6 Reasons Why It's Impossible To Make Good Video Game Movies
Not long ago, Activision announced that they were developing a Call Of Duty cinematic universe -- otherwise known as "every war movie, technically." On paper, this probably seems like a grand idea, right until you remember that other adjacent paper titled "Literally every video game movie is a failure."
Mind you, I'm not saying that video game movies are bad, but rather that the vast majority of them are universally accepted as "so-so" (save for that one really awesome one), to the point where the highest-grossing film of its kind barely broke even at the box office. So will Call Of Duty, or any of the other upcoming adaptations like Tomb Raider or Rampage, finally break this curse?
I don't think so. And here's why:
Movie Studios Don't Give A Shit About The Games Themselves
For something that cost a goddamn $125 million to make, one would think the Assassin's Creed movie would actually follow an assassin on his past journeys. Instead, the filmmakers took the most boring and minor cutscenes of the games and made that 65 percent of the film. Audiences got two hours of Michael Fassbender wandering a grey techno dungeon in futuristic sweatpants, and the film flopped harder than a skydiving manatee. Seriously, who in the goddamn hell thought that focusing on the worst aspect of those games would draw crowds? That's like making a GTA movie centered on the yoga minigames.
So why was this treachery ever allowed? It might have something to do with this:
That's the director of the film casually mentioning that he hasn't played video games since the days of neon blazers. Nor did Michael Fassbender have any firsthand familiarity with the series, despite starring in and also producing the film.
So, uh, studio folk ... is it too much to ask that the people making our video game movies enjoy the games in question? That doesn't seem like a tall order. Especially since any casual fan of Assassin's Creed would have instantly known that spending the first 45 minutes outside of the Animus was a boner way to draw outside audiences. And that is the point, right? To draw general audiences to an already-successful-but-less-mainstream franchise? And so step number one is knowing why people already like it. I'm not even talking about the plot specifics here -- just the general tone. Jurassic Park wasn't a perfect adaptation at all, but Spielberg certainly got the gist of why it was a best-seller. He didn't skim the book on the ride to the set before devoting 90 minutes to lab procedure scenes.
"The turning point of the second act is a 15-minute montage on proper exam glove removal."
And here's the wild thing: This happens all the goddamn time with video game movies. Actors and directors almost seem to boast about how little they know about the games they are adapting. There is no other industry where a person would get millions of dollars to make something they proudly neglected to understand. Elon Musk wouldn't hire some uninterested unicyclist to build his rocket-powered gladiator balls that bore through the Earth; he'd get someone who was into that sort of thing.
This is probably why the CEO of Ubisoft has decided to simply make his own goddamn video game movie company. At this point, we can't really trust studios not to totally dick off with these properties. Only guess what? Even if someone did make a perfect adaptation, there's still a good chance that general audiences won't bite ...
Most Games Are Based On Movies To Begin With (Which Kills The Originality)
Despite its cast and crew having an apparent vampiric repulsion to the game, someone must have mentioned that the original Assassin's Creed Animus isn't supposed to look like a triple-jointed Transformer dick.
"Yes ... look like ..."
I know this because Michael Fassbender explained in an interview that the decision to change its design partially came from not wanting to copy The Matrix, which also featured a sci-fi dentist's chair that turned people into digital murder acrobats.
Much more comfortable.
This change was good in theory, considering that when you think about it, the broad strokes of the first three Assassin's Creed games are pretty much The Matrix. You have a protagonist plugging into a computer world who then begins to take on superpower attributes in real life, only to sacrifice himself for the greater good. It's not one-to-one, but it's clearly inspired in a way that might draw criticism from casual moviegoers.
And a lot of games are like this, homages to the films the developers grew up with. Duke Nukem spouts lines from They Live and Evil Dead, Max Payne borrows from old noir films, GTA tributes Scarface, Goodfellas, Menace II Society, and Boyz N The Hood. Tomb Raider and Uncharted took cues from Indiana Jones. Hell, Doom was originally designed to be an Aliens game. So it's no wonder that a movie like Warcraft (which was good, you guys) tired audiences out after everyone already got sick of The Hobbit.
CGI orcs got real old, real fast.
