Let Off Some Steam: Video Game Movies Are Doomed

Let Off Some Steam: Video Game Movies Are Doomed

David ‘RaygunBrown’ Rayfield is a bit of a regular here at Kotaku, in that he always has Steam to ‘let off’, but this time I truly think he’s outdone himself. I don’t know if I necessarily agree with the piece, but I definitely enjoyed reading it. Are Video Game Movies doomed?

Take it away David!

Paul W.S. Anderson Is The Best Videogame Movie Director There Is And You Should Accept It
Amongst the gaming community, there is a strange subset of people that continue to exist. I’m not talking about the Street Fighter III: Third Strike frame-counting experts in Puerto Rico or the guys who spent over two hundred hours honing their Blitzball skills in Final Fantasy X. Nor do I mean the PC elitists who still refer to modern game consoles as ‘kid’s toys’ or even the millions of people in the UK who keep Zumba Fitness in the number one spot on the sales charts. All of these varied but slightly deranged folk could be considered the most rational organisms in existence compared to who I’m talking about.

The insane people who still hold out hope for a completely decent movie based on a videogame. That’s who I mean.

Now don’t get me wrong here. Lord knows that I would be first person to raise his hand and state unequivocally that a large amount of videogames have amazing, surprising, heartbreaking and entertaining stories. The bleak, unforgiving tale of John Marston and his journey into the hell of the old West. The cyclical return of an ancient alien race known as The Reapers and Commander Shepard’s fight against them to save humanity. Directionless loser Vincent Brooks and his terrifying nightly horrors that test his faith in relationships. A young boy named Raz and his funny, heartwarming induction into a summer camp for psychics.

Any of these storylines and countless more like them creates an experience unlike any other in modern entertainment and given the right treatment, could translate easily to the silver screen. Sure, you can argue the themes involved have simply been lifted from movies themselves and it starts to become a case of the snake eating its own tail but let’s face it, today’s movies aren’t fully furnished in the originality department either. Can you imagine it though? Wouldn’t be incredible to witness your favourite videogame characters come to life by famous actors and see how the story plays out in a live-action setting? And all the while be completely true to the game?

Regrettably, this will never happen. And the director of the Resident Evil movies is living proof.

In a recent interview, Paul W.S. Anderson said the following: “Despite what a lot of haters on the internet might say, I love the Resident Evil games. And these movies are made with a huge knowledge and real passion for the games. A lot of video game movies are made by directors who don’t know the video games they are based on from a hole in the head. They don’t do justice to the games, they don’t immerse themselves in the games, they don’t understand what people liked from the games. And that is the wrong approach and clearly those movies don’t work.”

Take a good look at what he means. Beyond the startlingly obvious fact he isn’t aware of the irony in what’s he saying, there’s something else at play here. Something deeper. Anderson says that the reason videogames don’t translate well into movies of any quality is because the directors don’t care for, or play, the games they’re based on.

Firstly, he’s only half right. There has been a long standing trend of directors stating post-release that before or during the production of their film, they had very little interest in the game that the movie is based on. One such example is Mike Newell, director of Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time, who said in an interview that his only exposure to the original Ubisoft game was by watching his assistant play it. During which time, he “felt nothing”. He was also convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that games cannot convey the same type of emotion as movies.

Another example is David O Russell. Recently removed from directing a movie based on the Uncharted games, he famously stated on several occasions about his ideas about a Sopranos-esque family of antique dealers travelling the globe delivering ‘justice’ and his appreciation of the ‘family dynamic’ of the games. With obviously no experience with the games themselves, Russell made it clear he wanted to crush Uncharted’s enchanting characters and story under the weight of his director’s salary, making up a story to suit his own desires.

With that in mind, let’s return to Anderson’s own words.

“They don’t do justice to the games, they don’t immerse themselves in the games, they don’t understand what people liked from the games.”

Let’s say you’re right, Paul. Let’s speculate for a moment that these directors have failed in the past where you are now succeeding. They don’t care about videogames. Their only drive behind producing these films is money and they are not being true to the source material while you are the exact opposite. You repeatedly profess your love and devotion to games and make sure everybody knows time and time again how knowledgeable you are about their intricate stories, characters and legacy.
Hmm, something is amiss here. Some further investigation is needed. The easy solution is to compare Anderson’s films to the games they are based on to see if his argument holds any water. Let’s see.

