Games at the movies

A recent exchange with Total Film and Channel 4 Film via Twitter once again raised the bitter topic of movie adaptations of computer games. Why have they been, to date, so uniformly terrible? Is it even possible to successfully adapt a game into a movie? The debate was started by Richard Cobbett over at Tech Radar, with an amusing overview of cinema’s computer game forays to date that is well worth a read and a chuckle. What Richard didn’t have space for in his article was an examination of the hows and whys, not to mention the ifs.

Generation Game

The key, fundamental stumbling block that perpetually gets in the way of a good game movie is purely generational. Filmmakers simply don’t know games: they don’t play them, they don’t understand the history of games, they have no knowledge of games’ relationship with pop culture and they don’t know what can make a game great (or terrible).

Computer games only truly came into existence in a global, widespread manner in the early 1980s and even then they were generally limited to the arcades, with home computers limited in scope. After a decade of fumbling and innovation the games industry run blindly into the 1990s having established an early form of two dimensional language, with new genre titles that hadn’t been encountered in any prior entertainment medium – platformers, shoot-’em-ups, point’n’click adventures, beat-’em-ups. The 90s then saw the painful introduction of the third dimension, a technological learning curve that mirrored the steep climb faced by visual effects in the same decade; a long, slow ascent through feeble attempts at realism and a real struggle to evolve the fledgling game language to encompass the new possibilities.

By the end of the 20th century they’d just about figured it out and the 2000s have witnessed a gradual and determined diversification and polishing of the form. Game design has shifted from guttural, expressive grunts and shouts to discovering its own grammar and structure. The problem, at least for movies-of-games, is that this means that games have only really existed in their current form for about 15 years. People born towards the end of the 70s and beyond grew up with the new medium and have a good grasp of what it means; go further back and things get hazier, with children of the 50s, 60s and early 70s occupied with their own cultural revolutions.

The end result is that most people working in Hollywood aren’t of Generation Game. It’s not their fault, it’s just the cards that they were dealt by history. They all had their own toys as well, whether it was rock’n’roll, comics or VHS.

Subversion

Comics are a good example, in point of fact. For decades they were treated abysmally by Hollywood, with only a couple of exceptions – Superman and Batman – which appear to be flukes rather than anything else, judging from their increasingly awful sequels. Why? Because most comic book movies were being made by people that had no knowledge, love or reverence for the medium. How else could The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell be so ridiculously misunderstood? The only explanation is that those in charge, whether it be studio execs, producers or directors, simply couldn’t comprehend the material.

Fast forward to the 2000s and X-Men arrives. Sure, it changes things around a fair bit, but it keeps the core intact. Then Spider-Man swings into town, directed by Sam Raimi, a man who read Spidey comics as a kid and knows the character inside-out. It all culminates with this year’s Watchmen adaptation which, while far from perfect, was nonetheless clearly crafted by a team that adores the comic and wanted to see it done to the best of their abilities. That such a film received massive studio funding and support and attracted such impressive talent from all corners of Hollywood speaks volumes about how the Watchmen book has infiltrated culture: comics have come of age, at last. The people making movies are the people that grew up with comics, they are crucially kids that never stopped reading them.

Game don’t have that luxury position yet. There are very few directors young enough to be truly surrounded by gaming history, who have grown up with games as an accepted and natural form of entertainment. There are even fewer producers with that mindset. As for high-up studio executives? It’s not gonna happen.

Not yet, at least. Give it ten years. There might be one or two exceptions in the interim, as with Superman and Batman, when young filmmakers manage to sneak the material past the censorious gaze of the moneymen, but otherwise there’s going to be a long wait for the years to tick by, the old guys to retire, and the new blood to take over.

None of this even starts to approach the question of whether it’s even possible, artistically, to make a good movie adaptation of a computer game. That discussion I’ll leave for another article at a later date…

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6 thoughts on “Games at the movies

  1. I think that final paragraph is perhaps more at the heart of the matter than any of your previous musings.

    Is Halflife *really* comparable in terms of character depth, variety, storytelling and humanity, as say Superman, or Adrian Mole or Emma or Paradise Lost? On paper the comparison seems ridiculous: computer games and comics are worth less than half a shit in the wider world of literature. However the depth which you can give even the most callow of comic characters must be potentially far greater over the sometimes decade-long story lines, than you can possibly give a character that you are expected to dispose of after just 15-20 hours.

    Although 15-20 hrs is 18-more than you might experience your average movie character for, movies are concentrated while games are still 95% immersion, 5% story. The character dramas you experience in HL2 are the tiniest fraction of the game as a whole, but when combined with the sometimes cerebral, sometimes adrenaline-packed, sometimes funny gameplay, you end up with a warm, fuzzy, well-rounded experience that you *know* was something truly groundbreaking and unique, but don’t want to admit is still completely dwarfed by *real* story-telling of the old school type. Movies are concentrated story for people who don’t have time to play computers games or read a book. Computer Games are movies for people who want to live the film for longer than their £6 ticket allows.

