Video Games vs. Feature Films: Why Adaptations Usually Fail
While video games include cinematic storytelling, we have to wonder why they rarely translate into good movies. It seems to come down to delivery.
If you Google 2019 films, you’ll see that, notably, many films are adaptations. From Stephen King’s novel Pet Sematary to Marvel’s comic saga The Infinity Gauntlet. Or, even the manga Battle Angel Alita or Fighting with My Family, based on the 2012 documentary The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family.
However there aren’t many adaptations of video games. Currently, there are three for 2019: Detective Pikachu, Angry Birds 2, and Sonic. Although, since I started writing this article, Sonic has been pushed back to 2020 because of the collective adverse reaction to his redesign from the games (an element I cover further on). So, that brings us down to just two video game adaptations this year. That’s being kind, however. To say Angry Birds or Sonic are remotely based on the complex narratives of their original video games would be quite the stretch.
Even then, Detective Pikachu (a faithful adaptation of the spin-off Pokémon game also titled Detective Pikachu) only has a 53 percent Metacritic score. Its current box-office draw is a number any Marvel adaptation would laugh at. However, the film has performed favorably among fans and with its current critic score and box-office take combined, Detective Pikachu is rated as the best live adaptation of a video game to date. With the plethora of video games regarded as cinematic art, we have to ask Why don’t video games translate into good movies? It’s a question that doesn’t have a single answer; rather, there are many reasons video game adaptations don’t deliver.
Games as a Feeling
Many video game journalists believe the reason why video game adaptations fall short is that a film is a passive medium, and a game is not. You sit down, relax, and let the filmmaker tell the story the way they created it. Video games, on the other hand, are an active medium. And although a writer still scripts the story, you often get to choose how that story unfolds, at a pace of your choosing.
This creates a different intensity of connection to the story. When we think back to an adrenaline-filled moment in a film, the experience was the result of how the story was crafted. However, when we think back to exciting moments in games, they’re not the result of cinematics or award-winning acting (although, that is now very prevalent in gaming). Rather, the experience has to do with the player controlling the scene to overcome the odds, not the character. Whether linear design or open world, the player is the one who makes the moments happen.
Take the following sequence from 2015’s Uncharted 4.
In the sequence, the player must navigate the narrow streets of a fictional Madagascan town while avoiding enemy militia firing at them from the street corners — later, an armored tank will pursue the player. The AI citizens leap away from your vehicle as you smash through their grocery stands, and your companion, Sully, yells at you to watch out for oncoming traffic. Then, the armored vehicle stops in front of you, which will prompt you to either quickly turn left down a set of public stairs, or take a right through someone’s garden. You have seconds to choose, with no real knowledge of whether your route leads to a blocked exit or frees you from the enemy.
An upload of the same (but edited) sequence has over 5,000,000 views and is rightly titled “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End – Best Chase In Gaming History.” (Based on the thousands of comments, many agree.) Through the visual destruction, dynamic sound design, and feedback from the controller’s vibration, these sequences elevate the storytelling control to a level films simply can’t offer.
In the 2005 adaptation of Doom, at one point in the film, we watch a first-person sequence that mirrors the gameplay from the game series. Visually, it’s impressive, and technically, it’s genius. But to watch? It’s tedious, and it lacks tension. When you play a first-person shooter, the fun comes from knocking down the enemy with precision shots, using as little ammunition as possible, and beating the high score. However, as visually embellished as the sequence may be, as a passive audience member, the thrill isn’t the same. You’re left thinking, “I could do this better” — just like readers who say, “The book is better.” Gamers may never be satisfied with an adaptation because of the lack of governable experiences.
The Little Moments — Far Away
We often hear stories about a director’s favorite part of the film that had to be cut, or why a leading actor was seemingly shafted into a supporting cast member after a ruthless edit. The reason? The scene was unnecessary, and without it, the film became tighter. However, in video games, the moments that trail on for too long — or become what we would consider boring in a movie — can sometimes be the best parts of the game.
In Rockstar’s 2010 mega-hit Red Dead Redemption, after completing several missions roughly one quarter into the game, you can finally head south and explore Mexico. It’s an area you hear a lot about, but unfortunately, you can’t explore it due to a natural disaster. Then, after one mission, the area unlocks. Players, as bandit-turned-family man John Marston, saddle up and ride across the southern border. Then, the sound of your horse slowly fades, and you hear an acoustic melody by artist José González.
