Videogame movies, and why they shouldn’t be a thing

Another two videogame movies came out this year and, much to the shock of everyone, they were both critically panned. It’s long been a sad fact that movies based on videogame properties are, to put it bluntly, garbage. But why is that? Is it possible to make a good videogame movie? What would that look like?

Of course it’s possible to make a good videogame movie; you can make a good movie about just about anything. You just need the right mix of ingredients: a good director, a decent screenplay, etc. But it hasn’t happened yet, and at this point the announcement of any videogame movie tie-in is met with rolling eyes. They either come out broken, or they never actually get made at all. So why is that? Well, there are a few factors that I think are at play.

For one thing, videogames haven’t been around that long. It has long been a rather niche form of entertainment and, while it is certainly more mainstream than ever before, it remains so. That means that making a gaming movie is a huge risk for investors. On top of that, videogame movies have never performed well. That adds to the risk-factor, meaning that even if you think you have gold, it’s still potentially a huge box office bomb.

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Ratchet and Clank is a good game, but take away the gameplay and you get a crappy movie

But even deeper than that, I think videogame movies have one fatal flaw. I talked about this in my previous post, which you can read here, but videogames are really coming into their own as a storytelling medium. In order to understand why videogame movies don’t work, I think we need to think about what film can do better than a videogame and, conversely, what a videogame does that a film can’t.

Films and videogames are both visual mediums. They share a lot of similarities, so you would think that the stories would translate well from film to videogame and vice versa. But it doesn’t quite work that way. Let’s think about what a film does. The format of a film is based on the way we dream. Scenes cut from one to the next in a way that, ideally, prevents you from noticing there was a cut at all. One scene flows to the next and you get the feeling that lots of time has passed even though you’ve only been sitting there for a few hours at most. Movies are all about trimming the fat, telling a story in the most efficient way possible.

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Except Mario Bros, which is more akin to a fever dream

Videogames, on the other hand, are about giving the player a long, drawn out experience. They often share a lot of the same editing techniques as films, but the biggest difference is that when a film would normally cut to a new scene or locale, a game adds in gameplay. It’s a simple change when you think about it, but it changes the entire structure of the story. The idea is that you’re inhabiting that character, and videogames fill in the gaps between scenes, with far fewer big jumps in the story. This also means that games can give the player ways to shape the narrative. That aspect hasn’t quite been perfected yet, but I think it has the most potential from a storytelling perspective.

So both mediums have strengths and weaknesses. Games like Asura’s Wrath, which is only a few steps removed from being an interactive film, are met with mixed reviews because they aren’t taking full advantage of the strengths of the medium. Movies that are based on already cinematic games, like the very recently announced Life is Strange film, take out all of the consumer’s agency and lock the story into one path.

Life is Strange
Life is Strange utilizes the medium very well, using the gameplay to tell the story

Film and games are different entities, but they are similar enough that making a movie based on a game (or the other way around) becomes redundant and, ultimately, reductive. So I think it’s time to stop making crappy videogame movies. Instead we should embrace the storytelling power of games. There are stories that film can’t tell and games can, and there are certainly tales more fit for the silver screen. Let me know in the comments below if you think I’m full of shit, and there’s a movie game tie-in that you think would be perfect. Thanks for reading, and stay Optimistic.

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12 thoughts on “Videogame movies, and why they shouldn’t be a thing

  1. I totally agree, however, I think there’s room for something like the upcoming Kingsglaive for FFXV. Don’t try to make the game itself into a movie, that can only lead to disaster. But focus on other characters or a different story in the same universe, and yeah, I think there’s potential there to both tell a story that trims the fat while also lending itself to the narrative of the game.

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  2. Awesome post! I still haven’t gotten to see Ratchet & Clank, but it’s disappointing to hear about all the bad reviews. I guess I should’ve expected it, haha. I’ve heard rumors of Nintendo locking down more movie plans, which makes me cringe a little. We’ll see what happens!

    I’m actually the Community Content Manager for NowLoading.co, and I would be thrilled if you considered cross posting your stuff to our platform. If you don’t know much about us- we’re the sister site to MoviePilot.com, and push to give awesome writers (like yourself) the exposure they deserve. Feel free to email me! tyler@nowloading.co

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    1. You know, I think that Nintendo of all people might be able to do it right. A big problem is that game movies tend to lose the core of what made the properties great, but Nintendo treats its properties with care that most others don’t. Maybe that will translate to their movies, maybe it won’t. Only time will tell.

      And thank you! I’m absolutely interested, your site looks and sounds really great. I’ll shoot you an email by the end of the day.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I tried to do a “Top 10 Games to films”, and I couldn’t get past 3.

    I like Silent Hill. Mortal Kombat is alright, in a shitty Mortal Kombat kinda way. And Resident Evil 1 is fairly close to the source material.

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    1. I actually enjoyed all of the movies you listed. I liked Resident Evil: Apocalypse when it came out, but also I was fourteen then, so I’m not sure how well it holds up. I think a lot of video game movies have entertainment value, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them good movies.

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      1. I think I liked the second movie (Apocalypse) more as a kid because it was way more interesting than the first one. I don’t think it’s a better movie, but while the first one stayed closer to the source material it wasn’t very memorable to me. Of course, this is all subjective! The wonderful thing about art of any kind is that it’s enjoyable to some and not to others, and all of those opinions are completely valid.

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  4. Great post! And kudos to you for putting together such an impressive blog, and in just a few short months too.

    Films and videogames are odd bedfellows and I agree with you about their incompatibilities. They’re two mediums that seem on the face of it to share a lot in common, but when you look closely you see that actually there are major differences. In a lot of ways games are closer to books and TV shows, if only because of exactly what you’re describing. Films have to be cutthroat when it comes to jumping between different times and locations, only showing the most interesting and relevant information for the story. If a game did that we’d call it a minigame collection 😀

    There’s also a lot that just doesn’t carry between mediums. I always think of Resident Evil 4, and how if it were a film it’d be seen as a cheesy action film (actually there IS a film based on RE4, Resident Evil Degeneration, but I haven’t seen it so can’t comment). On one level RE4 is “just” a cheesy action game, and yet it’s also an incredibly deep and satisfying game thanks to the excellent pacing, tight controls and tense gameplay.

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    1. Thank you so much! That’s so great to hear, I’ve worked hard 🙂 Yeah, Resident Evil 4 is a great example. As a story it doesn’t stand out all that much. What makes it great is the tense, quiet moments in the gameplay and the level design, design of the monsters, etc. I adore that game, as do many people, but it definitely wouldn’t work as a movie. To be fair, I also haven’t seen the film adaptation (didn’t even know it was based on RE4) but I bet it doesn’t capture what made that game great.

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  5. I agree that video games and films should not mix but I have high hopes for the Firewatch film that has been in the press recently. Maybe the linear narrative driven games are the only games that will translate well into a film? Or maybe it will be another flop!

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    1. I have mixed feelings about the Firewatch movie. For one thing, it’s a great story, and the more people it can reach the better. On the other, I think that it was already told the way it was meant to be. The walking through the woods, inhabiting the character and making dialogue choices are all an integral part of that experience, and those are all things that a movie couldn’t do. It takes out what makes the game special and turns it into another indy film. It could still be compelling, but I feel like something will be lost in translation. If it’s even made, that is! I suppose only time will tell.

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