The current generation has provided developers with the tools to craft their worlds with incredible detail and character realism (in regards to the uncanny valley). We now have a bigger focus on telling a rich story and developing great characters that drive the plot forward. For a long time now the obsession of seeing our favorite franchise on the silver screen has been prevalent in gamer culture. In response to this, there have been plenty of movies based off of video games, but the first great game movie has yet to be made.
It can be said that older games have characters and stories that are on par with today’s games. While it is true that older generations could hammer out amazing tales and compelling characters, they really aren’t able to make good movies. Titles of this generation such as Assassins Creed, Mass Effect, Uncharted, Dead Space, Bioshock, Deus Ex, and The Last of Us among dozens of others, will be far easier to adapt when compared to Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, The Legend of Zelda, and storied fighters such as Mortal Kombat. Today’s games are a different breed of games. So if this is the case, then why haven’t we had a good video game adaption yet?
Well for one, these games and franchises are only a few years old. We are just now seeing a great interest into bringing these IP’s onto the big screen. For example, the amazing superhero movies we have today didn’t always exist. If you don’t believe me watch 90’s Batman. Those superheroes have existed for decades, but until the early 2000’s with the X-Men and Spiderman movies, there wasn’t a big rush to try to bring superheroes to the big screen, other than Batman and Superman. It took quite some time for them to gain the level of importance and polish seen over the last decade. Now multiple superhero movies are coming out each year, and are successful money makers at the box office. While critics aren’t calling for Oscars, these movies don’t suck.
In contrast, games have been subject to mediocre and downright bad adaptations, for example, the mind bogglingly bad Super Mario Brothers movie. While I expect no VG adaptation to be handed an Oscar any time soon, I would love to see the day when video game movies aren’t constantly scraping the bottom of the barrel critically.
One of the most recent movie attempts is the Prince of Persia. It wasn’t a terrible movie I found it fairly entertaining but it lacked substance. Sadly, I’ve never played a Prince of Persia game, so I can’t really compare the game to the movie. It is important to note that the movie made a profit, despite the mixed to bad reviews by critics and viewers. Box Office Mojo lists the budge at $200 million dollars, but it made (worldwide) $335 Million. Hitman, Max Payne, Lara Croft, and the Resident Evil movie adaptations have also made a profit as well. So, if a movie like the Prince of Persia which has the highest Rotten Tomatoes score of 35%, out of the video game movies, can make $100+ million in profit, what would happen when Hollywood finds that golden ticket to making video game movies?
There are a few things that must be done first for video game movies to actually reach greatness, or at the very least, succeed commercially and (more importantly) critically. The first, is being done, and has been done; Hollywood actually taking a chance. It is slowly becoming apparent to Hollywood studios that, “Oh. Wow… we can make a ton of money off of this!” Studio’s that put forth more budget to provide stars such as Jake Gyllenhaal and producer Jerry Bruckheimer will do nothing but boost the movie’s chance to succeed. Remember that a large portion of those who see the movie, know absolutely nothing about the game, however they know the names of actors, directors, and producers. This example sits in comparison to the recent news that Justin Marks is scripting the Dead Space movie. If you don’t know who Marks is, he previously worked on another video game to movie screenplay, 2009’s Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. This movie grossed just $12 Million worldwide (Box Office Mojo) with a current score of 18% on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m not trying to throw Marks under the bus here, since it takes more than a screenplay to tank a movie. However, if the movie studio wants to succeed commercially and critically (you know, the thing that hasn’t been done yet) with a live-action adaption, it has to hire people with proven track records.
Games themselves provide an excellent framework for building a movie. Characters with personalities, scripts, plot formulas, music, settings are all there for film makers to use. Hollywood really needs to understand that a video game has all of the tools they need, and using those tools is what can make it succeed. The most important of these tools however, is not found in a game; it’s the developers. These developers have created an IP that is near and dear to their hearts, no one knows more about the game then they do. Hollywood studios need to understand the importance of using developers to translate a video game onto the silver screen effectively. To make a movie that is not only entertaining, but has substance. I think this can be achieved by doing what, to me, hasn’t been done yet in a video game movie; retaining the game’s identity.
Getting the identity and feel of the game is where the problem lies. As of now, no one has quite nailed it down. In fact, no one has really come close. The problem might stem from the fact games have something unique to any other medium: gameplay. Take Dead Space for example, a game currently in the works for a potential live-action adaption. Trying to capture the feeling of walking down claustrophobic halls with the high tension Dead Space is known for will be hard to do. Not to mention getting the atmosphere and character isolation down as well. The gameplay is the reason that Dead Space feels like Dead Space. It’s why many gamers declared Dead Space 3 didn’t feel like Dead Space, even though its themes and characters were consistent with the prior instalments. So what does it mean when a video game instalment of Dead Space doesn’t feel like Dead Space? How would film makers be able to work with the material to make a film feel like Dead Space? The answer to that is… I don’t know. This is something that they are going to have to figure out. The feel and identity of a game is something very hard to translate. This is especially true for someone who isn’t actively controlling the character, but just passively watching events unfold on the screen. The movie might seem empty to them. They don’t have prior knowledge of the game to fall back on, to add substance. Gameplay to me is a video game’s identity, it is its substance. This might be why game movies like the Prince of Persia are criticized for not having substance. Their substance might be untranslatable, at least for now.
