Jun 22 2012 5:00pm

Level Up: How To Create A Better Video Game Movie

Level Up: How To Create A Better Video Game Movie

In a recent article, I went through some of the ways that comic book films have evolved from a cringe-worthy medium into the Hollywood blockbusters of today. As I described, comic books have come a long way from the 1970’s Captain America to The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. But another realm of intellectual properties has not seen the same Geek Renaissance that comic films have seen. I’m talking, of course, about the dreaded Video Game Movie. Overall, video game franchises that have been translated into films have fallen far short of bringing their rich universes to life, making many beg the question — is it even possible to make a great video game film?

Much like the contention about comic book films, video game worlds are huge, complex places full of plots that can go on forever. Some are convoluted. Some are downright silly. But fans of these games will come to the theater to see their favorite RPG or first person shooter world translated onto the screen, and it is the job of the filmmaker to deliver something that resembles that video game. Let’s look over some of what’s come before, the good, the bad and the ugly, and discuss just what it is filmmakers can do to make sure that the next video game franchise doesn’t go the way of every Uwe Boll disaster.


1.) Translate For Realism, Keep the Authenticity

Compared to comic books, video game worlds can be downright silly. I mean, one of the most popular video game franchises of all time is about a vaguely racially stereotyped plumber racing round to rescue a blond-haired princess from a giant spikey turtle/lizard while chowing on some questionable mushrooms. Let’s just accept, sometimes stuff is a little out there in the digital video game world. So when translating for film, unless a film is being done in cartoon/animated format, the name of the game is realism while protecting the authenticity of the original game. This is a delicate, difficult balance to dance considering that at the heart of tons of games are implausible, weird and far, far out there concepts. Some game movies try to go for that authenticity and fail hard. Some just don’t seem to aim for it at all.

Level Up: How To Create A Better Video Game MovieTake the Super Mario Bros. movie starring John Leguizamo and Bob Hoskins and the D-Movie special, Double Dragon. Both of these games have huge backstories and huge fan followings. Yet when it came time to translate these franchises to film, both went for tongue in cheek and never looked back. They didn’t even really bother to go for serious — after all, making “plumbers to the rescue” realistic wasn’t going to happen. But in going for funny, the films both phone in things like a good plot, acting and any kind of plausibility which take the films directly to the Bargain DVD bin. And while they might insight some warmth in a die-hard Double Dragon fan’s heart, nobody is going to be calling them good cinema because the movies couldn’t be bothered taking themselves even a little seriously.

Tip #1: Difficulty in realism doesn’t give you an excuse to phone it in, or rely on comedy as a crutch. 


2.) Everyone Likes a Plot, Right Guys?

Lots of video games don’t have plots. We know this. Fighting games have the barest flimsy excuses for universes set up, just to put a bunch of awesome characters with kick-ass fighting maneuvers together for you to battle with your buddies. This is accepted by fans. Yet when trying to turn those franchises into a film, it’s important to remember that while fighting games don’t have to have plots, movies do! And once again, just because the framework isn’t that strong in the game doesn’t give a filmmaker the excuse to present moviegoers with a flimsy plot. Action films have enough excuses for big and awesome fight scenes, but fans are not stupid. They know the difference between a plot that is healthy and has depth and one that is cobbled together to give the actors a chance to beat up on each other for our amusement.

The worst offenders of this are the cringe-worthy Jean-Claude Van Damme Street Fighter outing back in 1994 and the more recent Tekken and King of Fighters films. (I’m purposefully skipping the 2009 Street Fighter: Legend of Chun-Li because it’s so awful it barely deserves being called a film so much as a coordinated disaster). All of these movies scrimp on even exploring much of the basic plot of the worlds, change what they need of established game canon whenever they want, and then fill their scripts with horrible dialogue and bad plot justification. What comes out is a mess that nobody wants to watch because, well, you can get the same pummeling with a cobbled-together storyline from watching pro wrestling on TV. And that doesn’t cost you a trip to the theater.

Tip #2: Just because a game doesn’t give you much to work with doesn’t mean you can ignore key things like plot on screen. Fans will notice. 


3.) The Job’s Hard Enough - Don’t Shortcut

Video game franchises are huge. There’s no way to say that one could encompass the whole of the World of Warcraft universe into one prospective two hour and change film, or do justice to the whole Mass Effect storyline in a single outing. There’s just too much material. Equally, it would be foolish for a screenwriter to try and tackle multiple games in one movie script. Yet these are things done all the time in video game movies, all in the name of streamlining the universe for a single film outing. What ends up happening is a single movie will encompass the storyline of a main film and its sequels and end up diluting the entire affair. Symbolism and storytelling are lost in the rush to get in all the cool things from all across the game world. 

