8 Reasons Video Games Will Never Make Good Movies
Here is a sad fact we all must face: There is a sixth Resident Evil film planned. It’s intended to the the final film in the unloved-by-just-about-everyone franchise (the average Tomatometer approval rating on the existing five is 26%), but we, as audiences, have allowed this thing to continue. And here’s the most chilling thing of all: The first Resident Evil film is considered one of the high watermarks when it comes to video-game-to-movie adaptations. Talking to peers, I have discovered that Resident Evil and Mortal Kombat are considered the best video game movies made to date. If those are the cinema classics of the genre, then perhaps the genre needs to, ahem, step up its game.
Video game movies are never a cause c?l?bre. A studio may elicit a slight stir of mild enthusiasm from the large and amorphous gamer community when they announce a Silent Hill or a Need for Speed, but the announcements have yet to deliver on any sort of promise. Indeed, some of the most hated films of the last 15-20 years have been adapted from video games (Silent Hill: Revelation, House of the Dead, Super Mario Bros., etc.). Gamers look to the oeuvre of Uwe Boll and lament that it’s all Hollywood’s fault. Movie makers, gamers claim, simply don’t understand video games. That’s why we haven’t had a classic video game movie yet. But the reasons may be more fundamental than that. Indeed, I propose that video games can never make good movies. Here are eight reasons as to why:
1) Video Games Are Predicated on Player Control
Any and every single video game is, we must remember, a game first. Oh sure, modern games have come to incorporate massively complicated stories and mythologies – sometimes to the point where just the cut-scenes and non-playable portions of a game can come to equal dozens of hours.
But those stories are all underneath the reason we turn to video games in the first place: To play. To interact. To control the works around us. Video games are designed so that the player take an active part in whatever story (or lack of story) that the programmers have devised for them. It’s about using your increasingly accrued button-push skills to overcome puzzles and challenges, only to be rewarded with a piece of a story.
In short, video game stories have no pacing. The pacing of a video game’s story is going to be necessarily predicated on how quickly the player moves, and not by how quickly the creators of the game want to tell the story.
Movies, on the other hand, are very rigidly paced. Every film is now, and always will be, a finite length. Films are not about you interacting with your environment and discovering clues. They’re about watching others discover those clues, go through their own hardships, and coming to their own conclusions, all dictated by the filmmakers’ whims. Films are about telling us a story and/or eliciting sympathy or mood.
Games may be able to elicit mood, but their fundamental storytelling ethos is entirely different from that of feature films. They operate not to elicit sympathy, but control.
When was the last time you saw a game that said “press X to feel ambivalent?”
2) Video Games Are Based in Action, Not Motivation
Some of the games-are-art pundits (which is, to be fair, just about anyone who writes about video games on any sort of regular basis) have announced that video games have yet to produce that one groundbreaking classic that will legitimize the medium as an art form in the eyes of the public. There is no video game equivalent of, say, Birth of a Nation.
Those same pundits argue that films were, after all, also once considered a novelty, not worthy of serious artistic discussion, but can now in the modern age be seen as art. Perhaps the video game medium will someday produce its Citizen Kane. The world is, however, still waiting for games’ artistic promise to be fulfilled.
I think the reason films have an easier time of of earning their vaguely awarded artistic credentials by the critical community is that they are – at least when operating as a storytelling medium – empathy machines. Films are not necessarily about their own story, but about how they can make us feel sympathy for their characters. We are invited to relate to the characters on the screen in some fashion, and, under the best of circumstances, empathize with them.
Roger Ebert once called films empathy machines, allowing us to grow. We want to know people more deeply in movies, and we want to know why they do what they do. Films are based in motivation.
(Yes, I know how Roger Ebert felt about video games)
Video games can’t make it onto the screen because they are not based in motivation. Sure, we may have the vague motivational backstory applied to the lead character you control (you must revenge your dead daughter, etc.), but when the player takes control, that motivation vanishes.
The motivation for playing a game is, well, to play it. To defeat it. To have fun. It’s about the actions of the protagonist, and not his drama. You control the drama. It’s hard to translate a character like that to the big screen because, well, he (or she) was designed not to be related to. He/she was designed to be controlled and to act.
Sure, there are films based in action, replete with shallow characterization, but those are usually crap.