RESIDENT EVIL (1996 game) – As part of a special forces team sent on a rescue mission, Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine discover a colossal mansion in the mountains filled with zombies. After a lot of suspense, scares and horrible monsters, you soon realise the leader of your team is part of a corporation-based plot to weaponise a virus which turns everyone infected into the mindless walking dead.

RESIDENT EVIL (2002 film) – Waking up nude in a bath, a woman named Alice discovers she has amnesia. A police officer and a group of commandos join her in infiltrating an underground research facility filled with zombies. Following her defeat of an evil computer program called The Red Queen, Alice gets her memory back and it’s revealed she is A) married to the officer and B) an unstoppable killing machine.

That’s strange. The storylines don’t seem to match up at all. A quick browse of the other films in the Resident Evil series reveals a further disconnect. Despite dozens of characters throughout the games, the films focus on the wholly invented character of Alice and her journey from kung-fu badass to supernatural kung-fu badass. Wasn’t Anderson just pointing out the flaws in other director’s work? And the reason being is that they don’t stay true to the game?

If you dig past the surface hilarity of Anderson’s comments, his point is strangely valid. Albeit on a completely unintentional basis. His eye-stabbingly awful version of the Resident Evil universe may be no longer connected to the games in any form but it’s clear his misguided enthusiasm is firmly in place. As a result, there’s a hard truth you need to face. Among all the movie directors who have taken a stab at the videogame genre, Anderson is the sole voice in support of the medium. The others simply didn’t care. Directors who don’t care about videogames make terrible movies about videogames. But Anderson says he loves videogames and he still makes terrible movies about videogames. Herein lies the problem. A problem which makes it clear that even though we may get a kick out of a homage scene here and a game reference there, all of these movies are disappointing. And every director apart from Paul W.S. Anderson will never make the effort to improve while his blind faith in the belief he’s being true to the games will remain. Which in turn, prevents him from improving.

Just let it go. Hollywood movie executives continue buying the rights to videogames and no good will come of it. A Dead Space movie will be ruined. Gears Of War in celluloid form will be ridiculous and fail miserably. Nobody in existence ever wanted a film based on Asteroids. Drop all your concerns and simply let videogames be videogames. They don’t need to be movies because they are fine the way they are.

But if you must chase this desire and keep your fingers crossed that one day you could hold your head up high when you exit that cinema – know this: Paul W.S. Anderson is the best you’re going to get.


  • I think your beef is more with Paul WS (Keep money rolling in by directing the same movie and casting my wife again as the lead) Anderson than actual video game movies.

    What most people want from their video game movie is an identical representation of the events of the video game summed up in a 2 hour movie… This doesn’t work, you’re talking about condensing 12 hours of game into a 2 hour movie, it just won’t fit.

    Alternatively what video game movies should do is take the characters, take the feeling of the game and convert that into a stand alone story. Make people think they’re watching a pre-rendered video rather than a blockbuster.

    Alternatively take the Game of Thrones route and make a TV series instead of a film adapation, that will allow the full story to be put out there.

    • Why make the movie the same as the game? I’ve seen that story. I don’t want to see it again. What needs to happen is to expand on it. Take things mentioned in the game but not shown and make something out of that.

      • Well said! A good example of this just happens to be the only decent Resident Evil movie, and also the only one NOT made by Anderson: Resident Evil: Degeneration. Its not a re-telling of one of the games, but follows the games’ canon. Sure, its not perfect, but its a hell of a lot better than anything Anderson has ever made.

        Also, Anderson is NOT the best we’ll ever get. Xavier Gen’s Hitman wasn’t completely true to the game’s story, but I still enjoyed it cos it was a good action movie, and was a much better game adaption than any of Anderson’s RE garbage.

        And a lot of what makes video games memorable just wouldn’t work in a film anyway. The only reason so many games are made into movies is cos Sony, Warner and all those big wigs just want to milk the franchises for all the money they can get.

