Thursday, February 3, 2011

Video Game Movies: A Post-mortem

With YSM's first themed month in the bag, Dobson and I decided to offer our thoughts on video game movies as a whole. See us discuss, among other things, fanboys' dismissal of all things different, critics' dismissal of that which they don't understand, and Pixar's hit film Cars!

Nick: So I went on a little rant at the end of my Max Payne review, and while it doesn't have to do with the film directly, I think it's worth discussing.
Dobson: Yeah, I went on a similar tangent at the end of my Mario review.
Nick: I thought mine was the spiritual successor to that.
Nick: You were getting to a point and I was trying to finish it.
Nick: But of course I didn't really get there either.
Dobson: The video game director is getting hit from both sides.
Dobson: On the one hand the fanboys want an exact recreation of their experience,
Dobson: and on the other the critics are going to shit on pretty much anything you do no matter what.
Nick: It's because video games reward obsessive nitpicky behavior.
Nick: I dare not say the A-Word.
Dobson: Good because that would make you a BAD PERSON!
Dobson: A worse person, anyway.
Nick: But a world of IMDb anachronisms and minor editing mistakes cater to the crowd required to memorize long strings of alphanumeric codes and the layouts of multiple levels of increasing difficulty.
Dobson: I'm more of a gamer than you but I still feel like the fundamental goals are completely different.
Nick: The more narrative games become, the less interpretation there is.
Nick: So those goals stay the same but they cram in all these 10 minute cut sequences voiced by Steve Buscemi.
Nick: For YEARS there have been rumors about a Metal Gear Solid movie.
Nick: And eventually it is going to happen and will be terrible.
Nick: But the question is WHY is this an inevitability?
Nick: When those games are already 90% film?
Dobson: Well until Metal Gear Solid 5 is just a 10 hour movie of David Hayter saying "Metal Gear?!" it's still a game. The fun is in problem solving, controlling a little man who can do lots of stuff.
Nick: I feel like a lot of gamers view video game movies as some long cut scene,
Nick: and after the movie is over they expect to be treated to the most BLISTERING gameplay experience the world has ever known,
Nick: and it just never happens,
Nick: and they go home angry.
Dobson: Hahaha you're probably right.
Dobson: But even games praised for their narrative have an ungodly amount of repetition,
Dobson: and you just can't do something like that in a movie.
Dobson: It can't just be Mario hopping on Goombas for 20 minutes.
Dobson: Alan Wake was praised for having a great story, but it featured literally hours of pointing a flashlight at shadow monsters.
Nick: That is a game with an identity crisis.
Dobson: Can you imagine any other media where 75% of your time could be spent doing repetitive tasks and is hailed as original?
Nick: I guess that depends on if you consider the Drinking Bird a work of art.
Dobson: Don't get me started on the "can video games be art?"
Nick: That's a completely different discussion,
Nick: and those who choose to participate usually know little about video games or art.
Dobson: Yeah let's move on.
Dobson: Can there be a successful video game adaptation?
Dobson: Or, has there been one already?
Nick: Prince of Persia was a perfectly fun, competent movie.
Nick: The only thing separating it from Pirates of the Caribbean is $200 million in box office gross and about 45 minutes of superfluous footage.
Dobson: "Yet 'Prince of Persia,' a movie born of a video game, is at war with itself, and the bad guys win. They're the ones responsible for the plot, which is a junkyard of Arabian Nights clichés; for the numbing action sequences that feel like identical segments of an endless loop; and for a climax of boundless absurdity."-Joe Morgenstern

