It seems bizarre that the concept rarely works: after all, games have been taking inspiration from cinema for years, given the rise of cutscenes and tightly scripted action sequences. Video games have also produced a raft of unique IPs, ranging from the wonderfully twisted world of Psychonauts to the larger-than-life adventures of Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series. In fact, games are heading further down the path of a film than ever before, if titles like Dear Esther are any indication.
The story is no longer told from the audience’s point of view: you are viewing the actions of another person, not performing them.
So what’s the problem? There are a handful of solid reasons as to why they don’t work, and the unfortunate thing is, it’s not likely to change any time soon. The purest explanation is that video games are video games and films are films: they are able to bounce off each other, and inspire each other, but directly converting them from one to the other more often than not removes the strength of writing a good story for one format. The Resident Evil franchise, for example, has historically been a very personal, claustrophobic experience. The games are designed to maximise the intensity to which players invest in them by carefully tweaking the circumstances throughout: ammo is scarce, forever prompting a player to think twice about charging into a room. This approach factors in a player’s personal state of mind, and is something that a film cannot possibly replicate. As such, the film versions of the Resident Evil series lack the personal connection, creating a far shallower experience overall.
To continue with the Resident Evil example, even if they were a direct analogue to the games, aesthetically and thematically, the story is no longer told from the audience’s point of view: you are viewing the actions of another person, not performing them.
It’s a similar argument in reverse. A great film will present the actions, development and consequences of a range of characters. These characters will undergo some form of journey, be it physical or spiritually. More often than not, they will highlight the intricacies of the human psyche in some way. The film will show their triumphs and failings in a way that not only keeps the integrity of the story intact, but helps tell it. Games based on films give the player a chance to ruin that aspect of film; having Optimus Prime constantly die in a game is impossible to fit into the world and story presented in the Transformers films. Admittedly, this is a poor example, but the concept applies to virtually ever game based on a film.
This is the reason why films based on games do not work. Granted, there are more:
- Film has a long, established history, resulting in a huge array of films that cater to an incredibly varied audience. Gaming has yet to reach that level of diversity and maturity.
- Films only have a finite amount of time in which to tell a story. Games have the luxury (theoretically) to spread out: choosing what goes into a film adaptation and what doesn’t usually results in a film that is unable to fully exploit a story.
- Films are a more physical medium than games. Provided it’s not a completely computer-generated film, the necessity of live actors, sets, props and lighting is a far greater logistical challenge than creating the world of a video game.
As mentioned, it’s unlikely that any of this will change. Instead, games should endeavour to learn from cinema’s history and start branching out into new, unexplored regions. Both mediums need to remember that their formats are best suited to stories that are written specifically for them: trying to shoehorn one into the other will come to nothing.
Game-to-film adaptions don’t usually go well. There are a decent number of examples of bad adaptions: Max Payne, Hitman, Doom, the infamous Super Mario Bros., and pretty much everything directed by Uwe Boll. If you look at Wikipedia’s list of films based on video games, you can see that critically, they’re all rather lacking – the highest averaging one out of the 28 ‘international’ releases is 43%.
So it’s pretty easy to make a good game into a crappy movie. But what does it take to make a good game-to-film adaption? Well, let’s look at some of the successful ones – and to do that, we must head to our favourite country, Japan.
One of my favourite developers, Level-5, added Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva to the list of titles in the popular Professor Layton series. The film was created by the same people who are involved with the animated cutscenes of the DS games, and stays very true to the game series in terms of setting, music, and plot. Because it’s made by the same animation studios as the game cutscenes, it slots into the series chronology perfectly.
This brings us to the most important thing that is required to make a good game-to-film adaption: The game’s developers need to be involved in the making of the movie. This is where most game movies fail – the script gets totally minced from the original ideas of the game, usually because the director or screenwriter have their own ideas about the movie they want to make, and the developers aren’t involved enough in the process to be able to prevent it.
Let’s look at an example of this happening: The Uncharted movie. The Uncharted series revolves around Nathan Drake, a morally-ambiguous (at best) treasure hunter. His motivation is get his hands on the treasure before the "bad guys" do. He’s witty, ballsy, and not afraid to kill hundreds of baddies to get the job done. The games themselves are very story-driven, contain lots of action, and are very cinematic. Sounds like a good concept for a movie, right?
Well, originally the movie was handed to director David O. Russell. His idea for Uncharted was…well, not quite what most people had in mind. Quote: "a family that’s a force to be reckoned with in the world of international art and antiquities … [a family] that deals with heads of state and heads of museums and metes out justice."
…Which might actually turn out to be a good movie – who knows? But it’s certainly not Uncharted. Nathan Drake is not a secret cop policing the trade of treasure around the world – he’s the opposite of that: A treasure hunter! Fortunately the movie has since changed hands and the script is being rewritten, but that’s a great example of a director drastically altering the plot of a game simply to fill their own agenda. If the writers of Uncharted were involved in the writing of the film script, that wouldn’t have happened.
Well, I had more to say, but I’ve run out of space. I’ve made my main point, though – the developers should be involved in the making of the film. This hardly ever happens when game-to-film adaptions are made in Hollywood, and the critical scores are a direct and tangible proof of why it should be happening. Games have writers too – those same writers should be the ones writing the film script!
P.S. The Gyakuten Saiban (a.k.a. Ace Attorney) movie released in Japan this month, to positive critical reception. Apparently they’re planning a release of the movie in the west as well! Exciting!