Bright Lights Film Journal

Game Over, Curtains Close: The Creative Failure of Videogame Movies

Lost in translation

In the past three years, the cineplexes have been saturated with movies based on videogames, including big-screen adaptations of the Super Mario Brothers, Tomb Raider, Alone in the Dark, Final Fantasy, Doom, Resident Evil, BloodRayne, and the Silent Hill series. With Lord of the Rings and King Kong director Peter Jackson slated to produce a movie adaptation of top-selling game Halo, and adaptations of Postal, Far Cry, Dungeon Siege, Max Payne, and yet another Resident Evil adaptation in the works, it’s safe to say that we will not see the end of the videogame movie phenomenon anytime soon. This may be good news for the studios, but bad news for anyone who appreciates good films; the vast majority of videogame movies have been dreadful critical failures.

When writing about videogame movies, critics don’t mince words. Entertainment Weekly came out with guns blazing against BloodRayne, calling it “ghastly,” but not ghastly enough to be enjoyable even as camp. Salon.com derided Resident Evil as “Mildly grisly, assaultively noisy, and tremendously boring.” The Village Voice ripped Silent Hill for being “stuffed with cheap effects and devoid of tension.” For the New York Times, the big-screen version of Doom was a “claustrophobic mess.” Even when movies escaped the critics’ full wrath, they didn’t garner any significant praise. Robert Ebert was only able to enjoy Tomb Raider as camp, praising it for “elevat[ing] goofiness to an art form.” USA Today grudgingly admitted that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was “mildly compelling” but concluded that its virtual action lacked “human dimension.” Why is it that the compelling action, engrossing worlds, and interesting storylines of the best videogame franchises inevitably get lost in the move to the big screen?

Videogame adaptations frequently are bedeviled by a lack of attention to the source material, hack directors, a desire to privilege fans over ordinary viewers, poor translation of videogame narrative and physics to screen, and basic problems of adaptation resulting from the divergent structures of film and game media. These problems lead to adaptations that are flat, campy, and boring.

It’s important to admit, as many fans charge, that many videogame movies are not true to their source material. Taking for granted that a videogame movie will have a built-in audience, filmmakers do not invest a lot of time in making a faithful, quality adaptation. For example, filmmakers disregarded the atmospheric, Shining-esque horror of the Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil games in favor of nonstop action and scantily clad women. The science-fiction storyline of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within had little to do with the actual game series, which is primarily oriented towards swords-and-sorcery action. BloodRayne the game featured a battle between vampires and Nazis, yet in the movie the only army is what TV Guide mocks as a group of “naked Romanian prostitutes.” Unfortunately, the directors of videogame movies often tend to be hacks like the almost universally derided Uwe Boll, who uses a loophole in German tax law to finance his increasingly moronic videogame adaptations. Of course, the problem with complaining about these failings implies that an authentic, fan-approved videogame movie would be an artistic masterpiece. This is far from the case, because giving the fans what they want is not the same thing as making a good movie.

The straight-to-DVD movie Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (right) was written, produced, directed, and scored by almost exactly the same Square Enix team that created the original game. Yet Advent Children Also does not measure up in any way to its source material. The convoluted and sappy plot of the movie ruins the game’s emotionally charged and ambiguous ending to bring us a rote postapocalyptic world in which the characters suffer from a virus called “Geostigma.” As Alex Vo notes in Popmatters, the antics of the computer-generated characters provoke disgust rather than admiration:

Running around like fashion model action figures, nothing seems to affect [the characters]. . . . [T]hey break down walls with their tossed bodies, but get up unscathed. Bullets are taken directly to the face, but they emerge with only a scar and broken designer glasses. With apparent healing powers that would make Wolverine’s burn green, stabs to the shoulder are literally shrugged off; the arm’s a-okay four camera cuts later. If they’re impervious, why should we, or even how can we, care about their plight?

The movie bombards the viewer with an endless array of battles, motorcycle chases, pseudo-philosophical whining, and phoned-in sentimentality. It is simply an elaborate spectacle designed to make money off of the videogame’s crazed contingent of admirers. It is almost as if the filmmakers went through the Internet boards, catalogued the things that Final Fantasy VII fans wished to see, such as Cloud riding a motorcycle and fanboy favorite Aeris sending her wishes from beyond. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with something that exists only to satiate the hardcore fans, but the vast majority of people who are not fanatic devotees of the game will neither appreciate nor understand it. Despite what its vocal supporters might write on the IGN.com web-boards, Advent Children is not a masterpiece. In some ways, it’s more of a cut scene from the game itself than a film.

One of the key things that Advent Children illustrates is that fiction of any kind depends on a suspension of disbelief within reasonable limits. In a game, the player’s character can be hit with anything from a gun to a laser beam to a tank round, yet he or she can still keep going without a scratch. When characters die, they can simply respawn. But movies are successful because of the emotional investment we have in the characters and their plight. Though movie heroes seldom die, it is the extent to which we feel the hero’s jeopardy — that he or she might die or be hurt — that determines how emotionally involved we are in the story. It is very hard to translate the invulnerable videogame hero to a vulnerable movie hero — for example, Advent Children‘s Cloud Strife is almost surrealistically omnipotent in the face of his enemies.

