5 Reasons Why Computer Game Adaptations Seldom Work

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I love a good film adaptation, me. Although I do appreciate an original story, nothing gives me a greater cinematic pleasure than seeing something I love translated from another medium onto screen. I especially love comic book films – I’d go so far to regard The Avengers and Iron Man in my Top 10 films of all time – and I’ve been waiting for an adaptation of my favourite book, The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub, for quite some time.

One medium that rarely seems to translate well onto celluloid, however, is games. Although there have been plenty of them, there are few game adaptations that seem to sit well with critics and audiences alike – in fact, no video game movie has yet scored over 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. Here’s five reasons as to why I think that is…

1. Gamers have an emotional attachment to the protagonist

What the movie industry has to remember is that protagonists in games are more than just characters around which the story revolves; they are an avatar for the player themselves. Sure, a lot of games have strong leads which can stand alone in adaptations, but they are ultimately a conduit for the player’s journey through the game. This creates an emotional attachment to the protagonist, as gamers live vicariously through them. When this character is badly handled (e.g. changed back-story or badly cast), you alienate the gamers who had grown attached to them.

The Resident Evil series of films circumvented this problem by creating its own protagonist. For all intents and purposes, the first Resident Evil film was actually pretty good for a video game movie. For a game franchise that borrows heavily from survival horror films, Paul W.S. Anderson just needed to create a good survival horror film, which he did, but, by introducing a unique hero in the shape of Alice, Anderson could do what he liked with her without facing too much scorn from fans of the games. When he started introducing major characters from the games into later films (starting with Jill and Carlos in Resident Evil: Apocalypse), Anderson played a risky game by reducing characters who fans of the series had grown attached to after playing as them for so many years, to supporting characters whose contribution to the film was negligible. This continuing mishandling of characters from the games (of which Claire Redfield in Resident Evil: Apocalypse annoyed me the most) is one of the contributing factors to the film series continuing decline in quality, although I will say the series main antagonist, Albert Wesker, was actually translated onto screen quite well.

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2. A lack of balance between staying true to the game and doing what’s right for the film

Another thing the movie industry has to remember is that while gamers are precious about the source material, we expect changes and don’t need to be pandered to… much. We understand that films are adaptations, not re-creations. While the fan-boy in me would love a 100% faithful recreation of the first Metal Gear Solid game, I know there are things that need to change. I know that a film consisting of hundreds of codec conversations, lots of crawling through vents and a psychic, gas-mask wearing, floating man that tells the lead actor what other films he’s recently been in probably won’t stand up on screen.

Aside from the obvious car crash that was the House of The Dead film (which actually featured animations from the game in the film), Doom is an example of a film which tried to stay too true to the game (particularly Doom 3) so much so that it featured a scene where we saw the main character fuck up monster’s shit in first person.

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Aside from this obvious pandering – which added absolutely zero to the story – the plot was reasonably similar too (save for replacing “invasion from Hell” with “virus outbreak”), but that’s what made the movie feel a little one-dimensional. As gamers, we don’t have to care too much about supporting characters in the game. While a plausible back story or motivation for supporting characters is nice and often helps the over-all feel of a game, it isn’t entirely necessary – they are ultimately a means to an end. When films are approached in the same way, it’s hard to feel invested in these supporting characters. Doom concentrated too much on characterising the hero (played by Karl Urban), and not enough on making us care about the other characters in the film. See also: Prince of Persia.

Of course, there are plenty of other films which go the other way and bare little or no resemblance to the source material, for example Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter. These don’t work because games, like novels, only really work when considered as a whole and simply borrowing characters or ideas and drastically changing them, but still attaching it to the franchise just makes the audience (gamers or otherwise) feel cheated.

3. The audience suffers from a physical detachment from the protagonist

When you play a game and you storm a room of opponents/jump a car across a bridge/solve a puzzle, the majority of the thrill of that action is that you are responsible for it. When you see it happen on screen, although it might excite you, you are less attached to it, it’s just part of the scene. This lack of attachment to or responsibility for the protagonist’s actions can cause disinterest- it can even become frustrating when the set piece or action doesn’t play out exactly how it would in the game.

Take Tomb Raider for example, in the very first scene of the film featuring Lara, we see Angelina Jolie jumping off a pillar, with pistols blazing. It looked really cool on screen, but it irked me that she didn’t jump in the same way that the Lara of the games did. Perhaps my expectations were abnormally high, but the franchise had been around for five years prior, so I had time to get attached to the intricacies of how the character moved and behaved. When she behaved differently to how I expected her to, on screen, it annoyed me, and I daresay other fans of the series.

