Jordan Jones on video game movies and why they always disappoint…
Hollywood doesn’t understand the rules of video games. Can we all agree on that?
Unless this changes, there may never be a truly “good” video game movie, and I fear that we will be forever steeped in “bad” (Super Mario Bros.) to “just okay” (Assassin’s Creed) adaptations of our favorite games. Gaming is a unique, self aware, and downright bizarre medium, and I believe that Hollywood needs to take that into account while making these films.If this doesn’t scream “Super Mario Bros.”, then I don’t know what does.
So, what do I mean by rules? To dig into that, I’ll start off by posing this question: In the original Resident Evil, why can’t Chris, or Jill just shoot the locks off of every door in the Spencer Mansion, and breeze through the game? Why can’t they just take their pistol, shotgun, grenade launcher, etc… shoot the locks, or blow up the doors… whatever, and simply get to the objective? For that matter, why are there so many locked doors in the Spencer Mansion? Around the time that I played through the Gamecube remake, I became less worried about the T-Virus, and more disturbed as to why all of these doors are “locked from the other side”. Who jammed all of these locks, and why? Did the T-Virus cause all of Raccoon City’s doors to become non-interactive? There’s an even bigger mystery for you. Add in rotating tiger statues, and items conveniently placed in bathtubs, and everything can start to feel a bit silly.Thankfully she’s the “Master of Unlocking”.
Silly, yes, but also necessary.
These limitations are placed in video games to guide the player at a pace of the developer’s choosing. It’s also a way to keep players from areas that the developers did not intend for you to see. These limitations are the smoke and mirrors that help create, and complete the overall illusion. Without them, there is no game. At least, not the kind of game the developers want. These rules make sure that a game runs smoothly, and doesn’t simply descend into chaos. These locks, and ridiculous puzzles? They ARE the game. If you break things down: locked doors + puzzles + inventory management + avoiding obstacles (zombies) = Resident Evil. In a lot of ways, Resident Evil is simply a puzzle game. Even the enemies have a puzzle element to them. How are they best defeated, and when is it best to avoid them? It’s the “Survival” in “Survival Horror”.
With all of this said, how did we end up with the energy drink fever dream that is Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil film franchise? These films move so far away from the identity of the games that they cease to be recognizable, aside from certain likenesses. They get some of the names right, and they feature series mainstays like Nemesis, but something doesn’t feel right about them. The tone is off (excluding Resident Evil V-VI… because Chris Redfield punches boulders). This is due, at least in part, to Hollywood not acknowledging the rules of the series. The rules that remind everyone that they are playing a game.Pictured: not Resident Evil.
Video games are synonymous with these kinds of rules. They give video games a unique identity, setting them apart from other mediums. We interact with games in a way that we never could with movies, or television. Through these rules, video games achieve an inevitable quirkiness; a quirkiness that gamers have come to understand, and respect. We poke fun at them, and create memes about them. They are just as much a memorable part of the game as the story, if not more so.Even Batman has odd limitations in his games.
It is this quirkiness that I feel Hollywood fails to understand, or at least doesn’t care about. To do any kind of video game movie justice, studios need to understand what makes video games such a unique, and self-aware medium. If you take away these small absurdities, the identity of the game is lost. Then, all you’re left with is an approximation of the game’s narrative translated to film. As a result, most of these movie adaptations tend to feel boring.
Let’s face it: not every game is known for its story, and that’s okay! Do most people play the DOOM series for its complex story? Of course not! Players take joy in the feel of the controls, and the quick pace the game sets. DOOM does a beautiful job of conveying a sense of momentum as you go from kill to kill. Weapons feel satisfying in your hand, and it’s always a treat to go up against a new foe. Equally satisfying are the myriad of Easter eggs hidden within the walls. It is these kinds of things gamers have come to love about the DOOM series. The series has satisfying gameplay, and can really appeal to the collector hidden in all of us. Some games are played for the story, of course… but others for the weapons, puzzles, enemies, bosses, strategy, replay-value, etc. How many people were less interested in Uncharted 2’s story as much as they were enthralled with the action segments? Moments that YOU control. We’ve seen lots of (literal) cliffhanger moments in movies, but we don’t always get to actively take part in them. The Uncharted series lets us do that. Not to imply that the story isn’t good, but it’s a story that has been told before. When that series gets translated to film, and we are merely spectators, there is a risk that it will end up feeling like an Indiana Jones rip-off. In some ways, though, isn’t that exactly what Uncharted is? Games copy story beats from movies all the time, and as a result, it then becomes a bit underwhelming to see these stories back up on the screen.
Now, I’m not saying that directors have never succeeded in bringing the spirit of a video game over to film. There have been instances, and each time, they stand out as the most memorable parts of these adaptations. Remember the terrible DOOM adaptation with The Rock? It was boring, and poorly paced, but there was this incredible moment where the director stopped trying to pretend that he wasn’t making a video game. Perhaps you know this moment:
This brief scene really nails the tone of the DOOM franchise, but it is a very small part of the movie. Reviews were abysmal, but everyone seemed to unanimously agree that this first-person segment was the best part. It’s no surprise that it’s the part that feels most like a video game. And these nods to the source material don’t always have to be so obvious. The first Silent Hill movie is an excellent example of properly incorporating stylistic choices that help to evoke feelings of the source material.
Look at this still from the movie:
Now, compare the above image to this still from Silent Hill 1:
One of the key elements of early survival horror games were the fixed camera angles, often faced right towards the player. It created a sense of dread: anything could be waiting ahead, and you wouldn’t be sure until it was too late. The movie captures this camera angle perfectly. The average audience member won’t catch it, but a fan of the series likely will. I remember sitting in the theater, and getting a burst of nostalgia the moment that I made the connection. There is a reason why Silent Hill is widely considered to be the best video game adaptation ever made. This is the kind of connection that these movies should have with the audience. Studios need to remember: the primary crowd that these movies will attract are probably the same ones who have played the games. As gamers, we appreciate these nods to the series we love.
Will we ever get the video game movie that we long for? It’s hard to say. Warcraft released to very mixed reviews, but was a huge hit in China. As a result, the movie made a huge profit, and it’s not unreasonable to think that a sequel will be greenlit sometime in the near future. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. Perhaps you recall the scene in Warcraft where Anduin is riding through the forest, and in the foreground there are Murlocs running for shelter, “Mrrrgrrgrgrles” and all. Right there, the audience can see a trace of the spirit of the games this movie is based on. If only for a second. Recently, Netflix announced an animated Castlevania TV series, and Adi Shankar has promised that the show will more than live up to fans expectations.Well, they have the nonsensical castle layout nailed, so we are heading in the right direction!
Here’s hoping, but we’ve been burned in the past. Who knows though: maybe television is the best medium for video game adaptations? Especially series rich with lore like Castlevania. Shankar promises that the show will feel like Game of Thrones, but I’m honestly wary of that. As long as he doesn’t forget that the series is known for more than its story. After all, this is the same series that is known for having roast chicken hidden inside castle walls.
Only time will tell, but one thing is for certain… whether it be on the big, or small screen: with these adaptations, a little humility will go a long way.
… You can find Jordan on Twitter (@JordJJones), and Facebook.