Why do video game to movie adaptations always suck? The answer might be embedded in academic media theory itself!

Toiling into the dark hours of the night (short this time of year where I work at my Northern Exposure latitude), I glimpsed the request of the editors-that-be here at Casa de Geeky for my next topic: “The worst video game movies ever made.”

Oh gee, I sarcasmed to myself, how original. Nope, nobody’s written that one before. Well, time to Google up the 25 other times somebody’s written this exact same blog post and collate the results to produce the crème de la caca… But then I second-thoughted, “What standard of comparison do we have?” What constitutes a GOOD video game to movie adaptation?

Surely some wiseguy blogger has thought of that one. But the closest I can typically find is posts like this one at our stupid competitor – ah – fellow geek blog, DenofGeek, for “11 Video Game Movies That Aren’t Awful.” Go ahead, check that one out. Most of those also appear on the worst movies list! Doom? The Tomb Raider flicks? Super Mario Brothers 1993, yah gotta be kiddin’ me! Listen, if you set out to find game-to-film adaptations that don’t suck and you even nudge Super Mario Bros.‘ hitbox, your mission has failed.

That kind of tears it. There have been no good video game to movie adaptations.

Hold on while I qualify that statement

OK, alright, I know that there are some video game movies that are watchable. Honorable mentions with sample (cherrypicked) IMBD quotes:

  • Warcraft (2016) – “The movie could be better? Yes, but honestly, this is probably the best adaptation of a video game.”
  • Resident Evil (2002) – “I had to sift long and deep for a good comment on this. Why all the hostility?”
  • Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019) – “Whilst there is nothing to hate about the film I couldn’t describe it as more than reasonably good and mildly enjoyable where as I was hoping to be blown away throughout.”
  • Silent Hill (2006) – “You have to approach any movie adaptation of a video game with extreme trepidation.”

Yeah, we’ll stop on that note. Look, when I say GOOD video game movie, I don’t mean treating this like the Special Olympics category of movies. I mean “good” like Pulp Fiction good. “Good” like Titanic good. Even “good” like Terminators 2 : Judgment Day good. Hell, I’ll take X2 : X-Men United good. You could almost chin the Resident Evil one to that bar, but it’s going to be very tired afterwards. The two reasons Resident Evil did well are (1) Milla, and (2) Jovovich.

Before anybody says “The Witcher,” that TV series was based on the same novels that the video game franchise was adapted from.

Listen to this annoying fratboy analyze this problem:

OK, so fratboy has one roundabout point there: Most video game protagonists aren’t super-developed because they’re an avatar, meant to be an empty shell for the player to fill. But there has to be more to it than that.

What does a GOOD video game movie even look like?

We’ve only had this genre of movies around for 27 years now. Maybe it takes longer than that to experiment, before this genre finds its feet? None other than GoodBad Flicks addressed my very question back in 2014, and I’m honored to find a YouTuber whom I respect so highly thinking in the same lane as I at this late point in the blog post:

So he hits on a few points there, and I’d like to emphasize a few:

You need somebody who actually knows the game. I would have thought this went without saying, but, duh duhurp derp, Hollywood! While we’re at it, it would be nice if the adapter had some respect for the source. In short, quit putting people who hate video games in charge of making video game movies.

You need to adapt a game with a deep story. A movie is a long, long thing. It can take ninety minutes up to a couple hours and change. That is a lot of time to fill. You need all kinds of stuff in there. So you either need a deep story, or a game universe big enough to have potential for a deep story. What counts as a “good story” in many video games is actually about 15 minutes of cutscene story spliced into hours of gameplay.

Now let me introduce a framework. The three-act structure:

Three-Act-Structure

Yes, I know it’s a tired old cliché. Yes, I know a legion of community college creative writing professors who smell like Dr. Scholl’s foot powder are wheezing into their pumpkin spice chai right now about how we’re supposed to move past the shackles of conformity on our fiction. But the Three Act Structure is a narrative structure, which is more than most video games even have to begin with.

Now pick a game, any game, and try stretching it over that. Many of them won’t fit. Some will. And still some more are so deep that you could pick and choose the many different story lines that could fit. I’m counting an entire franchise here when I say “game,” by the way. So even among entire game series, there’s a few that may have just enough meat to hang onto the skeleton of the three-act structure.

creative-writing

Why games make terrible source material

Let’s look at the other kinds of source material for movies:

Novels – The great source of material we wish they’d bring back. The thing with novel adaptations is, they used to be the default for movie templates, to the point that most of our classic movies were adaptations and nobody knew. Psycho, Die Hard, It’s a Wonderful Life, did you think Hollywood executives wrote those scripts themselves? Novels make great source material because their narrative space is big. They’re so big that they’re improved by cutting away parts. You get to pick and choose what works.

Comics – Hit and miss. A long-running, deep, respected comic franchise of course has enough narrative space to pull a movie from. I think one of the reasons why comic movies sometimes fail is because many of them lack a full cast; they lack sufficient characters who are not villains. And of course, franchises like X-Men and Avengers tend to do well precisely because we have enough characters on team hero to root for. You can make a whole movie with just a few cast members, but now we’re talking the kind of arty indie style that you just can’t see working for most game adaptations.

Stage plays – A stage play basically is a movie with fewer moving parts, so it actually barely qualifies as an adaptation anyway. Yes, theater nerds, I understand that there are crucial differences, but movies and stage plays still have more in common with each other than, say, cabbages and kings.

TV shows – Arguably, there’s even less difference between a TV show and a movie than there is between a movie and any other medium. You can chop up a movie into a TV series or vice versa. And even many of these don’t go on to be revered classics.

Now stack these up against video game adaptations:

There’s a chance you might go see a movie adapted from a novel, comic, stage play, or TV show even if you never experienced the original work. But can you picture anyone going to see a video game movie unless they were well familiarized with the video game?

