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Why Do Films Based On Video Games Suck So Much?

A look at why films based on video games are so seriously lacking in quality and what can be done to change it

Street Fighter (1994): a true cinematic masterpieceIs there a reason that some of the worst rated films of all time were originally video games or is it merely a coincidence? After all, of the 30 video game films in Metacritic’s database the average score of them is a diabolical 30 and the highest rated is Mortal Kombat (1995) at a measly 58. Face it, there is a single irrefutable truth when it comes to films based on video games: they suck.

The most recent example of this is amateur director Tomas Falcon‘s short based on Ubisoft’s latest hit Watch Dogs. Online gaming magazine Polygon called it “awkward” (it is that) and commented that it “retains what’s gross about games” (it’s that too). Polygon also went on to say that “with a short film, the story could be anything”. It may not be a typical example and it may be unfair to pick on amateur film making, especially because Polygon’s comments are in light of the short’s objectification and “gamification” of women (the idea that the female character is a winnable object), but Polygon’s comments also strike at the heart of the issue with video game film adaptations and video games themselves: they aren’t comfortable in their own shoes.

To get to the heart of the issue, we must first look at video games themselves because surely the source material plays an important role.

In June of 2013, Sony Computer Entertainment and Naughty Dog released a post-apocalyptic action/adventure game called The Last of Us – it featured so many things about what makes gaming great: an interesting premise, fluid and cinematic gameplay, great level design, and, most importantly, a proven developer taking charge of things. Unfortunately, due to the dearth of video games pushing the boundaries of story-telling in the medium, critics labelled it as some sort of narrative masterpiece; Empire claimed that it could be “gaming’s Citizen Kane moment”. Bold but naive. The hilarious irony about The Last of Us? It has its own planned Sam Raimi-produced film adaptation.

Playstation exclusive The Last of Us (2013) is a wonderful example of game-making and not story-tellingHow does it relate? Well, it all seems to point to the fact that video games and film adaptations are working in tandem to diminish the narrative credibility of one another. If the game that many tout as being one of the most mature and expertly written needs a film adaptation because it doesn’t hold a candle to the vast majority of serious film, what hope do the mindless of the video game bunch have?

It’s clear that video games lack an identity when it comes to story-telling and narrative – the most popular games in the world constantly copy Hollywood blockbusters in attempts to have a greater outreach, maximise profit and meet business potential. The business over art mindset is a concerning problem in the video games industry and is exemplified by the milking of once brilliant titles: the likes of Resident Evil, Hitman and Assassin’s Creed – which has had 7 main releases and a whopping 17 overall – have released or planned film adaptations.

This year has already seen Need for Speed get the adaptation treatment and there aren’t any prizes for guessing if it was any good. Previously the uncoordinated mess that is Street Fighter tried and failed, as did Silent Hill and its surrealist exhibition in anti-intrigue.

As such, film adaptations of video games lack any real conviction when it comes to the adaptation process. The characters portrayed in video games are often so one-dimensional and the games themselves are so often lacking the aforementioned story-telling identity that the adaptation process serves as a quality-degrading filter.

There’s a reason why adaptations from literary sources are some of the best pieces of film-making of all time and are also so frequent. An auteur with a vision and a proven track record is far better than sticking Uwe Boll at the helm of something that already doesn’t have any substance or style or any kind of integrity in its story. This is why The Last Of Us will probably be a far inferior post-apocalyptic piece of cinema compared to, say, 2009’s The Road – writer Cormac McCarthy is simply a far superior storyteller compared to video game developer Naughty Dog. 

Warcraft (2016) is an adaptation of World of Warcraft and will be directed by Moon (2009) director Duncan JonesFor these adaptations to improve, not only do film-makers have to be more ballsy in terms of tackling the many untapped video game franchises, but game developers also have to break out of their shell and realise that sheepish attitudes are going to get them nowhere in terms of pushing the boundaries and carving their own narrative identities. There is hope, though: in 2016, the massively multiplayer, massively popular World of Warcraft will be adapted into a film and it will be helmed by a promising director in the form of Duncan Jones who directed the wonderfully unique sci-fi drama Moon (2009). 

The growing acceptance of gaming as a serious form of art calls out for a desperate reworking of the way we adapt that medium into cinema. Films based on video games need their “Citizen Kane moment” – when will it be?

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