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Film Adaptations of Story-driven Video Games Undermine the Medium

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Despite the tainted history of film adaptations of video games, there is movement yet again to capitalize on the rising popularity of games through film. Talk of adaptations of Metal Gear, Uncharted, The Last of Us and a lot of other games have been in the news as of late. But, is that really needed? And does it even make any sense in the case of story-driven games?

Let’s face it, a lot of video games don’t exactly have the best storylines; on paper as a single narrative, some sound just awful. But, even in games with flawed stories, you, the player, might form a meaningful relationship with aspects of the game, based on the virtue of being in control and participating in a narrative-driven experience; a narrative that doesn’t move forward without your participation. At times, gameplay aspects take precedence over a narrative, yet you still might end up caring about the narrative as it thrives on how well and/or how long the game is played for. In a way, the gameplay itself becomes a crucial part of the narrative, with varying levels depending on the style of game.

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Think about it. A video game series like Naughty Dog’s Uncharted (or The Last of Us) is known for its big set pieces and how you as the player are able to interact with a virtual but living movie in real time. The experience being active rather than passive makes it something film simply isn’t. This remains true even if your interaction is limited to lame quick-time events. You care for the narrative and the characters within it for reasons that are different than watching a movie. The idea of an Uncharted movie, just like many game-into-movie projects of the past, appears to be this weird idea that once something is done in film, it has become a higher form of art. Like it has gained a seal of approval. The issue here isn’t what I or you think of the quality of a game (e.g. I’m not a fan of Naughty Dog’s games’ stories), but to question a trend that undermines video games as thoughtful art that can stand by itself.

The medium of games is a mixed artform, but it’s uniquely its own category. Video games have come a long way and are now seen as a form of common consumer media that stands on its own, similar to music, books, physical games and film itself. Yet, there always seems to be a great amount of fanfare and importance given to the prospect of adapting narrative-based video games to film, whether it’s for social reasons i.e. rubbing shoulders with celebrities who’re perceived by some to be a higher class of people, or producers, studios, game companies etc. not understanding what they have on their hands and why it happens to be as successful as it is. Not only successful, but also why it resonates well with players. Some of this reminds me of when movies are based on books: for example, the time I saw a book cover for Victor Hugo’s classic, Les Misérables, that was simply a poster for the 2012 film adaptation of the musical adaptation of the original novel. Of course, the cover also pointed out that this book is now a major motion picture (despite the degrees of separation), as if that is the height of its achievement. We all know the original book has been relegated to a billboard to advertisement a movie that does not represent the novel.

Creatively, from what I can tell, one of the biggest reasons why some video game films seem off with their stories is a misunderstanding of why and how video games work. All the elements I mentioned that go into creating a game that people care about– those mostly can’t work if you take out the interactivity. It might have made some money, but it is safe to say that the live-action Resident Evil movies have put a big dent in that series’ critical reputation. Assassin’s Creed, Prince of Persia, Doom, Tekken, Alone in the Dark, Far Cry, Need for Speed and a lot more have had film adaptations released that people who play games might not even remember today off the top of their heads, but those who only watch films might remember them but not so fondly. Then, you have something infamous like the Super Mario Bros. movie, which has no reason to be a direct adaptation aside from the use of the name of the most popular video game franchise i.e. cash. Being as this was the first movie made based on a video game property, it’s incredible that nothing of value seems to have been learned from its critical and commercial failure. These movies might have failed for many different reasons but one thing is common: even at their worst, they are appreciated as video games more than they are as films, as no party involved seems to care to understand why they worked as video games.

The issue here isn’t film vs. video games; that would be downright moronic, and the issue here isn’t whether one medium can be used as inspiration in the making of another, either. Sure, you can make a movie based on whatever you want. The real issue comes down to this: if video game movies tend to not do well either critically or financially (or both), why bother with this charade at all? The gaming industry makes billions of dollars from game sales alone, at times more money that the film industry. If the films are not well-received or cared for, they only serve to hurt the image of video games, so why devalue the existence of video games as their own medium by trying so hard to make film adaptations, making it seem like a film adaptation is the highest form of achievement?

