Video game movies suck. At least, that's how it's played out since the very genre's inception. The horrific realty of Mortal Kombat and Doom doesn't lie – believe me, I wish it did. But as much money as studios have and still are pouring into the field, the situation begs to ask: why?
I love movies. I love video games. I played Super Mario Bros. around the same time I saw Star Wars: A New Hope and I can recall needing to play every movie tie-in game the minute I got home from the theater as a wide-eyed kid, even the awful ones. It's strange to me why the two mediums aren't better friends.
It's clear that Hollywood's owed little more than a cursory glance at video games for quite some time, but that's changing in more ways than just through people's pocketbooks.
Sequels, reboots, prequels: Hollywood's about the bottom line, and that's about the buck over the bang. Brand is everything in an industry more reliant than ever on blockbusters to prop up the so-called dying theater business and it's name, not stories, that sells more often than not. They sign the checks, so it's their call. Which is why we get the films we get.
Doom. Hitman. Tomb Raider. Silent Hill. Hitman: Agent 47. It's easy to say that video game movies have sucked simply for lack of trying. At all. On paper, Super Mario Bros. was laughable. On screen? Worse. Two Brooklyn plumbers battling Dennis Hopper and a turtle biker gang? Ugh.
The same could be said of comic book movies not too long ago. Joel Schumacher's Batmans and Mark Steven Johnson's Daredevil were for a long time the bible by which naysayers preached the suicide of the comic book movie. I heard somewhere that superhero movies finally got better – even great every once and a while. And since its inception, the video game movie was declared stillborn with little evidence to the contrary. Yet no matter how long studios can slap themselves for hiring the likes of Uwe Boll, there still exists a barrier within the medium itself as much as its translation.
At its core, it all boils down to the birth pains of adaptation. Books are often written to the reader first-person and we know a character's thoughts and feelings directly. All of a character's visuals, the look and the design of their world, is left up to the reader's imagination. If anyone has ever read a script you understand what I'm saying. Still, things are opted out of a book because it doesn't tell a cohesive story for film. Movies are all about visuals. Exposition isn't told but shown. What may take a chapter to get across in a book might only need two minutes of screen time.
By contrast, comics are a combination of third and first person. We're sometimes told what a character is thinking and we can see what they're thinking without words. We're given a visual to a character and the world they inhabit. Just like film, video games though can be and may be often told in third person. We aren't told what a character is thinking. We're shown the look of the world and our character. There isn't much left for us to interpret or imagine. We merely see events played out for us, if not as incoherently as Zack Snyder's confounding effort at adapting Watchmen.
Just like book movies only draw from one source, comic movies have the ability to draw from many sources games don't. There's the further issue with established character. The character is, for all intent and purposes, an in-game body double for the player to puppeteer and make their own. To that end, it's difficult to produce a film built on a game that's solely around player choice and input.
Where does that leave us? In short, don't adapt the video game. Ever. Hijack the name, reboot the source material, and make it like an original film. If there's anything truer than death and taxes, it's that nothing is sacred in the movie business. Adaptations are and should forever be by extension opportunities to take liberties with their inspiration. People don't want their respective fiction to be smaller and more predictable. They want it to be bigger. It's time that video games stop shrinking their universe down to one story and start looking at expanding it instead.
I'm told that people don't know what they want until they get it and the same rings true in the fan world more often than not. If passion doesn't always equal quality, then Courtney Solomon's Dungeons and Dragons would've had its Oscar. That Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer were huge comic book fanboys themselves didn't mean a thing when it came to Spider-man and X-Men being hits. It was because they knew their craft well and could stretch the source material to match it without breaking it, the opposite of whatever the moving comic book panels in Ang Lee's Hulk were supposed to be.
Batman: The Long Halloween follows a young Batman investigating a year-long case of serial killings committed on different holidays. There's little way The Dark Knight could've expected audiences to sit through a montage of time jumps in a two-hour sitting, much less have reconciled its cartoonish exterior with the tone of a mob movie. Instead, The Dark Knight drew from the best of its bronze age comic inspiration with a pulse-pounding dose of Christopher Nolan's cerebral edge. Video game movies will do the same.
From the looks of it, this year's Warcraft will readapt the history of the video game and wedge it into a head-spinning maze of canon with 2011 graphics. Ratchet & Clank will be effectively – and predictably – rebooting the franchise in tandem with its own tie-in game, both of which were made by their creators, neither of which can not feel wholly dependent on one another. Meanwhile, Assassin's Creed will actually be treading new ground with a medieval Scottish Assassin played by X-Men's own Michael Fassbender in a time and place untouched by the series. One of these isn't like the others, and in a way video game movies have been afraid to be for far too long.
Should a renaissance of video game movies ever grace us, be it this year or someday later, it'll be because movies finally started giving video games the cold shoulder. When video game movies make off with your money like a thief in the night, it's because Hollywood didn't give a damn about their past and started thinking about their future. We don't need to see a "real" Master Chief, nor could we expect to understand Metal Gear Solid V in two hours flat. Let Michael Fassbender play an Assassin that was written for a film and not a thirty-hour, open-world action game. Video games can still make it to the big screen – but first they need a change of clothes.