Why are video game movies always terrible?
It's a simple question that many people have asked, but no one seems to be able to definitively answer. Beginning with 1993's mind-boggling disasterpiece Super Mario Bros., video game movies--especially live action ones--have almost uniformly been what scientists describe as "just astoundingly bad." Sure, some are halfway decent and others are reliable guilty pleasures, but why is that the bar for success? Why aren't video game movies able to make the leap from plastic case to silver screen like their comic book counterparts do so well?
Video game movies are the next big thing. At least, they're the next big thing if you ask people who work in acquisitions and development at major Hollywood studios. According to a Den of Geek article, there are approximately 61 video game movies currently in development. This includes a Call of Duty cinematic universe, Five Nights at Freddy's, Fruit Ninja, The Last of Us, Uncharted, Metal Gear Solid, a Tomb Raider reboot, and a trilogy of films about Tetris. How the hell you can make one film about Tetris, let alone three, is a question that will haunt me to my grave.
This number is particularly jarring when compared to the repeated shortcomings of many video games both critically and at the box office. Hollywood is hellbent on finding that next big thing; they always have been and always will be. Everyone and their mother used to make Westerns until they went out of fashion in the late '70s/early '80s, then Star Wars and Alien came out and filmmakers looked to space for their next big payday. In the '90s, we had more Steven Seagal than any of us knew what to do with, except for the world's bulletproof kimono retailers. Nowadays we've got comic book movies as far as the eye can see. How many, you ask? So many that we've depleted the world's supply of handsome white dudes named Chris to slake our unquenchable thirst.
Once Hollywood sees something as successful, it wants to milk it for all that it's worth, and the next udder they've got their eyes on belongs to video games, which by all accounts are a serious cash cow. The problem is that this particular cow, to date, hasn't yielded a film that has scored more than 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. The highest-scoring video game movie on Metacritic is 1995's Mortal Kombat, a DVD that I forced family to buy four years later because at 11 years old I was clearly an arbiter of good taste. In spite of all that, these films do make money on occasion. For example, the Resident Evil franchise grossed over $1.2 billion worldwide over the course of six films. Since Hollywood is an inherently risk-averse industry, it will always follow the money, desperately clinging to popular and well-known intellectual property like a remora to the bottom of a shark.
If you try to think like a studio executive, the gamble makes sense. On paper, a Metal Gear Solid film, The Last of Us film, or a Mass Effect movie sounds like a brilliant idea. They're all incredibly addictive video games that sold millions of copies, have a massive international fan base, and are renowned for their superior storytelling. These are all ingredients that would make for a potentially successfully and profitable movie franchise. However the problem in turning these games in to movies is that Hollywood has a fundamental misunderstanding of why games are fun.
Video games are fun because, like movies, they offer an escape from the humdrum reality of everyday life. They immerse the player in far-off fantasy realms, new galaxies, and in 9-to-5 jobs where they slave away before going home to raise a family before eventually killing them off one by one in a room full of bookcases and fireplaces and wait maybe that was just how I played The Sims... but you catch my drift. They let us do impossible things, like travel down sewer pipes to rescue princesses, scale snowcapped mountains to fight gargantuan dragons, and throw pornographic magazines to distract genetically modified super soldiers. (Why are you like this, Metal Gear?) The keyword in all of this is "us." As the player, we are in control, we are driving the action. There's a certain sense of agency involved in playing video games that does not translate to the intrinsically passive experience of sitting and watching a movie.
Image: Paramount Pictures
For example, Angelina Jolie's Tomb Raider films were fun, action-packed larks, but they felt hollow, capturing neither the Indiana Jones-like joy of the games or the experience of being the character. You weren't the one raiding tombs; you were the one paying an exorbitant amount for popcorn to watch someone else do it. The Assassin's Creed movie, too, seemed like it understood the appeal of the source material, but as it turns out, watching Michael Fassbender stumble around a sterile Abstergo facility is even less enjoyable than playing those levels in the games. The best part of Assassin's Creed is exploring the past in living, breathing color and using cool parkour moves to pull off the impossible. It isn't Jeremy Irons sneering his way to a paycheck.
Back in 2005, the late, great Roger Ebert sent gamers into a tizzy when he declared that video games are not art. "Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control," wrote Ebert to the chagrin of many. While I don't agree with Ebert's assessment of video games' capacity to be art, I do believe that the medium comes with a vastly different set of rules and restrictions as compared to film. He is correct that that films need "authorial control" to succeed; without a director steering the ship, the film will scuttle itself on the rocky shores of creativity. While games also have creative directors fulfilling a similar role, the onus of actual control is placed on the player rather than the developer in its end state.
