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Video game movies can be good if filmmakers would do it right

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One sentiment I often hear expressed on Podtoid is the idea that a video game simply cannot be made into a great movie. Video game movies suck because no talented filmmaker who understands video games has actually set out to make one. In other words, I simply do not believe that there is something intrinsic to the video game medium that makes impossible the creation of an equally good, if not better, movie.

The theory I hear is this: books < movies < video games. Movies add on to books by adding a visual and audio element. Video games add on to movies by adding an interactive element. Therefore a video game movie could never be as good as the video game itself because of the removal of interactivity.

While I understand the theory and I can agree with some of the points made, I think that it is a flawed idea because it considers the development of storytelling from books to movies to video games as a one-dimensional path of development whereas everything from the old medium is incorporated and wholly improved by the new medium, which simply is not true. Yes, elements of books such as writing, storytelling, etc are a part of movies in addition to other art such as sculpture, painting, music, etc. Likewise, video games indeed incorporate elements of film and books. However, I would argue that in moving from one medium to another, many essential storytelling tools and elements of the "older" medium are also lost.

Movie limitations

As an example, while movies do improve upon books by adding a visual and audio element, movies are also in many ways worse than a book due to limitations such as having to conform to a 1 to 4 hour running time and the ability of the audience to absorb information in a given span of time.

By the latter, I mean that it is perfectly reasonable to pack mountains of information in a page because we as the reader have the ability to read the page as slowly as we want, reread the page several times, or even refer back to that page in the future as needed. If we want, we can take years to read the book if we prefer. It is arguable that with books with tons of exposition and background such as Frank Herbert's Dune or J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, this nonlinear back-and-forth reading to catch all the references is in fact the intended way to read the book.

In contrast, a movie is meant to be watched linearly at a projected speed and generally speaking in one viewing (with the exceptions of movies with intermissions, etc) as a result, while the filmmaker may choose to pack the running length of the film with as such "information" as he or she wants, there is a limitation to how much one can expect the audience to absorb given that, until the VHS era, audiences could not rewind and rewatch scenes or even have access to watching that movie several years down the line. To reuse my previous examples, that is why as much as the fans of the books will moan and groan, film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings or Dune (as well as the TV miniseries) simply cannot pack even close to the amount of information or storytelling that a book can.

Video game limitations

Similarly, while one can argue that video games are a better medium because of the addition of interactivity, I would claim that video games also have inherent limitations that films or books do not have.

In many ways, video games and movies share the same problem in that both are limited to the real-time nature of both media. As I described above, there is a limit to how much storytelling you can pack in a period of time in a movie and likewise I would argue the same of video games. Perhaps this goes back into my first post on Destructoid about FMVs, but there is only so much storytelling a developer can functionally package into the game before the player starts to zone out.

For example, as compelling as I found the plot and universe of Xenosaga: Episode 1: Dur Wille zur Macht, it was painful to endure back-to-back FMVs lasting over 30 minutes at times before the game throws the control of the game back at you. In fact, it ought to be pointed out that the first Xenosaga game actually sort of cheats the storytelling by incorporating much of it into the in-game encyclopedia. So in many ways, Namco (partially) solved its storytelling problem by incorporating a book (in digital form) and its sensibilities into the game. In a similar fashion, one can see how Lost Odyssey also solves the problem of packing tons of exposition and storytelling by pushing it out into the "A Thousand Years of Dreams" feature, which is essentially nothing more than a companion novel. Both the encyclopedia and "A Thousand Years of Dreams" features are essentially books and share the same sensibilities in that you read it at your own pace and are free to go back and forth to reread and reabsorb the information. While both features are incorporated into the game, they could have just as easily been printed as a companion book and given out with the game.

Ironically, the interactive element itself also proves to be the biggest strength and also limitation to a game itself from a storytelling point of view. To illustrate this point, consider sports watching. By the logic of the games > movies argument, why would anyone watch sports instead of playing it? After all, playing a sport is completely interactive whereas watching a sport is nothing more than a passive activity (unless you are one of those people who think that the louder you scream at the television, that energy will somehow magically transfer over to the field and perform a critical strike on the opposite team). I think the reason for this is that on some level, it can be more fun to watch an activity than to engage in the activity itself, especially if the person or people you are watching are somehow doing the activity better than you, which is probably why people tune into the Super Bowl, the Olympics, World Series of Poker, etc.