The worst offender of this is the Silent Hill film. Now while I will digress and admit that I think that Silent Hill was perhaps one of the best made video game films in years, it suffered from the problem of trying to cram too much into one film. Silent Hill as a game setting is a nuanced, psychologically deep and complex setting. Each villain you face represents something to the story and is meant to do more than just scare the pants off of you. Yet when utilized in the film, a terrifying villain like Pyramid Head loses all his true horror because the context for his story is gone.

Tip #3: You can’t get it all into one film and still provide the audience with satisfying character depth and integrity to the intellectual property.


4.) Gamers Are Hardcore - Respect Their Fandoms

This is a song I sang for the comic book films as well, but it bears repeating. Gamers, like other fans, are devoted to the integrity of the characters they’ve embraced. When they go to see a video game movie that’s billed as Bloodrayne, they want to see a main character that resembles the heroine they enjoy. They do not want to see someone slap on the red wig and prance around doing a poor job of it. Characterization is just as important in a video game film as it is in any other movie and without it, the movie is doomed. Equally, respecting the fandom’s universe and the themes and feel will keep fans from booing down the film and provide a faithful adaptation. If you’re thinking, for example, of translating Doom and you decide to take out all the demons on the far-flung planet, well you’re doing yourself and the fandom a disservice. And your movie is going to flop, even if you have The Rock in it. 

A typical example of this is the Resident Evil franchise. Granted, it started out well as the first film is an honest effort at adaptation. You’ve got the house, you’ve got the zombies, you’ve got a lot of the iconic monsters and images that make the first game complete. Also you’ve got the feel of isolation, the tension between civilians and Umbrella — all the elements are here to start off a film franchise correctly. And then, things go off the rails in Resident Evil: Apocalypse. The characters go and stay stale and two-dimensional and the story of escaping from Raccoon City is turned into little more than a backdrop for putting Milla Jovovitch through some intense calisthenics. Every other film after that is an example of a franchise gone far afield of where its source material began while still paying it lip service.

Tip #4: People are showing up to see the characters and events of their gamer fandom on the screen, so don’t play a bait and switch. Do the original material service.


So What Comes Now?

Now, good friends, we wait and see. There are so many good video games out there that still haven’t had a film, and whose names have been whispered in the hallowed halls of Hollywood for adaptation. Everyone’s heard the possibility of a Halo film, or a Metroid film bandied around, and who hasn’t wished for Link and The Legend of Zelda to hit big screens? But as much as we’d like to see Ferelden from Dragon Age or the Mass Effect universe translated to film, the cost and the sheer difficulty of translating these franchises to film have kept the projects in the realm of expensive pipe dreams. Yet should filmmakers see the wisdom in staying true to the fandoms and producing scripts dedicated to preserving the heart of their source material, we may yet be able to visit Dead Island or Dead Space or even that Ayn Randian metropolis under the waves of Bioshock. Just be true to your material and the fans will respect you.

Oh yes, and never let it go near Uwe Boll. Then the film might have a chance. 

Shoshana Kessock is a comics fan, photographer, game developer, LARPer and all around geek girl. She’s the creator of Phoenix Outlaw Productions and

Jack Flynn
1. JackofMidworld
Personally, I like the Rez Evil movies, but that's likely because I had trouble getting into the first games (I love the premise but I didn't have a PS at the time & had gotten used to being able to change the viewpoint with first-person games and couldn't get past the fixed camera angles). At this point, my expectations are that there will be some pretty people and there will be zombie's getting killed and I'm never disappointed.

I think that Mortal Kombat movie (the first one, anyway) did exactly what the game did - took what Street Fighter was trying to do and just did it better.

And I totally agree on one other point - as soon as I see Uwe Boll's name attached, I don't even bother to consider anything else about the movie. It could be starring Morgan Freeman and he'd probably end up with him being removed halfway thru and replaced with video game clips or something.
Martin Jarvis
2. Boscot
How dare you?! Super Mario Brothers is the Citizen Kane of video game movies!
JS Bangs
3. jaspax
The best video game movie option that I can think of is the Half-Life series. But even as I suggest it, I cringe to think of what it would probably come out as...
John R. Ellis
4. John R. Ellis
Super Mario Brothers bored me to death, and I was part of the target demographic when it was released. They took a concept of plumbers gaining super-powers to fight monsters and made it boring. Think about that.

(Yeah, I've seen the snarky and ironic essays claiming it's actually an underrated, fun film. These same essays also try to claim it used no CGI and had great acting, which should be a major clue what their game is.)
John R. Ellis
6. Lsana
I'm one of those who believes that a good video game movie simply cannot be done. This isn't because I don't respect video games or think that they can't have plots and characters that are just as interesting as other forms of storytelling. It's because what is wanted for a good movie and what is wanted for a good video game are simply too different.

