What Would It Take to Make a Good Video Game Movie?

I’ll happily admit to being a fairly casual gamer. I don’t have a console, I’m not the first person in line at GameStop when a new title is released, and I typically idle the minutes and hours away with mindless entertainment like Angry Birds on my phone.

That being said, there are a couple of more ‘serious’ games I enjoy playing from time to time; particularly ID Software’s titles such as Doom and Quake (I’ve been playing those games since the late ’90s), and one of my all-time favorite PC games back in the day was Max Payne, mainly because of the heavy emphasis on plot and storytelling. I recently finished playing through Doom (2016), and although the story was minimal the combat mechanics were fun, and the whole 15+ hours of gameplay were hugely entertaining.

Sometimes, though, I want the experience of a solid video game without the effort of having to, you know, actually play it. I guess I’m not the only one to think this, because throughout the years there have been endless adaptations of video games to film. Sadly, most of these have met with spectacular failure, both at the box office and critically. This led me to wonder: why are so many video game adaptations terrible, and what might it take to make one that is actually good?

Strong Source Material

The original Macintosh FPS, Marathon, was exceptionally plot-centric.

Not all video games are created equal. Whilst early PC titles such as Quake, Doom, Myst and others may have broken boundaries in terms of 3D graphics, gameplay mechanics and multiplayer options, most of them were pretty thin on plot. It was mostly just find the bad guy, kill the bad guy, repeat. There were some exceptions to this; I recall playing a early Bungie-developed game called Marathon, which not only was groundbreaking from a physics modeling perspective and introduced LAN-based multiplayer, but also because the plot featured so heavily in the game that certain levels were impossible to complete unless you interacted with the story.

It wasn’t until I played Max Payne in the early ’00s, however, that I realized just how strong a video game story could be. With graphic novel-inspired cutscenes and a strong emphasis on character development, I ended up playing the game through dozens of times just to relive the story.

It stands to reason, then, that in order to make a successful adaptation, you need something to adapt in the first place. A strong plot and compelling characters are necessary for any story, and unfortunately, many video games lack these elements.

An Understanding of Adaptations

One of the biggest points of contention when a non-filmic source material is adapted to film is the authenticity of the writers’ efforts to maintain what was in the original story. Take Peter Jackson’s efforts with The Lord of the Rings: to many, it represents a masterpiece of western cinema, and a fitting adaptation to an equally timeless and epic set of books. To others, however, Jackson took too many liberties with the source material, from omitting characters to changing plot devices, and even creating scenarios that never occurred in the books at all.

In the books, Narsil was reforged right at the beginning; in the movies, not until the end.

However, I believe the critics of these films are missing the point of an adaptation. It isn’t meant to faithfully replicate every scene in the book on celluloid; to do so would be uninventive, slow-paced, and frankly boring. An adaptation should take the core, central elements of a story and rework them into the new format – that being a 2-3 hour film that you sit and watch. If that means changing characters, motivations and plot points, then so be it – it’s an adaptation, not a replication.

I think that this balance is something many video game adaptations miss the boat on. In some cases, they try too hard to match the original material, and in others they deviate too far from it. Sometimes they pander too heavily to the fans, and in others they try too hard to make it accessible to people who’ve never experienced the original game. There’s a fine line between these two extremes, and a successful adaptation should be able to satisfy the original players’ desire for familiarity, whilst creating a world that can be experienced easily by someone who’s never heard of it before.

A Strong Cast

This is probably more essential for films in general, but it’s just as relevant for video game adaptations as it is for any other type of movie. A strong cast is vital to the success of a movie, because as viewers we need to feel invested in the characters, their motivations and relationships, and the chemistry between them is important.

The chemistry between these characters was unmistakable.

Now this doesn’t mean the cast need to necessarily be famous or well-known; perhaps one of the best examples of chemistry in film is the original Star Wars from 1977; no one knew who Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher or Harrison Ford were at the time, but their on-screen chemistry is what arguably makes the movie. Compare this to the lackluster connection between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman in the prequels; it didn’t matter that Portman was arguably more up-and-coming at the time, because they simply didn’t seem to have any real connection.

There are examples of video game adaptations that bagged well-known actors and yet failed on the chemistry; Doom (2005) has both Karl Urban and Rosamund Pike (the latter of which would go on to nominated for an Oscar), but the relationship between them as brother and sister falls flat at every turn. This is in part due to a failure to develop the relationship through the plot (the two share almost no screen time), but also because the two actors just don’t seem to ‘click’.

