7 ways to save the video game movie

It doesn’t take a hardcore gamer to know that video game movies haven’t been very good, unless mediocre Milla Jovovich vehicle are your bag. However, gamers everywhere are still clutching onto their Xbox controllers in unified hope that the video game movie can be salvaged.

That hope is being ushered in by Ubisoft, the French video game developer behind Far Cry and Watch Dogs; the company just recently created a separate film division to oversee the development of video game movies under their leadership. The first in that line-up of Ubisoft-approved video game movies is an adaptation of the popular title Assassin’s Creed. Ubisoft just announced last week that production has begun on the film, which will star Oscars-approved heavyweights Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard.

Fans are hoping Ubisoft taking the reins of the controller will have Marvel effect on the industry, after the popular comic book publisher got into the filmmaking business in 1993, launching Marvel Studios. There was a time when comic-book movies weren’t taken very seriously, which is not altogether different than the reputation video game movies have now. Even with Ubisoft getting involved, critics remain skeptical that, given the history of video game movies, Hollywood hasn’t learned anything—which is not without merit.

On Wednesday, Warner Bros. announced a forthcoming remake of Tomb Raider, which has a writer already attached to the project. With the last two Tomb Raider movies being pretty lackluster, could the planned reboot really improve on the previous failures of the franchise? (Neill Blomkamp’s Alien reboot, while not a video game adaptation, will also test this idea by retconning the previous two entries in the series.) However, if Marvel Studios has proved anything, it’s that under the right care any property—no matter how ludicrous the premise or sullied its development history is—can be improved.  

With that said, here are seven ways video game movies can KO its own beaten down reputation and “continue” to the next level.

1) Understand what makes a video game movie work

The most obvious difference between movies and video games is that video games are interactive and movies are not, but the real differences go deeper than that. While movies can feel immersive, they are still mostly linear with a carefully constructed narrative. Games are different.

Video games also have stories, but their stories work in a completely different way. The narrative in a video game is there for the gamer to often accomplish tasks or defeat seemingly insurmountable odds.  With films, the narrative is often there to lead an audience member through the story while sometimes offering surprises along the way.

If filmmakers and game developers—such as Ubisoft—want to improve video game movies there needs to be a better understanding of why a video game works and why a movie works, especially if they want to blend the two. This is simple in concept but is almost always overlooked with video game adaptations—such as with Resident Evil, Mortal Kombat or any awful Uwe Boll video game movie.

Filmmakers focus on what they think gamers want to see—such as Milla Jovovich doing badass stunts—instead of focusing on what it takes to make a good video game adaptation.   Along with understanding the difference between movies and video games, there also needs to be delineation between adapting a video game story and knowing what to adapt from that story.

2) Be selective with what you take from the source material

For some reason, filmmakers like to adapt video games that have stories that don’t always translate well to the film medium. In some cases, like Uwe Boll’s House of the Dead, the filmmakers favor a completely different story. As Mike Thompson of Metacritic said on the film, “Rather than focus on the game’s story of two agents trying to investigate the strange goings on at the Curien Mansion, Uwe Boll’s version of House of the Dead tells the compelling story of a bunch of kids that want to have a rave party.”

If filmmakers are going to adapt a video game, they need to start by figuring out the best story to tell, which sometimes means not being beholden to the exact story of the game. For the most part, most video games have up to 15 hours or more of game play, while most films only run a mere two hours. As a result, filmmakers often try to truncate a video game’s story to the point where the actual story of the game is unrecognizable.

Many video game movies, like the Resident Evil series, have tried to adapt the narrative of the game almost verbatim in an attempt to please fans. It just doesn’t work. Instead try boiling the story down to its core essence—or better yet, try adapting games that have very minimal stories that filmmakers and writers can flesh out, instead of having to scale back.

3) Create a strong lead character

Most recent video game movies haven’t done a stellar job at adapting games that feature strong, interesting protagonists. Take the Hitman series, for example. The Hitman video games are about a bald, nameless assassin—dubbed “Agent 47”—who has absolutely no personality. The games aren’t so much about the assassin as they are putting the assassin in situations in which he can kill the most people.

Which makes it confusing why 20th Century Fox figured this game would not only merit one film adaptation—but two. The first film—starring Timothy Olyphant, who delivers a suitably lifeless performance—was a complete dud and the second film (called Hitman: Agent 47) is set to come out later this year.  Judging from the trailer and the synopsis, the studio hasn’t seemed to have learned much from the disappointing and dull first installment. It’s as if these guys want to make bad video game adaptations.

If 20th Century Fox wanted to make a good Hitman movie, it should focus on the people Agent 47 is after.  It would make a much more interesting film if it was centered on the scared targets trying to avoid this ruthless killing machine rather than focusing on a killing machine devoid of a pulse. By the same token, if video game movies want to be good, studios and filmmakers should try adapting the video games that actually feature strong leads. As director and Dark Knight screenwriter David S. Goyer said, “Once we start seeing video games that have memorable characters, then I think we’ll start seeing more successful video game adaptations. We’ll see if Assassin’s Creed works, that seems the best candidate right now.”