Comic book movies can't really be compared, because what makes a good comic and what makes a good movie are pretty similar. Both want an exciting plot first and foremost, sympathetic characters, snappy dialog, great visuals, etc. Heck, a comic book is practically a storyboard waiting to be filmed. All it too was someone willing to accept comics on their own terms.

A good video game, on the other hand, must first and foremost have good mechanics. It must have exciting gameplay. It must be interactive. Ideally, the player should be in control and able to explore the world to her heart's content. The amount of time the player spends as a passive observer rather than an active participant needs to be minimized. And while story and character are important (at least when I game), they both need to be in service of the primary goal of making the game a fun experience for the player. Thus, even the most plot-filled video games tend to have plots that are essentially, "X happened so we must go through Dungeon Y, but as a result we ran into W and must crawl Dungeon Z," repeat until reaching final dungeon and fighting final boss. These plots are good, but I don't think they'd work in a non-interactive media.

Someday, I'm sure some brilliant film maker will prove me wrong and make a great video game movie. Meanwhile, though, the less talented should stick to comic books. Even a bad comic will likely make a better movie than the best video game.
John R. Ellis
7. Tumas-Muscat
Ironically I think the film which seems to be doing the best justice to video games is not a video game adaptation at all: Wreck-It Ralph. It just seems - from what is seen so far - to respect the different video game characters which appear on-screen while having a plot of its own. Plus, it not only acknowledges the video game world but revels in it.
Charles Gaston
8. parrothead
When I first saw the title, I was afraid you were talking about that godawful show on Cartoon Network. Live action. On Cartoon Network. Automatic BAD.

I think the two best video game movies were, bizarrely, made in the 80s, so before any of the titles mentioned here, before the 16 bit console wars of the early 90s which was arguably the Golden Age, and before so much of gamer culture came about, yet they captured it so perfectly; not only that, but these two aren't even based on actual video games. I am talking, of course, about The Last Starfighter and War Games.

I think it is possible to make a good movie off of a game, it's just that so far the approach has been off. The comparison to comic book movies is extremely apt. They need more drama, less comedy. Focusing on the dramatic, we get the first two Super Man films, the Burton or Nolan Batman, V For Vendetta, Watchmen, Avengers, first two X-men, first two Spider-Man (hmm, pattern; will Nolan be the first to make a good third film?). What did emphasis on the comedic yield? Steel and Batman and Robin. Video game movies are still stuck in this mindset of either tongue in cheek comedy, or mindless action. Perhaps an arty yet influential European director will take a crack at the criminally underrated Beyond Good & Evil just to prove that it can be done, and we'll escape this quaqmire.
John R. Ellis
9. wingracer
I can think of one franchise that would make a brilliant movie if done right, Assasin's Creed. Each game basically IS a movie.

But then, could even a well done movie match the epic storyline and characters of the game? Probably not.
John Massey
10. subwoofer
I liked SMB, Roxette doing the soundtrack helped a bit too:)

For me, the benchmark for video game movies will always be "Mortal Kombat", love to revisit it still.

@boscot- hehe:D

Dave Bell
15. DaveBell
It wasn't a plumber, and it wasn't based on a video game but Big Trouble in Little China managed to do what a Mario Bros. film ought to be. And there is a whole body of films about ordinary guys doing stuff that is not-ordinary. It's a staple of the war movie, though there are fashion shifts. Some of the movies made during and shortly after WW2 focus on the ordinary guys, then there was a shift to officers, and then more flamboyant adventure.
John R. Ellis
16. Herb514
I would refer to Legend of Chun-Li as an uncoordinated disaster. Presumably, had the filmmakers been actively trying to make a disaster, they would have failed as thoroughly in that as well.
John R. Ellis
18. Lurking Canadian
I never got into playing video games (beyond Tetris and Mah-Jong), but I would pay real money to see a movie version of BioShock.
John R. Ellis
22. Seven
I think the best movie that was actually based on a video game would be a tie between Mortal Kombat and Hitman.

Also, I watched In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, and Uwe Boll surprised me. It was better than decent. I refuse to even think about that sequel.
Benjamin Adler
24. BenMech
There's always the Myst series to be made. Behind the puzzles lied a horrifying story of kidnapping, imprisonment, environmental destruction, cruel ritual murder, abandonment and exile and much much more . . . not to mention that it takes place in the 17-1800s!
John R. Ellis
25. piekid
I never played Tomb Raider or Prince of Persia, but I enjoyed both of the movies (but not TR2). How do those films compare to their games?

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