Homage to the Original Game

Certain games are known for inventing, developing, or innovating certain types of gameplay features. Doom brought us the BFG – a massively overpowered weapon that can decimate almost any enemy in a single shot; Max Payne was one of the first games to introduce ‘bullet time’ – a feature where gameplay slows down during battle sequences, allowing the player to see individual bullets flying past. And there are movies where these concepts are adapted well, of course – and others where they aren’t.

In the 2008 adaptation of Max Payne, we see Mark Wahlberg make his way through a very noir New York city – just as in the original game – but the limited use of bullet time was frustrating. This was one of the cornerstones of the game, and although it features at certain points in the film, it never felt like it was as important an aspect as it should have been. There are other aspects of the original game that were modified as well, including some of the key character motivations and climactic scenes.

The first-person sequence was one of Doom’s best assets.

On the flip side, a film that I felt did this well was, again, Doom (2005). Not only did it bring us the BFG in a way that could never have been done in a game (when fired, it takes out massive chunks of wall and ceiling, a mechanic that would be exceptionally difficult to recreate in a game), but it also boasts an incredible first-person scene that bears all the classic hallmarks of a FPS game, including using multiple weapons to defeat multiple demons in a non-stop, long-take action sequence.

Not all video game movies are bad, and not all are as bad as some people make them out to be. That being said, the highest-rated game adaptation on Rotten Tomatoes is Angry Birds 2, and it holds a he level of something like say, John Wick (83%, 89% and 90% for each film respectively), which bears all the hallmarks of a video game movie without actually being one.

I think the key thing is a successful blend of many of the smaller elements that work in various movies – faithfulness, strong casting choices, and an understanding of how to make a good adaptation. Who knows? Perhaps one day we’ll see a game adaptation that truly checks all the boxes, and I know I’ll be first in line to see it when it does come out!

What’s It Like to Not Be Depressed?

The fact that probably very few people will ever see this post doesn’t help, of course, but I’m very, very depressed at the moment. As in, to the point where I can barely function day-to-day, and the smallest of chores seem overwhelmingly impossible. I can’t even watch TV or play video games to zone out, because they seem pointless and inane. And for some odd reason I’m having trouble sleeping during the day, so all that’s left is to stare blankly at the wall.

I’m not necessarily concerned; I’ve been here before, and I’ll be here again, and it’s something I know all too well will pass in time. But that knowledge doesn’t alleviate the immense weight that is bearing down on me, making me feel like my life is meaningless, worthless, and destined to end in a pitiful whimper of existisitential boredom.

I think a part of my depression is coming from a deep social isolation as the world locks its doors and I stay home day after day; even for an introvert having limited human contact is psychologically harmful, and I’ve gone from a job where I interact with dozens of people a day to absolutely no one (at least not in person). It also doesn’t help that I’ve been riding a bipolar high for the past few weeks, and I know that this is a natural aspect of the downside of that high.

As I often do during these periods of affliction, I wonder what it must be like to not be depressed. And I don’t mean what it’s like to be happy, because I know happiness; I know joy, and the buzz of the bipolar high and the anxious, burning desire to create. But even in the whirlwind of emotions that come with that high, there’s a trace to depression. There’s a knowledge that the deep, dark despair is just on the other side of the coin, a hair’s breadth away and waiting eagerly to consume me. I can’t ever, ever escape depression, even at my happiest, and I wonder: what must it be like to simply not have these feelings?

I imagine, I suppose, that it must be a little bit like being high, or really, really drunk. A subconscious thread of uncaring, of believing that a better day awaits tomorrow. Sure, you might get sad, you might even feel depressed, but it’s because of something that happened, and eventually you work out how to handle that problem, put it behind you, and move on.

I wonder if living without depression is easy. I mean, I can understand that everyone faces struggles in life, but maybe it just boils down to the age-old glass-half-full mentality: perspective is everything. Is life a road with obstacles to be navigated, or is life all obstacles, and you somehow have to find a road between them? Imagine believing that there’s a road; imagine knowing that there’s a destination, and that it’s good. Imagine, if you can, a world where current events are just a stumbling block, and that the world might actually return to normal. Imagine a world of hope, and not one of despair.

You see, that’s the problem with depression. It’s all-consuming. There is no escaping it. Therapy, counseling, medications … they all do their part to alleviate the symptoms, but in the end it’s always there, underlying everything you think, say and do. I’ve lived with this for nearly twenty years, and despite my mental state’s mutations and changes, it’s one thing that has remained ever-constant.