        • Just learnt that Anderson direct the first Mortal Kombat movie. I’ll give him credit for that, cos that movie was awesome(when I was 15).

        • Though I would disagree with Hitman having any positive points whatsoever, I agree that movie games don’t have to have the stories of the games. Degeneration was a great film, and I haven’t only played a couple of hours of a couple of RE games. It was just really entertaining.

          Though I would like to see a 1 to 1 copy of the storyline from a game I understand I may be in the minority. I personally would still enjoy it as I’m the kind of person that watches tv shows and movies I like multiple times. Even if I know it all and I’ve seen it all I’ll watch it again.

          I also disagree with the OP the a game can’t be condensed into 2 hours. Many if not most games don’t have stories that cover half of the actual game time, it’s just the gameplay pads a lot of the story out. They may have to cut stuff out but if they still managed to make the Lord of the Rings movies entertaining/true enough.

          Getting back to the spin off idea, I always thought this was the best idea for the Halo movie. Remember the Halo 3 ads that were all about the fight on Earth told from the marines perspective? The diorama with them talking about how the chief helped them. That is a movie I want to see, you wouldn’t need the master chief in it, but if he was there he shouldn’t be a main character, just a supporting role. The real story should be the classic war story told from the perspective of front line men.

          Wow, sorry for the long post, just feel strongly about this sort of thing.

      • Maybe but how many people have finished the game, I played RE1 for one night and that was enough for me (the controls were hideous – playing N64 first ruined me for a lot of PS1 games)

        Even just that one night of play is enough to recognise that the plot of the film is so far away from the game its not even funny!

      • but that was the only good bit 😀

        the rest was ruined by removing the hell element

        And the inclusion of the scorpion king

        • That FPS bit was kind of entertaining in a funny way. Makes me think it could be done well in a better movie. The changes they made to that storyline were pretty unnecessary. It made less sense than the original hell monsters.

  • Bollocks. It’s inevitable. The current generation of high-powered Hollywood execs are all old and think video games are played exclusively by 13 year old boys, so they throw together some cheap crap with hot chicks and techno music, thinking that’s all they need to do to satisfy the fan base and make a quick profit.

    But once they die and our generation takes over, we’ll start to see some good stuff. Although by then games will have merged with movies anyway, so it’ll be a moot point.

    Don’t forget, we’ve already come close a couple of times. Jackson/Blomkamp’s Halo would’ve been good, and so would Verbinski’s Bioshock. Raimi’s WoW would’ve been at least interesting. And Russell’s Uncharted would’ve been a good movie, just not faithful to the source material (which, unfortunately, nerds are sticklers for). Someday the stars will align and one of these sorts of deals will go through.

    In the meantime, just pretend LotR is a Warcraft movie and Starship Troopers is a Starcraft movie. And remember, they made a great movie based on a theme park ride. Anything can happen.

  • I Disagree with your belief that some of the big name game’s could be translated to the big screen.

    Something Like Mass Effect will never work as a movie. It would need a TV series to contain the depth of the universe.

    I personally think that if your going to make a video game movie you actually make it like the RE movies

    (well the first 2 after that he just sorta said well i’m out of games with original locations to base stories on)

    Where you have throwbacks to the videogames and utilize the world, but create a new character/characters to view the world.

    In fact one could argue that Alice in that movie is the equivilant of your non speaking characters in most FPS games. They exist but have no real personality or memory they are a blank slate to be developed through the course of the game

    Granted there are some games like uncharted which are essentially an interactive indiana jones movie, and these titles could make a more or less straight translation. But they need to be able to pull in more than the video game crowd.

    A Video game movie should for the most part encompass the feel and character of the world that it exist’s in, but should avoid mimicry of the actual game.

    as Glenn has said TV is probably the best medium. And if it wasn’t for the fact that syfy is moving away from any real sci fi. They could probably do a gritty BSG type version of Mass effect but probably wouldn’t have the ratings or budget to do so

    I think when it comes down to it Video Game Movies aren’t for gamers, they are for the general population. And the general population doesn’t really know or care that Alice doesn’t exist in the game

  • I actually thought Resident Evil is the best example of a videogame movie, and more VG movies should follow this example.

