waysThere’s been, to date, 36 movies based on video games released to a wide, international audience. Some of them have been sequels, and some have even been second adaptations of the same video game.
Out of those 36, none of them have surpassed 60% on Rotten Tomatoes. The highest, ‘Rampage‘, reached 53% whilst Uwe Boll’s adaptation of ‘Alone In The Dark’ only managed a score of 1% out of a possible. By the way, ‘Alone In The Dark’ was reviewed by over 120 critics. All of whom agreed that it was terrible.
Therefore, you have to ask two questions – why do movie studios continue to attempt to adapt video games into live-action movies, and why do they always seem to be terrible? For the second question, there doesn’t appear to be any conclusive answer as there really is a myriad of reasons why. For the first question, it’s much more simple.
It’s because video games are incredibly popular. It’s that simple.
The global games market in 2018 was worth $134.9 billion, and that figure is set to rise in 2019. What’s more, ‘Grand Theft Auto V’ is now considered to be the most profitable media title ever made – be it album, movie, TV show, whatever. A 2018 MarketWatch report confirmed that ‘Grand Theft Auto V‘ has so far made $6 billion and is still making money, some six years after it was first released.
Studios are constantly looking for ways to get their movies in front of audiences and when there’s already one there that’s familiar with what’s on screen, it’s all the better for them. It’s why comic-book movies became so popular, simply because people were at least tangentially aware of the characters from either cartoons, video games or comics themselves. The thinking is that video games could be exploited for movies in the same way that comics have been, and it’s why they’re trying again and again to make them happen.
So why have they all failed?
Well, that’s a bit more complex with no data or evidence to base a conclusion on. The prevailing theory is that video games are an active experience, whereas movies are passive. What does that mean? In simple terms, it means that when you’re playing a video game, you determine the outcome of the story.
The central character – that’s you, obviously – has to be guided through the story, therefore you’re learning it as they are. Moreover, the player develops an emotional bond with their character as the game progresses. This is especially true in role-playing games like ‘Skyrim’, ‘Fallout 4’, and ‘Mass Effect’, where you design the character from scratch. In other games like ‘Red Dead Redemption 2‘, your choices as to what the already-developed character does or says in any given moment defines and shapes the story. In a movie, none of this exists because, well, it’s a movie.
Another point is that video games are influenced by movies, and take inspiration from them. For ‘Grand Theft Auto V’, movies like Michael Mann’s ‘Heat’ and ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ were referenced in certain sequences. ‘Red Dead Redemption’ had references to spaghetti Westerns like ‘The Good, The Bad & The Ugly’ and ‘A Fistful Of Dynamite’, whilst ‘Mass Effect’ took cues from ‘Star Trek’, ‘Babylon 5’ and ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.
For a movie like ‘Tomb Raider‘, it’s the same thing. The game itself liberally referenced and borrowed from the likes of ‘Raiders Of The Lost Ark’ and Bond movies, and so the movie itself is taking from the video game. That means when it gets to the screen, it’s not particularly original and feels like a watered-down version of something audiences can immediately identify with.
Another theory is that the stories in video games themselves are simplistic in a narrative sense. Video games are, of course, about finishing a level and clearing a stage so you can progress to the next one. While movies like ‘The Raid‘ can sometimes have a similar feel to a video game, that’s often a stylistic choice rather than a narrative one. In some video games, design and physics drive the story rather than the other way around, meaning that there can be some key moments in a video game that make no sense, narratively speaking, but every one’s who played remembers it and remembers the experience – and will then want to see that put on screen.
Whatever the reason is, one thing’s for certain – many studios, and many talented directors, have tried their hand at it and almost all of them have failed to either connect with audiences beyond the hardcore base, or failed to adapt it to their liking. It may just be that video games are unsuitable for adaptation, as the two can’t reconciled no matter how skilled a writer and director are, or how dense and complex a video game’s story is.
And that’s it for this week’s Gamer Explainer! If you’ve got any suggestions for next week’s column, or think we need to make some changes to this article, contact [email protected] with the subject line ‘Gamer Explainer’ and let us know.