Gaming Steve

January 11, 2008

You (Not Uwe) Oughta Be In Pictures – When Will The "Video Game Movie" Be Taken Seriously?

Citizen Freeman?

How is it that creating a successful movie from gaming-related source material has proven to be more difficult than mapping the human genome?

I’ve been thinking quite a lot recently – perhaps more than a sane man should – about the upcoming release of Uwe Boll’s newest gaming-themed project, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. Not so much about the movie itself – I’m pretty sure anything that involves the casting of Burt Reynolds as royalty has the makings of a spectacular crash-and-burn. What’s really on my mind is the overall history of movies based on gaming properties: for the most part, they’ve taken a beating from critics and at the box office, and it’s reached the point where the so-called “conventional wisdom” says (cue the invisible booming voice from on high) “YOU CAN’T MAKE A GOOD MOVIE OUT OF A VIDEO GAME!".

Sorry, but I’m just not buying it. I’m willing to concede that history hasn’t been on the side of the gaming movie ever since Oscar so cruelly snubbed Bob Hoskins for Super Mario Bros. almost 15 years ago. And Uwe Boll in particular seems to have a death-wish for the gaming movie, shooting the reputation of the genre in the foot with every release. All of that said, when it comes to the overall state of affairs, if anything, conditions have never been better for creating the Citizen Freeman many of us are waiting for.

Certainly, the technological distinctions are melting away as CGI becomes a bigger factor in movie-making. Yes, when it comes to raw eye-candy, Pixar’s GPUs can take our PCs and consoles out behind the woodshed for a whupping. But that’s a difference of magnitude -- boil away the advantage in visual spectacle and the action unfolding on the silver screen is moving closer to what we’ve been playing, not further away.

As I watched Voldemort and Dumbledore throw down in Harry Potter: Order of the Phoenix, a little voice in my brain was muttering “boss battle” and waiting for the inevitable button sequence to flash. Sentinels attacking Zion in the final Matrix movie … a really well choreographed Zerg rush. Except for the Frank Miller art direction, 300 could’ve been an expansion pack for Rome: Total War. Darth Maul? Not only a corpse-camper, but I’m pretty sure that double-bladed light saber was twinked gear.

Another argument I hear from time to time is that the source material in video games is too shallow to support a full-length movie, but I think that’s condemning the genre for past sins instead of looking forward. OK, when Street Fighter was put together, the “script” was probably written on the back of a bar napkin and handed over to the infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters to be fleshed out. But that was then, this is now, and gaming has reached a point where it’s equally capable of creating compelling stories and engaging characters. For those searching for a litmus test, I’d ask: would you rather be stuck in a room with Jar-Jar Binks or HK-47?

If there is one thing that truly does need to change, it’s how these movies get made in the first place.

It starts with the studios snapping up video-game properties for, creatively-speaking, the wrong reasons: the game had good sales volume, the rights were fairly cheap, Angelina Jolie will look good in a tank-top and shorts. I’m not saying those things don’t matter at all, but somewhere in that process, somebody needs to kick the tires on the storytelling aspect of the game before they pull the trigger. They need to ask the fundamental question: “What about this game would be interesting to the general public?”, and if they can’t answer it adequately, keep on walking.

That said, the game companies themselves aren’t blameless. Face it – a gaming company makes games; most of them (other than maybe LucasArts) don’t see a movie adaptation as part of their core business, so many of these projects are tossed blindly over the wall for a quick cash infusion and some free publicity, good or bad. At some point, if game companies truly want things to change, they need to look in the mirror and be more protective of their properties – if you want your game to become a good movie, you’re going to want to hold out for some creative input, not just another zero on the check. (And if the signature on that check is Uwe Boll’s, tear it up and run screaming from the room.)

Lastly, there needs to be true passion for the material once it gets the green-light. Surround the project with people who actually want to be there, not just people looking to add another line to their IMDB entry. Dare to think big – step beyond the confines of just “bringing the game to the screen” and dare to make a movie, not just a 100-minute regurgitation of the game. Think about the recent success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy – it’s not just a success story of CGI or box office, but of a guy who clearly loved his material, surrounded himself with other like-minded people, and dared to make his vision happen. Granted, it’s probably harder to generate that same level of enthusiasm for Nintendogs: The Movie, but the underlying need to believe is still key. Professionalism can get you so far, can probably even upgrade “bad” to “mediocre”, but passion is what drives excellence.

