An Essay Discussing Why Video Game Movies Are a Fundamentally Bad Idea
(Note: I wrote this nearly a year ago and for some reason left it sitting on my hard drive. I think I was going to post it to my blog. Good thing movies take a long time to make!)
On August 27, 2015, Yahoo released a promotional photo of Michael Fassbender dressed in the iconic Assassin garb for the new Assassin’s Creed movie, based on the popular video game franchise. (And more recently, new photos!) While the costume looks great and authentic to the series, I and many video game nerds like me couldn’t help but shudder at the prospect of yet another video game franchise getting a shitty movie adaptation. Super Mario Bros. DOOM. Anything directed by Ewe Boll. Hell, even Pixel. These movies are abominations to gamers, and not just because they are poorly made. It’s even worse than that: video game movies deprive you of the very reason you played those video games in the first place — interactivity — nor do they replace the deprivation of interactivity with anything the video game didn’t already have, resulting in, at best, a worthless shell of a movie, and at worst, Double Dragon.
Dramatic writing is a tricky business. Here you are, presenting a story about a protagonist, and your contract with the audience implies, in part, that you will give them something or someone to invest in, from beginning to end, in exchange for their hard-earned time and money. That’s a hard bargain these days, especially with dwindling attention spans and rising ticket prices. The good news is, mankind has been creating dramatic art for thousands of years, and finding fundamental character investment for an audience is formulaic; give any protagonist an underdoggish desire to achieve something and a few obstacles and you’ve got a story; all that matters now is writing it down. Hell, at this point in human history an audience is so used to dramatic structure that they can bypass simple needs and goals automatically, which is why dramatic writing theory tends to shift from why a character does something to how the character does it.
Video games have exploited narrative since their inception, whether it be implicit narrative (games without an obvious story but which have a story that can be implied, e.g. Space Invaders or Missile Command), or explicit narrative (games that intentionally tell you a story, e.g. the Final Fantasy games, Mass Effect, most RPGs). In the beginning, video game narratives were largely implicit due to the technological limits of the game itself, giving programmers little room for exposition within the game — oftentimes, narrative was written into instruction booklets, or even implied by the name of the game (Space Invaders is a game about … space … invaders). As technology improved, story improved, and the art of constructing a game with a storyline began.
In dramatic art, the production team always faces the challenge of making the main character or characters enjoyable to the audience. That is, they need to make the audience invest in the character, otherwise they’ll be bored, or worse, they’ll throw rotten fruit or vegetables at the actors onstage or at the movie screen. Making an audience member invest in a character is an inherently difficult task, as every human being is different and might not be able to see aspects of themselves in, say, a white man who works in accounting, or an Asian woman who is a professional parkourist. This is why the universal baseline for audience investment centers around basic wants and needs that usually require the assistance of another character, as it makes the protagonist both active and need to get something from someone else, which is a pretty common experience for everyone. Watching a character struggle and overcome obstacles to get what they want or need is the most structure of Aristotelian plot structure. Everything else is flavoring, and as I said above, audiences are so attuned to storytelling these days (and writers are very, very talented, moreso than you realize) that they tend to focus on the nuance of character than on the plot, as the plot tends to write itself, once the pieces are in place.
Video games can bypass the challenge of character investment in a way, and oftentimes do, with one simple-yet-fundamental addition, a thing that is wholly unique to video games as a medium: the player controls the character. They are, for all intents and purposes, the character. They have automatic investment because if they don’t push the control stick forward, the character doesn’t move, the story doesn’t progress, and the player, then, has created an inactive protagonist, which is boring. If Mario never moved toward those question blocks in the first Super Mario Bros game, he would never save the princess. In movies, we have to watch the character begin their journey, often predicated by some inciting incident (i.e., a little fire lit under their butts to get them moving), but in video games, we ultimately make the decision to move the character, or to engage in the action ourselves.*
*There is a second aspect to this: namely, whether the player knows that a story exists within the game. This is obvious in film and television— 99% of the time you’re going to a movie to watch a story unfold— but in video games it’s a relatively recent invention. In early, implicit narratives, such as Space Invaders, there is no exposited story and thus no investment to pursue one; instead, the player plays for the numerous other long-cemented reasons one plays a game in the first place. But with more modern explicit narratives, the player is playing with the idea that they will be presented a story with game elements, or vice versa. Thus, their decision to move a character can also be motivated by this knowledge — that the only way we can experience the story is to be involved in it. (To be fair though, games like Grand Theft Auto have explicit narratives but also let you do whatever you want, so it’s not a hard-and-fast rule.
When a movie is turned into a video game, it is often met with mixed or bad reviews. You’ll note on that Wikipedia article that the movie with the highest percentage on Rotten Tomatoes (and thus the most favorably reviewed) is Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. I’d argue this is because of the CGI, not the story. Several movies on that list — Super Mario Bros, Mortal Kombat, Final Fantasy, etc — are based on highly successful video game franchises, or games that are critically acclaimed, or both. Alone in the Dark, for example, has a 90% approval rating on GameRankings.com*. What we have seen time and time again by movies made from video games is a lessening of the art form, a compression, if you will. Book lovers will already know this feeling, as their beloved books become highly compressed versions of themselves on screen, often omitting characters and key scenes for the sake of plot structure.
