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!

Idle the Hands

I’ve been in my house more in the past three months than I probably have been in the past year. Although I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to work from home and receive my normal salary, the lack of commute to and from work, and other general activities that take one out of the house, has left me with an inordinate amount of time on my hands.

You’d think I would’ve made good use of this extra time (well, not if you know me). And to some degree, I have – I’ve spent some time working on composing a new orchestral symphony, touching up a few things regarding my nu metal album, and played an excessive amount of Doom (2016). Yet I thought, leading into the COVID-19 isolation that is so important to maintain, that I would have ended up writing considerably more than I have. Not only have I not worked on a page of The Redemption of Erâth since before the new year, I haven’t even turned a thought to my next YA book, plotted anything, or – worst of all – posted on here.

Every so often I think to myself that I really ought to write some kind of blog post, just to remind people that I’m still alive, and then all enthusiasm deserts me and I lapse back into the idle activities of TV and video games that, whilst enjoyable entertainment, take all lustre for creativity and quell it like an ocean on a matchstick.

And of course, every so often I tell myself that I’ll return to blogging, and to writing, and that I’ll make a solid commitment to posting and writing regularly … and of course, I fail miserably at that, too.

So here we are again, writing for the first time in months, lying to myself that I’ll keep it up this time, and that I’ll finally reattain the early heights of my blogging career that saw thousands of visitors a month – but also dozens of posts a month, too.

We’ll see – perhaps I can maintain a steady trend for a few weeks, at least. It’s enjoyable to write, and to have people read my words. I just don’t know how long it’ll last this time.

Back into the fray, and idle the hands no more!

The Headiness of Mania

A few weeks ago, I found myself starting to wake up earlier than usual, unable to get back to sleep. And whilst normally I would lie in bed – sleeping or not – I found I wanted to get up, I wanted to go downstairs, or on the computer … I wanted to do something. At first I wasn’t sure what – I might just go lie with the cat, or make a breakfast I wouldn’t normally be bothered to make – but over the last couple of weeks, it’s gotten stronger.

You see, I have bipolar type II, which normally means I’m extremely depressed, with periods of ‘normality’, so to speak. I don’t usually get manic, and even when I’m in a period of hypomania I don’t usually find myself with increased energy or motivation- I’m just not depressed.

About a month ago, my doctor started me on a new medication (I can’t remember the name just now), and I think this has been a big trigger for me. It was meant to help with my seasonal depression (I usually get deeply depressed during the winter), but it seems to have worked a little too well. All of a sudden, I want to do things, write and play music: things I used to enjoy but fell out of fashion for me due to depression.

In the past two weeks, I’ve written almost 20,000 words of the fourth book in the Redemption of Erâth series, and began re-recording some very old songs I wrote almost twenty years ago, all whilst continuing to do well at work, and I feel … almost happy, for lack of a better term.

I’m not used to it.

It’s an odd feeling for me to have so much energy, motivation and desire to be productive. I suppose there are people who feel like this all the time, but it’s hard for me to imagine it. I feel like I’m riding an enormous wave, just starting to reach the crest before it all comes crashing down again. And I’m not usually able to ride the wave out – it buries me, drowns me, and crushes me to the bottom of the sea.

And it’s intoxicating – invigorating, even, and scary all at the same time. Intoxicating because it’s almost an addiction, something that drives me forward to keep doing more of the same, a drug I can’t get enough of. Invigorating, because it’s refreshing to have such energy for a change. And frightening, because I don’t know how long it’s going to last, and the higher the rise, the steeper the fall.

The good news is that so far it’s only resulted in positive productivity, and I’m (for the moment) not tempted into self-destructive or dangerous behavior. I’m not spending extravagantly, I’m not looking for wild sexcapades, and I’m not going out and getting drunk every night (in fact, I’ve actually almost completely stopped drinking). Instead, I can’t wait to get home to work on my music more; I can’t wait for lunch breaks at work to continue my novel. I feel exhilarated, happy, and free.

Unfortunately, there’s still a danger – a danger that I might get too high and start to be damaging to myself and others. And of course the danger presented by the inevitable fall into despair and darkness, which will come eventually, whether I like it or not.

My doctor’s already taken me off the new medication, but slightly increased another one, in the hopes of balancing me a little bit more. We’ll see how that works, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a part of me that had secretly hoped to stay on it, to ride out this mania for as long as I can; but in the end, I know it’s not healthy, and I have to do what’s best for my long-term mental health.

But while it lasts, boy am I getting a lot done!