3) Video Games Have Blank Protagonists
Expanding on the previous point, video game protagonists can never make good movie protagonists because they have to, by necessity, be kind of blank. Since the player is to control the main character in a video game, that character has to be empty enough that the player can fill their head with whatever they want. It’s the same phenomenon that has little kids projecting personalities onto the different Power Rangers. Those people have no character beyond the color they wear, so we use our imaginations to fill them.
I don’t know who or what Mario is, for instance. He has no childhood, no personality, no drama in his life, no goals, no dreams. He is a blank slate that we know nothing about. And frankly, I don’t want to know anything about Mario. As video game characters go, Mario is the perfect avatar. Colorful, fun to look at, maybe vaguely heroic if you want to take any sort of definitive stance. Video game protagonists have to be blank so that the player may control them.
Movies, on the other hand, thrive on the opposite. They are better when they have more complex protagonists with complex motivations, quirks, and their own way of looking at the world. Think of your favorite movie characters. Charles Foster Kane, Luke Skywalker, Jack Torrance, Rick and Ilsa. These are people who long for something, fear something, have a point of view.
Now think of the most popular video game characters. Mario, Sonic, Link, Samus, Master Chief, Gordon Freeman. These people don’t have a point of view because it’s our point of view. They have little personality beyond their look. You can project traits onto them, but that’s not the same as having a complex character.
And these blank characters don’t really make for great movies. Even a non-complex, blank and exciting movie character like James Bond or Indiana Jones displays more character than what we have in video games. The first step in adapting a video game into a movie is to immediately expand the character. They can’t stay the way they are.
Would Mario be more interesting if he had a smack habit?
4) Video Games Are Too Elaborate Now
Some video games have become so elaborate that it can take a player hundreds of hours to master. Some role-playing games are intended to be played indefinitely. Back when games were simpler (i.e. the “rescue the princess” era), their simple stories may have translated to the screen a little better. But the stories of new video games have become so complex, their mythologies so elaborate, that it would take several hours to explain them to a newbie.
Can you imagine explaining the backstory of Halo to someone who just wants to watch an afternoon movie? It would take 135 minutes of screentime just to catch someone up. Or a sped-through explanation that will, in a condensed form, sound confusing and/or dumb. Surely we all have the childhood experience of trying to explain a game, a comic or a cartoon show to our grandparents, and coming up short in every regard. They’re not interested and you, well, you’re not capable of making it sound interesting.
Games are just too long and too involved to make good movies anymore. Some franchises – I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy – have expanded to encompass fantasy, sci-fi, time travel, spirit science and hundreds of characters. Is there a way to make something like Final Fantasy into a cogent and straightforward movie that can tell a good story but also encapsulate the mythos of the game? If Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was any indicator, the answer is no. A movie can only play, on average, for 85 – 180 minutes. These days, that’s just not enough time to establish mood, character, and every piece of a game’s massive plot.
Here is a challenge for you, dear reader. Sum up the premise and the story of your favorite game in two sentences. Not so easy, is it?
5) Video Games Are Less Creator-Oriented than Movies
Before any of the fans of creator-oriented indie games begin dog-piling on me (and I know you are legion), let me elucidate.
The auteur theory in film dictates that a film’s director is its ultimate author, dictating (ideally) the film’s casting, the film’s mood, the film’s theme, the film’s pace… essentially anything that makes up the movie that is not purely technical. And the better films always bear the stamp of the creative mind behind that. A Stanley Kubrick film looks and feels like a Kubrick film.
Again, there may be a few superstar auteurs of the video game world, and I don’t want to openly impugn any of your favorite video game writers, dear readers (quit flinging Erik Wolpaw’s name at my head! I know who he is! Ow! Ow!). And yes, you may be able to tell a Ken “BioShock” Levine game from any of the myriad personality free actioners that constantly flood the marketplace, but there is still a fundamental difference between a video game auteur and a film auteur. And that difference is this:
Video game auteurs create a premise, a design, and maybe even a mood, and then let their game go into the hands of a player. The player is co-auteur in any game they play, because they will ultimately be the once dictating the direction of the game, the motivation of the characters, and the pacing of the thing.
Movie auteurs have more complete control over everything in a movie. They choose what truth will appear on camera, and dictate the tone, the pacing, the mood… essentially everything. That’s what a movie is. A tale to hear, told by a storyteller. A game is something you tell back when prompted.
Press X to let the storyteller just do her job already.
6) Video Game Stories Are Meant to Be Filled in
Movies tell you everything they want to. They are complete packages. When you hear a story from a movie (and provided it’s being told well), you are going to hear every single detail that the writers and the directors want you to. That’s what makes them films. Their finite nature.