In a video game, the character is only as good as you are. Solid Snake is supposedly to be an incredible special ops agent and yet you could not tell that from my pathetic playing of the game which makes Snake look like a special needs kid who is only saved by the Continue function. Yet when I watch my friends who are incredibly good at the game play, it is amazing to watch and sometimes more fun than playing it myself. The popularity of the whole speed run phenomenon itself is proof that sometimes lack of interactivity is more fun and interesting than interactivity.

In other words, removing the element of interactivity, which is what a movie adaptation of a video game would do, would not necessarily reduce the merits of the resulting movie in comparison to the original source game. To revisit the Metal Gear Solid example, it would be awesome to see a film version of the game (I refer only to the first MGS since I am still working on the second), to see a cinematic representation of Solid Snake going through this mission bad-assed and without the screw-ups that litter my runthrough of the game. It is not like this would be replacing the original game either and possible inspire people to pick up the game themselves, just as some people have been inspired by book-movies to pick up the original book.

Just as books made from movies can sometimes be as good or even better than the original source (I would argue that the novelization of the Star Wars prequels, for example, were better than the movies themselves), a movie made from a video game can also be as good or better than the original game. It should be noted that the extreme case of a book being made from a game has already proven to work as many have found with the Halo novels.

Why video game movies have sucked

Simply put, video game movies suck because they are made for the wrong reasons by the wrong people. Most of the time, video game movies are made for the same reason Hollywood makes movies out of books or comic books: to capitalize on an existing franchise and its fanbase. They are tossed over to screenwriters and filmmakers who have no understanding of the game or its plot other than a written plot summary/script dump and a 10 minute fiddling around with the game. These films are also usually given pathetically low budgets because it is felt that they don't need to invest as much into the film to attract an audience since, by using an established franchise, they already are guaranteed a certain level of ticket sales.

Another reason is that often times the game developer or sometimes the creator itself has little interest in the film, which almost certainly guarantees that the film will not be true to the game. It is hard for me to believe that the developers of the games that have been turned into movies by Uwe Boll care about seeing a good movie adaptation of the video game made as much as they care about the money that they received upfront from Boll's studio as well as the subsequent residuals they will receive from ticket and DVD sales.

With respect to developers and creators who are not as needing of quick money as others, again, it is hard for me to believe that there are many who care to invest personal interest in a film version of their game. I simply do not believe that Shigeru Miyamoto had any interest in a Mario movie because of his other activities and fascinations and as a result, I am not surprised that he and Nintendo would have as freely given out the movie rights to the game with as little restrictions as the final product obviously shows. As with book-to-movie adaptations, it is only very rarely that an author would care enough about a potential film adaptation that they would place heavy restriction and invest their own personal time into seeing that the movie was done right. In fact, right now I can only think of one person who has done that: J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series.

Big name filmmakers are not necessarily the key to good video game movies

Many have celebrated the interest of respected filmmakers such as Peter Jackson and Gore Verbinski in making film adaptations of video games as the solution to the problem of video game movies. Surely these filmmakers, who have made excellent, respectable adaptations of a fantasy series (The Lord of the Rings) and a theme park ride (Pirates of the Caribbean) could be trusted with the keys to the film adaptation since the actual game creators and developers seem apathetic about being deeply and personally involved with a film adaptation. In my opinion however, this is also a flawed idea.

Peter Jackson saw the original 1933 King Kong as a kid and he read The Lord of the Rings as a teenager. In other words, Peter Jackson had intimate understanding of both stories as well as the media of fantasy novels (or fictional writing in general) and adventure films (or film in general) which enabled him to properly understand and later remake both stories. Whether or not you like his adaptation and reinterpretation of either story, it would impossible for anyone to claim that Peter Jackson on some significant level understood the original sources: its strengths and weaknesses based on the medium.