4) Don’t adapt the look of the game; adapt the feel of the game

A lot of the time filmmakers are so focused on getting certain details about a video game right—such as a character’s look or even specific details of the story—that the film adaptation often overlooks a pivotal detail: the feeling you get when you’re playing the game.

For example, Edge of Tomorrow might be the best video game movie not actually based on a video game. The film, based on a Japanese manga called All You Need is Kill, deals with time travel. The main character, William Cage (played by Tom Cruise), must endure the same day over and over again. However, with each time that he has to repeat his day, he learns how to further master the art of survival before having to “re-spawn,” a popular gaming term that applies to someone dying in a video game. In that way, Cruise’s Cage (and the audience) becomes a typical video game character; when he dies, the audience member groans and sighs just as Cage does.

Filmmakers shouldn’t be so focused on getting the look of Milla Jovovich’s character right from Resident Evil or even getting exact moments of the game right, such as the first-person shooter sequence from the Doom adaptation. That sequence took audiences right out of the movie; it was clumsily done and felt out of place. Gene Seymour of the Los Angeles Times put it best: “[It] shows less human dimension than the new Wallace and Gromit movie.”

5) Hire people who understand and appreciate the source material

With comic-book movies, Marvel Studios hires writers and filmmakers are that have an intrinsic understanding of the source material they are adapting—such as the Russo Brothers, who grew up loving Captain America and are now spearheading Cap’s film franchise. For video game adaptations, those behind the scenes don’t seem to appreciate or understand the games themselves.

On top of that, sometimes it seems like the people in charge of making the films never even played the game they are adapting, such as Max Payne director John Moore. Moore openly admitted to being a stranger to the game his film was based on, and it showed in the final product: The L.A. Times called the film “miserable,” while USA Today’s Claudia Puig said, “Max Payne couldn’t be more appropriately named. Sitting through this stylish-looking but derivative, vacuous and bullet-riddled movie inflicts maximum pain.”

While it would be unwise for video game artists to start directing their own adaptations, it’s probably best to find a happy middle ground by hiring video game designers or artists to consult on the story and advise whoever is directing. Better yet, hire a film director who actually likes the source material, like Duncan Jones. Jones is directing the Warcraft adaptation, and the reception so far is very optimistic. Jones is a self-admitted fan of World of Warcraft and he even made a film called Source Code that dealt with a character dying and coming back to life over and over again, just like in a video game.  

If more people who appreciated the source material were hired to help make video game movies, maybe then video game movies might finally begin to resemble the games they were based off of.

6) Feel comfortable making changes to the game

Filmmakers are so afraid to tamper with the story or the characters that they end up making movies that are so slavishly faithful to their video game counterparts that they just lack ingenuity.

However, when video game movies have made deviations, the results have actually been decent. A good example was the Silent Hill adaptation, starring Pitch Black’s Radha Mitchell, which has been signaled out as one of the better video game movies. The film made some changes to the game’s story and characters—including focusing on a predominantly female cast, whereas the characters are mostly male in the original game. It was warmly received by video game standards, with many critics praising the film for its effectively terrifying atmosphere. Cinema Crazed’s Felix Vasquez, Jr. called it “one of the best video game adaptations I’ve seen in years.” (It’s not a tall order to fill, I know.)

It took a fan film to show that you could dramatically change the tone and aesthetics of a game, and it can still be well-received. Mortal Kombat: Rebirth, a YouTube trailer that reimagined what an adaptation of the game could be, was praised by fans for its realistic portrayal of often silly characters such as Baraka. The film eventually spawned a web series and a feature-length film is in development. It just goes to show that fans will be okay if you think outside the console, so long as the thinking yields something good.

7)  Make mature video game movies

It might be surprising to hear but adults play video games, too. The perception that teens grow out of video games is just as silly as your parents telling you that acne stops after you’re done with adolescence (thanks, Mom).  With Paramount aiming to reboot Tomb Raider, it would behoove them to develop the movie for other demographics than just the young teens who mainly want to see Lara Croft blowing things up.

Especially since women are playing video games, too. According to a new study, women actually outnumber teenage boys when it comes to gaming demographics. Charlie Pulliam-Moore of PBS News reported, “While men still account for the majority of the U.S. gaming population, the number of women playing games on both consoles and mobile devices is up to 48 percent, from 40 percent in 2010.” Besides women, adults are playing video games now more than ever. A survey conducted by NBC proved that over half of adults in the United States play video games. Even parents are playing video games. So it’s OK if you spend some of your free time playing video games, that sound you hear coming your parents’ bedroom is probably them killing zombies.

Video game movies for the longest time have been made solely as brainless, dumb action movies. While young teens might enjoy that, adults want something more out of their video game movies. Comic-book movies matured when filmmakers started to take them more seriously. When Marvel Studios made Iron Man, they made a film that kids could enjoy just as much as older audiences. If video game movies want to enjoy that kind of success, then it’s time game companies and filmmakers started taking video game movies more seriously, too. 

Screengrab via Ubisoft/YouTube

Dan Marcus

Dan Marcus

Dan Marcus is a geek culture reporter based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in First Showing and Trek Movie.