Why is it that movie adaptations of games are always, without fail, so terrible? And why do they never deter producers from trying? With the recent news of Minecraft in talks with Warner Bros, and films like Splinter Cell already on the way, it seems like so many are willing to make a dive into the fray that many would label suicidal.
It’s clear we’re in trouble when the no-man’s land between the two media seems to be strewn with the same amount of bodies we sent over the top, and to add insult to injury, these are the kind of carcasses that make it look like an elephant’s graveyard. Some big game franchises have tried and died in their attempt to make it to the silver screen; from detached CGI Final Fantasy trip-outs to the Film-That-Must-Not-Be-Named featuring a certain Italian plumber and his brother, many of the films “inspired” by games could easily go down in history as some of the worst movies ever.
Part of the problem is that we are dealing with two completely different media forms. Whereas films, books and music all require us to be passive receivers of a creative message, games put the reigns in the hands of the player and demands that he or she takes control. The issue becomes even more prevalent in a generation that places such great emphasis on open-worlds, options and choices that allow the gamer to shape the gameplay. It seems almost impossible that such an individual and interactive experience could be converted into one linear narrative that the viewer has limited participation in.
One way films have attempted to tackle this is by replicating the gameplay on-screen, which is always a horrible, horrible mistake. The film adaptation of Doom infamously took this a step too far by including a scene shot in first-person shooter style, as if the viewer was actually playing as the marine gunning down the alien-demons. At this point, however, it was just the poorly-piped icing on a very bland cake that Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson has since confessed he wished he’d never made.
What this scene and others like it indicate is some serious misunderstanding and mistranslation. Watching a film is not the same as playing a game – there’s no point in imitating a single story that will always end up as a pale shadow of the gameplay experience we fondly remember. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find other means of interpreting that experience through film.
Hope lies in the many successful examples of the process in reverse. This theory does, of course, glide swiftly over the plethora of hideous ‘release title’ games that accompany new films. Often short on both time and money, it’s unfair to judge these games as artistic adaptations of cinematic narrative.
What I’m harping on about is the unprecedented success of games inspired by some of the biggest film franchises of all time. Look at the widely popular MMORPG The Lord of the Rings Online, which plunges the player into an immersive journey through a beautiful, believable and fully-realized Middle Earth. Remember the hours of fun you had bunny-hopping around fights, shooting (or slapping) your friends in the face and hiding in the toilets in GoldenEye 007. And it is impossible to deny the presence of the gigantic shadow cast by LucasArts and other developers of games adapted from the Star Wars series.
Whether you were racing pods, flying X-Wings, dueling lightsabers or using the Force to fling enemies from your path, many Star Wars games have achieved much more than just facilitating extremely enjoyable gameplay; they have provided a gateway for fans to access and experience the wider universe they know and love. A shining example of this is undoubtedly Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, the critically acclaimed RPG which combined interesting characters with faithful canon to create a truly compelling narrative. But here’s where we really get to the bottom of its brilliance: the events of the story take place around 4,000 years before the rise of the Galactic Empire as presented in the Star Wars films.
This is important. As the player, you are not simply re-treading the steps of heroes who you have already watched save the day countless times on DVD. You are creating your own story. Arguably, many of the most successful game adaptations are the ones that have captured the atmosphere and character of a film without forcing you to literally possess the body of an existing protagonist and complete the predestined narrative arc (much like any game with a particularly frustrating linear path). Games are interactive; they’re at their best when encouraging new discovery, ideally through a character that makes you feel personally invested in the gameplay. Even if you haven’t watched the film it’s based on, playing a game that limits itself to the confines of a preexisting narrative can often feel like an awkward cinematic experience with a few boring, repetitive missions interspersed throughout to fill the hours.
So is there anything we can learn from these examples when we consider game-to-film adaptations? If KOTOR’s success resides in creating a new narrative within the wider universe of Star Wars, perhaps the problem with film adaptations is that they employ the formula backwards: in other words, a replicated narrative within a different or mistranslated universe. Take the Resident Evil films as an example. Though the storyline does not strictly follow the games, we are still presented with a very similar narrative – protagonists fighting against hordes of the un-dead who have been infected by the evil Umbrella corporation in Raccoon City. The problem? Complete genre overhaul. Instead of the highly tense, slow-building atmospheric horror established and celebrated in the early games, the viewer is bombarded with a relentless stream of overly-dramatic action sequences drowned in explosions and noise galore.
It just feels meaningless. Suspense isn’t built particularly effectively, the characters are two-dimensional, and we’re not the ones flying through the air on a motorbike dual-wielding machine guns, so it gets boring to watch over and over again. Though obviously stilted, cinematic scenes like the infamous FPS sequence from Doom do serve to prove that it does no good trying to convince us that we’re directly part of the action somehow. The trick is to capture the spirit of the game. Then take us along on a new ride.
By no means a box office hit, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time gains some ground in achieving this. Though cheesy with some fairly mediocre acting – not to mention the dodgy accents – this became the highest grossing film based on a video game (I know that’s not saying much, but hear me out). For all its flaws, the film does a pretty good job of conveying the world of the games; it’s a swashbuckling, mystical, action-packed adventure that manages to grasp the middle-Eastern essence of the Prince of Persia series. Yes, there are some cringingly obvious shots of the Prince ‘platforming’ across some pegs in the wall, but actually, the fight and chase scenes are executed with some effective pacing, driven forward by many tongue-in-cheek and sometimes comical dialogue exchanges that help the film not take itself too seriously. It feels like a Prince of Persia game. And the film isn’t completely crap.
This is an achievement in and of itself. It provides a waypoint in the murky and mostly unchartered territory of translating games into films, avoided by many for fear of sinking into swampland to join the bodies of their naively optimistic predecessors. We can learn from films like these. Slowly but surely, I have no doubt that better bridges will be built, as long as writers, producers and directors realize that it’s not about simulating the exact events that occurred at the beginning of our journey across the two mediums.
What we need to do is find a new story in the landscape already unfolding around us.