Dobson: "As in a video game, each obstacle or level of challenge they encounter is progressively more difficult. But this is a movie we're watching here. Although 'Prince of Persia' stimulates the circulatory and nervous systems, it engages none of the higher faculties of game play. Like, say, hand-eye coordination and map-reading skills." -Michael O'Sullivan
Dobson: I guess I don't see how these things being pointed out are endemic to video games and not summer blockbusters.
Dobson: Like you said, a plot full of cliches, progressive difficulty.
Dobson: All we're missing is a giant Krakken.
Nick: Because someone told them it was a video game adaptation,
Nick: and is therefore endemic of that.
Nick: There have been a flurry of vampire movies.
Nick: I don't see any critics ripping into Bram Stoker.
Nick: Maybe if Jake Gyllenhaal wore more eyeliner they would have enjoyed it more.
Dobson: I'd say that the critics don't matter (and they don't), but Prince of Persia wasn't exactly a big hit, either.
Nick: Insufficient marketing?
Dobson: It had a budget of $200 million and made half of that back domestically (although it was well received internationally).
Nick: Disney seems to do this from time to time.
Nick: Throw $200 million at a movie and then just kind of hang it out to dry.
Nick: Oh wait Cars had a massive marketing campaign behind it
Nick: and did incredibly well!
Dobson: Yeah I think it was a poor marketing campaign in part.
Nick: Maybe they just don't care and assume it will make a profit internationally.
Nick: As if there's some 3,000 screen theater in Russia somewhere that will take anything they make
Dobson: Well they wouldn't understand Cars.
Dobson: Nobody outside of the US gets our bizarre nostalgia for tasteless and ugly automobiles.
Nick: I think we're getting off topic.
Nick: This is all your fault.
Nick: Stop bringing up Cars.
Nick: Nobody cares about Cars.
Dobson: But I think it's telling that maybe the best video game adaptation ever is seen as a box office bust and labeled under "brainless summer action."
Dobson: I mean yes, it's not deep
Nick: *Depp
Nick: ;-)
Dobson: Also one more quote regarding Prince of Persia.
Dobson: "If I were the Prince of Persia, I'd push the button, go back in time and plant a wet one on Tamina's luscious lips." -Roger Ebert
Nick: Aww Ebert has a crush.
Dobson: That would make my stomach turn even if I didn't picture it.
Dobson: Also he says the special effects are sped up and unbelievable.
Dobson: Maybe he hasn't heard of parkour?
Nick: I do like how Ebert essentially limits his criticism of video games to one sentence.
Nick: "It's based on a video game, but don't make me play it, let me guess: The push-button magic dagger is used in the game to let you rewind and try something again, right?"
Nick: I mean at the very least he reviews it on its own merits
Nick: and only takes a jab at a video game he never played because I guess it's expected of him.
Nick: My favorite thing critics do is go to a movie based on a video game they've never played,
Nick: say the movie's bad,
Nick: and then assume the game is therefore bad as well.
Dobson: Yeah I mean it lacks the narrative nuance of Rashomon,
Dobson: so therefore it sucks.
Nick: I wish it showed more from Ben Kingsley's perspective.
Nick: Maybe the dagger turns back time and then switches POV.
Dobson: Maybe it's just that movies are relieved to find a medium even younger and less respected.
Nick: Yes video games are the red-headed stepchild of the medium world.
Nick: The tiny, neglected, multi-billion dollar industry.
Dobson: It's always baffling to me though when gamers suggest turning something into a movie.
Dobson: I mean video game stories build on what critics call "cliche" because it's the simplest way to tell a story
Nick: Hit A to jump?
Nick: Pfff!
Nick: So banal!
Nick: I'm going to make a game that just utilizes the triggers.
Dobson: Well I mean from a story perspective.
Nick: Oh right.
Dobson: Half of Nintendo's games are about rescuing a princess.
Dobson: They're stories built on an accumulation of archetypes.
Dobson: They steal from EVERYTHING.
Nick: I mean cartoons do the same thing,
Nick: because they're for children.
Dobson: It's not original, but it ends up being a story you know intuitively.
Nick: You're ultimately tasked with mastering the controls.
Nick: If you're led through too much experimental storytelling it's kind of like patting your head and rubbing your stomach.
Dobson: Yeah I mean even stuff like Dragon Age and Mass Effect is very traditional storytelling.
Dobson: But it lets your character's actions lead directly to different outcomes.
Dobson: But we're getting off-topic again.
Dobson: Let's talk about CARS some more.
Nick: Okay!
Nick: Can you believe they sell that movie at WAL-MART?
Dobson: :-O
Dobson: Should we get some final thoughts?
Dobson: Let's do it.
Nick: YES
Nick: Most video game movies are bad but they're getting better,
Nick: and video games are not incapable of being the inspiration for a great movie.
Dobson: Film critics may not accept them as a genre, but that's more about personal prejudice.
Dobson: Movie adaptations are always going to upset fans because you absolutely have to make changes.
Nick: I mean video game movies don't need to feel like video games,
Nick: but some movies not based on video games do.
Nick: Like CRANK!
Dobson: Or AVATAR!
Nick: Or CARS!
Nick: Wait.


  1. I don't see why "changes have to be made." And "fans" will therefore "inevitably hate it" because they are "autistic".
    That's an incredibly shallow, and frankly offensive and arrogant view of the problem.

    A video game story isn't fundamentally different from any other kind of story. You don't need to change a damn thing to put it in film, especially not as you note, when some games these days are pretty much films already but with gameplay in between.