I'm all for basing films off of popular games, but once it's time to adapt, this is where you fall down the trap of "unoriginality" that causes filmmakers to drastically pivot from the source material, often to the ire of fans. On the other hand, when you're trying draw in new fans, your story needs to resonate like a banshee scream in a canyon -- which you can't do by copying the last guy. It's a catch-22 -- one that I have no suggestion for solving. Especially since this entire balancing act might be completely moot, thanks to the awful power of science.
We're Psychologically Unable To Accept Video Game Movie Protagonists
Here's the thing: It doesn't matter if I'm mining to craft or raiding tombs or zero-dawning the horizon. It's always me behind the wheel. Sure, I may be a 19-year-old Korean pixie flooring a space cowboy with mech bullets, but when I teabag his dead face, those are my balls stamping his rugged brow. I control the character and therefore imprint my own personality on it, which makes it super hard to see some other interpretation that doesn't align with my own. I'm not crazy, either; science has my back here.
Psychologists and researchers going back to Freud have found that audiences implant themselves into every fictional character they admire, and no greater connection has been found than the one we make in video games. It's obvious when you think about it -- and why we usually prefer heroes to be super-powered, moral, and tits-deep in the sex. As one study concluded after observing thousands of gamers, we're trained since childhood to adopt pieces of a protagonist's identity to fulfill an escapist or cathartic fantasy. In other words, we take the parts we want, and fill the rest with our own selves like a reverse Borg. And so everyone playing a game like Horizon Zero Dawn is going to cobble their own personal interpretation of that character and make in-game decisions based around that.
Like whether or not we totally boned this guy after the credits rolled.
And this connection makes us super picky when it comes time to watch a movie version of our projection. Even a really unique character like Joel from The Last Of Us or Trevor from GTA will always have a personal stank their movie depictions lack.
Think of it like the end of Being John Malkovich, where you go from puppeting your very own body to being trapped in someone else's. It's hard to spend nine Assassin's Creed games silently infiltrating the enemy, only to watch Michael Fassbender charge in like a wayward Sir Lancelot. It's no wonder people will get upset when a brooding protagonist like Max Payne gets saddled with Marky Mark. That shit is crass, tragic, and frustrating -- like watching a lover get neck-broke by a bone-armored emperor. Not to mention that in modern games, everyone increasingly possesses the ability to change their fate. We control the narrative and pacing of the story through the gameplay ... which just so happens to be the one thing no movie can ever give us.
Video Game Movies Take Away The Primary Reason We Love The Source Material
Go find any online poll asking people what the most important aspect of video games are, and the answer will be "gameplay" or "mechanics." Because fucking obviously. It's not that gamers don't care about story (it's usually the second-most important thing in those polls), but rather that without a fun gameplay experience, it really doesn't matter if it's the goddamn Maltese Falcon. I also don't think I'm shocking anyone by declaring that a game doesn't even need much of a story to be fun. Something like Doom is running on a bare-bones plot, and it is nevertheless glorious.
Or goryious, as it were.
There are even studies finding that video games are now the primary source of "adventure" in teenage life, long eclipsing the vintage pleasures of forest porn and drifter corpse poking. Gameplay mechanics are essentially the element which brings life to this industry, and also something that every film version is forced to tear away from the fans. It's essentially taking a game and removing the primary reason people enjoyed it in the first place. At best, this equates to the same experience as your sibling hogging the controller. At worst, this is removing the entire emotional connection we have with the characters.
See, for anyone who doesn't play a lot of games, this might not seem like a huge difference -- except that we've now gotten to a point where controlling your character is intertwined with the narrative aspects of the experience. It's not a series of cutscenes anymore, but often an interactive blending of story and control, as your actions set the pacing and order in which things unfold. Like two worlds colliding through some mystic portal, "story" and "gameplay" are completely intertwined in sequences like this ...
... from The Last Of Us. Joel and Ellie meander through a beautiful abandoned town, controlled by the player, while the narrative and character development blooms organically in the dialogue and various interactions with the set pieces. And that's fucking incredible, isn't it?
In fact, you could argue that this sort of sequence is the evolution of storytelling. And guess what that would make movies?