GoodBad Flicks back there pointed out that there’s fans-a-squealin’ for a Grand Theft Auto adaptation. But they then point out, the GTA series is already based on Hollywood gansta movies, so a movie adaptation would feel derivative. I’m sorry, but I feel they could still pull it off – IF they pulled off the quiet desperation of the ‘hood together with the cheerful nihilism of playing the game, and of course picked the right story arc. Not impossible, just damned improbable.

What’s the fate of video game movies?

Here, four YouTubers for the price of one to review Bloodrayne:

Alright, that’s great fun, but seriously: Say you been told ahead of time that they were making a vampire movie set in medieval times (in case you never played the game) with THIS cast: post-Titanic Billy Zane, Michael Madsen, post-Fight-Club Meatloaf, Michelle Rodriguez, and Ben-friggin-Kingsley playing a vampire! You’d at least think the result would be mildly interesting! Never mind the video game, you could put those five talents in a Sesame Street sketch and have something at least watchable.

This just goes on forever, they throw gobs of talent at these projects, and the most they do is make a polished turd.

Look “forward” to the following video game adaptations currently in development:

Minecraft the Movie (slated for 2022) – I forecast that the only way this will work is the same way The Lego Movie worked, and then only as fun kiddie fare. In fact, they’re have to tread carefully to not get sued. Minecraft has no story, no characters, not even a coherent structure. They will have to paint whatever story they want onto its framework. The main character in Minecraft never even speaks! And if you just make it a big multiplayer server, then you have a machinima on your hands.

Call of Duty – Excuse me??? Grand Theft Auto can’t be a movie because it’s too derivative of other movies? CoD is literally a war movie you play from the main hero’s perspective! It will work for what it is, but it’s the definition of an empty exercise.

Uncharted (slated for 2021) – Uh, yeah, look, we already did this with Tomb Raider. There may have been other problems with Tomb Raider, but tits was not one, or two, of them. Notwithstanding the gender change, both games suffer from lack of characters.

Five Nights at Freddy’s – Can you believe it? They finally settled on giving a crazy niche cult indie game a try! This at least has a shot, by way of horror-comedy being a popular genre via Evil Dead. Horror is also one genre that works wonderfully with limited characters, claustrophobic locales, and low budgets. Granted, this adaptation has a snowball’s chance in North Hell, but it’s still a chance.

Borderlands – This one has promise. Borderlands does have a cast of colorful characters and the appeal of a Mad Max like setting. It needs some fleshing out, but it can maybe make it. This one has also been picked up by LionsGate, so if anything that’s a mildly positive sign. That only means it has a chance at the quality standard of the mediocre mainstream so far.

Portal – Argh, no, just no! J.J. Abrams and Dan Trachtenberg are attached, and still no. Look, I love every second of Portal I’ve ever played, but it’s not movie material. Watching it will feel just like watching a Let’s Play only without the host voice-over.

The Media Temperature Effect

I have an actual theory: Marshall McLuhan (“The medium is the message.”) classified media as running from “cold” to “hot.” Here’s a mini-lecture by a modern scholar attempting to assimilate modern video game media (at least VR) into McLuhan’s model:

OK, he gets the hot-vs-cold axis backwards. See the Wiki definition I linked back there, it’s more spot on. We’re defining “cold media” as “lower engagement” and “hot media” as “higher engagement,” for the purpose of my arrogant little theory here.

When you’re adapting from a novel to a film, that goes from a cold medium to a hot medium. I’ll go out on a limb and tweak the original theory to argue: A book actually engages zero senses because there’s not even much going on visually. It only engages your intellect and imagination, you’re just interpreting abstract symbols off the page into meaning. When you turn that into a movie, you have something new to experience.

The same goes for adapting into film from any colder medium: comic books, radio drama, what have you. Film adds another layer of immersion to the experience. A comic is still a warmer medium than a novel, because you have added images, but that’s still just engaging one sense and leaving your imagination to fill in the rest.

I would theorize that video games are an even hotter medium than film. Even when a movie perfectly captures a video game, it’s still a step down in media temperature from the game itself. I’ve already “watched” this movie, so to speak, from the best possible seat in the house: Inside the protagonist’s head, as I’ve fought the same battles and had the same adventure they had.

We see the same effect whenever moving from a hotter medium to a colder medium. You can see a movie and then read the book the movie was based on, but honestly, doesn’t it feel like you’re going backwards? How many comic books based on a movie or video game have enjoyed extended popularity outside the original fandom? There you go!

Will we ever get good video game movie adaptations?

I hold out little to no hope. If a game-to-movie blockbuster does happen, I’m afraid it will have to be with something in either the adventure or interactive novel genres. What if the biggest video game movie of all time turns out to be adapted from a dating sim, won’t that be a nightmare?

The more likely point is that the problem is not “which video game to try adapting next.” The problem is that video games have different things making them work from other kinds of fiction. The problem is that movies made from video games don’t have the legs to stand on their own.

The problem is that, honestly, how many video games are you really crying out to see as a movie? As an intellectual exercise, we could all name a half dozen games we think would make good movies. But when you plop it down on in a theater and say, “Here’s your movie, now pay the ticket and watch it?” We suddenly all have more important things to do, don’t we?

whos-seeing-it-not-me

People who don’t play the video game won’t watch the movie because they’re not interested. People who did play the video game don’t have to see the movie because they’ve already done something better: They’ve played the game!

 

About the author

Penguin Pete

Penguin Pete

Geek tribal bard for the Internet, before "geek" was cool. Linux power user, MTG collector, light saber owner, cult movie fanatic, comic book memer, video gamer, Unix beard currently measures six inches.