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Film Adaptations of Story-driven Video Games Undermine the Medium



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.

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_