Hi. So, you’re probably wondering why I called you here today. I want to start off by congratulating you; I think that you’ve had a pretty great couple of years and have made some really strong moves toward something special. I’m being genuine here when I say that it’s worth celebrating. I remember the 1990s when movies like Street Fighter, Super Mario Bros., and Double Dragon were released. Look, we were all young once and we make bad decisions. The thing is that we need to learn from those decisions and use those experiences to grow.
This is what I’m getting at; I remember the movie adaptation of Hitman that came out a few years ago. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here in saying it was terrible, but somebody has decided that it would be a good idea to reboot it and try again. I’m here to say ‘stop’. I love video games and I love movies, but video game movies are not helping anyone, and they need to stop getting made now. There are three big reasons why, and some of them might sting a bit to hear. However, admitting there is a problem is the first step to recovery, so let’s get into this.
1. Video games are just not there in terms of story
Let’s be real; I love video games and I love the stories they tell. I do however recognize that, with the exception of like 5 games ever, the quality of writing and storytelling in video games is subpar at best. I will concede that writing a script for a game is significantly different, and far more complex, than for a film. A game needs to hit different beats, and it doesn’t hit with an audience the way a movie does. With that in mind, the fact is that storytelling is mostly an afterthought in game development. Some studios have dedicated writers on staff, but, even in that case, a lot of the storytelling amounts to little more than a string of pop culture references and winking nods to the fanbase.
Naughty Dog has some great writers for sure, but their level of talent and commitment is in the vast minority. Does this mean that video game writers just aren’t as talented as screenwriters? Maybe, but not necessarily. Film writers have had far longer to work on the craft, and the mechanics of a good screenplay have been boiled down to pretty much a science these days. With games, it’s still so all over the place that it feels like each new game is reinventing the wheel. When it comes to adapting to a new format, there’s also another hurdle that creators face.
2. Video game movies don’t give, they only take
Interactivity is the one thing that, when you get right down to it, video games do that is completely unique from any other art form. I guess the only exception to this would be Choose Your Own Adventure books for children, but that’s a pretty minor subgenre within the sea of literature. Movies, TV shows, books,…in all of these you are taking in the creator’s vision and being presented with what s/he wants you to see. Being completely honest, there is a lot of that in modern games, but, even in the most slavishly film-aping titles like Quantic Dream games, the progression of the story is dependent on at least some player action. As this is impossible for films, any adaptation is losing that critical feature that could potentially make a cliched story or mediocre premise interesting. But you know what, none of that really matters at the end of the day because it is trumped by the biggest issue of them all.
3. Video game movies don’t have an audience
For better or worse, marketing is a vital part of filmmaking. If a studio is going to spend months making and promoting a movie, they want to make damn sure there is a segment of the market for whom this product is tailored. Therein lies the problem; video game movies don’t really have that segment that studios can count on to watch them. Movie fans who don’t like video games look down on these movies, and video game fans generally don’t want to see their favorite title besmirched. Both groups go online to tear into the movie, which pretty much seals its fate commercially.
Another part of this issue has to do with content. Most games, even family-friendly ones, involve killing hundreds of enemies. The threshold for this level of brutality is much lower in films, which means that a filmmaker would need to present game-specific action in a different way. Uncharted is an easy example; in the game you kill hundreds of enemies, and there is no way it would get anything less than an R rating in theaters. If you tone it down however, you are potentially diluting the very thing that appeals to a wider audience.
I’m not trying to be negative here, and I don’t think games could NEVER be made into good films; I think they’re just not ready yet. For some context, think about how amazing superhero movies are these days. The Avengers, Iron Man, Batman,…hell, even Thor was good. Now look at the kind of superhero entertainment I was subjected to in the 70s and 80s, such as the Spider-Man TV show from 1977:
Or this, from 1994:
Yes, those actually happened. Consider how far the genre has come the next time you feel inclined to criticize something like The Amazing Spider-Man. Anyway, my point is that as awful as video game movies are now, and as awful as that new Hitman movie is almost certainly going to be, there is hope that somewhere down the line there will be people with decision-making and creative power who have the skill and vested interest in making a movie based on a video game that is (let’s be realistic here) not complete garbage.
In the meantime, I’d like to see Hollywood take a break from making video game movies. Filmmaking is an expensive, and incredibly time-and-resource intensive job, so why not put talented people to work on something that actually has potential to be decent. Uwe Boll’s tax loophole has been closed so we don’t even need to worry about him ruining things for everyone anymore. This is a good time to focus more on making games better — The Last of Us and BioShock Infinite are recent steps in the right direction — and less on trying to shoehorn square pegs into round holes.