogame stories that would make genuinely great films. I’m starting to think a lot depends on the large releases of this year, particularly Assassin’s Creed and Ratchet and Clank. They’re very different but if both, or even one, of them are good it could really spark something and determine a success formula for future adaptions. Gritty or animated? Family friendly or an older audience? There’s room for both but do they have equal worth in terms of earnings?

I feel like this year is a real experiment for videogame adaptions. Videogame narratives have progressed a lot over the years but I still think a lot of their narrative effectiveness is dependent on the player feeling directly involved in the story by being behind the controller. It’s a way of engaging someone in a narrative that would take some serious ingenuity to translate to the passive film-watching experience. When you’re immersed in a game, you’re much less likely to catch tropes and narrative cliches you’d almost certainly scoff at given the critical distance provided by a film.

It’s also partly a matter of character. In games where you have a protagonist with a strong enough personality that the player supports them and likes them as an individual rather than projects themselves onto them purely for play, I think you have more of a fighting chance of making a good film. Ratchet and Clank will stand up well in this department with its distinct character personalities and this is why I could see games like Uncharted, The Last of Us, and maybe even the Tomb Raider reboot working on film – their characters are already cinematic, fleshed out people we want to see succeed and listen to regardless of whether or not we’re controlling them, rather than shells we inhabit to create our own experiences.

This is why, and I hate to say it, I can’t see some of my favourite RPGs like Mass Effect, Fallout, Skyrim, and Dragon Age ever working well.

As much as there are some incredibly written side characters in these games, their worlds are vast and amazing, and I’d love to see their stories on film, much of my enjoyment of these stories, worlds, and characters relies on me being able to see myself as the protagonist, or at least having control over their actions. Though we talk about how well-written Bioware games and characters are, they’re well-written as games, as interactive experiences. I want to see a Mass Effect film, but I want it to star my Shepherd, not someone else’s. They won’t see the world the same, they won’t interact with the characters I love in the way I want them to (God help them if they pick the wrong romantic relationship), I’ll feel disengaged and separate from this faux-Shep and suddenly all the little parts that made Mass Effect more than just a space adventure will be gone. It’s like when a film adapts a book you love and the world they’ve created looks nothing like the one in your imagination.

Aside from getting the character balance just right, it can’t be easy condensing the stories of games down into a digestible amount. Though I don’t agree that games have to be of a certain length to be “good” or “worth their price”, they are generally longer than your average film, with more room to tell their story or even multiple stories. Over a playtime of 20 hours more can happen, more characters have room to grow and develop and we’re happy to play because we can digest it in two to three hour play sessions.

Ask someone if they’d attend a 20 hour film that they can digest in two to three hour sessions, though, and I doubt they’d be as prepared to play along. Writers have to strip the long hours of game story back into something that won’t overstep the bounds of two and a half hours, so there goes this storyline, that side character, this part of the backstory, that interesting piece of lore. It’s a necessary part of adaption, it happens with books all the time, but whilst you might find a novel’s main story is robust enough to fare reasonably well from this kind of treatment a lot of the time it’s all of the little parts working together to flesh the story and its world out that make a game good, rather than its bare two hour bones that were never intended to stand on their own anyway.

Now that we have more cinematic games with stronger characters and perhaps a greater appreciation of just how wide and diverse the audience for games is in terms of age, race, and gender, we might actually see a videogame adaption we can really celebrate. My fingers are crossed and my hopes are high for 2016.

Main Image © Ubisoft