In Terms Of Versatility, Movies Are A Major Downgrade From Video Games
Before TV got wicked hardcore, there was a certain appeal to seeing our favorite characters on the big screen. The effects and budget were bigger, the aspect ratio was wider, and there was a very real chance we could hear them say curse words or maybe show some skin. Who wouldn't want to see X-Files: Fight The Future when it potentially meant that David Duchovny might flash a ball or two? Cinema undoubtedly added something to the fandom. Same goes for books, which we all know are a fucking drag. Who doesn't want to see their favorite literary or comic character adapted in the flesh? Heck, even remakes offer the chance to see an updated and modernized version of a story ... or failing that, the absolute train wreck retelling of your cherished nostalgia.
Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates? Sounds stupid. I'm in!
But what does a video game adaptation add to the original?
Other than this.
Sure, back in the days of GameShark there was the promise of seeing a higher-resolution King Koopa or Blanka, but now that graphics are toe-to-toe with CGI? Give me a break. Modern games look awesome, nearly on par with a movie like Warcraft. So when you cross that off the list, a film adaptation is a big step backward from the games they are banking on.
I'm not saying movies are extinct, but rather that they are to games what novelizations are to them. At best, they're the crazy-fueled EU comics to games' original Star Wars trilogy.
Why we haven't gotten a Yoshi / Niko Bellic team-up film is beyond me.
It blows my mind that we aren't doing the opposite and pushing to make more great video game adaptations from original films. For when turning video games into movies forces filmmakers to remove elements ... doesn't that mean adapting movies to games would add elements? It certainly makes more sense, right? Especially when games have gotten so mainstream that there's almost no difference in terms of production. And speaking of exactly that ...
Modern Video Games Are Basically Movies Anyway
Going back to the intro of this article, why exactly would we need a Call Of Duty movie? To make money? Well, no, because it's already a best-selling game series. To add star power? No again; both Kevin Spacey and Kit Harington have appeared, looking exactly like they do in movies. To see a realistic version of the game? Nope! As I already pointed out, the graphics of these games are all but reality-level anyway. So what's the appeal of crossing mediums? Why do we need a Call Of Duty movie when every new Call Of Duty is already a movie?
Games are now made the exact same way as blockbusters.
On the top: Willem Dafoe doing motion capture for Beyond: Two Souls.
On the bottom: Willem Dafoe doing motion capture for John Carter.
Besides the skull-gaping blast of terror-maw in the latter image, there's no big difference between that game's production and the film's. Video games are now made in the same soundstages that films are, often with the same crew. Direction and stunts are treated identically. Graphics have enabled the hiring of costume and prop designers. Video game performers are beginning to unionize and get paid the same as actors. As Andy Serkis will tell you, the rehearsal and process is the same if you're playing a monkey in a Hollywood film or playing a money in a platform adventure. We've reached peak monkey across the board.
Now the merger is nearly complete between these two worlds, creating a serious competition between developers and film studios. Movies shouldn't be happily adapting this work, but afraid they will lap them in story and emotion. And you know what? It has begun.
Out of all the movies that came out in 2013, The Last Of Us had one of my favorite stories, despite being made with Crash Bandicoot money. The acting was great. I actually teared up during it like some big stupid baby-man failure. And it ended on an emotional cliffhanger that hit me like a flying ice spear. And as this trend grows, that's a taste of things to come.
"What kind of asshole brings a human to a gunfight?"
So why in the blazing hell would I need to see the upcoming movie version of that? That's like doing a cable TV version of Lord Of The Rings right after Return Of The King. It's like going from a four-armed prince monster to a mere mortal. It's like giving up your electric god powers to fight in a human tournament. It's like reverting from your killer dragon animality. We're done with that era, guys. And for that reason, we have to accept that we'll likely never see another video game movie as awesome as the one exception to this rule. That amazing, flawless victory of a franchise lord knows you've been thinking about the whole time you read this. But unfortunately, you can only rewatch BloodRayne so many times before needing more.
Keep up with the latest BloodRayne movie news on Dave's personal site http://www.angelfire.com/co/makeitrayne, or follow him on Twitter.
For more reasons the video game and movie industries should never mix, check out 5 Video Games That Hollywood Should Never Film and 5 Video Game Adaptations That Missed the Point of the Movie.
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