    Ok so HL2 took the best part of a decade or something to create, right? With 10 years of development i’d have expected a great deal more than a mute with a crowbar and a penchant for tomboys. I think the core problem is that while gameplay experiences are often far more exciting than most films, as soon as you scratch the surface of a game character you find a void, but find it harder after so much invested effort, to admit that you were led a merry dance to the tune of a few hardware upgrades and 30hrs of your life. The development of even the most ground-breaking games is still focused exclusively on the practicalities of creating a game, an environment, a water reflection mapping system, a good sound effect for lasers, rather than on creating a story or characters with true depth, depth which can match a novel.

    I can honestly say that while the *environments* of many games are worth some inspection from hollywood, the characters at their core are of no interest whatsoever to me and without their characters i’m left questioning why they’d want to bother with the environment. Take Lara Croft out of Tomb Raider and you’ve just got the Indy triology (no, I don’t count that one either). Boobs are awesome, but boobs with a personality worth investigation is far better. Take Freeman out of HL and you’ve just got a futuristic dystopia and I recall some dude did some book about that!

  2. The Half Life series isn’t directly comparable in terms of character or plot, no. Partly due to the inherent differences between gaming and ‘fixed’ forms of storytelling, HL doesn’t have anything like the character depth that you speak of. Then again, do you really want it to? Do you want Gordon Freeman to be a conflicted, fleshed out hero scientist, or do you just want to get on with enjoying the immersive creation of the surrounding world, the intrigue of the story and the excitement of gameplay?

    What I would argue, however, is that there is plenty of room within the HL universe to tell a good linear story in film/novel/comic terms. A film focusing on some of the inhabitants of City 17, for example, has fairly limitless potential, both in terms of story and style. You could make it an Orwellian cautionary tale, or a Wachowski style civil uprising tale, or an Equilibrium style silly actioner, or a Children of Men style thriller.

    It’s the peripheral stuff in HL that would form the main content of a film adaptation, not the main drive of the Gordon Freeman adventures. The latter is so specifically tailored for an interactive medium that it jut wouldn’t work in direct translation.

  3. An article by Daniel Etherington on Channel 4 Film (vested interest declared: I work there. Article here: http://www.channel4.com/film/reviews/feature.jsp?V=3&SV=2&id=170044) explores this topic in some depth. Daniel argues: “A good videogame achieves something even a good movie can’t – it makes you the protagonist.”

    I’d seriously give credence also to the reasoning in ‘Everything Bad Is Good For You’ (a great book in which I have no vested interest, it’s just a great book) that judging video games by the artistic standards applied to films and books is flawed, in much the same way as you wouldn’t assess the usefulness of a maths problem involving Bob adding two oranges to his three bananas by asking whether oranges and bananas were a creative and original choice of fruit, or whether we empathise with this Bob chap as a believeable character. That’s not the function of the maths problem. In the same way, the point of video games isn’t plot and fleshed out characters: their joy is in honing reactions, decision-making and working out the rules of gameplay, which sounds dry, but in practice is where the thrill comes from. People don’t seem to bear that in mind when making movies out of games.

    _________________________________
    Me: http://catherinebray.wordpress.com/
    Work: http://twitter.com/channel4film

  4. Thanks for the link, Catherine. Will have to check out that book, too – I think I’ve had it recommended to me before, in fact.

    Yeah, interactivity is the key. In a non-interactive medium, what few elements are there have to be very detailed and ‘deep’ in order to hold your attention. In an interactive medium, those same elements can be much shallower (characters, for example), but they are all enhanced by the ways in which you encounter and react to them.

    At least, that’s the theory. 🙂 Unfortunately just as filmmakers don’t really ‘get’ games, a lot of supposed games developers are actually just frustrated filmmakers and don’t even understand the medium in which they’re working, relying on non-interactive cut-scenes and other ‘filmic’ devices to evoke emotion and create meaning.

    Rather than looking at some of the overly verbose RPG developers, who are perhaps the obvious choices when discussing story and character, I always tend to come back to Valve, who seem to understand that less is often more in gaming, and that interactive storytelling works best when it takes a back seat.

  5. Good piece and interesting comments.

    Will have a look at the links later as well.

    I’m hoping for a decent film based on a game – hopefully a bit before your 10 year estimate 🙂

  6. I think Prince of Persia (2010) is the nearest VG Movie release, with this time a rather large production studio behind it. (Please note I am only not immediately cynical because I have been working on it).

    Something that needs addressing is whether or not these genres can actually be translated between. Alan Moore recently condemned the Watchmen simply because it was designed as a comic – what place do experiences designed as games have as movies?

    Preferably – movies, comics, games would sample from a single universe/story and represent different sections of that. I don’t particularly desire to watch a movie of me completing a game, though a film that offered interesting back story to a different element of a game I had enjoyed might be very interesting.

    The best example I can think of this being done is with the Call of Cthulu games (no vested interest). They draw upon Lovecraft’s work well, using settings and environments he described and yet creating entirely new experiences. Cool stuff.

    -Matt

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