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Why Videogame Films Don’t Work

It’s hard to pick which videogame film is my favourite. It’s like being marooned on a desert island and deciding which finger to eat first. Rotten Tomatoes has Final Fantasy: The Sprits Within leading the pack with a frankly dire 43%, but that’s not my favourite. I found it pointlessly confusing and lacking in any form of emotional depth. I do remember seeing Super Mario Bros. in the cinema when I was young and being mildly pleased by it. Maybe it was those dancing goombas, or maybe the nine year old me just had no taste.

Whilst Final Fantasy: The Sprits Within may be top of the pile when it comes to videogame movies it only highlights the sad state of affairs the sub-genre is in, and begs the question – Why don’t videogame films work?

“It’s like being marooned on a desert island and deciding which finger to eat first”In recent years one genre has become a real money spinner for Hollywood executives and it only seems to be growing in popularity as time passes. The comic book film has not only been very lucrative but has become an opportunity for world class directors and writers to create involving and entertaining films. Although the comic book and the videogame are two very different mediums, they do share some very similar themes such as heroism, revenge and the overcoming of adversity. More importantly than this, they both share a similar target market and, one would assume, generate a similar amount of interest.

Be that as it may when you compare recent examples, the gulf in quality between the two becomes depressingly clear. Watchmen was a caustic tale of how the abuse of power was an absorbing and dangerous enterprise tightly wound around fragile characters in a vivid and terrifying world. Doom, on the other hand, had an ex-professional wrestler as its dramatic lead.

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Whilst it is fairly remiss to compare these two films, one being from a narrative background, the other from a ‘if it moves, shoot it’ background, it does highlight the levels at which producers are aiming their creations at.

Videogames represent such a broad spectrum of genres and styles, possibly broader than the world of comics and graphic novels, so it would not be uncommon to imagine a wide variety of films being made inspired by the medium. This is, however, not the case. Other than all being utterly awful, videogame films have one thing in common – action. Shooting guns, racing cars, walking slowly away from explosions without looking back at them, the list goes on.

Action is the key aspect of any videogame film which brings to question – how do they pick a game to make a film of? Obviously sales and popularity are key in this decision, as jumping on the back of an already established fan-base is a way to guarantee bums on seats for the early screenings. But looking at a list of top grossing videogame films it’s clear that one genre is favoured over the others. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Resident Evil: Afterlife, Silent Hill, Max Payne – all in the top ten, all based on third-person action games.

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Perhaps it’s due to many of these games having been inspired by films in the first place, or that the nature of the camera in third-person games creates an instantly recognizable protagonist; the decision to focus on this genre has severely hamstrung film directors. By mainly focussing on games with a strict narrative path, filmmakers are limited to the story already set out by the game developers. Unfortunately, these stories are never usually that good, and serve as means to an end for the action.

Much has been touted about film adaptations of Metal Gear Solid and Heavy Rain; but with the tightly wound plots of both titles being the driving point of the games, a film writer’s hand would be forced too often in one direction to make a worthwhile script. This leaves producers with the worrying option to write their own narratives using only the aesthetics of the games as inspiration; you only need watch the first half of Silent Hill to realise this is an horrendous idea.

As I have already touched on, expanding on already existing IP can be an extremely lucrative exercise; it can also be a guaranteed way to destroy any chance of producing a film that can be enjoyed by anyone other than the fanatics. Hardcore gamers can be a scary bunch, and one way to anger them is to change any one facet of their beloved games no matter how seemingly insignificant.

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If games are ever going to successfully make the transition to the silver screen studios are going to have to re-evaluate how best to approach the development cycle. Sam Raimi did such a good job with the Spiderman franchise because he was such a huge Spiderman fan when he was a boy. Same goes for Peter Jackson and the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Zack Snyder with both 300 and Watchmen. It wasn’t just money that motivated these men to produce these films, but a deep seeded love of the original text and a longing to create something wonderful from something they hold so dear. Can Uwe Boll honestly say the same from his body of ’work’?

In addition to this a new approach to source material selection might also improve the chances of box office success. Instead of looking at games that have a solid structure and defined characters, perhaps a title which offers more scope for deviation would yield a better result. I imagine there would be uproar and outcry at the production of a Shadow of the Colossus film but artistically it would make perfect sense. The freeform action, loose narrative and reliance on tone and theme as opposed to script and events creates an almost blank canvas for any director brave enough to take the project on.

I am not suggesting we all run out and make a film about Tetris, but it must seem like a more reasonable exploit to create an original script for a game with less exposition than say, Heavy Rain or L.A. Noire. Technology has advanced so far that narratives can be fully explored with the confines of a game and the need to bring the characters to life with actors is a thing of the past, just ask Bob ‘Mario Mario’ Hoskins.

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Directors must be bold and stamp their own mark on the films they produce. To do this a videogame film cannot just be a script, a director and a cursory target budget; it must be a labour of love. Whilst it is true that Hollywood has the power to create some incredible cinema, it also has the power to devour risky creativity in the search for ticket receipts. Some of the best films based on games have been found on the web; made by fans who haven’t honed their craft as well as professional film makers but understand the source material much more than any ivory tower executive.

So, is there any hope for videogame films? In researching this article I re-watched Super Mario Bros. and the first Mortal Kombat movie so I’m feeling very negatively about the whole affair. With time I imagine new directors will approach the enterprise with fresh perspectives and a greater sense of purpose. Videogames have a hugely nostalgic appeal and I imagine it is this fact alone that has seen so many of them get made. This is a very financially minded way to approach cinema however, and I doubt it will be before long that we see a new batch of films based on games being released. Besides, if Michael Bay can make a successful trilogy of films based around plastic toys from the eighties, then surely someone can create a decent film about the exploits of Master Chief.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in January 2011. Get in touch on Twitter @RichJimMurph.

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