Video Game Movies Need to Adapt, Not Replicate

With the impending release of the Assassin’s Creed movie later this year, filmmakers are once again trying to adapt a popular video game franchise for the big screen. The history of video game movies tells gamers that this could end disastrously – despite the quality cast.

Sure, the Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider films were entertaining, but this year alone saw Angry Birds and Warcraft fail with critics and gamers. These movies made tons of money, so there is clearly an audience for video game adaptations. Gamers will always want to see their favorite characters on the big screen. There’s something exciting about that.

But as gamers we need to take a step back and take off our fanboy and fangirl hats. Filmmakers have been adapting the wrong parts of beloved games for far too long. They need to learn to break away from the specifics of a game’s story and focus on the world itself.

A Good Film or a Good Adaptation?

There’s a difference between a good movie, a good video game, and a good video game adaptation. There are plenty of good films and plenty of good video games. But how many good video game adaptations are there?

It could be argued that any movie that captures the tone, feeling, or core of the game itself is a good adaptation. That’s why a lot of gamers hold of up the 1995 film version of Mortal Kombat, directed by Paul Anderson who would go on to direct the Resident Evil movies, as a quality adaptation. The Mortal Kombat movie captures the absurdity and over the top combat of the game. It might not be a great film, but it certainly is in line with the source material.

Horde for life!
Horde for life!

Even this summer’s Warcraft movie could be seen as a good adaptation. Director Duncan Jones took the time to craft a world in which orcs, the default baddies of any fantasy film, are actually sympathetic characters. The movie captured the split sympathies that players feel in the games. Unfortunately, Jones also adapted the cardboard thin, boring human characters from the games a little too well.

There is something fundamental missing from these movies and a lot of other video game adaptations: a good story. Film is a storyteller’s medium.

A World Outside Games

Video game stories work because they exist in video games. Interactivity is at the heart of any good video game story. Players connect with Joel and Ellie, Master Chief, and Ezio because they are engaged with them – and play as them – for hours.

This is important to understand. Even the best stories in video games are effective because they are interactive. As much as I adore The Last of Us for its emotional, well-written story, I’ll admit that it wouldn’t work half as well as a movie. It’s basically Cormac McCarthy’s The Road meets The Walking Dead.

last-of-us-body-image
The Walking Dad

That might sound great as a movie, and a Last of Us film has been in the development for quite some time. But the movie is better off telling a new story.

Naughty Dog already told the best version of Joel and Ellie’s story. The relationship between Joel and Ellie is effective because of the gameplay relationship they have. Fighting off non-humans and humans alike, gamers forged a relationship with Ellie through combat and through small non-combat interactions.

A movie should expand The Last of Us universe and tell a different story with a different group of survivors. That pitch might not fly with film executives, but the world that Naughty Dog created is full of good stories.

A Filmmaker’s Playground

Game designers are great at creating worlds in which players want to spend time.

A game like Bioshock has one of the most unique worlds for a storyteller to play with. And a film adaptation of the beloved first-person shooter was in the works at one point. But it’s hard not to wonder if the team behind the film got too caught up in retelling the same story as the game. That would have been a huge mistake given that the most important moment of that game uses player agency in order to make an important point about free will. A movie just can’t replicate that.

Atlas Shrugged but underwater and with violent drug addicts
Atlas Shrugged but underwater and with violent drug addicts

Rapture is such a captivating setting for any story that it’s a shame Bioshock won’t come to the big screen. But gamers won’t be without video game movie adaptations anytime soon. Almost 30 adaptations are in the works by various studios. With Ubisoft Motion Pictures, Ubisoft is even moving into the film industry itself in order to adapt Assassin’s Creed, Splinter Cell, and even The Division into movies.

Adapt, Don’t Replicate

Filmmakers and film studios need to understand what their medium can offer a video game adaptation. There are video game worlds that have stories just ripe for the picking. Unlike adapting a book, adapting a video game needs to stray from the source material.

This might be an unrealistic expectation of an industry that thrives on brand recognition. This is more a call to filmmakers. Video game movies need to learn to evolve and truly adapt – not replicate – a story from the source material. Tell a good story in a film based on a video game and gamers will respond.

Cody Mello-Klein
Cody Mello-Klein is a writer, gamer, part-time baller, and full-time shot caller from Boston. He's a sucker for a good story and is still waiting for another Cormac McCarthy novel. He has worked as a narrative designer and has an interest in the ways games can tell unique, emotional, and provocative stories. Follow him on Twitter @Proelectioneer for occasionally witty remarks.

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