Exploring the Video Game Movie Adaptation Curse

By VFS Web Team, on January 13, 2017

Movie adaptations can be a bit of a hit and miss. For every Avengers movie that rakes in bazillions and makes fanboys squeal with glee, there is a Fantastic Four flick that is so god-awful it fairly staggers the imagination, and upsets the tummy, too. However, when it comes to film adaptations of cherished video game properties, it seems the hits are very few and frustratingly far between.

Just take a look at both critical and fan reviews of recent game adaptation offerings such as Warcraft, or the recent Assassins Creed movie.

But, why is it so hard to adapt a video game into a successful movie franchise, as opposed to, say, a comic book or literary adaptation? According to Vancouver Film School Game Design students Roberto Guedes and Michael Wille, the main problem stems from filmmakers trying to shoehorn the experience of playing hundreds of hours of a game into a two-hour action-packed plot.

“When an individual plays a game, they are active participants in the game, making decisions which directly affect the world in which they are participating,” said Wille. “And these decisions matter, as games have the ability to limit further participation by checking the individual’s skills. Film, on the other hand, is more similar to TV, in that an individual has no decisions to make other than whether to participate in watching or not. The individual in this sense is passively engaging in viewing a film.”

Guedes agreed with that assessment.

“As an interactive media, games often have stories that are longer than movies and don't convert well into them, especially if following a similar formula to book adaptations - which usually means cutting sections that wouldn't serve a big purpose in the movie,” he said. “Games are an interactive media, and, when developing games, the writers create a story that can only work with that interactivity in mind. Ideally, writers need to focus on creating a story that has a good pacing for movies first, and not convert the game's plot.”

Both VFS Game Design students named the 1995 Mortal Combat film as their favourite adaptation. Wille said it was because the film fleshed out characters which he had only experienced before in “pixelated 2D action.” Guedes added that the game’s focus on action rather than story lent itself perfectly to a film adaptation.

“Its main advantage was that the franchise did not have a big focus on story, giving the movie's director and writer freedom to explore a believable atmosphere, action, and frenetic moments, which is what the audience was expecting, while keeping faithful to the source material,” he said. “The characters also retained their signature movements, visuals, and their personalities were developed in a way that made sense for them.”

Wille said filmmakers also ran into difficulties when trying to create a movie that appealed to the masses, and not just gamers.

“A secondary issue that often inhibits successful film adaptations of games is a difficulty in deciding target markets,” he said. “When creating a movie adaptation of a game, there are two groups which are often kept in mind, the general movie-goers, and the gamer who is playing that particular game. A film adaptation can appeal directly to these gamers, though this results in many of the game intricacies being lost on the general movie-goer. However, if the film is created for the general public, then it often veers from what the game was originally about. This results in a disconnect from the original game, and general bad reviews from those gamers, leading to the more indifferent general movie-goer to become disinterested in the adaptation.”

Interestingly, two of the most successful movie adaptations of a video game have featured females in the lead role (Tomb Raider, Resident Evil), which on the surface seems to go against the male-dominated atmosphere of the industry.

Tomb Raider has an iconic video game protagonist, Lara Croft and the franchise is all about her,” said Guedes. “In that case, the producers made sure to write Angelina Jolie's character with the same personality features as gamers knew. Even if the movie had similar flaws to the ones mentioned before, it managed to hit a good atmosphere and understand the treasure hunter perspective.”

He also praised the original take on the Resident Evil franchise.

Resident Evil went all the way with a new protagonist and a new story within the same universe, even bringing some game characters in support roles,” he said. “I believe this is the reason it was more successful than other game to movie adaptations, and it even became a series of its own, with continuity throughout every sequel. However, once again, it has similar problems to other adaptations, but I believe creating something new is a step in the right direction.”

It is that originality that will attract both those who know a game’s lore inside and out, as well as newcomers to a franchise, according to Guedes.

“Game developers have been creating so many interesting universes that have a huge potential to translate into movies, but I do believe they need original plot and characters inside that universe, retaining the atmosphere, selling points, core pillars, mixed together with strong performances by the cast in a way that will leave gamers and new viewers satisfied with a great experience.”