    Even in cases like Mario, which has a very simplistic story to wrap around far more engaging gameplay, it isn't really a problem. While it would seem like you'd have to have hour long scenes of a plumber jumping and running across levels from left to right, this is a misconception that stems from a failure to recognise the story behind the game mechanics. Which is essentially that Mario is travelling through the land, cunningly avoiding and defeating the evil minions of the bad guy. This concept, as opposed to the misconception, isn't hard to condense into a scene that is exciting and fits into a movie narrative. (Or an animated TV series for that matter.)

    I think the big reason video game movies are bad is because of this ridiculous notion that you "have to" change things for it to be good.

    I can tell you; The Lord of the Rings wasn't successful for being "different" or "creative" or any of that kind of bullshit.

    It was successful because it took the story exactly as it was, and it filmed it as if it had really happened.
    That was the reason.
    This is the reason you'll hear "normal" people talk about when asked why LOTR was a good movie.
    Call that austistic and be a pretentious douchebag if you will.

    Of course, Mario doesn't have quite as compelling a narrative as LOTR, but in the more cinematic games of late this is becoming less and less of a problem.
    To the point where I'm starting to consider video games a more potent narrative medium than film which is primarily dominated by trite nonsensical drivel these days.

  2. I agree that a video game story is not fundamentally different from any other. That was essentially the thesis of this post-mortem. But adaptation necessitates change, by the very definition of the word.

    If you really think that Peter Jackson didn't change anything in Lord of the Rings in order to adapt it to film, you are sorely mistaken. The actors weren't walking around the set with copies of the novel with Peter yelling "okay on to the next chapter, gang!" If you really think "it took the story exactly as it was, and filmed it as if it had really happened" you really need to go back and reread and rewatch both.

    To think that a director could just reshoot cut scenes from an entire video game and call it a movie is ridiculous and oblivious to what a filmmaker actually does. Even if that were possible, it would most likely mean that video game is overwhelmingly cinematic, and probably sacrificed gameplay for a crack at a movie franchise. To adapt an inherently cinematic video game as is into a film is a redundant and pointless prospect, and I have no idea why that would be appealing to you at all.

    And can we please stop this notion of being offended by everything? We didn't even use the word autistic and you still quote us as saying it. Quotation marks "are not" a means of "emphasis," but "to signify" a "verbatim quote" from a "source."

  3. Bill-Boe, thanks for writing in: is your name a reference to the LOTR character, your actual name, or both?! First, we never used the word you quote us on, and perhaps you didn't notice, but not every line here was meant 100% in earnest. We call them "jokes," and every now and again we like to say something that isn't, strictly speaking, true.

    Yes, developers need to make changes, significant changes, to make a video game story into a film. A video game character is an avatar, a completely bland, personality-less thing, in 99% of games. As I said in this very summation, the fun of a game is tied up in what's generally called "gameplay." That's not what brings people to the box office. And the Mario plot you described is more banal than the Prince of Persia story that was criticized as unthinkingly repetitive and cliche-ridden by critics who see all games this way (fairly or unfairly). Because, by their nature, games tend to be repetitive and built on cliche. Again, as was explained.

    "It was successful because it took the story exactly as it was, and it filmed it as if it had really happened."

    First of all, you're talking about adaptation from a DIFFERENT MEDIUM, and second of all, you're completely wrong. Jackson took out the stuff he couldn't film: the songs, the lack of narrative urgency in the first part of the first book, and plenty of other stuff, and then added a significant amount of character building scenes because they translate better onto film than a bunch of narrative history lessons (although frankly the movie still has too many). So no, he didn't just "tell the story exactly as it was," he ADAPTED it to better fit within the confines of a movie, and that also meant cutting characters, making Legolas and Gimli a comedy duo, and generally streamlining the whole 1000 page thing into something manageable.

    Also I love the idea of video games as a source for "potent narratives" (this is how you use quotes). I mean even games like Bioshock that are universally acclaimed for their story are still both built on cliches and feature a plot that would be wrapped up in about 30 minutes if it wasn't padded by exploration, combat, and all the other things generally referred to as "gameplay."

    Don't get me wrong, I love exploring, I love fighting stuff, I love collecting 10 things to open the way to do a new thing. Well, not that last one. But while that makes a game like Zelda an incredibly fun game for me, I realize that the story is an incredibly simplistic one padded by a bunch of dungeon crawls. And you can't just stick a person playing Ocarina of Time for 6 hours into a 2 part film and expect anybody to want to see it: changes have to be made.

  4. It seems I struck a chord.

    That video games are a source for compelling narratives moreso than film was meant to be a jab at the poor, sorry state of film.
    But even so modern video game stories aren't exactly poor. Indeed I would point to certain video games as great fiction of our time. And that certainly wouldn't be Bioshock.

