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The Problem with Video Game Movies

By Hubert Ta

Whenever I hear about a new movie based on a video game, I take a measured approach. If it’s helmed by a major studio, has an experienced team, and the cast and crew are fans of the games themselves, it’s a good sign. Most of the time however, it has a small budget, an inexperienced director, and the actors have never even played the game before. This recipe for disaster has been repeated so many times that it’s common form to assume that a movie based on a video game will do poorly.

2016’s two major video game film releases, “Warcraft” and “Assassin’s Creed,” seem to continue this trend. While they may have pleased fans of their respective franchises, critics canned both films and audiences did not turn out in droves. The jury’s still out on “Assassin’s Creed,” but “Warcraft” underperformed at the domestic box office; according to BoxOfficeMojo, “Warcraft” earned $47 million despite its budget of $160 million in the U.S. Add two more films to the lineup of bad video game movie adaptations, joining the ranks of “Max Payne,” “Super Mario Bros.,” and “Doom.” These bad adaptations of the source material are further exacerbated by the fact that they are often bad films as well. Too much investment in explaining the game’s lore or recreating the experience of the game often overrides the importance of creating a good film.

The inherent problem in creating video game movies is that video games tell interactive stories in 5 to 100+ hours, while movies have, at most, three hours to do the same. Films don’t have the luxury of explaining every detail of a game’s universe in codices and numerous side quests, needing to focus exclusively on the main narrative with the right balance of worldbuilding and plot. Furthermore, the interactivity of video games cannot easily be replicated, as movie audiences never control the characters as they fight in a warzone, flee from a demon, or dance the night away.

In addition, some video game films try to adapt stories that are incredibly simple and difficult to elaborate upon, such as “Street Fighter” and “Need for Speed,” while others try to adapt intensely complex narratives such as “Resident Evil” or any “Final Fantasy” story.

But film’s limited time frame hasn’t stopped good adaptations before; novels and television of equal or greater length have been adapted into beloved films like “The Lord of the Rings” series based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels and “The Fugitive” (1993), based on the 1960s TV show. Making a good videogame movie should take a similar approach by paying stringent attention to the source material and translating the game’s central elements into a film that pleases both fans and audiences who have never heard of the franchise. An experienced cast and crew are incredibly important, as well as having production staff collaborate with the game’s creators and fans. Ultimately, video game movies need to be crafted like any other adaptation: with care to the source material and the differences inherent to the moviemaking process.

While there haven’t been any great video game films, there are some that are good enough. “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” starring Angelina Jolie, captured Lady Croft’s wit and archaeological adventures, while “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” had fun with sword-fighting fantasy, and “Pokemon: The First Movie” is a 1990s guilty pleasure. In addition, movies centered on video games like Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Tron” are much better than their adapted counterparts; they are not adaptations, but rather utilize video games as part of their plot, world, or premise.

As for future video game films, the only ones that seem promising are “Tomb Raider” (2018), an adaptation of Square Enix’s 2013 Tomb Raider series reboot, starring Alicia Vikander as younger, more inexperienced Lara Croft, and “Uncharted”, about Nathan Drake’s search for El Dorado, whose games are already quite cinematic. Also “Tetris”, because I’m curious to see how they translate dropping blocks into a cohesive story.