Video games, on the other hand, are a lot like narrative Mad Libs. You’re given some story, and then the gameplay section of the game – the part you control – fills in some of the narrative gaps. And it’s there that players find their catharses; in the fact that they themselves get to fill in parts of the story. That they feel active in the storytelling process. “You go up to a door and then you __________.” The player will look at that prompting and react accordingly. “I open it!,” they will exclaim. What they did will dictate the next line of the story. A video game, then, is more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book than a novel.
Films cannot operate on the principle. They cannot ask for the viewers to fill in the story gaps. Maybe the conceptual or cognitive gaps, but not the actual structural ones. Films require an auteur, a voice and a storyteller in order for them to work. Games require interaction, a technical meeting of programmer and player. A fill-in-the-blank form of narrative storytelling.
An interactive movie would, fundamentally, cease to be a movie. I will make no mention of the 1995 short film Mr. Payback, which was hated and rejected by just about everyone.
7) Video Game Audiences Are Averse to Smallness
This has less to do with film and game theory, and more to do with audience expectation.
Imagine that a studio has decided to make a feature film version of The Legend of Zelda, one of the longest-running and most beloved of all video game franchises, based in medieval sword-and-sorcery fantasy. Some of you would get excited, right? Because in your mind, you already have a completed film imagined. You – and I – probably picture a film along the lines of Lord of the Rings. The Legend of Zelda would have to be a multiple-film fantasy epic that incorporated decades worth of mythology, huge action set pieces, fantasy monsters, and a climactic fight between Link and Gannon that could outstrip anything you had previously seen on the big screen.
In a way, it’s that sort of large thinking and high expectation that’s hindering video game movies. Most game-movie audiences wouldn’t be content to see a film with a small story. They would need something that includes any and all aspects from the game in order to be pleased.
Would you be content with a Legend of Zelda film that was 95 minutes, and featured Link going on a single adventure to find a single magical triangle? Probably not. How about a Metroid movie that featured a single character on a trek through a monster-lined tunnel to discover what happened to the world she landed on?
Game audiences are addicted to expansive stories and gigantic video game myths, and the movies will never be able to reflect that. Would a five-film Legend of Zelda franchise be good? Maybe. Surely game fans would love them. Would a modest version of that same story please people in the same way? Probably not. They’d only see a missed opportunity. Making a movie under these high-expectation conditions is a recipe for disaster. No one will be pleased, and making a beloved film will be impossible.
Here’s a question: Why do video games need a movie to be legitimized? Are movies more important and credible than games? On second thought, don’t answer that.
8) Video Games Already Resemble Genre Movies Anyway
I think the biggest reason a video game can never be the basis for a good movie is because video games have taken all their visual and narrative cues from the movies to begin with. Think about this. All popular video games (well, most popular video games) are about lone badasses who are capable action heroes, usually facing off against over-the-top villains who have wronged them in some way. Good guy uses action skills to take down bad guy. This is something that genre movies have been doing for decades. Video games may not fundamentally resemble movies, but their surface elements are ripped off from genre movies wholesale.
And why make an expanded video game version of an exploitation movie when we already have exploitation movies? I don’t need to see a gritty fight version of Double Dragon when I already have the blaxploitation and kung-fu movies that inspired it. And yes, I know there was a movie version of Double Dragon already that expanded on the game.
By the time we get to a film version of a video game, in many ways, we’re seeing a copy of a copy. We had sci-fi, horror and action movie tropes, and their respective clich?s, inspire a game, and then we had that game inspire a movie. Everything just came full circle. A movie based on a game is a creative double-back that has consistently proven to backfire. We’re making something that gained power from simplicity and fantasy and clich? (genre movies), passed them through something that doctors them up (the game), and tried to remake them into something more complex and involved (game-based movie). And it hasn’t worked and it will never work.
The only way to make a video game movie work is to simplify it rather than to expand it. Take out the grand myth, and tap into the genre movie clich?s that inspired the game to begin with. That approach hasn’t been tried yet.
If you want to make a Metroid movie, rip off Alien again for the 100th time. It’s the only way it can work. And if you’re going to make a Super Mario Bros. movie… actually, just don’t do that. There’s no way that can work.
Although ask me sometime about my idea for a grim and gritty live-action feature version of Pok?mon.
Previously by Witney Seibold:
10 Reasons Why VCRs Are Better Than What We Have Now