    I think your focus on "cliché" as some sort of inherent quality of game stories and examples of decade old games shows a relative lack of appreciation for the actual quality of game stories. While you are certainly more progressive, ultimately you are fundamentally just as guilty of bias as Roger Ebert and seemingly every other film-proponent out there. Good going with the hypocrisy.
    There are games with stories more original than any film. And there are films, enjoyable films even, that are as cliché ridden as any Mario or Zelda.
    I don't think these are good measures.

    While I'll admit that Jackson's films aren't completely accurate - and indeed some of the more frivolous adaptation later on is a source of grief to me, and no doubt, many others - this isn't their defining quality. It is, as I said, to capture with accuracy and solidity the world of the books.
    The point stands: They aren't good because of how much they changed, but rather because of how little.

    And the sooner we get rid of the notion that is is inherently necessary to change things because the video game medium is simply unfit for stories.
    Or out of some auteur bullshit entitlement to ill defined creativity.
    Or for that matter that one needs to recount the games story exactly; many game universes are as rich in potential as any middle earth.
    The sooner we may have a great video game film.

  5. "I think your focus on "cliché" as some sort of inherent quality of game stories and examples of decade old games shows a relative lack of appreciation for the actual quality of game stories."

    1. Nobody used cliche as in inherent measure of quality. Did you even read what I said about the strength of building on what's considered cliche? 2. We reference games broadly across three decades, so your point about focusing on old games is just as incorrect as your assertion that we're judging story quality based on the presence of cliche. And how on earth would these non-existent positions you've assigned to us make us "hypocrites"? Seriously that makes no sense.

    "And the sooner we get rid of the notion that is is inherently necessary to change things because the video game medium is simply unfit for stories."

    Apart from being a confusingly structured sentence fragment, I do agree with this. It's not about the medium somehow being "unfit" for stories, although it does still have a stigma as shown by critics singling out PoP's story as opposed, to, say, movies based on theme park rides with ridiculous plots. It's inherently necessary to change games because it's always necessary to change things when converting from one medium to another. The same way a book adaptation needs to make changes to avoid seeming slow paced or a play adaptation needs to add dynamism to avoid seeming like a bunch of talking heads. It has nothing to do with the inherent quality of video game narratives, and everything to do with the fact that audiences won't care about a main character unless they're made to, while a puppet that a player controls instantly bonds to the player. And that's just one of dozens of structural changes that any adaptation needs to face.

    In the end, I'm not sure our opinions are that different, except you apparently didn't/don't grasp the changes we're talking about. No one is saying the wheel has to be re-invented, but gamers whining about the slightest change or the notion that Hollywood is doing this just to mess with them is just false.

    Again, in our little post-mortem I said I liked POP and that critics unfairly singled out its relative simplicity and said it was on account of being a "video game" movie and not a "summer" movie. So I just don't know where you get the idea that we're judging the quality of games; we're just acknowledging they're different.

  6. And this is where we differ. I say they're not. Ideally, in a story focused game, gameplay is simply one way to tell the story alongside cutscenes and what else have you. While mechanically it wouldn't translate well, the underlying plot device the gameplay embodies should require no modification.
    And that's assuming you insist on not exploring new facets of the game universe.

  7. But my point is the entire way you tell the story necessarily has to shift. It's the rare game that ever separates from its protagonist, but the rare movie outside of the survival horror or suspense genre that is as tethered to its lead as every video game ever. We are not talking about "underlying plot devices," we're talking about the way you tell a story. I wouldn't read a book about someone wandering around checking to see if NPCs have new dialogue, but I have done it in pretty much every RPG I've ever played. That has nothing to do with changing the core plot, it's about storytelling.

    Basically you're disagreeing with something you don't seem to comprehend.

  8. Go ahead and be pretentious like that. Of course, if I have a different opinion then I "don't comprehend".

    You're completely ignoring everything I said, I'm wondering if you comprehend.

    You wouldn't read a book about talking to NPC's. You'd be reading a book about what they talk about and why the main character is talking to them. "Comprehend"?

    Whatever, I won't post here again.

  9. I'm not ignoring what you said, you're flat out not talking about the same thing. I'm talking about adaptation and you're talking about "underlying plot devices." Do you really not get how reading about about "why the main character is talking to them" NECESSITATES change across format? I mean, seriously? I've already made my points, and illustrated them with examples, while you presented one off-topic, irrelevant, incorrect example, and then proceeded to make hilariously incorrect statements about the breadth of our understanding or our taste.

    Additionally, you're the one saying we're "hypocrites" and now "pretentious" because you didn't/don't understand what I've been saying. I made a genuine effort to help you understand my position and you ignored it/didn't get it. That's not on me. But thanks for visiting the site!