Why Movies Based on Video Games Feel Somewhat Pointless

With the Warcraft teaser trailer now out, fans of the franchise are clamoring for a movie adapted from a video game that doesn’t suck. It’s telling that among video game adaptations, the best reviewed are films like Mortal Kombat and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, neither of which I would call anything more than passable. This problem goes way back, with some seriously horrid misfires such as the Super Mario Bros. film that is an adaptation in name only. The most entertainment that one can hope for is something like the Street Fighter movie, which had Raul Julia’s truly legendary swan song of a performance to elevate the movie from campy, but still mostly bad to so bad it’s hilariously good. To be honest though, I think that part of the problem with movie adaptations from video games is that the very change in medium this requires is a seemingly insurmountable mountain in itself.

The thing about video games is that most people don’t play them for the story; rather, they play them for the sake of playing, well, the game. It’s right there in the term “video game.” This isn’t supposed to be a movie or an art piece. It’s a game. If you wanted to make it artistic or cinematic, you’d either call it an interactive whateverthefuck or simply make a movie. A lot of people seem to miss the obvious problem with focusing so much on storytelling in a cinematic mode in a game. Most times, the plot is just there so that players have an excuse to have the characters do whatever it is they do to ensure that the game happens as it does, as in the case of Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja, which asked if you were a bad enough due to rescue the president. While it’s true that some games have decent stories and characters, the fact is, a lot of these games take advantage of their medium to tell a story interactively (the first BioShock, for example, took elements of a video game that players took for granted and then used them in the story in a manner that was genuinely shocking and memorable). One of my issues with games that barely have any gameplay is that whoever made them wasted their time making a poor game when they could have aimed for making an interesting movie or book or whatever narrative-based product. That’s not to say that interactive works can’t tell stories in mediums other than video games.

Take visual novels as an example. Oftentimes, readers are given options where they might make choices like they would in a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book or dialogue options. In short, these “novels” give their readers a chance to impact the work to a certain extent. At the same time, visual novels are able to take advantage of the medium. Fate/stay night takes a scenario, then repeats it twice with minor differences at the start that eventually lead to greater distinctions between the three routes available to readers. In contrast to Fate/Zero, which is a more traditional narrative (it was first released as a light novel) that serves as a prequel to the other work, FSN requires reading through all three routes (among other things) in order to develop a full understanding of the story, the universe it takes place in, and the characters, all of which are explored to different extents and from different angles depending on the route. To read only one of the routes is to know only 1/3 of the whole story.

One film that was indeed adapted from a game, and pretty decent in its own right, even if it did take time to become a cult favorite, was Clue. Of course, this was an adaptation of a board game, but the way the film was executed resulted in a product that was a worthy movie in its own right. The casting is in many cases brilliant, and the movie realizes just how silly the very premise and naming traditions of the game are, reflecting that in a farcical tone and multiple endings, evoking the game it was adapted from. Even then however, it was less an adaptation of the game than it was a movie that took the game’s conceits and played with them while adding some more silliness to the proceedings.

This goes back to the matter of video game adaptations. They are in the end just plain unnecessary. Why would I watch a movie about whatever when I would much rather be waiting for this overly long cutscene to end so that I can start playing the game? A story as told through interactive gameplay should be distinct from a story told through a more traditional narrative medium without interactivity like that of a movie. In the end, both mediums are aiming to do different things with their respective audiences, and it’s the failure to recognize this that leads to people scratching their heads when films based on video games just don’t work. This isn’t like when a book and its own adaptations need to be differentiated as different takes on the same basic story. Rather, this is a difference between mediums with completely opposite approaches to just how they interact and are to be interacted with by their audiences.

It’s such a dang shame that people can’t recognize that. And that’s why I can’t really buy into the hype for Warcraft. Despite seeing the budget and the director at the helm, and the potential of finally having a genuinely good film adaptation of a video game, in the end, there’s little point to adapting a game faithfully by cutting out the game.

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