On the other hand, it is very hard for me to believe that Peter Jackson has ever played video games to the extent that he "gets" games as a medium. Likewise, it is as hard for me to believe that Peter Jackson has played Halo to any appreciable extent that would qualify him to "get" Halo. If anything, I would bet that the majority of his understanding of Halo. if any, comes from the book series.

Here is the full quote from Variety from Gore Verbinski in reference to Bioshock: "I think the whole utopia-gone-wrong story that's cleverly unveiled to players is just brimming with cinematic potential. Of all the games I've played, this is one that I felt has a really strong narrative."

If Bioshock is the first game Verbinski has played with a "really strong narrative," then it is obvious that Verbinski simply has not played many games at all. Combined with his comment that the story is "just brimming with cinematic potential," it is obvious that while he likes the story of the game, he is in the same camp as Roger Ebert in that games are less than movies.

Yes, there are many games which I would love to see as a movie that I do feel are "just brimming with cinematic potential." However, I think that for a gamer, those words signify the desire for a respectable and quality interpretation of source game in the film medium and not a snide comment on video games being less than film.

The problem is that we simply have not reached the point at which video games are as ingrained from childhood as books are to today's filmmakers. As a result, when a current filmmaker makes a video game movie, they may fail to understand the strengths and weaknesses of both the video game and film media and as a result, he or she is likely to completely miss the point and latch onto reference points that may or may not be good for the final product.

I would argue as an example, that the success of the Mortal Kombat film has less to do with any talent on the part of the filmmakers' reading and interpretation of the game itself as much as it has to do with their luck in correctly realizing that the plot of Mortal Kombat is pretty much a supernatural version of Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon, without a doubt one of the best and most studied martial arts films. In that regard, it is lucky that the two properties were so closely matched because when I look at films like Street Fighter, Resident Evil, and Doom, it seems obvious to me that the filmmakers could not wrap their head around the plot and so they resorted to stealing from the next thing they could think of: Rambo in the first example and horror films in the last two examples, and tried to cram the video game through these film contexts. If anyone has read the leaked script of the now-canceled Halo film by Alex Garland, it is likewise obvious to me that the screenwriter didn't get the story and instead sought to rip off Aliens and Starship Troopers. Similarly I wonder if those in charge of the upcoming Warcraft movie will be aiming for anything other than imitating other fantasy films.

It is interesting to note that in the days of early cinema, the whole book-to-movie situation was quite similar to the game-to-movie situation now where you had filmmakers who didn't really know how to properly adapt a book doing all sorts of bad adaptations for years before the truly good adaptations started coming out.

What needs to happen

I have written about Peter Jackson many times in this post both positively and negatively because ultimately, it is likely that the process by which the first truly good, successful, and critically recognized video game movie will be made will be similar to the process in which Peter Jackson brought about the first truly good, successful, and critically recognized fantasy film: The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

There are a few things that I think this future filmmakers ought to have or do. Obviously, it goes without saying that the filmmaker must be talented. Whoever makes this film must be someone who grown up with and appreciates both the video game and film medium so that he or she understands the strengths and weaknesses of both media. The filmmaker must have a good strong vision for the film while being faithful to the source without having to be forced into it by a contract. A good example of this is when Robert Rodriguez actively sought the involvement of artist Frank Miller when making Sin City whereas most filmmakers would prefer to keep the original creators as far away as possible. The filmmaker must have the ability to get the proper budget in order to do the film justice. Lastly and most importantly, the filmmaker must understand what games to adapt and what not to adapt.

A Metal Gear Solid movie done with CGI as with Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children and given a 2.5 to 3 hour running time would be incredible to see: an alternate interpretation of the game. I maintain that Final Fantasy VII could be done successfully as a series of two 3-hour movies with the same CGI style as Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, better writing, and someone a slightly more grounded sense of reality (sorry, Cloud being flipped up by all the character to destroy Bahamut is too much of a stretch of the imagination even for me). Back when Square Pictures put out the highly unsuccessful Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, I could not understand why Square, if they wanted to get into the movie business, didn't just make Chrono Trigger into a traditionally-animated film and cash in big on the growing American interest in anime (Chrono Trigger artist Akira Toriyama was starting to get big at this time in the U.S. with Dragon Ball Z). As with Final Fantasy VII, I think that two 3-hour films would be perfect for a good adaptation of Chrono Trigger. God of War would be interesting to see: I hear it is already in the works. I know that I would have loved to see Halo done as a trilogy sci-fi action film that by the end might conjure some of the feelings and emotions suggested and implied by the Halo 3 "Believe" TV ad with the veteran looking at the diorama (which sadly did not happen in the game). When one considers the richness of video game storytelling over the years, there are simply tons of games out there that have the potential to be a great movie as well, if done correctly.

