No matter how many times Hollywood takes a swing at adapting some video game property into a film, they always seem to fall short of success. Though hacks like Uwe Boll and Paul W.S. Anderson haven’t made it easy for other video games to make the jump to the big screen, there are still many video game licenses that are lined up for the blockbuster treatment. Both Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed will be hitting screens in 2016, and while they may not be as sacrilegious as other video game inspired films, there’s very little chance that they will be widely beloved. That’s because there can never truly be a great game-to-film adaptation.
Why is that? Unlike adapting a book or another form of written fiction, video games offer a 1:1 level of interactivity. You are directly controlling the events that happen on screen. That connected nature offers a different kind of experience that no other medium allows for; a conjoined relationship between the player and the game is a physical intimacy no filmed medium can currently reproduce.
There’s also the matter of time. The majority of modern video games are intensive endeavors, culminating in hours upon hours of player commitment. Simple longevity of exposure endears the player to a game’s characters and world much more effectively than even a three hour film could.
Admittedly, those same characters and worlds would seem adaptable for a normal audience. But, just like any adaptation, you are going to be trying to please the fanbase, and that’s where the idea of a video game film will always falter. It’s not because the fans of these games are impossible to gratify, but rather because of the reasons I mentioned above. Fans have spent countless sessions living through these characters, and asking them to abandon that closeness for a far more distant experience is always going to feel like a downgrade.
It’s also apparent that cinema wants to try and transmogrify the things that make these games unique in order for them to fit within the confines of the medium. This seems like one of the most egregious of errors as it blatantly ignores the unique elements that make up so many gaming experiences.
This is made all the more apparent when original films are able to apply the styles, structures, or language of video games in incredibly satisfactory ways. Edge of Tomorrow takes the concept of extra lives, continues, and replaying a particularly difficult level and applies it to a science fiction action story. Crank flawlessly translates the fevered rush of a run-and-gun side-scroller to an over-the-top crime flick. Even a film like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is able to overload on not only a video game’s narrative framework (the film is built around seven boss battles) but also appropriate iconography from classic video games and it works.
There’s a feeling that video game adaptations are reaching for some intangible sense of legitimacy; they want to be taken seriously as films devoid of their gaming origins. This can be traced all the way back to the first video game movie, Super Mario Bros. That film completely abandoned its source material’s cartoony design and ended up a tonal paradox of grim seriousness and unavoidable absurdity. It doesn’t feel like any subsequent video game based film has ever been able to defeat the challenge of reconciling the inherently visceral fun of playing a game and the implied sincerity of the motion picture artform.
Will there ever be a film based on a video game that’s good? Maybe, but there will never be a way to truly adapt the experience of playing that game to film, and that’s where all video game adaptations are doomed to fail. That’s why we have different kinds of art; we want to experience stories and emotions in a variety of fashions, and the elements that make both movies and video games special in their respective ways shouldn’t try and compete with each other. Let movies be movies and games be games.