Some of the more fantastical storylines in videogames also do not make the cut in films. In Super Mario Brothers, the film resorted to a long opening monologue to inform the viewer that dinosaurs had survived the extinction in a parallel dimension and are now known as koopas. The only thing more off-putting than the explanation was the fact that it was voiced by a Bronx wiseguy. Exposition like this is a substitute for plot and character development and a frequent turn-off for viewers — a common mistake in videogame movies, as the filmmaker struggles to explain over-the-top plotlines and situations that were developed through game-player experience. However, all of these problems are merely symptoms of the most basic, glaring difference between the two media: structure.

Although some game companies model games on films, the root model of gaming is not cinema but play. As Celia Pearce notes in her essay “Story as Play Space: Narrative in Games,” “Quake and Half-Life are [little] more [than] high tech games of cops and robbers” and “Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games are just an elaborate form of that old favourite, dressing up” (Pearce 116). In fact, as Masuyama reports in his essay “Pokemon as Japanese Culture?” the producer of Pokemon (above) states that the strength of his title draws on its opposition to a film model:

The most significant aspect of the Pokemon concept is the fact that it is not a [closed] product. Take film: we see a beginning, an end, and finally, the credits rolling. That is a ‘closed’ product. The Game Boy title Pokemon also has a beginning and an end, and even credits. … [But] that hardly means the game is over. At the end, in order to complete the Monster Encyclopedia, the player sets out once again . . . in search of Pokemon. Also, a player may use a cable to trade Pokemon with other players. (Masuyama 41)

Just like the child in a game of cops and robbers, the videogame’s immersive experience is created through the player’s interaction with the environment. In many action games, the fate of the world is in the hands of the player, who must fight through legions of baddies to win. Even in the more story-oriented and linear role-playing games, the player is faced with a variety of choices, such as the composition of his team and the buying of equipment and magic. Side quests off the path of the game’s main narrative create replay value and ensure the player does not feel he or she is being spoon-fed narrative. It is useful to point out that the most successful narrative game series, Myst, has no narration of any sort. The player is left alone in a vast and beautiful world that is completely his or hers to explore. The player pieces together the plot through the process of childlike discovery and interaction, a process whose importance cannot be overstressed. Videogames with completely linear plots and characters are boring — it’s like playing a game of hide-and-seek in which the opponent hides in plain view. Even Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a game that is in many ways a thinly veiled adaptation of Brian DePalma’s Scarface, is famous for its multiple endings and possibilities: a player can become a mobster or fritter his or her time away riding motorcycles and scooters.

It’s also important to understand how much games privilege their players. The reason why videogames do not have strongly developed characters is they are not the real stars of the game. The player is actor, director, stunt person, hero, and God of his or her own universe. Is Pokemon really about Ash Ketchum, an average and largely mute teenager, or the player’s quest to collect every single monster? If GoldenEye 007 is really about James Bond, why don’t we see him onscreen during play instead of the floating gun that is common to all first-person shooters? Even though Final Fantasy VII is ostensibly about Cloud Strife, it is the player who makes all the important decisions. It is not the sword but the joystick that decides Strife’s ultimate fate.

Cinema, on the other hand, is an inherently linear media form. There is no interaction or choice in the movie theater: one simply digests what is on the screen. The two media are almost in complete opposition to each other. If cinema grew out of the stage, videogames grew out of toy soldier battles. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. Some people get more enjoyment out of playing hide-and-seek with their children than watching Citizen Kane. But it must be acknowledged that videogames and films go together like oil and fire. Stripped of player interaction, videogames lose all of their engaging and dramatic qualities. Instead, there is a surreal and disembodied quality to watching Doom Resident Evil (above), akin to being at a friend’s house and looking over his shoulder as he plays the videogame. You don’t really want to watch; you want to play. But there you are, watching him — for two hours.

The only choice left to the film director is to rewrite the story for film audiences. However, it will always compare negatively to the gaming experience simply because the jump in medium ruins what it is good about the game. This is what makes videogame adaptations fundamentally different from that of other linear forms of entertainment like comic books, novels, and television shows.

Nevertheless, videogame adaptations will remain part of the film market. Major studios looking at declining ticket sales need surefire hits, so they embrace ramshackle adaptations of videogames and comic books. Their cynical calculation is that the built-in audience of hard-core fans will see the film regardless of any negative reviews. It doesn’t matter whether the fans like it or not. The fans may see it and fume on the Internet, but they still will shove their money into the Hollywood machine.

Works Cited

Clark, Mike. “Virtual Stars Lack Human Dimension.” USA Today.com. 7 July 2001. USA Today.

Ebert, Roger. “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” RogerEbert.com. 15 June 2001. Chicago Sun-Times.

Gallo, Bill. “Silent Hill.” The Village Voice. 27 April 2006. Village Voice Media Inc.

Kirschling, Gregory. “BloodRayne.” EW.com. 11 January 2006. Entertainment Weekly.

Masuyama. “Pokemon as Japanese Culture?” Game On: The History and Culture of Videogames. Ed. Lucien King. London: Laurence King, 2002. 34-43.

Martel, Ned. “Life, and Lots of Death, on Mars.” NYTimes.com. 21 October 2005. The New York Times. June 4, 2006.

McDonagh, Maitland. “A Study in Scarlet.” tvguide.com. 2006.

Pearce, Celia. “Story as Play Space: Narrative in Games.” Game On: The History and Culture of Videogames. Ed. Lucien King. London: Laurence King, 2002. 112-119.

Vo, Alex. “Children of the Forlorn.” Popmatters. 14 October 2005. Popmatters Media Inc.

Zacharek, Stephanie. “Resident Evil.” Salon.com. 15 March 2002. Salon Media Group Inc.