DIGITAL DEBATE WEDNESDAYS: Why Don’t Video Game Movies Work?

Welcome back to Digital Debate Wednesdays! Every Wednesday, the staff of The Ace of Geeks will get our keyboards ready for a good, old fashioned nerd argument, and you get to hang out with us! Feel free to email us any ideas you might have for future debates, or let us know in the comments! Until then, here’s this weeks topic:

The Warcraft Movie drops next week, with the Assassin’s Creed movie later this year – but historically, video game films have not fared very well, with only Silent Hill and the excellent Mortal Kombat held up as examples of good video game adaptations. Unlike comics or books, video games just don’t seem to translate that well onto the big screen. So this week’s question: Why do you think that is? What is it about video games that has made adapting them so damned difficult?

Gwendolyn Reza: I think it has a lot to do with the way we enjoy comic books vs. Video games.
Comic books have set storylines, and while they may mean different things to each person, at the end of the day we are all having the exact same experience.
Video games on the other hand, are played differently by each person. We create our own world and reside in it as individuals, completely devoid of outside influence by other players if we don’t want it.
By attempting to make movies that appeal to the masses, from Video games, a subject matter that means a completely different thing to each player, you end up catering to the population rather than the individual.
I’d love it if they made a movie about MY Skyrim character, because that’s MY world. I wouldn’t enjoy it as much if it was about generic Nord #6.

  • Joe Hadsall: They still sing songs about Generic Nord #6 in Whiterun.
  • Mike Fatum: Yeah, I think this is definitely a huge part of it. I often bring up Mass Effect as a huge example – it’s so hard to make something out of that universe because literally everyone has a wildly different Shepard. Alexis and I have had some wonderful debates about what Shepard would and wouldn’t do because her Shepard is such a different person with different values than mine.

Joe Hadsall: I think it has a lot to do with the relationship between a game’s story and grind.

“Tomb Raider,” for instance. The original game was story cinematic, plow through four levels, another cinematic, four more levels, cinematic, etc. Or “Half-Life”: the in-game story bits were a sort of reward for making it through tough challenges. Fast forward to today, where Naughty Dog is creating some incredible stories in “The Last of Us” and “Uncharted.” The story is intertwined with the grind.

The grind primes us for story, and the story gives us purpose for the grind. In a movie, all there is is story. Just two hours of us sitting there, having things spelled out for us. We don’t earn anything.

Ellie Collins: For me it’s because we all discover the story differently and with so many infinite tiny details that capturing that same experience in two hours is just flat out impossible. You take a game people have spent HUNDREDS of hours in, building their own character and personal adventure, then shrink that to two hours? It will crash and burn every time. But I think as VG movies realize telling new small stories within the universe is ok, that they’ll get better.

  • Mike Fatum: That’s one of the reasons that I’m so excited that the Assassin’s Creed story is telling a story that has nothing to do with any of the established game characters. I think that’s a brilliant move.
  • Ellie Collins: Precisely, and that’s why I think it’s not a bad idea it’s mostly in the real world for the first movie. They’re intending to make a franchise and are pulling people in from a film aspect instead of going for gamers.

Malkontent Blizzard: I think its like comic book movies. Remember that it took real fans and comic creators behind the camera to make those good.

Joe Hadsall: Also, keep in mind that comic books have a structure similar to movies, which makes them easier to adapt. The most successful video-game movies have had to create their own worlds and use the game as just source material, such as “Resident Evil” and “Mortal Kombat.” “Silent Hill” even used original game music.

Not even “Ratchet and Clank,” a game that was BEGGING to be made into a movie, could overcome its relationship to gameplay. What does a “Half-Life” movie look like, with a mute character making a mostly-solo journey through either Black Mesa or City 17? Even games with great stories, such as “Bioshock” or “The Last of Us” have adaptation challenges that comic books don’t have.

Grant Corvin: First off…

Mortal Kombat and Silent Hill are not what I would consider good video game movies. Faithful, but not good. Which leads into the main issue: most video game movies are too focused on being fan service instead of being taken seriously (in the quality department). For the ones that attempt to take it seriously, they unfortunately do so in a way that alienates all but the most hardcore fans, which is a key issue with the new Warcraft (aside from being melodramatic). At the same time, there are a lot of choices that tend to rip out the essence of the works they’re adapting.

Transitioning from that, most of the producers aren’t willing to take a risk on getting good people involved in these projects. Case in point, the Hitman movies being a prime example. The first one was heavily maligned, and what did they do for the reboot? Hire the EXACT SAME WRITER who caused a lot of the problems to begin with. Even with Warcraft, which has one of my favorite indie directors and a healthy budget, was given a mediocre writer whose best movies are decent at best.

