As I return from the awe and majesty of E3 2014 (ALIEN ISOLATION) I couldn’t help but ask myself: Why the hell haven’t there been any good video game movies? With all these exciting new games and story possibilities, the potential is there. Big video game franchises are notable enough to support box office numbers (The Resident Evil franchise continues to make money somehow). Not to mention, there have been plenty of talented people out there who have been in line to direct video game adaptations. Just back in 2007, Pirates of the Caribbean director, Gore Verbinski, was in talks to direct a BioShock movie and Sam Raimi was initially in line to direct the upcoming Warcraft movie (Duncan Jones has since joined, completed filming, and it is now in post-production, so here’s to hoping).
Any investigation as to why the movie world is lacking that iconic video game adaptation is one that requires a lot of explanation.
The first necessary note: Video games function like and unlike movies and television. They feature similar narrative structure and protagonists, but many games only grab the surface value of a narrative without actually contextualizing any of the themes or actions with any sense of importance. Games like those in the Assassin’s Creed franchise are good fun, but I’ll be genuinely shocked if anyone contends that any game in the series actually has something important to say. I’m a big fan of the Ezio character, with the Assassin’s Creed 2 being my second favorite game in the series right behind Black Flag, and yet even his story seems oddly empty in a thematic measure. Most often, the story of a video game is either cookie cutter or lazily-constructed. (Seriously, does anybody actually care about the future stories in Assassin’s Creed?) In this standard instance, the weak storytelling would nearly guarantee storytelling failure for any attempted adaptation. Either the adaptation adheres to the source and sinks itself by the same narrative weaknesses, or distances itself in a way that weakens its status as adaptation and further cements the reputation of video games for being unadaptable.
There are video games that stand as exceptions to this standard, however. Some video games have exceptional and innovative storytelling structure, but that storytelling structure is always built upon and around the video game form. The best example to use as explanation is BioShock.
It’s common knowledge that BioShock is fucking spectacular, right? Good. But why is it spectacular? It’s a game about revolution, power, science, and specifically, choices. BioShock only physically delves into making personal choices when handling the Little Sisters, and whether or not you harvest them or rescue them from their twisted state. The game pulls the rug out from under the player when the famous “Would you kindly?” phrase is revealed to be a trigger that forces the player to do any action the antagonist says. Often in games, we’re used to going from mission to mission with little to no explanation. BioShock had a disturbing answer. When the final showdown occurs, and you’re free of the influence, it’s one of the most gratifying experiences in gaming because you’re reclaiming your freedom. You’re no longer obeying, but making a choice. Then your remaining actions come into play with the Little Sisters. You either continue to harvest them or you set them free to live normal lives. (Also, if you harvested the Little Sisters then you’re a bad person). BioShock functions best as a video game because the story is best suited for the narrative structure of a video game; that is to say that the participatory choices of its audience build the thematic narrative map.
Or how could I not mention arguably (correctly) the greatest video game series of all-time, Mass Effect? The entire franchise is built on many things, but once again, the foundation is choice. More than any other series of games, Mass Effect is our personal game. It’s our experience. We explore the galaxy. We gather the greatest crew in that galaxy. We fight alongside our crew to defeat the Reapers. We choose to be renegade or paragon. While the destination is similar (and divisive), all our experiences playing the game are so vastly different that a single movie can’t possibly explore the same elements that make Mass Effect so special.
This should go without saying, but all of our favorite movies function primarily as movies. Gravity was my favorite movies of 2013 and is a primary example of a movie that operates best as a straight cinematic experience. It works because the audience is taking witness, but not imposing influence. Gravity transports you into space and delivers a story about rebirth, sacrifice, and finding the will to live in the face of certain death. That claustrophobic feeling while being surrounded by vast emptiness would only work in a movie like this. While there are ways to adapt Gravity into other mediums (Don’t) there’s no way to do it successfully without losing the raw acting prowess of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, the long-takes that demand your constant attention, or the beautifully realized cinematography. The elements which elevate Gravity into high art are all elements of witness, not influence.
And finally, that’s the problem with video game movies: They don’t work as movies. They don’t even work as video games. So why the hell would they work as a hybrid of the two? To gene splice two established art forms into a successful combination, you’d need a creatively gifted team, and, as is evident on the credit screens of past video game film adaptations: the available talent pool isn’t always so impressive. Resident Evil franchise director Paul W.S. Anderson ranks among the worst directors in Hollywood, but he looks like Steven Spielberg compared to Uwe Boll. Just take a few seconds looking at Uwe Boll’s clusterfuck of a film résumé, most of which are video game movies, and you’ll recognize that all of his stories present the mentality of a pre-teen who thinks Tranformers 2 is awesome. His movies are directed with a scattershot precision but also morally deplorable. If you really need reference, watch Rampage (Actually, don’t do that. You’re a human being. You deserve better than that).
What video game movies need are confident and talented people behind the camera just as their source materials have confident and talented people working on them. Hell, I’m not entirely pro-BioShock movie, but I’d love to see a BioShock Infinite movie in the future, as that story is less video game-centric and more approachable in other mediums as well (Imagine people reacting to THAT ending for the first time?).
There’s still hope for video game movies. The storytelling element of video games improves yearly. And Duncan Jones directing the Warcraft adaptation might be one hell of a step in the right direction. It’s worth a shot. And the worst case scenario? Video game movies continue to be fucking awful and the video game world aspires to its own cinematic greatness. It’s a win/win situation really.