Some things in life are seemingly a given. Sunrise will be followed by sunset. Toast will always fall on the side which has butter/jam/other condiments on it. And films based on video games have a 95% chance of being utterly awful. Ever since the late 1980s, film companies have been trying to put various games onto the big screen with largely negative results – and yet they still keep coming. Why does the relationship never seem to work out?
There’s plenty of jolly interesting academic work on the links between video games and film (see Newman and Wolfe for accessible introductions); after all the two disciplines are quite closely linked theoretically by the moving image. I’ll spare the technical details however and hone in on the one thing that drastically separates the two – interactivity. The average film is anywhere between one and three hours long, and generally has a closed narrative to follow in that time. Games on the other hand, can last anywhere from five minutes to hundreds of hours, and involve the player in the experience. Already we can see that the two mediums are largely incompatible; you can’t stuff 30 hours of story into 90 minutes and prevent the viewer from dictating what happens on screen without some serious compromise to the experience they know and love/hate. The reverse situation is more forgiving, as games can borrow liberally from films so long as the player is still largely in control – however games that feature long cut-scenes (including the likes of Metal Gear Solid 4 which has at least seven 20 minute cinematics), attempt to have overt cinematic aspirations themselves (which brings to mind Quantic Dream’s Farenheit, Heavy Rain and upcoming Beyond: Two Souls) or have their cinematic immersion spoiled by player mistakes (quick time events in Resident Evil or missing a jump in a free flowing chase in Uncharted) are then criticized for either ripping off films or not being engaging enough as a game. The two mediums is seems, are destined to never fruitfully mix with each other.
The other, less academical reason why video game films fail is because most of them are simply bad. Films of this type seem for whatever reason to be hampered by poor scripts, second rate acting and in the earliest examples, terrible computer graphics. Many of them also have the incredible bad fortune to have been handled by Uwe Boll. Simply reading the list of films brings back bad memories: Super Mario Bros, Street Fighter (complete with out of place Kylie Minogue as Cammy), Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil (and its subsequent FIVE sequels), Hitman, Far Cry, Alone In The Dark, Doom, Silent Hill – all of them great games tarnished by a crap movie. None of these films averaged higher than 34% on review site Rotten Tomatoes. The two Tomb Raider films, starring Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, were mild financial successes but fell short of expectation. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within looked absolutely outstanding in 2001, but had nothing to do with the games and failed to reclaim its enormous budget; and when Square did make a film related to the games (the Final Fantasy VII spin-off, Advent Children) it caused a big divide between the audience…one which I’m still not personally sure I can place myself in.
Even with this track record, directors still want to put more titles through the Hollywood mill. For years there have been increasingly hilarious rumors of big screen releases for the likes of Halo, Bioshock, Metal Gear Solid (which would be approximately a million hours long if they wanted to do it right) and God Of War to name just a few franchises. If news is correct, Ubisoft have given the go-ahead for Assassins Creed and Splinter Cell to be made into movies featuring Michael Fassbender and Tom Hardy respectively. There is a seemingly never ending train of games waiting to be made into films, and the odds are very much against them to be any good or a patch on the source material.
Is there any hope for video game films then? Well actually, yes. The way I see it, there are three possible routes to success. Option One is to only loosely base the film around gaming concepts, thereby giving the director a hell of a lot more scope for the film – look at stuff like Tron, which sees an arcade developer sucked inside his own game, the sequel Tron Legacy which takes place in the same neon drenched world and acts as a two hour music video for Daft Punk, or Wreck It Ralph which acted as a classy and enjoyable homage to old arcade gaming. These films (coincidentally all Disney films) work because they adapt the idea of video games into the film, rather than attempting to force a plot that makes no sense to fans of the original material. Option Two is to completely eschew live action in favour of CGI & anime films or actual game footage (the best example being Metal Gear Solid 3: Existence, a collection of all the cut-scenes from the game with bare minimum gameplay to link them together). The CG Resident Evil films for example play out like an extended cut-scene from the games, and by having the same voice actors and so on it creates that link with the game that is so often missing when a real person inhabits a role (e.g. Jolie as Croft). Sometimes it doesn’t quite work (Halo Legends), but the results when it does work are far superior to any of the films listed above – stuff like the numerous Pokemon films become a special case though, because the films are based more off the anime than the games themselves.
Finally, there is the rare and wonderful Option Three – that a video game film might actually luck out and be half decent. For example, I hold the unpopular opinion that the Prince Of Persia film (or Pirates Of The Arabbean as I like to call it) is actually not bad. Out of the titles reportedly in production, there are a few which could end up being quite good as well; I can see Splinter Cell being a decent Bourne-clone, and an animated Ratchet & Clank film has little excuse not to be ace.
So although there is potentially light at the end of the tunnel, for now video game films will continue to keep a hold of the reputation for being notoriously underwhelming. And don’t worry gamers, the symbiotic relationship will continue to make game tie-ins rushed and awful products to play. Unless developers choose not to make games based on films and produce a superior product instead (Rocksteady making Arkham Asylum & City rather than tie-ins for Nolan’s Batman trilogy). Or if it’s a Lego game. Those games are quite good fun.
Always bet on Lego.