Thirdly, as a video game is a dynamic experience, it’s harder to recapture the magic of one’s involvement. Because of that, a lot of fan bases can be incredibly divisive, and if the filmmakers/ producers try to please everyone, they disappoint most people.

Honestly, the works that did it best were Scott Pilgrim and Wreck-It-Ralph. The reason being is because they were less focused on being pieces of fan service and more about being love letters to video games with interesting characters and deep stories. While I pretty much lost all hope with “Warcraft,” I still have hope Assassin’s Creed will be solid (but I’m still in the wait and see camp).

  • Joe Hadsall: When it comes to video-game movies, “most successful” does not equal “good.” And to be fair, “Wreck-it Ralph” is an independently created movie about video games. The game didn’t come first.
  • Grant Corvin: True, but it still emphasizes the first point I was trying to make. It knew that even though it was about video games, it didn’t get cheap with it (usually). The fan service was a secondary factor despite being filled to the brim with various characters and elements from several decades worth of games. And even the independent stuff failed at this on different occasions (I’m looking at you, “The Wizard”). It acts as a template for what video game movies can do if they’re careful with how the move forward.

Joe Hadsall: To be fair, there are GOOD adaptations of video games out there. Look at what Dan Trachtenberg did with “Portal”:


  • Grant Corvin: A lot of the indie shorts are great. In terms of major studio produced projects though (with the exception of “Mortal Kombat: Legacy, specifically the first season), that’s a different story.

Jim Lucky: There are two primary contributing factors that I see, the functional issues and the historical marketing issues.

First the functional reason, the lack of adequate translation from game to movie lies in the fundamental differences between the mediums, interactivity.
Film is a passive experience, one watches and does little else. Your connection to the story and it’s characters is reliant on the performance of the actors and the composition of the film (how it’s shot, musical scoring, etc).
With games you create a customized experience simply by playing it. The very nature of playing a game is transformative and that is simply put, impossible to translate to the vast majority of people.
Perhaps a movie includes a character that was a boss fight and you had difficulty beating them, but in the movie they go out “like a chump”. You suddenly have a moment of cognitive dissonance as your brain rebels and your experiences tell you “That fight should have been way more than it was.”
Additionally there are aspects of games that simply do not translate to film. In games you’re sitting down to an experience for anywhere from 5 to 100+ hours with thousands of unique experiences that each have different ways to approach them. Films on the other hand have 90 to 180 minutes to tell a snappy, concise story. They just CANNOT pack the entire experience into a film, and that invariably leaves someone in the lurch.

Secondly, the Historical marketing of games in the 80’s clean through to the relative present has been that games are “children’s toys.”
Until recently (the last handful of years), when games have been increasingly included in categories with TV, Film, and traditional art forms, games were basically considered by most people as on par with anything that read “ages 3 and up” on the box. Thus when it was put forward that they might want to convert some of them to film they were treated by the studios in the same manner one might if they were approached to make a “Dora the Explorer” or “Barney the Dinosaur” movie. The expectation is that adults would not be seeing these movies for themselves and that it would be their children being appeased by flashy colors, cheesy one liners, and smashed in references to the things they saw in their game regardless of how little sense it actually made for that thing to be there.
However, the generation that was born in the 80’s and 90’s are old enough to be in the work force now. They are the one’s creating the next generation of these things that inspired them from their childhoods, and they have a sincere wish to see those mediums evolve with them, to be taken seriously. That is why we have seen a recent trend towards higher quality in film translations (be they comics, games, etc).

Unfortunately games just provide a slightly larger hurtle to the jump to films that other, more static, mediums.

Sam Stafford:

The only really good video game movie I can think of is Last Starfighter. And that wasn’t even based on an actual game!

There are a number of games that have linear narratives that could potentially be adapted to movies pretty easily. I always thought Last of Us would have made a better movie than it did a game, for example, so I’m curious to see how that project pans out. And even for those games that don’t have easily-adapted narratives, there are plenty of movie adaptations from other media that are good in their own right despite having only tenuous connections to their source material.

The fact that there have been so few successes means that “you can’t make a good video game movie” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. A big studio isn’t going to want to spend a lot of money on doing something that has historically not yielded great returns, so when a video game movie does get made, it’s going to be made as low budget schlock — instead of Martin Scorcese directing the GTA movie you get Uwe Boll because the expectation is that that’s all that the box office returns will cover.

