At their very best, video games offer players novel ways into imagined worlds and vistas teeming with life sometimes similar and oft dissimilar to that of their own. In games like The Last of Us, Batman: Arkham Knight, or any of the most recent independent titles from Telltale Games, stories about intriguing, nuanced, and self-possessed characters navigating worlds as variegated and tumultuous as their own personally drawn psyches become near cinematic experiences. Part of their appeal comes in the intricate level design of each game’s atmosphere, as in video game developer Rocksteady Games’ Gotham City wherein a winding cobweb of dark alleys, nooks, and crannies demand to be explored in the pursuit of putting a stop to street crime and culturally pervasive corruption; or in Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic zombie narrative we have all grown to know so well, for better and for worse, as it is turned on its head in the service of one of the most intimate portraitures of a father-daughter relationship captured on screen in many years. In games like these, individual understanding of the technical mechanics that make up for the route thrill that comes in mastering basic level design is superseded by the thrill of the title’s unique perspective on storytelling that has become increasingly cinematic as the technology that goes into animating these narratives progresses further and further. In another couple of years, hyperactive spectacles like Heavy Rain and even sandbox marvels like Grand Theft Auto V will not only be considered on par with what can be seen in the multiplex, but of the same stock and pedigree.
But if the former hypothesis is in fact the case, then why do films like Hitman: Agent 47 continue to fail so abysmally in their attempt to adapt popular video game franchises and characters to the big screen unilaterally? What is missing from films like Aleksander Bach’s contemporary video game disaster that make gaming and its acolytes a collaborative medium seemingly impossible to adapt accurately to the big screen despite many popular player experiences appearing so readily cinematic? Perhaps Bach is merely a bad filmmaker, and Hitman: Agent 47 is simply put a bad movie. Yet maybe the real source of the problem is more blatantly obvious and self-evident than that. Maybe the real reason why movies like Hitman: Agent 47 don’t work is because they are trying to reconfigure what was a form of active volition within a video based narrative to the medium of film that is inherently based on passive voyeurism. Perhaps gamers like video games due to their ceding of narrative autonomy over to the player, whereas film will always take the viewer along for a predetermined ride with characters entirely outside of the control of the viewer. In short, video games highlight the active agency of player choice and imagination while films are dependent on passive spectators willing to entertain another creator’s shared fantasy.
So then where does that leave audiences everywhere at the multiplex who might still wish to see a faithful adaptation of the video game format on the big screen? Luckily enough for some who are still hopeful that such a feat might still be accomplished, a feature film adaptation of video game developer Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed is already set to hit the big screen with actor Michael Fassbender in the lead role alongside his Macbeth co-star Marion Cotillard. In addition, a feature film adaptation of the already seminal classic of modern video games The Last of Us is already in various stages of pre-production and has attracted such monumental screen talents as Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams and The Evil Dead and Spider-Man director Sam Raimi into the fold of its wild cinematic ambition.
But should movie studios be so blatantly ready to court such huge and already successful narrative properties that have already seen cohesive success within the realm of their own artistic medium? Hitman: Agent 47 tried hard enough to be the perfect blend of James Bond-style espionage mixed with Jason Bourne levels of over-the-top action sequences and still failed to deliver on a story that was even slightly coherent amid a flurry of exchanges of vague, expository dialogue and chaotic action sequences as visually unreadable as any Michael Bay film to come out over the past ten years. Bach may have had his heart in the right place, and his talent as an action movie director is enviable on a purely aesthetic level, but in his film he loses sight of what makes video game developer Square Enix’s Agent 47 such a compelling character to play as; namely, the video game series presents their one-man-army as a kind of human cipher, an avatar onto which players may bring their own back story and interior monologues to project onto and within the flurry of action and violence otherwise taking place largely without incentive on screen. Agent 47 isn’t an interesting character because of the stories in which he finds himself an autonomous protagonist, but because of the active agency that he himself lacks but is granted by the players who might wish to imagine a set of motives supplemented by an associated intelligence to imbue onto his vacancy of being.
In Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead series of episodic, point-and-click action-adventure narratives, the repetitive and tedious nature of the series as it had been previously engaged on TV was negated through the careful manipulation of player choice. The surrounding narrative was largely predetermined as any good film should be, but malleable in small, sometimes un-seeming ways according to the volition and active agency of the player that is inherent to gaming as a medium. Hitman: Agent 47 loses sight of this peculiar aspect of modern storytelling in video games and instead delivers a cool imagining of one of gamers’ favorite playable narrative properties as a predetermined set of disjointed action movie set pieces. It’s unclear whether or not Assassin’s Creed will be able to surpass and overcome the problems presented by this summer’s most recent video game spectacle at the multiplex, leaving little reason to imagine a video game narrative on the big screen with even half the heart of its source text. The two audio-visual mediums stand separated by a fundamental difference in approach towards the type of agency allowed their respective consumers, which makes all the difference for the proper enjoyment of each respectively speaking.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox