I used to be all about video game movies. I saw pretty much every one, no matter what, at the theater if I could.It was just a no-brainer for me as a video game-loving kid and teenager to want to see video games “come to life” on the big screen. I would even get annoyed at my fellow gamers when a video game movie flopped: “How the hell could you guys not go see a Final Fantasy movie!? What is wrong with you people!?” Eventually, I stopped being quite so hardcore about making it my mission to see every single one without exception. I liked the first Tomb Raider movie well enough, but didn’t bother with the second. I stopped seeing the Resident Evil movies after the second one. More and more of them came and went, with me having little more than a basic general awareness of their existence: Max Payne, Hitman, Tekken, Dead or Alive. And I’m proud to say I haven’t watched a single Uwe Boll movie.
Interestingly enough, though, it wasn’t bad or ignore-able video game movies that made me realize the real reason I had grown disenchanted with them. It was a actually solid adaptation of one of my all-time favorite games that finally gave me clarity on the whole issue: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. There is really nothing especially bad about that movie; in fact, it’s an entertaining big budget summer blockbuster, as good as any other that isn’t written by Joss Whedon or Christopher Nolan. And it’s pretty faithful to the game, which is usually the complaint that is the loudest about most video game movies: how much they strayed from the source material. So what was my problem with the movie? Why didn’t I love it? Honestly, the biggest question I struggled with was why the movie even had to exist in the first place.
Once upon a time, video games looked like this:
Sure, in 1996 that looked amazing. But it didn’t look nearly as good as a movie could look. So the prospect of a Tomb Raider movie was exciting, because that would mean this instead:
It was a way to bring a game’s characters and world to life in a way that video games couldn’t at that point in time. And so it went for the first couple generations of video game movies, the ones that were based on 8-bit, 16-bit and 32-bit games. We wanted to see something that couldn’t be done with the limited horsepower of the gaming hardware of the day, so we turned to Hollywood for that. However, as the new millennium dawned and technology began to allow for more realistic and movie-like visuals and cinematography, the gap between movie and game began to close significantly. Sure, nobody was genuinely going to mistake Metal Gear Solid 2 for a movie, but at the same time, the presentation was close enough to that of a movie that we didn’t find ourselves playing the game and wishing, “If only this could be a movie so we could see how cool it could really look.” Games began to require less and less of our imaginations to compensate for all the ways they weren’t as lifelike as movies, and therefore, games began to need to be movies less and less. I just don’t find myself longing for a Tomb Raider movie anymore when the games now look like this:
Think about the most common thing that movies are based on: books. Books are just words on a page, so naturally we want to see movies based on them because it is literally our only chance to actually see those worlds at all other than in our own heads. Even comic books are just static, hand-drawn images on paper and require the magic of movies to be living, breathing, moving characters and worlds. Video games are unique in that they are already characters that move, walk and talk within a world that is fully constructed. They already do everything that a movie does, except we control the characters and, usually, the camera. It feels redundant, like making movies into movies. There just doesn’t seem to be a point to it anymore, especially given how we continue to inch ever closer to games actually truly being indistinguishable from movies. Sure, the quality of writing and character development and storytelling in games still needs work in order to get to a point where it is consistently on a level comparable to movies, but I truly believe we are getting there. Especially as Hollywood filmmakers slowly gravitate towards working on games themselves rather than movies based on games. Can anyone honestly say they’d rather have Guillermo Del Toro working on a Silent Hill movie starring Norman Reedus, rather than teaming with Hideo Kojima on a new Silent Hill game?
Speaking of games that are already like movies, are we really that excited to see movies based on Uncharted or The Last of Us when the games already told those stories so extraordinarily well, and were given the time to do so? That’s the other thing about movies: They have to tell a complete story within 2 or 3 hours. Can you imagine condensing The Last of Us down to even 3 hours and still hitting every major action and emotional beat? So either they do just that, they condense it way down and lose a lot of really key stuff, or they tell a completely different story, to the point that it’s barely even a TLOU movie other than the basic setting and maybe a few shared character names – and we all just loved it when the RE movies did the latter, didn’t we?
I’m not completely anti-video game movie. I want Assassin’s Creed to be good. I want Ratchet & Clank to be good. I definitely want Shadow of the Colossus and Metal Gear Solid – two more of my all-time favorite games – to be good. I even want WarCraft to be good despite my complete ambivalence to that franchise. I’m certainly not rooting for any of these movies to fail, creatively or commercially. I just continue to remain unconvinced that they need to exist for reasons other than making money, and I don’t anticipate seeing any of them and thinking, “Yes, that’s it. That’s why this needed to be a movie. That’s what they did better than those games, and what those games never could’ve accomplished as games.” Because I’m sorry, but as long as a video game movie is only as good as the game it is based on, I would’ve just assumed spend those two hours playing the game. And that’s a pretty big but, as we all know that no video game movie has yet been anything approaching “as good as” its source material.