    The first Resident Evil film works because it happens *alongside* the Resident Evil games, not against them. The movie isn’t trying to re-tell the story or force a beloved character on to the silver screen. The film’s story is about a new character, in a separate Umbrella faclility within Racoon City. This allows the film to bring the world of Resident Evil to life without having to hack the game’s plot or character’s to pieces so that they can ‘work’ in a feature film.

    That’s what a proper VG film should be to me, bring the world and the events to life, but if the story doesn’t work don’t force it.

    How well the first RE film works is further demonstrated by the rest of the RE movies by how they all become filled with half-assed attempted to get as many game characters into the plot as necessary.

  • He’s right. Anderson will always be the best guy for a videogame movie.

    The RE films may not be the most faithful but they are definitely solid films and fun plus, that first Mortal Kombat film perfectly captured the cheesy charm of the MK games.

  • I think you have to think about what “being true” to a game is. I think having the same story, the same characters, won’t work when making a movie. It just wont fit together.
    Say they made a Mass Effect movie, I think the best thing to do would be take the world, take the setting and create new stories with new characters. This gives directors a chance to do what they invision with the story while still keeping the game part of it secure.
    You could get the characters, and tell a whole new story. What happened in the Blitz with Commander Shephard? You could answer these questions with film. Then again this only works if you have a GOOD director. We all wondered what happened in the clone wars and we didn’t like the answer Lucas gave us=/

  • I can’t possibly consider the RE movies the best example of game movies.

    In my eyes, that honor goes to the first Tomb Raider movie. I thought that movie did make justice to the game both from the story and aestetics point of view. Am I alone in this?

  • I think the problem is that people expect the films to basically be a re-telling of the game. To feature all the same characters, tell the same story and feature the same scenes.

    When the films do this they get hate because they’re never able to live up to peoples standards. The characters are never portrayed like they should be in peoples minds. The story is never as good or as in depth because they only spent two hours telling it while the game spent twenty.

    On the flip side when they try and make the film simply based on the game and not tell the same story or even feature the same characters they get hated for not remaining true to the source material.

    It seems no matter what they do they can’t win. We, the viewers, should be approaching game films the same way people approach super hero films. That is with the knowledge that it’s not going to be an exact re-telling, that the characters aren’t going to be exactly the same, that due to time and money constraints the story isn’t going to be as in depth as we like. That it’s simply one version, one interpretation of the world and characters we like and that it’s been changed to better fit the medium it’s being portrayed in.

    Now I’m not saying we should just blindly enjoy these films. There are bad video game films out there. It’s just that we should stop holding them to an impossibly high standard.

  • Psychonauts FTW!!!
    I think that we will have a decent vide ogame movie oneday. Tie in books,comic, etc have been increasing in quality over the years and surely films or tv will have to catch up eventually. However a gaming experience is too individual and movies that draw upon the universe of the game instead of the events of the game itself.
    (Which is why RE and MK work to some extent)

  • The best videogame movie I ever saw was the Professor Layton adaptation. First good thing about it was a genuinely interesting property (why is it usually FPS’s that make the big screen?) and secondly, a genuine devotion to the source material. Everyone else, take note.

  • We’ve already had a game movie (albeit a short one) that was infinitely superior to any of the offerings mentioned, Assassin’s Creed Lineage

    It was made with due respect to the game universe, didn’t shit on anything people liked about the series and helped set the atmosphere for AC2.

    Was it a film? Was it a TV episode? Was it the longest ad yet made? Who gives a toss, it was excellent and thats the level of quality that game films need to be judged by.

    • I think this is the future for great videogame movies, stuff done in-house working with the original writers and within the world.

  • I love the RE movies. They’re total B-Movie experiences that know they aren’t high art. I’m a big fan of Paul WS Anderson. For the brainless type of action movies he does, he does them very well.

    People forget that the RE games had pretty dire storylines to begin with. I’ve never, ever been emotionally invested in an RE title (Ok, maybe I lie – Code: Veronica had me at hello), and have never looked at the series, as great as it is, as any form of exemplary story telling. And I’ve been with the series since the beginning.