The good news is that ultimately, it has to change for the better. We might luck out in the short-term and see some perfect storm of good decision-making, or more likely it’ll come to pass over time as game and film continue to converge and gamers infiltrate the Hollywood apparatus. The raw materials are there, and if the right people unleash them, who knows what could happen? Maybe that game you’re playing today becomes the movie everyone’s talking about on Oscar night some year down the road.

Am I living in a fantasy land? Maybe so. But at least it’s one where the king doesn’t wear a cowboy hat and drive a black Trans Am.

Posted by Jay McDonald at 9:30 AM | Comments (5) | Posted to Culture | Feature |  Add this story to  Stumble It!  Submit this story to Digg!

The problem is that they're picking the wrong games. I mean what the hell was up with Postal? Nobody played it and nobody wants to see a movie based on it.

I remember when they released the Silent Hill movie they tried as hard as possible to make sure nobody knew it was from a game. Here is a true account of a conversation I had with a friend of mine.

"You going to see that Silent Hill movie?" I ask.

"I may, it looks pretty good." she responds.

"It should be good, I mean the game they based it on was great." I say.

"I didn't know it was based on a game..." she says somewhat dully.

That small conversation is indicative of how people react when they find out a movie is based on a game. Movies based on games (Assuming that first they are based on decent source material) do better when people don't know that they were also a video game. It's like the kiss of death.

Posted by PatMan33 at January 11, 2008 1:29 PM

I think perhaps another issue is that a lot of the good game franchises out there are basically heavily inspired by movies in the first place, so sending the idea back to the big screen inevitably ends up being unfavourably similar to an existing classic.
I think horror games suffer from this most, since theres only so much you can do with zombies before it gets stale, but the parallels are everywhere.
I was actually glad when it was announced that plans for a Metroid movie were cancelled simply because I knew it would just look like a shoddy ripoff of alien in the hands of just about any producer or director. (The creator of Metroid even named a boss after the director of Alien for crying out loud!)

The bottom line is that games need to be chosen *carefully* before being made into movies, and their suitability and comparisons to already existing movies need to be carefully weighed up.

Posted by Krakow Sam at January 11, 2008 1:54 PM

I think by now that the problem is the source material that games provide just isn't good. Storytelling has advanced in video games, but it's still not the main attraction, and it's still vastly inferior to the storytelling of books and movies. Games are still defined by the experiences that you have with them, and not just the stories that they tell. When you take most characters and stories out of the context of a game, they are usually lame and/or derivative. The Hitman, Halo, and Half-Life series are perfect examples. Being the protagonist is what makes all of the difference in the world.

Posted by doctor_kaz at January 11, 2008 3:36 PM

And then perhaps it is also important to note that both forms of media are based on a different model.

Movies are meant to be watched, looking from the outside in.

Games are meant to be played, putting you into the action and giving you control over the action.

The stories would be fundamentally different and it is probably why neither can be translated into the other type of media very well.

Posted by PatMan33 at January 11, 2008 4:46 PM

I appreciate the comments, and I think you guys get at a good point insofar that gaming tends to pull stories from a smaller pool of the human experience. To dove-tail with a discussion from the forums, it'd be a tough sell for a video game that "plays" deeply dark or tragic events like 9/11, the Holocaust, or African genocide... you can make "United 93", "Hotel Rwanda", or "Schindler's List" as movies, but it's almost unthinkable to think anyone would want to participate in those experiences as a game.

I guess I'm thinking that the sweet spot here is something like "Gladiator", "Raiders of the Lost Ark", the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" (heck, that was based on an amusement park ride), or the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy as the ultimate success story to point to... it's not a stretch to imagine that one of those could've come out of a video game in some alternate universe. So I think the notion of video game movies winning Best Picture Oscars consistently would be stretching the point, but having an occasional BP nominee or some category winners bubble up here and there... I don't think that's ludicrous.

Posted by Pfellah at January 11, 2008 8:53 PM
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