There has not been one good videogame movie. No, that one does not count as it was not really good as a movie, just barely serviceable due to the license. No, that one does ot count either, same reason as above. So why do videogame movies fail? Because people have no clue about how some things are made. Lucky you, I am here to help…
Why do so many books and comics translate well to film, but videogames don’t? I hear that question a lot, strangely enough, and the people that ask me know I can give them a great answer.
Let’s start with saying that maybe there will one day be a good videogame movie. However if there is, it will be good because it will differ from the games greatly. Also, some games are of course easier to translate. That being said, let’s talk basics.
EVERY good story, without exception lives and dies with the characters. If you can name me one GOOD story where you have badly written, 1 dimensional unlikeable characters you are wrong, as there is none :p And this right there starts the dilemma with videogames: Most characters suck. HARD!
Sure, there are your Nathan Drakes, your Links and your Kratos’es’s’s’s? but those are exactly the main problem: They may be great videogame characters buthorrible story characters. The opposite can be said about the NEW Lara Croft (but not the old one, funny enough) which is a great story character but a horrible videogame character (and no, I will not talk about ludonarrative dissonance here, but if you don’t believe that is a thing you are wrong, again) and as such would work much better in a film. But the Tomb Raider films focused on the old Lara and that is a dumb thing to do – again.
Here is the thing, those characters are not real characters, they are power fantasies. And that is okay. So is Indiana Jones. I’ll explain what that means. A real character is somebody you care about, a three dimensional being with mistakes and flaws. A power fantasy is a character you want to be. His mistakes and flaws make him even cooler. Kinda like a Mary Sue but without the teenage part. Batman anyone? The ULTIMATE Mary Seue/Power fantasy. And again, that is okay.
Take Indiana Jones 4 for example. It had so many problems, but the aliens were not the worst. No, the worst problem was the fact that Indy was old and his love interest was old. You watch an Indiana Jones flick you want to be Indiana Jones. He has cool adventures and gets the girl, much like James Bond. But in Indy 4 you did not want to be him and you did not want to gethis girl. I mean, nothing against old people at all, I have the greatest respect for so many of theirgreat traits, but I sure as hell don’t want to imagine being a 65 year old guy that is too old for any action, getting a 60 year old woman. I want to be the early 30ies guy, cool, suave, great movies and hot with the most beautiful women imaginable. Anyone remember Elsa Schneider? I want THAT woman, not 60+ year old Marion Ravenwood.
And that is exactly the same problem with videogame characters. They are mostly power fantasies for the adolescent teenage boy. Sure, there are exceptions, and lots of it, but those are from smaller, unknown (but still great) games and not from multi million sellers. And characters like that make for a bad movie.
But, I hear you say, didnt you just establish Indiana Jones as the exactly same thing? Because his first three (or at least the first and the third) films were amazing! Yes, yes they were but there is a huge difference here I will explain now. You see, the problem is that Indiana Jones may be a power fantasy, but everybody else is not (except in part 4 of course) and instead the supporting cast are formidable characters. Two of the very best examples are Marcus Brody, the bumbling boss of Indy and Indys dad Henry Jones Sr.
Remember that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when Indy tells the bad guys how great Brody is and how he speaks a gazillion languages and knows the culture and can disappear forever? And the we get a cut to him, bumbling his way around, no clue whatsoever what is going on? That was a brilliant moment. Brody is a full, 3 dimensional character, a helpless desk guy who is not used to travel or adventure and who is this old, silly fellow. But he works as a companion, especially in the Indy context because of that. Same goes for Indys dad who is only there to be rescued over and over again and make it hard for his son to do anything. He has of little value in the story after the initial setout and they jsut drag him along to be useless and tht is EXACTLY why he is such a great character. Because of his wisdom he can be of little help but otherwise he is another obstacle for Indy. And then in part 4 there is Marion who is also useless after being first introduced but since they made her an empty shell instead of a real character in this she is given things to do like driving the truck, otherwise we woudl realize how useless she is.
In videogames, most characters are power fantasies. One exception would be the cast of the Uncharted Trilogy (but not the PSVita game) but those are pretty much just copies of the Indiana Jones tropes (as are the games hemselves) and as such would only serve as a reminder of that fact if they were translated to the (2016 releasing) movie verbatim. They need to change them up for the film in order to make them morethan just an Indiana Jones ripoff and I highly doubt they will. But I am getting ahead of myself.
You see, to create a good movie you need a few things outside of money and tech to throw at it. In a game I don’t care how bland the main character is, I control this character directly and thus the character becomes my avatar. It is okay if the character is an empty shell, it is me after all. I make the decisions the character makes. That does not work for a movie, which is passive. Same goes for the NPCs or in the movie the secondary characters. In a game they must interact with me and even if I do stuff a regular character would not do, they play along so they are reduced to a few tropes to make it work. And that is okay for a game, but it makes fora bad film. Ask Michael Bay about the personalities of his Transformers. Those films made billions, but they suck hard.