    When I think of RE, I think Zombies, cheap scares, cool cutscenes and cheese. Which, incidentally, is what the movies capture pretty well. I was very excited for Degeneration… only to be so utterly disappointed. That movie was terrible in both native language and the dub, and not in a so-bad-it’s-good way. It was basically an hour and a half long (average) cutscene that was ugly and boring. Paul WS Anderson gets a bad rap. But I love his stuff in the way I love a Dario Argento movie. Totally cringe-worthy, but done with such conviction that you can’t help but admire it.

  • I think this article is more about what’s wrong with the entire movie industry these days. It seems as though almost every movie coming out these days is based off a book, tv series, comic book series, old movie, basically anything with a pre-made fan base. That way they only need to put a little bit of effort into making a film and all the fans will rush to see it just because it has the name of their beloved franchise on it. Luckily we still have some decent film makers left who do put some effort into their films, such as Christopher Nolan and Peter Jackson.
    Undoubtedly we will eventually get a great video game movie, but it probably won’t happen till the entire movie industry picks it’s act up or a nolan/jackson type person makes one.

  • Yeah… I like the RE movies. Atrocious interpretations, but good, dumb fun, nonetheless. Considering the source material, I’m surprised they’re so well conceived.

    Besides, it’s all just cross-pollination. We play games, we watch movies. Cross overs rarely enrich either medium. Why do we need quality game movies? Just to prove that we can?

  • I think games make shitty source material for movies. Games give better depth to setting than film does yet as a result of player agency the characters by necessity have less. What do you really know about nathan drake? Dude likes women is a smart arse and likes treasure. What do you know about Elena? She is a reporter…

    A film could be within game cannon but there is no game story that I think holds up as a direct translation. The mediums have very different strengths and weaknesses and that is great.

    • A thousand times this.

      Silent Hill was fantastic, anyone saying Tomb Raider or RE has rocks in their head.

    • I think it’s tied between Silent Hill and Price of Persia.

      Prince of Persia was a bit light on substance, but when you got into the mood it was a pretty fun, easy-to-watch film.

      Silent Hill was a decent enough horror, though having Sean Bean survive the entire film seemed out of character for him.

      • He wasn’t really in Silent hill though. Well he got there when Rose and the others had moves into the alternate silent hill. Alessa had her help and didn’t need him. He helped show there was two SHs.
        Now the director of Silent hill: the movie, did actually play the games. The movie is a re-interprtation of the first game in a way but it’s not exactly the same. Also kudos to the director for using puppets instead of CG.

    • That’s interesting. I’d say Silent Hill came the closest but at the same time I thought it was not that great all things considered. The first half was spot-on for the most part, but the last half, to me, totally screwed the pooch. I could overlook the out-of-place monsters from Silent Hill 2 like the nurses and the flesh-straight-jacket-thing and obviously Pyramid Head… I knew they weren’t gonna get that part right and I expected as much.

      But, When Pyramid Head randomly ripped the chicks skin off out of nowhere I just laughed and thought, ‘Wow, ok… I guess Hollywood didn’t think it was gory enough to be scary…’ They replaced what makes Silent Hill a frightening place with the cliche stuff that *they* think makes a place scary…

      All the visuals were spot on and you could tell that someone involved knew Silent Hill or at least had seen it enough to recognize it… but they obviously didn’t quite ‘get’ the actual core/soul of Silent Hill. …in my opinion 😛

  • I think the whole point he was trying to make is that to make a successful movie / game tie in, you shouldnt reproduce the game, just what people love about it. Thats why RE has had so much success… its about cool monsters, techy corporations that run the world and awesome characters.

  • Unfortunately, video games have terrible, terrible stories and awful dialogue. The very few exceptions aren’t enough to stop me just making a broad, sweeping statement like that.

    I loved Red Dead Redemption. Was it a great story? No. Did it have interesting characters? No. Great dialogue? No. (great voice acting? yes!). The immersion of playing the character knowing you had the freedom to roam that amazing scenery and the soundtrack are what made it feel like it did, not the story – and when it comes to making a movie, the story is what matters.

