Ever since Aliens: Colonial Marines was announced fans of the franchise got hyped as hell. During it’s extensive development cycle it’s creators tried their utmost to tap into the affection many gamers, ‘serious’ or otherwise, still have for the incredible 1981 James Cameron movie. Unfortunately the game has been universally panned by critics and fans alike. It suffers from problems which go far beyond the technical and aesthetic, problems which just refuse to go away whenever the worlds of movies and games collide. In this post I’ll wade into these murky waters and try explain what directors and developers have been doing wrong and what they can do to rectify these wrongs.
First, some context!
There are three pressing questions circulating around both Hollywood and gaming circles: Why do game-to-movie adaptations constantly fail? Alternatively why do games based on movies constantly fail as well? Is it possible to make an even passable video game movie?
Whilst I am not a movie director by any stretch of the imagination I feel I have experience enough to properly answer these three questions. I have been watching movies of all genres since I was a child and have been gaming since the glory days of the SEGA Mega Drive, I’m also a pretty good analyst when it comes to comparing and contrasting evidence thanks to my studies.
Put simply: I consider myself an educated, literate, media soak. I consume media and I can just as easily reflect upon it and critique it.
Why do game-to-move adaptations constantly fail?
Hollywood has a considerable library of terrible game-t0-movie adaptations. Many would consider that these movies first came about with the release of Super Mario Bros in 1993, which was slaughtered by fans and critics alike and managed to bring in just over $20 million USD internationally, less than half of it’s budget. A few years down the line we had Tomb Raider in 2001 which brought in a staggering $156.5 million USD, more than double it’s budget, largely thanks to the popularity of the console-based franchise. Then we had Resident Evil a year later which managed to one-up Ms Croft and bring in TRIPLE it’s budget in box office revenue despite being likewise being an absolutely shambolic movie.
Why do critics, the ones who kick five shades of sh*t out of these movies whenever they rear their heads, consistently slam game-to-movie adaptations? Are they jaded? Do they simply “not get it”? Is it a bit of both? No, it’s neither: their criticisms are completely spot on. The harsh truth that some gamers don’t want to hear is that video games are not designed to tell a good story, they’re designed to be great games. Sure, studios will sometimes try to use story to drive a game, mostly in RPG’s such as Final Fantasy, but they are still not structured as a proper narrative should be. The end result when stories such as these are translated to film is a muddled story which simply will not translate to a cinematic format. Coming back to Final Fantasy again, what I have just said about narrative and story structure is exactly why you will NEVER see a live-action film based on one of the great PlayStation era titles. Games such as Final Fantasy can run for as long as 30-40 hours whereas even the longest movies will barely scratch 3 hours of screen time. You may then wonder “Why don’t studios get a trilogy of movies green-lit so they can tell the story properly then?”. That will never happen either; it is notoriously hard to get a trilogy or series of movies green-lit unless they have some serious ground swell and some source material that people will universally recognize (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Twilight, etc), you won’t ever get that with a game title because it’s simply not a selling point. So, now that we’ve established that it is extremely hard to competently translate a video game story to the silver screen what else is there left for directors to do other than incorporate aesthetic elements to try polish what is essentially a narrative turd? This is the reason that so many of these panned adaptations focus on special effects over story, because they recognize this narrative inhibition and therefore try to cover it up by making their movies as loud and visually striking as possible.
To wrap up this segment I think I should address certain fan bases directly,
“Why will we never see a good Resident Evil movie!?” – We have one, it’s called I Am Legend
“Why will we never see a Call of Duty movie!?” – Because we already have one, it’s called Black Hawk Down
“Why will we never see a Mass Effect movie!?” – Because we already have several and they all begin with the title Star Trek.
See where I’m going with this? Anyone who ever sat down to write a good story never intended it to be made into a game.
Why do games based on movies often fail?
Now for the other side of the coin: Why do licensed video games keep stumbling? Before I address this I need to make a distinction. “Licensed Games” are games that are either directly based on a movie or borrow considerably from material beyond the gaming world such as comic books, movies, or novels. When it comes to success, games which fall under the latter of these two categories are far more likely to succeed whilst those directly tied to movies tend to outright fail. The recent release of Aliens: Colonial Marines highlights the problems faced by such games remarkably well, which is about the only saving grace of this awful title.
Game development 101 is to never begin building mechanics around a pre-established narrative because that shoots your title in the foot even before it starts walking. At every turn designers will have to consult guidelines forcing them to adhere to the foundations already established by the franchise they are drawing influence from. A developer might want to add a nifty feature to the game which well may end up making it a lot better but since it might clash with the premise set by the franchise they cannot risk implementing it. Developers who work on movie-to-game adaptations spend so much time and energy making their game look and sound so much like the movie they are building on that they often lose sight of what a passable game should be, it never works out well for either party.
However, what about the other strain of licensed games? The ones that often end up not just being passable but end up being some of the greatest games ever made? The most obvious examples of course are Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City. If you’ve not played either of these two games make sure you find some time to do so, they’re fantastic games which have worked alongside the Christopher Nolan movies in restoring glory to arguably the greatest superhero of all time. What makes these two games work so phenomenally well is that developers had a free reign to tell their own story based on an abundance of rich source material around mechanics which fluidly worked with the setting, the total opposite of movie-to-game adaptations. The mechanics were innovative, the story was good, the setting was authentic, but above all… it made the player feel as though they actually were the iconic superhero Batman, that this world wasn’t just a cheap knock-off… it felt like the real deal.
Another legendary licensed title hammers home the message I’m conveying here, 007 Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64. Sure, Goldeneye’s graphics look dated by today’s standards but it really showcases how games are meant to work with their silver screen counterparts, by not trying to mimic them down to the last detail. Goldeneye took the movie plot of the same name and worked it around some pretty revolutionary FPS mechanics, it didn’t try to out-Goldeneye Goldeneye.
Is it possible to make an even passable video game movie?
This is all about the concepts of ‘Transhumanism’, “What does it mean to be human?”, and “At what point do people cross the line between Man & Machine?”. There is also a healthy helping of conspiracy in the story involving corporate control of nations, reactionary groups both political and militant, and international terrorism.
Deus Ex took the tropes, themes, and beliefs from a previous generation of movie-goers and re-rooted them firmly in today’s world. A world where the fear of international terrorism is at an all-time-high and where technology has advanced and continues to advance at a staggering rate to the extent where it is possible for people to get bionic replacements for body parts. Could this be the one which finally breaks the ice and shows us all that it is possible to make a good game-to-move adaptation?