In 2010, Ebert expanded on this idea, declaring that "no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists, and poets." (Yes, he mentioned poets twice for some reason.) Now, this statement might rankle some of you, but he isn't saying it to invalidate the medium. Rather, he is saying it to highlight a problem with trying to force video games to fit within the constraints of another medium to which they are ill-suited.
The biggest problem with video game movies can be summarized by Roger Ebert's delightfully vicious one-star review of Doom (2005):
"The movie has been inspired by the famous video game. No, I haven't played it, and I never will, but I know how it feels not to play it. Because I've seen the movie. Doom is like some kid came over and is using your computer and won't let you play."
While Doom is an especially dire case, Ebert's point can be applied to video game movies as a whole. As they stand now, they do feel like you're stuck watching some other kid play through all the good parts, forcing you to watch the cut scenes and promising to give you a turn after a few more deaths.
Some might point to the rise of livestreaming platforms like Twitch or YouTube "Let's Play" videos as evidence that audiences don't mind watching others play games, but that is something of a false equivalency. In these instances, audiences care less about what is being played than who is actually playing it. They're watching these videos to create the virtual equivalent of hanging out with a friend in the living room, playing games, and what's happening with other friends in real life.
Many video games are anchored by strong, charismatic protagonists that keep players coming back year after year to continue their adventures. Uncharted has the puckish rogue that is Nathan Drake, The Last of Us has the post-apocalyptic father-daughter dynamic of Joel and Ellie, and Mass Effect has Commander Shepard, whose sole mission is to smooch everyone in the galaxy or die trying--at least that's how I role-played Shepard. Teams of writers labored for months on end and sometimes for years to make these characters not only fun to watch, but ones you'd want to control and whose destinies you'd want to shape.
Cut scenes work in video games because they feel like the end result of your actions. What happens when you divorce them from this feeling of control and just leave players with a narrative they're made to watch? You get Metal Gear Solid. Just kidding--those games have kickass gameplay to back up their feature-length La-Li-Lu-Le-Lo nonsense. What you actually get is a non-interactive movie where none of the stakes feel as though they have any weight because they are unearned.
This is to say nothing of the large swath of video games that don't even have these outsized personalities around which to build themselves. Some of the greatest video games of all time, ones renowned for their storytelling, star largely silent protagonists as a means of helping players project themselves into the role of the main character. Games like Half-Life, Portal, and The Legend of Zelda didn't need their main characters to speak in order to immerse players in their wild worlds. Remember The Legend of Zelda animated series? Yeah, there's a great reason that Link never opens his yap other than to say, "HAAAGHP!"
Of course, we're not trying to claim that video game movies can't work, but perhaps the problem lies within the medium of film. Look at the average length of a game; even some of the shorter AAA releases clock in at a respectable 10 to 20 hours of gameplay. At $60 a pop, you want to feel like you're getting your money's worth for a video game. That is already the length of five to 10 feature films... or at least two-and-a-half Transformers movies. Perhaps video games simply shouldn't be movies. Period. Based on the decades of empirical evidence and the scores of unwanted DVDs filling up gas station bargain bins, perhaps video games are better suited to the medium of television, where their sprawling narratives can have room to breathe and meaningfully expand upon the lore put forth by the original rather than giving us a microwaved rehash of what we've already played.
A Mass Effect TV series, for example, could do for modern sci-fi what Battlestar Galactica did for the genre in the mid-2000s. The Last of Us could really mine the drama and encapsulate the relationship-building between Joel and Ellie that they intended players to have over the course of dozens of hours rather than trying to distill it into two hours and change. After all, we're supposedly living in the golden age of television, so why not capitalize on that by turning these mega-popular franchises into the next Game of Thrones?
But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe now with a decade of Marvel movies showing the right way to build a cinematic universe based on long-standing IP with legions of dedicated fans, a video game franchise can transcend the genre and do the same thing. Maybe all it takes are three Tetris movies to prove once and for all that video games are art and that video game movies should be winning Oscars. Or maybe not. One way or another, we're going to find out whether some achievements were truly meant to be unlocked.
What do you think? Are video game movies doomed to fail? What do they need to do to succeed? What would actually make a good video game movie anyway? Let me know in the comments below.
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