    • Mostly, I agree. This is especially true of the most popular games. There are some games that are gems which would make for a good movie, but they are few and far between. The problem with videogame movies is that there is still the idea that gaming is for kids, so nobody takes the source material seriously and makes a solid effort.

      Fortunately, in recent years we have seen attempts to take the process of making a comic-book movie seriously. Largely kicked off by Spider-Man we now have the likes of 300, Watchmen, Sin City, Hulk, Batman, Scott Pilgrim, Kick-Ass etc. Not everybody liked these movies, and no doubt they sought to make a profit on the IP, but nonetheless they were taken seriously and didn’t strike me as a cynical attempt to cash in on the cheap.

      IP like Deus Ex and System Shock would make for great movies, if only the movie took the premise as seriously as the games themselves. DooM could have had a simple, but direct plot: problem on Mars, in tight, enclosed facility. Get attached by demons, uncover an occult secret, realise there’s a portal to Hell that needs to be shut down, shut down the portal. Simple, true to the game and something you can build a solid action-thriller around. But they didn’t do that because they didn’t take the source material seriously. Hopefully the success of comic book movies that take the source seriously will help reverse this trend.

  • I think it’s a pretty premature claim. It was years before we got comic book movies of the ground, do you think anyone really expected them to be as big as they were if they saw examples like the old Cap America movie (not the last one, the oooold really terrible one), or even best case scenario like Richard Donner’s Superman movies, that in retrospect look pretty terrible.

    Or did anyone really believe another Batman series was going to be as insanely lauded as the Nolan Batman movies after Joel Schumacher had his way with the franchise?

    Video game movies just need that magical combination of an invested and interested director with actual talent, the right game franchise and a good budget. I think it will happen before long.

  • I highly doubt my comment will add anything. +1 for the WS Anderson hate group, he really has made the Resident Evil movies into a bowl of turn burger meat. I concur with the sentiment that we dont need a blow for blow re-telling of the games – but if you are to make stand alone film that is within a games universe, do a decent job of it and make an effort to follow closer to the story. WS fails miserably and focusses way too much on the camp action shite where although Resident Evil is an action game it is also a horror/mystery game (well originally anyway). There hasnt even been one movie resembling the first game yet…

  • Remember that Ubisoft are now going to make movies of their biggest franchises. I’m not saying that automatically means brilliance, but at least they’ve got a chance to do something faithful.

  • I would say it works in all ways. Goldeneye, as the exception, of course. I believe it really does boil down to how seriously the director etc take the IP versus how much they are trying to cash in. The harry potter movies are reasonable, not great, purely because JK was serious about keeping to the books. On the other hand, most of the games made were terrible quality. Iron man, avatar (both the blue ones and the airbending one) terrible games. No one has mentioned Final Fantasy or Advent Children yet. They were decent because squeenix cared.

  • I’d say video game movies are getting better now that people are taking gaming media more seriously than the cringe-worthy initial efforts.

  • “Paul W.S. Anderson is the best you’re going to get.”

    Then video games movies ARE doomed. He’s AS BAD AS BOLL.

  • Video-games storylines and maturity are almost unexistent, generally speaking. They are caricatures of what a true story should be. Until the industry gets it right and shapes-up into something that may actually echo in our phsycological empathy structure there can´t be faithfull movies because the movie medium does not have enough from the source material to work seriously with, even considering the obvious tecnhical and narrative gap between them.

    Just look at how violence or sex are seen and treated in most games. Or the absence of true emotional attachements with caracters (the best I can remember is the first part of the comicbook-to-videogame adaptation “The Darkness” or the Hollywood-CSI-drama-quality-to-videogame adaptation “Heavy Rain”)

    Take a look to RPGs – they are the genre that cleary feels like it is missing this the most because it usually completely lacks the capacity to create true emotional reactions from the player towards the world around him – when they should be the genre pushing that feature onwards. Bioware tried it, but the talking-heads will never be enough..

    Maybe when we merge both medium things will shape up differently. Or when we find a cool way to use both to complement each other – like Kubrik and Clarke did with 2001, A Space Odissey.

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