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!

Music I Love: The Optimist, by Anathema

Album: The Optimist
Artist: Anathema
Year: 2017

Track Listing:

  1. 32.63n 117.14w
  2. Leaving It Behind
  3. Endless Ways
  4. The Optimist
  5. San Francisco
  6. Springfield
  7. Ghosts
  8. Can’t Let Go
  9. Close Your Eyes
  10. Wildfires
  11. Back to the Start

Anathema are an oddity of a band, and I love them for it. From their roots as a doom/death metal outfit in the early 1990s (in fact considered one of the “Peaceville Three” along with Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride, founding the British doom scene at the time), they’ve evolved over the past two and half decades into something much more spiritual and emotive.

Their big turnaround came after a seven-year break between A Natural Disaster (2003) and We’re Here Because We’re Here (2010), when they more or less reinvented themselves – not in terms of sound, but in terms of spirit. Where songs from the former album drag the listener on a journey of panic and despair:

Shadows are forming take heed of the warnings
Creeping around at four in the morning
Lie to myself start a brand new beginning
But I’m losing myself in this fear of living

Pulled Under at 2000 Metres a Second – A Natural Disaster

We’re Here Because We’re Here presents an entirely different shift of perspective:

Needed time to clear my mind
Breathe the free air find some peace there
I used to keep my heart in jail
But the choice was love or fear of pain and
And I chose love

Everything – We’re Here Because We’re Here

This spiritual optimism is carried forward throughout their subsequent albums, Weather Systems and Distant Satellites, and persists on their latest release, The Optimist. The irony here is that The Optimist is a sort of loose concept album based on the cover art for their 2001 effort A Fine Day to Exit – arguably their darkest and most depressing release ever.

Opening with a prelude track (which includes snippets of previous Anathema songs) that sounds like someone dragging themselves back to a car after trying to drown themselves in the ocean, we move seamlessly into the first song, Leaving It Behind, opening with a patter of electronic drumbeats before a dark storm of semi-distorted guitar washes over everything.

Yet not all is so gloomy; tracks such as Endless Ways and the title track are gentler, with soothing piano and soaring melodies, harkening back to the early days of their reinvention with We’re Here Because We’re Here and Weather Systems.

Anathema have settled on a sound that works for them; a distinct blend of acoustic, electric and electronic that is at once familiar and yet instantly identifiable. If there is a criticism to this album compositionally it is that the band relies heavily on ostinato, with endlessly repeating refrains over which the lyrics are sung in duet by both Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas, alternating between Cavanagh’s angsty vocals and Douglas’ soulful melodies.

It’s hard for me to say this is my favorite Anathema album; to me, their best work remains in the past, when they were dark and depressing and matched my mood so well. That being said, this is the sound of a band at their peak maturity, knowing what works for them and running with it. Of their four “new” albums, The Optimist stands out head and shoulders above the others, and for good reason: it truly is an exemplary vision of spiritual indie rock at its best.

“Princess of the Emerald Garden”, Dis Pater (2003)

 

I’ve been playing a lot with music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music lately, and it’s been a wonderful experience to hear new music wash over my ears like endless floodwaters. No longer do I need to save up, buy albums, wait to download … anything I could ever want is at my fingertips.

Almost.

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