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4. Movie producers are seldom players of the games they adapt

The reason why The Avengers movie worked so well is because Joss Whedon is an avid fan of the comic books. Of course, he is also a very talented story-teller, and a pragmatist so understood what would and wouldn’t work on screen (see number 2.), but ultimately his knowledge and attachment to the source material resulted in him being able to interpret it into a successful adaptation – the characters were well handled, the story moved along quickly without getting too much and it had enough nods to the comic books to keep the hard-core fans happy. I’m looking forward to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel for the same reason.

The trouble is that games are not seen as a viable art form in the same way that comics are. They are seen as something “to do” rather than something to experience. This means there is a dearth of film directors or producers who are also gamers. When George A. Romero was attached to direct the first Resident Evil game, he got his secretary to play through the game for him and record it, so he could use it as a resource when developing the film’s screenplay. Directors need to understand that the experience from and attachment to games comes from playing them. Paul W.S. Anderson is an example of a director who has played the games he has adapted for screen, and thus understood how to approach adapting them: The first Mortal Kombat film was a fairly faithful and well-received representation of the game, as was the first Resident Evil film (and despite my comments in point 1, the whole series hasn’t suffered hugely from problems in later films). Of course, being a gamer and fan of the game does not automatically mean a director will make a good film, they need to be a good story teller too. This is where all of Uwe Boll’s game adaptations fall down, he may know a lot about the games, but he doesn’t really understand how to go about making them into decent films.

5. Sometimes it’s simply not meant to be

Movies are not an interactive experience. Although there’s a multitude of ways in which films are being made more immersive, they are not – by their nature – interactive. Games are interactive and the immersion follows as a result. Because of this, there are plenty games which do not work for screen and, sadly, some of these have already been adapted.

Until Super Mario 64 came along, most people did not really know, or need to know, the storyline for the Super Mario games, other than the princess had been kidnapped and you needed to rescue her. The story line and characters didn’t drive the game; the experience was derived from the fun of progressing through the colourful levels, stomping on monsters heads and picking up mushrooms, coins and other items as you went along. It didn’t need to be able to translate into a live-action film, but someone tried, and the result is often hailed as one of (if not the) worst ever game adaptations in cinema.

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The same could be said of the aforementioned Doom film. The Doom games, especially the first two, don’t really have a story – the film could quite as easily have been a generic action film, but attachment to the Doom brand ensured gamers would be interested enough to see it. Put simply, both films were needless cash-ins, and their attachment to well-loved brands only served to disappoint fans when they turned out to be terrible.

Some games are just not suitable to be made into films. This could simply be because the premise is too ridiculous or loose to translate onto screen (e.g. pretty much any platform, puzzle or sandbox game), or because the game is already film-like enough that a faithful adaptation will struggle to live up to source material (e.g. games like Red Dead Redemption or L.A. Noire).

Strangely, two of the best game films aren’t even based on games. That’s Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men and Christopher Nolan’s Inception.

Children of Men is the best Half Life 2 film never made. It bears so many similarities to that game, both in terms of subject matter and tone. From the intro train journey, to the oppressive regime, the refugees and underground railroad, Children of Men is so much a film of Half Life 2 that I wouldn’t want an official movie of the game to be made. It could only ever pale in comparison.
Similarly, Inception is effectively a movie about being inside a game. But I won’t go into that here, just read this Kotaku piece.

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Despite all of this, I am holding out hope for a video game adaptation that will break the trend. As an avid fan of the Metal Gear Solid series, I’m hoping that’s the one. With rumours such as Christian Bale being interested in playing Snake and There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson being attached to the project, it has great potential. Given the track record of game adaptations, and the complex and involved nature of the series’ storyline, however, I can understand why Hideo Kojima and Konami are reluctant to commit at the moment.

I’m not claiming that if Hollywood consider the points I’ve made in this piece, they’ll have the recipe for a successful video game movie, but considering how patchy it has been so far, it can certainly only help to improve matters.

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[ 4 comments to read... submit another ]

  1. What? No mention of the INCREDIBLE film ‘The Gamer’? Surely this was the one that changed everything…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamer_(film)

    • Ah Digby, you’re getting into slightly different territory there where you talk about films that are about gaming, but not strictly based on games! Another good example is eXistenZ, which I, at the time, thought would be bigger than The Matrix! It wasn’t. It wasn’t even better than Super Mario Bros.

  2. I would add Crank as a film that isn’t based on a game, but that could be. It’s basically a film of what everyone does when they get bored on Grand Theft Auto.

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