A while back on Let Off Some Steam, Kotaku reader David ‘RaygunBrown’ Rayfield put the case forward that movies based on video games were doomed. Many people agreed. Some didn’t. Patrick Stafford was one of those people, and he has written a retort – this is why video game movies are not doomed.
Why Video Game Movies Are Not Doomed
It’s difficult to argue for the future of video game movies. Most of them have been mediocre at very best; utterly terrible at worst. It’s certainly not a common view to hold that Hollywood will someday bring forth a piece of cinema worthy of the video game industry.
But I’m optimistic.
Last week David ‘RaygunBrown’ Rayfield wrote on Kotaku that gamers should never expect a good video game adaptation to the big screen. He argues that it just can’t happen, not just because video game stories are butchered in translation, but just that directors simply aren’t willing to try.
I think he’s wrong. We have good reason to be optimistic about the future of video game movies, and I think we should expect to see a decent, if not critically acclaimed, adaptation within the next 10 years. At a stretch, possibly five.
Rayfield’s argument is broken into two parts. Firstly, video game stories have continually been changed in adaptations, and secondly, that this is directly connected to the motivations of the directors actually spearheading the projects.
I’ll be the first to admit that video game stories haven’t delivered the goods, and although interactive narrative is improving, we’re still a long way off from a gaming equivalent of Shakespeare or Robert Frost. But they exist.
Rayfield rightly points out that the video game industry is filled with fascinating and exciting stories - John Marston’s tragic fight to win his family, or even Isaac Clarke’s struggle to hold on to his sanity while battling to destroy a mysterious structure known as The Marker. Hell, BioShock has a gripping narrative that could be translated perfectly onto film.
And most gamers don’t even know how close that dream was to reality.
Last year Gore Verbinski, the director of the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, was seemingly dedicated to bringing a BioShock film to the screen. In fact, he was so set on the goal that he publically stated that unless the adaptation could receive an R rating, then it wouldn’t be made at all.
“We’re working trying to make it. The problem with BioShock was: R-rated movie, underwater, horror. It’s a really expensive R-rated movie,” he told IGN.
But of course, disaster struck. Here’s what happened:
“I couldn’t really get past anybody that would spend the money that it would take to do it and keep an R rating. Alternately, I wasn’t really interested in pursuing a PG-13 version. Because the R rating is inherent.”
“Little Sisters and injections and the whole thing. I just wanted to really, really make it a movie where, four days later, you’re still shivering and going, “Jesus Christ!””
Verbinski was so clear, so focused on this film’s vision that unless he could get the money to do it right, then he wouldn’t do it all. And while it’s disappointing that Verbinski ultimately couldn’t bring Rapture to life, there’s a bigger point here.
BioShock has been praised, and rightly so, for its political backdrop that is such a crucial part of the story. An Ayn Rand fantasy-land turned nightmare. This influences the art, the level design and the dialogue. The issue of freedom, liberty and anarchy is at the very soul of BioShock’s play. Countless writers have pointed this out again and again, showing why such attention to narrative detail enhanced the gameplay.
This is where the future of video game film lies. In stories that battle with real, human emotion at their core. In titles that make it their mission to highlight issues such as the definition of humanity, and whether a human being with artificial limbs can actually be considered a person.
These games provided nothing of substance, so the filmmakers made their own, and it was lacking. An adaptation is hardly an adaptation when the source material is barely enough to fill a script treatment.
Crystal Dynamics realises this. The latest trailer for the Tomb Raider reboot not only attempts to paint Lara Croft as a realistic person, but as a character trapped in a situation where she isn’t the hero. She is weak. She bleeds. And she cries for help.
This is conflict. And conflict is at the heart of a good script.
This is why the comic book industry is a fitting example here. Comics have been around for decades, but it is only within the past 10 years we’ve seen films like Batman Begins and Iron Man take these stories seriously and give them justice.
While critics might say Christopher Nolan’s two Batman films are overrated, there is no doubt they have tackled some significant, emotionally resonant issues such as identity, and even the nature of domestic terrorism. They also contain one of the best performances seen on film in the past decade – perhaps ever.
It is Nolan’s approach to the source material that is an inspiration here. Listening to Nolan during interviews, it is clear that he respects the material – the dozens of graphic novels and one-off series that make up a significant canon of characters and story. He is attracted to the character and the multiple interpretations the comics provides him.
But it has taken over half a century for the comic book industry to finally see adaptations that give justice to their craft.
It is the same with video games. Once the industry starts producing stories that directors actually respect, then they will feel the need to start doing them justice.
And as Verbinski shows, these people exist. He even said to IGN that BioShock differed from Prince of Persia because “it’s actually got a great story”. And although the Uncharted movie has been worked on for some time, director Neil Burger is optimistic:
“I love the project, I think it’s a great adventure and it’s a wild insane ride…the game is and the movie will be. I mean it has pretty great character at its core, Nathan is a bit of a con man, a hustler…knows his stuff, ballsy...it’s great.”
This is a difficult argument to make because there is no example here. There is no video game movie I can point to and say “this is why we should be trying to do again and again”. Instead, we only have the source material available to us.
But as that source material gets better and better, so do the chances of making an excellent video game adaptation.
The stories are being written. There are people willing to work in this space. We just need to be patient.