Video game to film adaptations: Why don’t they work?

Personally, I think Silent Hill 2 would have made a better movie adaptation if the work was put in, and would have been a better use of Sean Bean (who was basically James, anyway). PHOTO COURTESY OF SILENT HILL WIKI.

By Alexander Leach

Note: This is one of a pair of blog posts on video game adaptations. The other can be found here, at Not Your Parents’ Music.

Name me a good video game movie. Then tell me why it’s good. Maybe if you do, you’ll things have changed since my childhood.

The last game adaptation I heard about was Prince of Persia’s film offering. Every account I read of it was that it was average – a decent action film. It wasn’t stellar, it didn’t garner the kind of cult-hatred that Uwe Boll films produce, or the mixed opinions of the Resident Evil films.

The last film adaptation I saw was Max Payne. I can’t say I enjoyed it – it would have been an average action film if they’d cut out the disorganized beginning and disappointing ending. The other was Silent Hill – beautiful visuals, creepy atmosphere, terrible acting and writing that completely sucks the fear out of the movie. I can’t name an adaptation that I remember being good.

This troubles me.

Adaptation shouldn’t ever be impossible, as long as the basic elements are present in both works. Plot, character, and general narrative exist in most video games; some games are better suited for it than others. An arcade-style beat-em-up may not have the elements that lend themselves to a feature-length film, but RPGs like Mass Effect or narrative heavy games like the Silent Hill or Metal Gear Solid series should be easier to adapt.

The biggest concern I see between video games and movies is the balance between gameplay and plot. Video games consist of two main sections – play sections where the player controlled the character and must overcome enemies or obstacles, and ‘cutscenes’ or plot sections that show a short movie, exposing plot elements or demonstrating twists or plot progression. Plot elements in play sections are usually notes or dialogue spurts – the gameplay is somewhat divorced from the passive observation. This balance between active and passive is entirely missing in movies.

Remove the active element though, and the video game gets boring. Cutscenes on their own are usually broken and basic – the narrative for most games is a vehicle to drive the action, and often is brief as a result. When adapting, you’d have to rework the elements to compensate for the lack of interactive sequences.

Silent Hill failed at this. It felt like we were watching cutscenes between watching someone play games. It felt like a video game as a movie. Max Payne felt the same way – the action sequences were divorced from the plot, modeling a mode that doesn’t exist in the movie medium.

The solution is to take the plot of the game, and rewrite the script with the passive storytelling structure in mind. Action and story aren’t as divorced in movies – both are spectacles to observe rather than obstacles for a player to overcome.

So it comes down to more work, which is a problem. Video game movies are considered ‘cheap’, produced to make money. With Hollywood content to churn out money-grabs and recycle content, the only viable producer of a good video game adaptation seems to be the indie crowd. I’ve heard there’ve been several indie video game movies, though I don’t know how good they are or whether anyone’s tried to tackle a full adaptation.

But I hope someone does. There’s little reason why it can’t be done, and it should be done, if only to dispel the stereotype that’s making it harder and harder for a gem to come out.

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  1. re: MGS4 How the hell is MGS4 behind so many other games. Clearly people didn’t even play it.

  1. Adaptation: Video games made into books can be good « Not Your Parents' Music

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