Let Off Some Steam: Video Game Movies Are NOT Doomed

Let Off Some Steam: Video Game Movies Are NOT Doomed
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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.

The number of these types of games continues to grow, and are replacing those titles like Prince of Persia and Tomb Raider, whose corresponding film narratives were not adapted but rather fabricated.

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.


  • “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.”

    Seriously? I love games. I mentioned this on the previous article, I loved RDR but the story was hardly fascinating, the character was just a cliched western hero, it was great BECAUSE YOU WERE PLAYING HIM not because he was a great character. We got to ‘live out’ a character we’ve seen 20 times before in a movie. You cannot turn that back INTO a movie, it was a character setting and story derived from countless movies before it, its not adding anything to turn it back into a movie anymore than it would be to make another generic western movie.

    As for mr Clarkes ‘sruggle to hold on to his sanity’ give me a break, it was just D-grade lame rubbish but we accept it because as people that play games we are used to being shovelled terrible stories and dialogue and don’t really complain because hey, who’s got time when there is shit to be shot. If Dead Space was a movie, it would have been straight to DVD. It could well have been the Asylum’s version of Event Horizon.

  • When you said a good videogame movie had almost happened and then mentioned Pirates of the Caribbean, I thought you were going to tell the story of how the Pirates script was actually a mutilated script for a Monkey Island adaption.
    It is most evident in the second movie, but think about some af the hallmarks, ghost/zombie pirate, orphan wannabe pirate, hot governor(‘s daughter), voodoo lady, coffin boat, assembling a crew of misfits, insult swordfighting…

  • I also wrote a retort pretty much directly to RaygunBrown as to why they weren’t doomed right here:


    I disagree with you markd, especially about dead space. Not so much the struggle to hold on to sanity, but more – in Dead Space 1 in particular – the absolutely overpowering feeling of loneliness. I always felt so alone. It’s a really terrible feeling but if a movie can make me feel that way then, hell, that’s a good movie.

  • Mark,

    I see your point but also consider game stories aren’t meant to be taken as movies, they are meant to be taken as games. They need to be adapted to film to make them usable in that medium.

    If Alien was a game first, and not a movie, I guarantee you’d still have people saying the story is horrible.

  • Wow. That was a terrific read, Patrick. Awesome.

    Now I’ll tear it apart. Nah, I’m only joking.

    I guess I’m still jaded until all the evidence is in. My biggest gripe is most people saying ‘Oh such-and-such movie was alright’ when it wasn’t. It was garbage far removed from the source material.

    Done right, a Resident Evil or Dead spave movie that followed the game exactly and produced the same tension as say, the film Open Water would make me line up day one. It annoys me when people say ‘you can’t make a movie out of that game, there’s barely any story’ but as your Alien example has proved, this opinion is pretty much bullshit.

    Also, I’m honoured that someone went to this much trouble to retort my garbage. Cheers Patrick.

    I hope you’re right. (But you’re not) 🙂

  • Holy hell Jackabossk, you too? Man, I loved reading that one too. I never knew about Anderson flat out admission to wanting to purposely change the story of Resident Evil just because he thinks he’s awesome. What an asshole.

    • Yeah dude, I posted that in your Let Off Steam last week but it slipped under the radar. I did a fair bit of research into Anderson because I actually did find the Resident Evil movies ‘good’. Not as in Award-winning good, but they served their purpose as B grade action films.

      I thoroughly enjoyed your article man, so I thought it deserved some sort of response, considering I disagree with you 😉

  • set a movies in a games setting make it true to its themes and characters and spend money on someone good to write the movie.

    The movie of bioshock the game would probably be an action movie with a tired hero saves the day plot. A movie about the conflict between atlus and andrew ryan as atlus first aspires to control rapture could be amazing.

  • I definitely agree that it will happen, comic book movies were crap for ages until people with passion took over and made it great. Games like Mass Effect, Planescape Torment and Assassin’s Creed are 3 I can think of off the top of my head that deserve a great movie.

    • Dude, The Wizard was AWESOME*! I will not have you dissing no power glove!

      *I may have been very, very young when I watched it, so anything that moved probably impressed me. However! I am positive that The Wizard was excellent.

      • Thanks to that movie I (everyone) knew where the warp whistle was in the castle. Before the game even came out!

        Awesome stuff!

        Other than that, all I remember is “Calee-forn-ya!)

  • Good Read.
    I love that kotaku posts an opinion piece one perspective and then another stating the opposite. But they aren’t troll articles they are respectable of others opinions. This topic and gamification come to mind.

  • Sorry for the copy and paste – this was my comments on Hollywood video game films vs. fan made ones, talking about the recent Fallout 3 inspired Nuka Break (the article is found at http://www.gameplayer.com.au/opinion-video-game-movies-are-fans-the-only-ones-who-make-them-right/ )

    For my sins, I only just got around to playing Fallout 3. As a screenwriter, I thought the story was so rich, I immediately sat down after playing it and wrote a four page outline for a screenplay.

    However, a lot of games lack a filmic story. It is only now, in this generation with the likes of Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed (another game I’ve had to sit down and plot a film for, just because it was so bloody good) that we are being treated to games which rich characters, backgrounds, and histories, as well as game makers who can visually tell a story (some of the cut scenes in Assassin’s Creed are beautiful).

    But I agree with the article. When adapting games-to-movies, the filmmakers should treat the source as they would an adaptation of a well loved book. The problem is a lot of filmmakers want to brand their individuality on a film they make (and possibly they have a case, it will take two years of their lives) so they don’t want to copy and paste the plot / story of the game directly one the film (which, ironically, is exactly what we do with book adaptations).

    I’m sure there will be a shift in Hollywood adaptations of games, following the shift in how stories are told in games. If you look at comic book movies, we had decades of poor adaptations before filmmakers started taking the source material seriously (my hat off to Chris and Jonah Nolan and David Goyer).

    But if Ubisoft or Bethesda want to let me write the screenplays for films based on Assassin’s Creed and Fallout, I’m up for that!

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