Then there is the story, of course. A good story is tailored to the medium it is delivered in. Even the simplest of concepts can be compelling in the right medium. The ultra minimalistic approach to story found in the Mario games are good examples. Bad thing happens, Mario goes to work. That’s it. But it works in terms of the games. I would argue that too much story would break the Mario gameplay flow – why do you think they limit stories to the Mario RPG/Paper Mario/Mario and Luigi series? Because it would suck hard if there are hours of cutscenes and dialogue when you just want to run around stomping that goomba. Preferably in space or inside a picture. The ultiamte example for this is of course Zelda. And we are talking a very specific Zelda here.
Majora’s Mask is one of the best Zelda games ever and ironically enough one of the worst. I would argue that, if it would have been a non Zelda game, it would today be hailed as one of the most influental videogames of all time. As it is, people are still divided by it. And for the exactly same reasons that games don’t translate well to movies. Now there is a twist!
You see, Majora’s Mask is the best thing a videogame can be. You can play through it in a few hours and see nothing, you have a gazillion of options how you play, when you do what, if you experience a story, how you experience said story, how your decisions influence the world and your progress and how your progres influences the decisions you make. It is so complex, I am surprised it is never brought up in the games as art topic, and people instead focus on Ocarina of Time or Journey (both brilliant games of course). But I suspect that is because people don’t get it. Allow me to explain.
Almost every character in Majora’s Mask is a thought out, 3 dimensional character. The few exceptions would be random guards of various factions I suppose. But the rest all lead their lives as they see fit, they react to you in a natural way and you can screw things up with them, having lasting (ad not so lasting) consequences. Like the builder who simply refuses to acknowledge the end of his world or the Anju and Kafei sidestory. Those are clearly characters that lived lives long before you came into their world. The story and characters tick every single box you would need for a fantastic movie or even a novel and yet in the end said movie/novel would suck. Why you ask? Becuase everything was designed for a game.
The story and characters were designed for the gameplay. The fact that you have your diary where you note the people and write down the things you learn about them while experiencing the same three days over and over again (or just once if you don’t care about story and just finish all four dungeons quickly) is exactly what makes it as a compelling game. It could not work in a movie because it would become boring, experiencing the same thing over and over again. See Groundhog Day where he decides to kill himself because of the boredom. But then he decides to learn the peoples secrets instead and help them, thus changing him. But in Majora’s Mask you don’t have just two or three people, you have over twenty and all have a life. You would have to cut pretty much everyone to make it work or cut down on the time repeat thing and make itlinear, like in the manga. The result would be not nearly as compelling as the game. Alternatively you can’t do a TV show simply because every episode would have the same people over the same timespan. It would become boring easily as well. And if you reduce all of those elements to make an action packed romp, you lose everything that made the game and the characters so great in the first place and create another “meh” movie. One way or the other, it can only work as a game. And therein lies the problem, it is unlike any other Zelda game and people dislike that. Too complicated and complex don’t go with Zelda is what some people say. Would Ocarina of Time (some people’s favorite game ever) make for a better movie?
Of course not, as all of it’s charcters are boring, flat 2 dimensional tropes instead of real characters, due to them having to live in a game world. Would you want to watch a three hour movie of Link collecting items from bad tropey characters and dungeons to defeat Ganondorf? Sounds ultra boring to me, works as a game but not as a movie.
So is there any way you could make a good videogame movie? Well, of course there is but people who are gamers would not like it. You see, the WarCraft movie that is coming out in 2016 or so has the best chances to become the first solid videogame movie. Because what they do is, they create a set of new and compelling characters and put them in a good story that just happens to be set in the WarCraft universe and pitch them against WarCraft foes. It is not really a movie based on WarCraft. It is a movie set in the WarCraft world, nothing more. But that is the reason it can work, they can just focus on making a good movie, they don’t have to stick to furmula and character X. There will be WC characters in the film no doubt, but it will be a standalone film. Same goes for the Uncharted film. Make a great and fun action adventure romp with a power fantasy guy named Nathan Drake. Do not focus on Elena Fisher or Sully or Chloe Frazer. Forget about those people. As well written as they were for the game Trilogy, if you put them verbatim into a movie people will see through the tropes and call them out. If you really want to include them, re-write them to be new, great characters. And watch people tear you apart for changing the source material, something people hate but have no clue what they are talking about. But this is a topic for another time.
In the end, one day there will be a good movie based on a videogame. It will have different characters and a different story and will generally be not what you would expect from said game. But I doubt it will be soon. If we re lucky, the WarCraft and Uncharted Films will deliver but I HIGHLY doubt that. And since Ubisoft is producing the Assassin’s Creed film themselves, It will probaly be the first of a trilogy that will turn into a pentalogy with on disc DLC for the bluray release or something…