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.
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.
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.
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.