So news came down the pipe this week that the latest big video game franchise to get the Hollywood adaptation treatment is Mass Effect, a plot-heavy sci-fi action/RPG where the player controls the captain of a starship with the token motley crew of eccentrics and aliens. Coupled with the insane amount of hype that Prince of Persia has been getting (the ads have been inescapable for weeks now), something in my brain just snapped, and I’ve had enough. Enough with the video game movies, Hollywood. They’ve never worked (either financially or artistically), and I really don’t think they ever will, whether it’s Prince of Persia or Mass Effect or Gears of War or any other big-name game franchise that’s been optioned for a movie. And I’m saying that as a both a movie buff and a gamer.
I love Mass Effect, a lot. So much so that my Xbox 360 recently died on me and I’m already resigned to dropping about $300 just so I can re-play the Mass Effect games as well as the upcoming Mass Effect 3. I’m a fan. Not a posting-fanfiction-on-message-boards fan, I grant you, but I probably have more invested in Mass Effect than the vast majority of “average” moviegoers. And I think the idea for a Mass Effect movie is awful.
Here’s the crazy part of why I’m so sick of movie games: I like video games. A lot. Probably more than you. No, screw it, I can almost guarantee I like games more than you. But the movies suck. They always suck. They almost certainly never won’t suck. I want them to be good. But they never are. You know what one of the best video game movies made yet is? Mortal Kombat. And that movie is not good at all (and I know from martial arts movies). Trust me. Mortal Kombat is not a good movie. But compared to literally every other video game movie – Hitman, Max Payne, Super Mario Brothers, Resident Evil, whatever – it’s pretty awesome. It’s entertaining and it’s faithful to the story of the games (a term I use quite loosely indeed), and those are two things that are almost never said about movies based on games.
Why is that? I have some theories. And they’re not the sort that are popular in hardcore gaming circles. I think the reason movies based on games are always crap is that the stories the movies are adapting are always crap. Games pretty much all tell stories nowadays (obviously I don’t mean Wii Sports here), and they always reference movies, because cinematic storytelling is what games have aspired to for as long as cutscenes have existed. Mass Effect, to continue with this example, has as detailed a sci-fi universe behind it as any game I’ve ever played, but it’s filled with ideas and concepts that are borrowed from existing sci-fi movies, TV shows and books. There’s nothing terribly original in there beyond a few clever superficial things, and so a Mass Effect film will automatically feel very derivative to an “average” (i.e. non-gamer) audience. They’d only see the Star Trek-inspired ships and the Star Wars-inspired aliens and concepts. What makes the Mass Effect games so special isn’t the plot itself, it’s how the player interacts with it. Mass Effect is a brilliant game because it fuses all these things – Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Blade Runner – and lets you control the story. And that detail, that control, is the thing that, by definition, all game movies will lack. It’s also the thing that Hollywood still doesn’t seem to understand: watching a character do something amazing onscreen will never replicate the excitement of feeling like you’re doing something amazing. It’s the sort of detail that most studio executives and producers (I’m gonna go ahead and assume that most Hollywood shot-callers aren’t avid gamers) miss because they lack sufficient hands-on experience with games.
Len Wiseman, who was at one time attached to direct the planned Gears of War movie (another really fun game that would most likely make a derivative, mediocre-at-best movie), became familiar with the game when he picked footage out of a lineup of big games for a monitor to be glimpsed in the background of a scene in Live Free or Die Hard. Before that, he’d never heard of the game, which was basically an instant phenomenon in the gaming world when the first title was released in 2006. Now, I’m not slamming Wiseman for his lack of gamer cred (if I made big-budget blockbusters and was married to Kate Beckisndale I doubt I’d have as much time for Red Dead Redemption as I do currently), I’m just saying that that story sort of explains how unfamiliar Hollywood still seems to be when it comes to games. So of course they don’t know how to adapt one properly. Studio execs really only respect one thing, and that’s numbers. Naturally they get all hot and bothered when someone shows them how much money a huge game release like Halo or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare can rake in in a day or a week (a major game release like Halo regularly rake in billions of dollars, something Hollywood movies only do once in a blue moon; Grand Theft Auto IV made more money in its first week in stores than The Dark Knight did in its entire North American theatrical run); they just think about how much money they’ll make a movie based on that property would bring in for them hits it big – if just a fraction of the tens of millions of people who play Halo or World of Warcraft online shell out $10 or $12 for a movie ticket, they’re rolling in it – except that never happens. But still, we have movies based on hit games like World of Warcraft, Bioshock, Gears of War and Halo currently in various stages of development hell, and if any of them are made (which still looks like a big “if” at this point, though nothing that a fat opening weekend for Prince of Persia can’t fix), they will almost certainly be bad movies.
But the main difference between adapting games to movies and adapting other media is that other adaptations, be they of books, comics or TV shows, aren’t adapting interactive media. There’s a narrative structure already in place from which to draw, and the problem with the narrative structures of most games is that they exist first and foremost to help create a compelling game, which is vastly different from a compelling movie, and the gulf between those two is far more vast than the gulf between a compelling book and a compelling movie (though that gap can also be very significant). It’s also why the stories in most games, objectively speaking, are bad, at least compared to movies. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is one of the best-selling and best-reviewed games ever released, and I’ve played through it twice and I still couldn’t tell you what exactly the story is, but it seemed liked the stuff of a second-rate 24 ripoff. But that doesn’t mean the game isn’t awesome, it’s just different from a movie. A Call of Duty movie would just be a bunch of soldiers running around shooting terrorists. It would be terrible. But the game’s a blast to play. Because you’re playing it, not just watching what happens and listening to the dialogue.
Some game people get it. Rockstar Games has been notoriously reluctant to sign over the movie rights to their blockbuster Grand Theft Auto franchise, because Rockstar is staffed by very smart, savvy folks who seem to understand how a GTA movie would, by definition, suck, primarily because you’re not playing it. Removing interactivity from these characters and stories and expecting them to still connect with audiences is like adapting Avatar into a radio broadcast and then scratching your head when the same audiences don’t turn out to listen to the adventures of Jake Sully and the Na’vi on Pandora. Not only is it not the same experience, it effectively removes the most compelling part of the source material (in Avatar’s case, the visuals; in a game’s case, the part where you play it and it’s fun) and presents the hollowed-out husk to audiences. No wonder nobody’s interested.