*Though, to be fair, that’s based on three reviews, all of which were a few years after the game was released. The wiki article itself explains the game’s popularity and critical acclaim in more detail.
On the other hand, when movies get turned into video games, for the most part they are good, sometimes excellent. Aladdin for the SNES/Genesis is often lauded as a great video game, and it follows the story of the movie while also presenting a fun and challenging side-scrolling platformer. The X-Wing/TIE Fighter series for the PC is also often praised for its gameplay. Goldeneye for the N64 is practically a god in the pantheon of first-person shooters. There are always exceptions (Atari’s ET: The Extra Terrestrial game has reached mythological levels of badness), but for the most part, game developers do a decent job of making video games based on movies something a player wants to play, whether the story follows the movie exactly, or diverges completely. Additionally, when a movie becomes a video game, it receives the added pleasure of becoming interactive on a level a movie cannot be by nature of the medium. With Aladdin, the player is doubly invested in Aladdin the character because they know his story via the movie, and because they get to control his actions, which gives the player immediate investment in the game. Movies can become good or great video games because their core structure is storytelling, which can then have a video game elements added to it to enhance it.*
*So why don’t we turn all movies into video games? Because as of yet there is not a video game that can tell a story as good as Godfather II, period.
Turning a video game into a movie has the opposite effect of stripping away the aspects of the video game that made it interesting in the first place. Video games exist primarily as a medium of art wherein the player is the agent of action. Video games are more akin in this respect to being an actor in a play than a movie to be watched. When you think of Assassin’s Creed, for example, you don’t think of Ezio as a third-person character, you think of him as you — in other words, you don’t think of game missions as things Ezio did, but as things you did, because you really did them. You were playing the part. By making a video game into a movie, then, you deprive the audience of that critical different between the mediums; instead of being the character and making the choice to act yourself, you have to watch someone else do it. Where once was active agency, is now a passive viewing experience. Even if the movie is great, then, it lacks the essential aspect of being a video game. Making a movie into a video game adds a template of interactivity to the core of plot structure, but making a video game into a movie removes interactivity from game structure, and part of game structure is narrative. Moreover, the narrative of a video game necessarily requires video game aspects to proceed. Mario needs to jump and squash goombas and climb a flagpole in order to reach the next level, but if that was the only thing that happened in a Mario Bros movie, it would be boring and a waste of your time.
(Hell, even movies within video games — cutscenes — get bashed by players for their length and the fact that they deprive the player of actually being able to play the game. But that’s a topic for another essay.)
Video game movies will always have an enormous challenge ahead of them: make the movie as entertaining as the video game from where it came. Early incarnations of video game movies, like the progenitor Super Mario Bros, attempt to achieve this by being something almost entirely different from the game itself. Sure, there’s a Luigi and a Mario and Dennis Hopper’s cocaine-fueled performance as Bowser, and there are some weird-as-shit giant monsters called “goombas,” but in no way is Super Mario Bros the movie anywhere near the game stylistically. (Plus technically they use Princess Daisy rather than Princess Peach; Daisy was the princess of Super Mario Land. Get it together, Hollywood!) Other movies, like DOOM and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, try to recreate the feeling of the original video game, and while they may succeed on some level, they are still ultimately a passive experience. No matter what producers do, they cannot recreate the active experience of playing a video game. The closest they have come is the 1989 movie The Wizard, starring everyone’s favorite Fred Savage, but that movie A) wasn’t very good, and B) only works because we are invested in the character of Corey playing games because we have been in his shoes, i.e., we have played Super Mario Bros 3 before, and we know it’s one of the best games ever so we want Corey to win. (Okay, maybe I’m biased in that sentiment but SMB3 is the best game ever.)
Even with that tremendous hurdle ahead of them, video game movies also tend to lack basic Storytelling 101 elements anyway, leaving viewers to wonder why they even get made. In fact, we don’t have a legitimately good video game movie to serve as a litmus test for what makes a good video game movie. We could use Mortal Kombat, since its storyline is basically Enter the Dragon, but even then it is a pale imitation of the Bruce Lee classic, and only enjoyable if you’re one of those 30-something adults (like myself) who likes to wax nostalgic about the 90s (remember Skip-It? blurggghhhh). Instead, we’re left with turds of varying sizes and shapes, each unable to hold a candle to their video game predecessors, and who are effectively outcasts in the medium of film, movies whose only goal is to extract a profit from an audience they think is eager to see B-list actors battle the same forces of evil we battled and defeated (…barely) when we played the game ourselves.
Perhaps Assassin’s Creed can buck the trend of terrible video game movies. Ubisoft has control over the storyline and they don’t plan to rehash any of the games, but instead focus on a new protagonist, Callum Lynch, played by Fassbender, which means the movie won’t focus on people we’ve already played before. This could be good, like a supplement to the ever-expanding AC franchise. Michael Fassbender himself is an A-list actor who has strong roles (and, despite being an android, was the only character in Prometheus that I gave a shit about). This movie has the potential to make video game movies a legitimate force in the movie industry, so long as it provides a good storyline, a solid plot structure, and believable character progression. But even if it’s good, even if it’s great, it will only lead gamers like myself to wonder when the video game adaptation is going to come out, because we’ve already experienced a lot of AC’s story ourselves, first hand, and no matter how good Callum Lynch or his ancestor are at killing Templars, we know we’re better.