With the market for video game movies suddenly exploding, and the recent news that there’s now a Borderlands movie in the works along with the Warner Bros. Five Nights at Freddy’s, Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed movies all on the way, I seek to say one thing. Please, Hollywood; stop trying to make video game movies.
Before I begin, I’m going to say one thing that I reckon almost everyone who takes the time to read this will agree with: Movies based on video games are pretty much guaranteed to fail. Whether that means fail at the box office or just fail by being a bad movie is a different matter, but they are almost always terrible either way.
I’m in no way trying to suggest that movies that are based on video game narratives couldn’t be good. Frankly, narratives in video games seem to be far more interesting than a good chunk of what is being churned out of the movie machine these days. I think the main problem is that people simply aren’t getting why these stories work.
Hollywood and video games tell stories differently. Yes, both player and audience member sit in front of screens that have things shown on them that we watch and listen to, but that’s pretty much where the similarities begin and end for the vast majority of genres (save for something like a visual novel). Video games tell stories to players by having them become invested in them over playtimes which can be as short as four times the length of a movie or an eighty-hour roleplaying epic like the Witcher. Whereas a movie has to make the story contained and fit within a comfortably not-bottom-straining run time, game developers will by and large expect their stories to play out across multiple play sessions.
Let’s take the most recent example. Agent 47, the adaptation of Eidos’ stand-out contract killer sim, just released here in the UK. Surprise, surprise, it’s sort of panned. Rotten Tomatoes even lists it as having “failed to clear the low bar set by its predecessor,” particularly damning given how badly the 2007 Hitman film was received. The main problem with that was it didn’t utilise the many subtleties available from the source material. Yes, we got the eponymous bar-coded assassin dressed in suit and signature red-tie. Yes, he did some killing. But there was no real attempt to replicate the care (or lack thereof) that players could attempt in the games. Instead, we basically got a stoic Rupert Friend in a movie that didn’t really know what to do with the license it had.
This is ultimately my problem with the movie-fication of games. Where some can have massive, sprawling stories that can engross players for weeks at a time, they are not given the time necessary to flesh themselves out in a two or at maximum three hour sitting. This is what makes the Warcraft movie so terrifying to me – with all the lore and incredibly interesting stories throughout the entire mythos, how much will we see and, more importantly, how well will it be told. I have full respect that Blizzard won’t let anyone ruin their beloved franchise. Hell, it might be a good way to stop them hemorrhaging subscribers in the wake of Warlords of Draenor too.
However, I do think they could learn from each other, at least in some places. Whilst the DOOM movie was by no means great, that FPS section perfectly nailed playing the game and really created a memorable spectacle. And if games these days have one thing down, it’s creating memorable spectacles – I’m willing to bet no-one forgot that part in Final Fantasy 7 once they’d seen it. Equally, some scriptwriters could teach cutscene writers a thing or two about dialogue. Nothing quite like getting to an emotional exchange near the end of a game only to find yourself slapped in the face with the hammiest dialogue ever created. Rather than directly basing a film on a video game, it would be better if directors who wanted to take this angle simply took inspiration, and didn’t try to directly replicate the experience of playing. That’s where they fall down.
To round off, I thought I would drop in that I know not all video game movies are necessarily terrible. For example, I feel that the Prince of Persia movie from a few years back wasn’t anything bad, it was simple fun. Equally, Disney’s clever nuances with iconic arcade characters in Wreck-It Ralph really sold the movie’s aesthetic and made it much more enjoyable that there was these references that only certain fans would pick out. Hell, even the first Mortal Kombat (Yes, only the first one) was critically praised for being truthful to its characters, despite what viewers might think of it.