As one of the commenters on the YouTube video above says, “[This is] one of the most unforgettable moments in gaming.” In retrospect, while that moment in a video game becomes a godlike moment, forever cemented in gaming history, how would that translate into a movie? Would it even be possible to adapt it for film? I’m not too sure how viewers would feel about paying $15 to watch Tom Cruise ride a motorbike for five minutes. These are the moments that make you feel. With control over the camera movement, the player also becomes the filmmaker, and in turn, creates the moment as they see fit.
These small moments are often completely missable, which makes them more enchanting experiences when you come across them. You’re not just viewing or hearing what a character from a film is going through — you’re living it. And it’s these little moments that make a game unforgettable, and they seem completely unadaptable to film.
Lack of Outside Interest
Escaping the superhero phenomenon is no easy task. From Superman gym-wear to an Iron Man-inspired car design, it’s hard to find something Marvel or DC hasn’t influenced. That’s why it surprises regular cinema-goers to hear how many comic books (of a particular character or team) readers buy each month.
For example, in April, the Goliath conclusion to Marvel’s Infinity [Film] Saga Avengers: End Game finally released and broke almost every box office record. One would expect the comic book sales to follow suit, right? Well, in April, the comic book Avengers #19 only sold 55,244 copies, and the newly released series Thanos sold 81,356 copies of its debut issue. There are two crucial factors to note:
- A debut issue will often sell more copies due to the excitement around a new series — and because an issue #1 will be worth more in the future (especially if a character features prominently in a movie).
- These numbers only account for physical sales within North America. So, you can expect the actual amount to be higher when considering digital and foreign sales.
But still, one would expect the numbers for the Avengers comic to be higher when the Avengers film itself is selling millions of tickets. Conversely, if a comic only sells 50,000-100,000 copies a month, and leads a film franchise that regularly brings in a billion dollars per film, you could expect a video game that sells into the millions to easily earn quadruple. But, for example, despite the Assassin’s Creed franchise selling over 100 million copies, as of September 2016, the film ended up losing $75–100 million at the box office.
We could attribute this to the poor critical performance of video game adaptations scaring fans away from the box office. But with growing skepticism of review outlets and aggregate sites, even when a comic book film scores low among critics, it still reels in the box office numbers (see Venom).
However, we must make a distinction between the audiences who follow comic book characters and those who follow video game franchises. It would be easy to lump the two into the same group. You don’t have to read even a single Batman comic to love Batman. You could have developed a connection with the character through his animated series. Alternatively, Batman could be your favorite Superhero because of the Adam West TV series. As such, the comic book icon isn’t solely anchored to its original medium. Even among comics themselves, every so often, a publisher will initiate a line-wide reboot, and suddenly the Batman of 1995 ceases to exist in current canonical publication. Therefore, you may sometimes hear people say they prefer Scott Snyder‘s Batman or Frank Miller‘s Batman; both versions of the same character have vastly different attributes and traits.
Video game characters, for the most part, are only tied to their native medium. There’s only one version of Nathan Drake; there’s only one Ezio; there’s only one Joel. It adds insult to injury when reviews surface that the latest adaptation is unfaithful and the film doesn’t live up to the gamers’ expectations. But, it would be foolish to assume that video game films are primarily made for video game audiences — Marvel will rebuke that for you — but you have to acknowledge that at least 2/3rds of the general public have no interest in games. Let alone a film based on a game.
Is my 68-year-old father going to be excited about the next Batman film? Sure. It’s Batman. Is he going to be excited about the Halo adaptation? He has no idea what Halo is; therefore, the film itself is going to have to reel him in, and video game films can’t seem to do that at this moment in time.
Filmmakers Change the Core Element of the Video Game
Sometimes a filmmaker proposes a change to the adaptation, and on cue, the difference gets an extreme reaction from the gaming community. For example, the continuously-in-development Uncharted film was once to be helmed by director David O’Russel, and he proposed that the film would involve “a crime family that metes out justice in the world of art and antiquities . . . They’re like the Sopranos in some ways, but they have great taste, and they have a sense of justice.” To some extent, you have to sit back and think, Well, look — how do you take a 7-9 hour game and make it into a ninety-minute movie? Surely, a five-time Academy Award Nominee can figure out how to do it.
Conversely, what does O’Russel’s pitch have to do with the Uncharted series? The only connection is the title, which seems to be a running theme among video game adaptations. The story in the film is wholly unique and bears little resemblance to the multi-million dollar franchise the film promised to adapt.
The Assassin’s Creed video game franchise is known for its detailed and respectful journey into history, allowing you to play as a character from a specific age, while traversing a city that’s historically accurate in its recreation. It’s a historical epic with a twist. Although the game pits you against the 15th-century order of Templars, and the primary setting is Renaissance Italy (for the first few games), you’re only playing as an avatar of the ancestry lineage of the main character, Desmond, who is currently accessing these memories in the present day. (Think The Matrix meets Back to The Future.)