It is perhaps ironic that after writing all of this to defend the idea of video game movies, I am not in the group of those who are happy about the Bioshock movie which has inspired so much of the recent discussion about video game movies. In addition to the reservations I have expressed about Gore Verbinski's understanding of Bioshock and video games in general, I also strongly feel that the specific way in which the interactivity of the game becomes a personal and integral element to the game's storytelling makes the game highly unsuited for film adaptation. Of course, who knows: perhaps we might be surprised. Anyhow, the same was said of The Lord of the Rings before the film came out.
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About Tascarone of us since 9:27 PM on 03.03.2008

Once upon a time, back in the 8-bit and 16-bit era, I was a "hard-core" gamer. Since that time, a variety of factors ranging from money to college to real life significantly cut into my video game time. Nonetheless, I have always retained my love and interest in video games, although to a lesser extent.

At present, my video game time is generally monopolized by World of Warcraft. I play a troll mage named Moor (WoW Armory profile here) on the Nathrezim server where I am a happy member of the guild Sanity.

Current-generation consoles I own include an XBox 360, a Ps3, a Wii, a Nintendo DS, a PsP, and a PC.

I am a huge fan of video game music. In fact, I confess that many of the games I own, such as the Halo games and Rygar: The Legendary Adventure are in my collection solely because I love their incredible musical scores. I have only been able to attend one VGM event, Video Game Live's New York concert on April 26, 2008 which was an amazing experience.

During middle school and high school, I was inspired to attempt music composition after hearing the reprise of Shadow's theme that appears in the ending of Final Fantasy VI by Nobuo Uematsu and "Angel's Fear" from Secret of Mana by Hiroki Kikuta, an attempt that quickly ended due to my lack of talent with little more to show than a crappy five-song musical. The highlight of my musical career as well as my journey through video game geekdom came during an impromptu musician meet-up at the Otakon anime convention in 2003 in which I had the honor of performing the violin solo in Yasunori Mitsuda's incredible "Scars of Time" from Chrono Cross.

I have been a lurker on Destructoid for some time. I am an especially huge fan of Destructoid's three excellent podcasts, which are not only the best video game podcasts I have heard but amongst my favorite podcasts of all time. I give much credit to these podcasts for bringing about a resurgence in my interest in video games and inspiring me to think more about video games. I also give them special credit for entertaining me during a series of hospitalizations in which the only thing I had for entertainment were these podcasts saved on my Zune.

I was particularly inspired by Podtoid and randombullseye and ended up composing the music to randombullseye's game Bonerquest, my first and last foray into video game composing as I quickly came to realize, as I did back in high school, that I lacked the training and talent for the art. Nonetheless, I am grateful to randombullseye for the opportunity to have contributed to a part of an actual finished product as opposed to the unfinished sketches that populate my desk and computer hard drive.

I love writing and I often find myself discussing and writing about video games on a variety of subjects and contexts. As a high school student, I had great difficulty writing long papers or long articles and so I began to force myself to write as much as possible. By the time I was in college, writing huge amounts of text for both school and school-unrelated purposes became not only easy but rather relaxing and unenjoyable. I therefore apologize in advance because I know that a great deal of my writing will probably be far far longer than what is probably necessary or appropriate. In the past, my writings on video games found themselves in a variety of places ranging from the WoW forums, a text file on my desktop, to my friends' Xanga and MySpace pages and for some time, I have thought about consolidating my video game writing at one place, which is why I am happy that I discovered Destructoid. The Destructoid staff and community have greatly influenced my thoughts on video games and opened my eyes to things that I never saw. I hope that many writing can give a fraction of that inspiration (or at the very least some entertainment) back to the Destructoid community.
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