The other day, I finally got around to watching Warcraft, the latest film-adapted video game product of 2016. As video game adaptations go, I actually enjoyed it more than most productions in the genre. That, however, says much more about the adaptive medium at large than it says about Warcraft, considering the experience was overall rather mediocre. The visuals were phenomenal, but they were wasted on a slow-moving narrative with undeveloped characters and a lack of anything for the average viewer to really invest in. These criticisms lend themselves to an overall stance I have long felt but have been discouraged to share due to its apparent unpopularity: video games really shouldn’t be adapted to movies.
While I say this is an unpopular opinion, it is not totally unsupported. In fact, an entire podcast is devoted to such an idea, The Spinoff Doctors by Jim Sterling and Conrad Zimmerman which can be found here. While I understand fans of video games wanting to see their passion adapted to a more accessible medium like film, time and time again we have seen that the attempts simply don’t work. One need only watch Need for Speed or Bloodrayne to see what I mean. Even the more enjoyable “adaptations” end up bearing little resemblance to their source material (insert Zack Snyder-DC joke). The Resident Evil movies come to mind: while not necessarily good movies by any means, they can be fun zombie romps to enjoy. That being said, the finished product is a video game title with foreign characters and storylines. Alice, the protagonist of the film series and by far the most interesting and developed character, doesn’t even appear in the games. Now while it may sound like I’m a stickler for adaptations sticking exactly to the source material, my argument for video game adaptations is actually quite the opposite. But I’ll get to that later. At the time I’m writing this, Warcraft sits at a critics’ 30% on Rotten Tomatoes, and it had the largest production budget by far. Since something seems to be wrong with video game adaptations, one has to ask what’s happening?
In my opinion, the whole idea of adapting a video game narrative to film is inherently flawed. In order to show why, allow me to talk about how each medium works to provide escape and immersion for the consumer.
For movies, escapism and immersion are done through viewing the experience. Using the collaborative talents of actors, writers, directors, cinematographers, and a host of other trained and skilled professionals, films give their viewers a story that is convincing and/or thrilling, allowing consumers to get lost in the narrative and become absorbed in a story that they are passively participating in. Consumers are bystanders, and the product focuses on spectacle to immerse them.
Video games work on many of the same levels as do films, using voice actors, writers, and visual set pieces to create a sense of immersion. However, one of the things that video games offer that films do not is the opportunity for an observer to become an agent of the narrative rather than a recipient of it. Whereas the TV show Game of Thrones gives us an epic narrative with fantastic characters to follow , the video game Skyrim allows us to become a character and take an active part in the conflicts and adventures within the narrative. To compare the two mediums and try to say which one is objectively “better” is, in my opinion, a futile effort, for the two mediums provide a similar service of escapism in very different ways; the debate would take on an apples to oranges feel. However, efforts to blend the two mediums create some interesting results that offer much riper material for analysis and comparison.
Sometimes, creators want to blend movies into video games, and the best example I have to work with is the Uncharted series. To simply describe Uncharted as a video game cheapens the product and does do justice to what the games truly are. In all honesty, Uncharted games do not offer a lot in terms of strictly video games (hold your pitchforks, let me finish what I’m about to say). Take away the cinematography and set pieces, and you’re left with sporadic gunplay, extremely straightforward platforming, and puzzles added as an afterthought. However, the gaming experience is enriched immensely by the cinematic tone and visuals added to the game, allowing the player to feel like a real action hero in certain transitions. In this case, film and video games unite to offer a unique and special gaming experience (remember this paragraph for later in the article).
Now, when the two mediums attempt to blend the other way by adapting video game narratives to film, we start to see problems. Why? Because you immediately lose out on what the original experience was intended to be. Modern video games–as well as plenty of older games–are designed to put the player into the narrative as an active agent. When you take the consumer out of that role and water down the narrative into something that is just observed rather than lived, the product suffers. I was one of the people who were pumped for the Ratchet and Clank movie. After seeing it, I was pretty disappointed, and in hindsight I know why. I was bored watching a character do exactly what I had already done. Making an active narrative into a passive one only leaves gaming audiences bored and non-gaming audiences confused as to what all the hype was about. Why would I want to watch Alice kill a ton of zombies when I could be killing them myself? Why watch an epic fantasy war when I could be a warrior in it? Sure, there are plenty of zombie and fantasy films that work on their own, but they were designed to be a received narrative, not an active narrative. To put it in more video game-oriented terms, why would I want to watch a Mass Effect movie in which Shepherd’s decisions are predetermined when I could be making galaxy-altering decisions myself? It’s like trying to fit a square block into a trapezoidal hole: close, but not quite the right fit.
So if video game narratives don’t work as directly adapted film narratives, should the union of the two mediums be totally abandoned? Absolutely not! Rather, the productions should seek a route more similar to Uncharted; that is, taking certain aspects of one medium to complement the film as a whole. Let me demonstrate this idea with my absolute favorite film-video game product: Wreck-It Ralph.
Wreck-It Ralph was not a video game adaptation; rather, it was a video game-based movie that carried itself on a new narrative. The movie utilized old arcade and video game references to create a unique atmosphere and please fans of such games while still creating a unique story that stood on its own as a good narrative. In other words, it borrowed from video games to complement its own cinematic goal. If we want video game adaptations, don’t adapt the narrative directly. Rather, use the video game’s settings and properties to create a unique storyline.
As a huge fan of the From Software games, I would love a Dark Souls/Bloodborne movie. Why? Because those games have enough lore in them to support an entire franchise of fantasy films without ever directly going into the games’ main storylines. Why do a movie about the Linker of the Flames when you can be that hero? Instead, do a film epic about the fall of New Londo. Give me a trilogy about the rise and fall of Knight Artorias. It would provide service to game fans while still offering a new narrative that non-players could understand and latch onto. As little faith that I have in Ubisoft, I must applaud them for doing a new adventure in their Assassin’s Creed movie rather than rehashing an old protagonist whose story has already been told. Want a Bioshock film? Cool, tell about what happened before the events of the first game. I already know what happened in Bioshock 1; I’m the one who made those things happen! By expanding video game universes rather than recycling old storylines, movies can provide a unique adventure to newcomers while still providing fan service to gamers.
I don’t know about you, but as a fan of video games I don’t want to pay $10 to just be told what I did. The whole reason I’m watching a movie is to be told about what someone else did. Case in point, if you’re trying to sell me on a Bioshock Infinite movie, spare me the game’s narrative. I was already Booker DeWitt. But I was never really Comstock.