However, the present-day element of the game is arguably the most mundane part, and rightly so. You spend very little time in the present day, so much so that the developers did away with Desmond’s storyline as soon as they could. Typically, most Assassin’s Creed games have you play as the character from the historical setting for 95 percent of the game. So, what does the film do? It sets 65 percent of the narrative during the present day and 35 percent in the past.
It seems absurd for studios to take a well-loved franchise and remove its most prominent selling elements — only to replace them with something else. But that’s what happens with video game films. Of course, as I’ve repeatedly said here, filmmakers have to take hours of storytelling and condense them into a single movie. Perhaps this is why interactive storytelling doesn’t translate well into a film — it needs those hours to breathe.
Are Video Games Unadaptable Due to Their Length?
As summer blockbusters become longer and longer, we frequently see the following: “If the film was twenty minutes shorter, it would have been perfect.” Video games face a similar criticism, but on the opposite end of the spectrum — they can be too short. Many game developers push for a stronger online multiplayer experience, which will increase the overall playtime for the user, enabling additional monetization of online content. As a result, the single-player storyline is more of an add-on, rather than the central focus. Star Wars Battlefront 2, for example, had a single-player campaign of just five-to-six hours; ten to fifteen years ago, however, multiplayer gameplay was the bonus.
As a result, it’s become a rarity (and a welcome surprise) when the latest game comes out and you invest hours upon hours in completing your mission, and those hours reward you with rich storytelling and character development. It is, then, not without reason that these games, with immersive and compelling storytelling, become the games that take a seat in the hall of video game greats.
However, how does one turn Mass Effect’s 43-hour runtime into a single film? The complex sci-fi saga promotes complex narratives, where the player’s decision-making will directly alter the course of the game. Is it even possible to take just one of those narrative threads and adapt it into a film, while still capturing the essence of the game?
If we look at 2016’s Warcraft, the answer is likely a brief no. Warcraft is an adaptation of the longstanding MMO Warcraft (later known as World of Warcraft), and despite having millions of players online, it lost $40-to-$60 million at the box office and holds a 29 percent critic consensus. While rewarded for faithfulness to character design, geography, and references, it was criticized for being too focused on cramming years of lore into a plot with little character development.
Writing for the Independent, Jack Sheppard says the following:
It becomes almost impossible to keep up, not helped by the lack of individual character development. A quick example, concerning our lead human protagonist, Anduin. Both his relationship with his plot-device son and with Garona are rushed, underdeveloped, lacking nearly all emotional oomph (his apparent longstanding friendship with Medivh is non-existent) . . . After two brilliant films (Moon, Source Code), it feels like the fanboy within Duncan Jones got carried away with Azeroth’s minute mythology, leading to a film filled with tonnes of references to the wider world but no real soul of its own.
Ironically, when discussing the issue of filmmakers completely removing core elements of the adaptation, Jones remained true to the material, yet the project falls victim to time constraints. For Gamesradar, Kevin Harley says the following:
Some shock deaths show narrative daring, but it’s hard to get that involved when the two-hour runtime is too crammed to let in emotional air. Lacking the longer-form luxuries of Game of Thrones, Warcraft occasionally manages to feel both rushed and dull, impressively staged and disengaged.
Ultimately, I think this is always going to be a problem when working from a game that has tens, sometimes hundreds, of hours of material. Many games want to keep you invested for as long as possible, and in doing so, they provide more than enough content to keep you entertained for hours. But sometimes cutting these short side quests and narrative threads in order to compress it all into a standard cinema release kills the spirit of the game. How do you make a 90-minute movie from a game, when 90 minutes in Red Dead Redemption 2 is just the tutorial sequence?
As a passionate gamer, I often wonder why some of us have this insatiable need to see our favorite games adapted to the big screen, when quite literally, we haven’t seen a single successful adaptation. Not to mention, many studios push for cinematic gameplay, and most pre-rendered cut-scenes rival the big CGI sequences from the most expensive films. Don’t we already have the best version of the story?
I’ll leave you with this sequence from the Irrational Games 2013 megahit BioShock Infinite. It’s a video clip of a moment that only happens if you veer away from the designated path and head into the basement of a jazz bar. The character you play, Booker, picks up a guitar and starts to play a melody. Your companion, Elizabeth, starts to sing. Suddenly (and subtly), a young homeless boy crawls from underneath the stairs to see what’s going on. It’s not part of the story. You could play this game ten times and miss it every time. And that’s the beauty of these moments, you feel as if you made this moment happen by acting off-script. A film can’t make you feel like that.
Cover image via Ubisoft.
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