Pixels on Screen: The Failure of Gaming Movies

“BioShock” the film, once a rumor kept afloat by Internet postings, has become an official production. Gore Verbinski, director of the “Pirates” trilogy, is to helm the project that was penned by “Sweeney Todd” writer John Logan. It is one of the more grand examples of Hollywood’s relationship with the most successful of video games. The reason we do not see every single game that grosses over 500,000 copies on the silver screen is that, historically, video game-to-movie transitions have been one of the least successful collaborations between the two industries.
The removal of the main element of a game, its interactivity, strips the content down to its story skivvies. Think of why it is not as fun to watch someone play Halo as it is to frag aliens yourself. Filmmakers have tried to balance the transition by including elements of the game into the cinematography, most notably in “Doom” and “Silent Hill,” but for the large part, this has not been effective. Against a lot of gamers’ wishes, most of the releases in the industry won’t fit well into the confines of cinema.
By far the most successful adaptation of a video game has been “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”. Led by the digitally enhanced sex appeal of Angelina Jolie, the film turned out to be the exception rather than the rule. The second most successful video game movie was the first “Pokemon” film.
Most film versions of video games have barely been able to earn profit. The most notorious embodiment of poor video game adaptations would be German director Uwe Boll’s versions of “BloodRayne” and “Alone in the Dark,” which crated a venomous hatred in the man in the gaming community, and even worse, a distrust of video games’ ability to transition to other media.
The major fault comes from a lack of understanding on how to best translate video games to films. Producers want to preserve as much of the game as possible to attract the fans of the game, but they fail to balance that mystique while creating the movie. The key word is “adaptation.” You’ll never be able to faithfully recreate a 30-hour experience in a two-hour time slot.
Directors try too hard to fit in as many elements from the original game as possible, and the result is an uneven and fragmented narrative. For most action games like “Halo” and “Killzone,” the solution is that simple. Developers shouldn’t focus as much on using the game’s plot (which, in most cases, is just filler anyway), but rather slice down the film to action sequences with a bit of character-driven dialogue in between, as if they were remaking “Mad Max.”
Stories like those in “Final Fantasy” and “Metal Gear Solid” are designed, however, for a heavy 50-hour experience; the necessary narrative arcs and character development evolve slowly over this period.
Cutting down the progression of the film to the Cliff Notes version of the game is the best possible way to avoid the mess most adaptations face. It seems simple, but most video game-based films try to do too much, isolating the general public in hopes of catering to the much smaller gaming population.
“BioShock” was one of the highest rated and commercially successful games of the last fiscal year, and its inevitable appeal to moviemakers garnered initial excitement, but with a foreboding aftertaste. A film producer’s first goal is to make the largest profit possible, as it is with all companies; but the treatment of the medium belies a complete lack of ability to mine the core elements of the 50-hour game to the more cinematically palatable hour and a half.
As games continue to evolve, we can hope for a cross-fertilization and much more successful integration of multiple storytelling mediums. For now, we can be happy that Boll is not directing “BioShock.”