I wish I could not be depressed. And I don’t mean now, in this moment, the feelings of drudgery and despair that are filling my head because of whatever chemical shift happens to be occurring in my head at the moment; I mean, I wish I could know what it’s like to just … not have to live with it. I suppose, really, what I’m asking for is to know what hope is.

Oh, fickle hope – between that and despair the world teeters. Some of us cling to one, and the rest can’t escape the other.

And in the end, what is there to do but trudge wearily through the snows of life? We can believe that there is sun to be found over the horizon, or we can believe that we will die before the day breaks; it doesn’t really change the realities of the world. The world is indifferent; the world doesn’t care.

But to think that the difference between hope and despair is a choice … that’s a belief I can’t hold. Ask yourself, truly: regardless of your own personal outlook, could you choose to be the other way? If you are depressed, can you choose to be happy? And if you’ve never known the cold, wretched clutches of despair, can you choose to feel that iron grip on your heart?

They say life is about choices, but I don’t know if there is such a thing. After all, you can’t ever know what the other outcome would have been, so what difference does any choice really make? I don’t know if there was ever a choice I made that led me to where I am now, how I feel; in the end, life is just what happens to you, and you can try to make the most of it all you like, but in the end – how much does it really matter?

Like I said, I’m very, very depressed at the moment. I’m not looking for sympathy, or consolation; really, just a way to say what I’m thinking. I know these feelings will pass, but even as I know that, I know they’ll one day return. Is life happy with bouts of depression, or depressed with bouts of happiness?

Who knows; who cares. All I know is that tomorrow is another day; that isn’t a statement of hope, nor of despair – it just is. I’ll probably make it through it, just like I did today. How I’ll feel at the end of it … that’s really anyone’s guess.

Here’s to hoping it isn’t in despair.

What Social Distancing Means for Humans

As COVID-19 spreads around the globe and the world’s governments try to keep the cases at bay, a new phrase has cropped up: social distancing. In a nutshell, it means keeping away from people to limit the spread of infection, particularly when transmitted through the air.

For many of us, this means staying at home when we’d normally be out and about – whether it be shopping, dining out, or simply going to work. Some governments have outright prohibited all non-essential travel (the definition of essential, of course, is up for debate), meaning that for many of us, the normal social contact we would have with other people is at an absolute minimum.

At first, the introvert in me would want to think of this as a good thing; who wants to have to interact with other people anyway? But as the days wear on, it becomes increasingly evident that, even for the most antisocial among us, human contact is an essential part of our nature.

You see, humans – like many, many other animals – are inherently social creatures. We thrive when we are in a community, and perish in isolation. There’s a great deal of study into the psychology of this, but the bottom line is that people need each other to stay sane.

If this is the case, then what happens when we are forced into isolation? Whilst many of us are in isolation with a few other people, there are nonetheless some of us – those who live alone – who now have no physical connection to other people for days, if not weeks, at a time. Even if you live with someone, the limited social interaction of just a couple of other people is no comparison to the wealth of stimuli that comes from being able to simply talk to different people, with different perspectives, throughout your day.

Even as a fairly hardcore introvert (I get easily exhausted interacting with people), my day is usually filled with human interaction and socialization, and I use alone time to recuperate. Now that I’m working from home, the conversations with my colleagues and clients are at a bare minimum, and I find myself at times bored to tears.

Perhaps the only good news is that this particular pandemic has hit us at a time when we’re still able to socialize to a reasonable degree remotely, through technology. In fact, for our children, who are so used to socializing virtually, I suspect this quarantine is having a significantly lesser impact that it has had on adults who grew up having to interact in person. Through FaceTime, social media and online servers, we’re able to at the very least get the input from others that create intellectual stimulus, even if we aren’t benefiting from the more visceral reactions of being able to physically see, hear, and speak to others in person.

I have regular virtual meetings for my work, as does my wife; my son is taking online classes from school through which he can directly interact with his teachers. I can call, text, or message people anytime I like. I can still interact.

But none of this replaces the need we have for physical human interaction, and I worry that society as a whole may soon face a terrible choice: do we maintain our physical health at the expense of our mental health, or do we venture out and about, risking exposure to a potentially deadly virus, just to stay sane?

There are no easy answers at a time like this, but with COVID-19 seeming unlikely to disappear anytime soon, there may be some drastic changes that will have to be made, simply in order to protect the survival of human society. And what happens when the next viral outbreak comes? What happens when a plague of considerably greater deadliness comes around? Without sounding too apocalyptical about it, humanity may have never faced a greater threat to our overall societal well-being.

What are your thoughts? How will we survive this, mentally and physically? And what do you think the long-term prospects for our culture and civilization are?