Of course for a long time, the superhero and fantasy genres were the same way. Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter established that fantasy movies could be wildly successful. X-Men and Spider-Man did the same for comic movies. Once there’s that first big fluke hit, expect there to be a lot more funding for similar projects in the future.

Joe Hadsall: I think there’s some confusion with the mention of movies such as “Wreck-it Ralph” and “The Last Starfighter.” These movies are about games; they weren’t adapted from a game. Those movies definitely pay great tribute to games in general, and show what any successful movie needs to do.

But the central issue in this debate is how stories from specific games can be adapted into movies. The only ones that have earned any kind of respect have created their own little worlds that draw from the game they name-drop. There’s potential there: Fantastic stories await in “Bioshock,” “The Last of Us” and even “Half-Life 2.” But they need to clear a major hurdle: Separating their stories from their gameplay.

Raven Knighte: I think that maybe games with strong linear storylines and quests might do better with audiences as far as adaptations go, only because of the fact that there is already a story line with an beginning, middle and end. Games that feature NPCs or quest-giver characters with well-established backstories might also do ok in that aspect. But when a game is designed to be essentially an open-world sandbox, it’s going to be dificult to make everybody happy with a movie or tv show. Open-world sandbox type games are, however, the perfect kind of games to base a movie or tv show off of simply because there is so much more room for world building, story writing, and character development… at least in my opinion.

Mark Foo: I think it’s more about Hollywood than it is about games. How many movies out of Hollywood are actually good?

Great Hollywood movies are usually creator-driven works that have something to say. Decent Hollywood movies are made from whatever IP Hollywood thinks it can sell, filtered through the studio system.

What do the studios take seriously? Books. What don’t they take seriously? Toys? Games? Comics?

Who really did good comic movies consistently before Marvel showed up to treat their own material well? Maybe Sony’s Spider-Man movies? X-Men? I would suggest those were an accident, a by-product of Raimi and Singer’s love of genre films, and the surprise success of those movies showing that that is something audiences wanted.

(And, yes, Blade technically came first, but Blade is as much horror as it is comic, and horror is an established B genre in Hollywood already.)

What I’m saying is that Hollywood generally gives a shit only so far as doing so will make them money. Videogames get half-assed adaptations that don’t make that much money, so they don’t get taken seriously. Maybe Ubisoft will do with Assassin’s Creed what Marvel did with Iron-Man and we’ll be talking about videogame-based cinematic universes ten years from today.

  • Ben Lee: I almost feel like this is where we toss the Capcom-sanctioned (though I don’t think they were really all that involved) Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist, right?
  • Raven Knighte: I think that in general, adaptations of video games and comic books are just money grabs – they are naturally gonna try to cash in on trends and somethingt that someone else has already made a lot of money at.
  • Mark Foo: Exactly. They give a crap just enough to get a product out the door. They don’t really care about it, though.
  • Mike Fatum: Which, hilariously, is historically what happens with video games based on movies, too.
Mike Fatum
Referred to as a God Among Men, the Greatest Man that Ever Lived, and That Dude Over There…No, The Dude with the Long Hair and the Goatee…Yes, That Guy, Mike has grown up being known and loved around his apartment. In addition to being a successful film director and editor, he loves video games, movies, comic books, board games, and his wife and cat. He’s been friends with Jarys for over a decade now, and they started hosting a radio show together on college that became the genesis for the Ace of Geeks Podcast. When he realized he had so many talented friends who could write, the Podcast became an entertainment website, and here we are.

One thought on “DIGITAL DEBATE WEDNESDAYS: Why Don’t Video Game Movies Work?

  1. I feel there are 3 issues at play. First is the material chosen, the second is adaptation and third is expectation. Certain content lends itself to a movie. I feel like films with single protagonist with a helping cast and a semi fixed story line are best. Ip’s like Tomb Raider, Assassins Creed, and Uncharted all fit along this line. Games like Red Dead Redemption or GTA could also work as they have created great universes with no fixed story line allowing for a story to be written around a character in that world. Games like Mass Effect or Kotor are far more difficult because the stories we know we created with our characters. If these IP’s were adapted to film they should be made about periphery characters as background or side stories like Mass Effect Paragon Lost, Dragon Age Dawn of the Seeker, or Halo Forward Unto Dawn. Who ever chooses to do the adaptation is also an issue. A crappy writer can ruin any film no matter how much a director tries to make it right. Case in point the first Hitman movie which I though had a lot of potential and just suffered from shit writing. Finally, I feel the recent spate of comic book/expanded universe movies have set the bar really really high and we as film goes need to give video game films the time to gain momentum in the same way comic book movies have.

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