Regardless, of whether or not the games identity/substance is captured by the film, alterations between game and movie are going to be made. Keeping the survivalesque nature of Dead Space in the film most likely won’t happen. The average viewer doesn’t want to see Isaac Clarke looking in lockers for random items and ammo to use for 20 minutes of the film. Most likely the subject of health and ammo scarcity will not be heavily drawn upon. Some aspects of a video game will not and cannot make the leap into a movie. While this aspect of gameplay is important in the game, it would be less important than to include the other aspects of gameplay. These include the high tension, atmospheric setting of the gameplay as well as the looming Necromorph threat and the concept of severing limbs with modified engineering tools. Akin to this, is the feel of scaling buildings in Assassin’s Creed, or making the viewer question the societal implications of human augmentations in Deus Ex, would give the movie some substance.
You don’t have to adapt a game to the letter. I don’t mind alterations. It’s when drastic changes are made to the film that results in the loss of its video game identity. A superb example is when Sony shot down the Uncharted movie pitch a few years ago. The film involved Nathan Drake and his fortune hunting family, trotting the globe and hunting treasure. The movie was described as being very family centric. I don’t have to see Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune line by line again, it could have an entirely different plot surrounding Drake, Sully, Elena etc, as long as I can view the movie and say “Yes. This is Uncharted” I would be satisfied.
Looking at this issue from another angle, we have potential movie goers, the vast majority of which have no idea what the Uncharted video game is about. So was David O Russell’s script for Uncharted bad? No, it’s probably quite the opposite. I am biased here as a gamer, but Uncharted would have lost its identity if this script was approved. Could the movie have gotten good ratings by critics and turned a profit? Sure. I don’t see why not. I know I would have been disappointed, along with millions of other gamers. It’s more about what line should and shouldn’t be crossed for live-action adaptations. For me that’s when the movie becomes something entirely different then the game. I don’t have to have actors look exactly like their virtual counterparts. I don’t have to watch the exact plot unfold on the silver screen as I did while playing the game. It’s the middle ground that I think needs to be reached. Movie goers who aren’t familiar with the video game franchise have no idea what the game’s identity is. They don’t care that the movie is about the Drake fortune hunting family, as long as the movie is good. They don’t know what Nathan Drake looks like, much less care if the actor on screen is a physical representation of the virtual one. All they care about is the actor/actress delivering a worth wile performance and the movie being worth their hard earned buck… or ten.
Another aspect of potential adaptations that often comes up in conversations is the cutscene. In games cutscenes are often the main methods of driving the plot forward. Just taking out the cutscenes for use in the film can equate to an hour or more of footage that is, without gameplay, severely segmented footage. Adding in gaps during the filming process to account for the transition from cutscene to cutscene would result in a movie length that would shame the Lord of the Ring’s director’s cut. So the question becomes; how can you fit it into a two hour (more or less) movie? The answer is… you can’t, at least without not without making changes.
In a BAFTA interview back in March, Levine was asked about the possibility a Bioshock movie, the topic was brought up in the post-interview Q&A session at 1:29:30 in the Youtube video linked on PC Gamer:
It’s not just us gamer’s who don’t want to see these changes to our video games, ultimately Sony didn’t like what Russell was offering and the script was laid to rest. A similar incident happened with the Bioshock. The Bioshock movie was personally shut down by Ken Levine himself after the studio didn’t want to put $200 Million into an R rated film, only offering $80 Million instead (Gore Verbinski left because he didn’t want to make an $80 film). Levine was quoted on the subject:
“It was saying I don’t need to compromise – how many times in life do you not need to compromise? It comes along so rarely, but I had the world, the world existed and I didn’t want to see it done in a way that I didn’t think was right. It may happen one day, who knows, but it’d have to be the right combination of people.” – Ken Levine
Levine decided that the way the studio wanted the movie to go would result in something that wasn’t Bioshock. Gamers and developers alike would rather see no movie made, then one that doesn’t capture the identity of its source material. This isn’t to say that these movies wouldn’t have been successful.
Getting Hollywood studios to take certain risks when making these movies must happen for them to eventually succeed. Gamers and developers must also reach a middle ground in what can and cannot be changed in the films. There will always be conflicts during the adaptation of the source material. Looking at comic book movie adaptations again, how many times have you heard from friends that they got aspects of the comics totally wrong in the movie? The developers care deeply about the games that they create, and like me, would probably want the identity and feel of the game to translate to the silver screen then making sure Nathan Drake is played by Nathan Fillion A movie that can appease movie goers, critics, and gamers will ultimately be the first great video game movie. In no other medium do you have control over these characters, and in a lot of cases, the player is supposed to project themselves onto these characters. You are supposed to be them. No other entertainment form allows this possibility. When watching something in a theater there is a clear defined line between the movie and you. Another way to look at the importance of gameplay, is by looking at movie to video game adaptations. How many of those are good? Yeah. Not too many.
A fan base that exists in the millions for games such as Assassin’s Creed and modern first person shooters such as Call of Duty or Battlefield would bring a lot of people to theaters. The war movie concept is something Hollywood had huge success with, and they have no shortage of choices. With short campaigns and flexible stories it won’t surprise me if the first critically acclaimed movie came in the form of a modern day FPS like Spec Ops: The Line. Another one to watch out for is Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed movie penned in for May 22, 2015. The movie will star Michael Fassbender (Prometheus, X-Men: First Class, and Inglorious Basterds) with Ubisoft creation of its own movie development house, Ubisoft Motion Pictures, they will have a lot of creative control over the film.
Regardless of the source material, the changes made, the actors, the budget; we gamers will be subject to something book enthusiasts have been subconsciously doing for a long time. Outside every showing at every theatre there will be gamers uttering the, now slightly tweaked, but timeless phrase: “the game was better.”