Opinion – We Don't Need Video Game Movies

by Matt Helgeson on Mar 03, 2014 at 10:30 AM

Hollywood has been trying to crack the code of what makes a great video game movie for over 20 years, with little to show for it. Maybe it's time to acknowledge the truth: Film adaptations of video games serve no purpose.

Since the abysmal Super Mario Bros. released in 1993, the film industry has spent years and untold millions trying to adapt popular video game franchises to the silver screen. What do we have to show for it? A half-decent Angelina Jolie action flick in Tomb Raider? A handful of ridiculous (but admittedly entertaining) Resident Evil movies? Dozens of stinkers like Doom, Street Fighter, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and BloodRayne? Even the best of them haven't attained much more than uninspired competence. Most of them probably even made their money back after DVD and international returns were counted. But is there even one video game movie that really seemed like a vital piece of filmmaking? Is there a game movie that meaningfully added to your appreciation and enjoyment of the games?

Here's the thing: There's really nothing that a film adaptation can do to add to a great game franchise.

This is truer now than ever. In the early days of video game movies, you could at least make the argument that the technological limitations of old consoles prevented game designers from robust storytelling (thought I wouldn't make this claim around fans of old-school RPGs). In the cases of early attempts like Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter, and Mortal Kombat, the filmmakers could at least claim to be expanding the paper-thin storytelling of the original property. Of course, these attempts were abject failures, resulting in muddled films that pleased neither fans of the games or general moviegoers.

As bad as they were, there's even less reason for today's games to be made into films. Cinematic visuals? Great storytelling? Memorable characters and dialogue? Games are already have those. I personally don't feel the need to see non-interactive version of these stories replayed on a movie screen.

The other fundamental problem with adapting video games to film is that many of the games themselves are so influenced by iconic movies that you're essentially making a facsimile of a facsimile. Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg, the writers behind comedies like This is the End, Pineapple Express, and Superbad, hit on the problem when they recently addressed the multiple offers they'd been given to write an Uncharted movie:

Seth Rogan: "They're constantly asking me and Evan to make the Uncharted movie."

Evan Goldberg: "For like four years now, they've been just like 'Make an Uncharted movie for us.' But it's just gonna be Indiana Jones! If we could figure out a way to make it not Indiana Jones, it'd be awesome."

As much as I love the Uncharted series, they're right. It's an amazingly well-made, fun update of Indiana Jones, but that's all it is. I love Indiana Jones (in my opinion, it's a better trilogy than Star Wars), and the fun of Uncharted is getting to experience that type of adventure myself - by playing the game. Along the way, you're treated to a movie's worth of great dialogue and cutscenes; I don't need the same thing over again with live actors.

The same holds true for new and upcoming adaptations like Need for Speed, Agent 47 (Hitman franchise) or the long-abandoned Halo project. At heart, all these properties were so derivative of standard chase, action, or sci-fi tropes that I'm not sure there was a lot to be added through a film - especially when today's game technology allows for such robust storytelling.

While unique game properties like Assassin's Creed (which is reportedly being made for a 2015 release) or BioShock (which was canceled by series creator Ken Levine) could theoretically stand a better chance of being the source material for a quality film, there's still an inherent problem. So much of my enjoyment of those games comes from the fact that I slowly peel away the layers of these amazing environments through exploration and gameplay. The experiential aspect of BioShock is core - the ending meant more to me because I'd seen firsthand the results of Andrew Ryan's ideology throughout the game. I'm not sure seeing those same events played out in a two-hour, passive experience would have the same impact.

I'd love to be wrong. Maybe all it takes is the right script and the right director to create that classic game movie we've all hoped for. However, the history of the partnership between games and Hollywood doesn't give me much reason to believe. However, I'm completely sure of one thing: As long as there is money to be made, Hollywood and the game industry will keep trying to get it right.