In a way, it is insulting to the hundreds and thousands who work and invest themselves into the creation of every single aspect of video games, and those who play them. This practice tells them that their efforts and experiences need to be legitimized in a different medium to be truly appreciated– as if film is the one and only true art for the world. In truth, at the end of the day, all it serves is a means of making quick cash– to hell with quality or merit. There’s nothing evil or sinister about that; it’s just an unfortunate blow to the integrity of an otherwise booming medium.

Immensely fascinated by the arts and interactive media, Maxwell N's views and opinions are backed by a vast knowledge of and passion for film, music, literature and video game history. His other endeavors and hobbies include fiction writing, creating experimental soundscapes, and photography. A Los Angeles, CA local, he currently lives with his wife and two pet potatoes/parrots in Austin, TX. He can mostly be found hanging around Twitter as @maxn_

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Ricky D

    June 20, 2017 at 2:11 pm

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with movie adaptations of video games. The problem is, nobody has done it right so far. It could be a great way to tell a story with familiar characters and settings and flesh out the world instead of say, trying to remake a game scene by scene. I’m not expecting much from the Uncharted film but I do think making it a prequel is the first step in the right direction. It can be a great way to show Nathan Drake’s life as a young adult. In fact, my favorite parts of Uncharted 4 were the flashbacks to him as a kid. One day they will get it right.

    • Maxwell N

      June 21, 2017 at 4:00 am

      Actually, in spite of my own personal preferences, I don’t disagree with that. My point is that I have seen, time and time again, a sort of need displayed by companies to use movies as a way to legitimize that video games can be “real art”. I think that just does a disservice to both film-making and gaming.

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Most Important Games of the Decade: ‘Dark Souls’

Despite the difficulty and learning curve, gamers are still flocking to the Dark Souls series, and the genre it spawned, in massive numbers.

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Dark Souls Remastered Review Nintendo Switch

Over the course of the last decade a lot of games have made large and influential impacts on the medium of gaming but few have done so as significantly or triumphantly as Dark Souls

The pseudo-sequel to Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls took the framework of the original title and altered it considerably. Gone were the many individual stages and hub area, replaced by a massive open world that continuously unfolded, via shortcuts and environmental changes, like a massive metroidvania style map. 

Dark Souls also doubled down on nearly every aspect of the original. The lore and world-building were elaborated on considerably, making the land of Lordran feel more lived in and expansive. An entire backstory for the game, one that went back thousands of years, was created and unfolded through small environmental details and item descriptions. 

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The bosses were bigger, meaner and more challenging, with some of them ranking right up there with the best of all time. Even standard enemies seemed to grow more deadly as the game went on, with many of them actually being bosses you’d faced at an earlier time in the game. Tiny details like this didn’t just make the player feel more powerful, they added to the outright scale of the entire game.

Still, if we’re here to talk about the biggest influence Dark Souls had on the gaming world, we have to talk about the online system. While the abilities to write messages and summon help were available in Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls improved on and enhanced these features to the point where they changed the game considerably. 

The wider player base made the online components work more consistently as well. Rarely were players left standing around for 15-20 minutes waiting to summon or be summoned for a boss fight. There were more messages on the ground to lead (or mislead) players, and the animated spirits of dead players warned of the hundreds of ways you might die while playing through the game. 

Dark Souls

The addictive nature of the game and its rewarding gameplay loop would lead to the establishment of the Souls-like genre. Like with metroidvania, there are few compliments a game can receive that are as rewarding as having an entire genre named for them.

Since 2011, the year of Dark Souls’ release, dozens of Souls-likes have emerged from the ether, each with their own little tweaks on the formula. Salt and Sanctuary went 2D,The Surge added a sci-fi angle, and Nioh went for a feudal Japanese aesthetic, to name just a few. 

Either way, Dark Souls’ influence has been long felt in the gaming industry ever since. Despite the hardcore difficulty and intense learning curve, gamers are still flocking to the series, and the genre it spawned, in massive numbers. For this reason alone, Dark Souls will live on forever in the annals of gaming history. 

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

Earthnight is an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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