Game off (2009)
First published in early 2009, in Death Ray 17.
We offer an impassioned plea to the film industry: Play the game by all means, just please don’t make the movie…
When a bunch of small, pixellated aliens started their menacing electric march down the screen of Space Invaders, SF found itself thrust into the undiscovered country of interactive entertainment. (It could easily have been different, the game’s designer Tomohiro Nishikado nearly went for tanks and planes, but he chose aliens). And since 1978 gamers have been able to do just about anything you could care to think of with an SF theme, provided it involves blowing things up.
Video games have offered a whole new way of enjoying SF, fantasy and horror, but have an odd relationship with the rest of the media – there’s a gulf between them that is not easily crossed. Specifically, films adapted from games are, almost without exception awful. (It’s a two way street – film tie-in games are usually shit too). Why?
It’s a question of engagement, and of story. Books, films and TV are passive experiences. The investment they require from the audience lies in the realms of the emotional and the intellectual: we need to feel empathy with the characters; and the story has to be good enough that we care what happens next. Let’s make an important distinction here – many games have very complex backgrounds, but that is only one ingredient in a good story. Stories need good characters, too, and a strong plot. Games lack at least one, and sometimes all, of these elements.
In games, little empathy is needed, because the gamer is the hero. The characters in games are masks, little more than a strong visual image and a handful of traits. Halo‘s Master Chief is ‘tough and resourceful’, Tomb Raider‘s Lara Croft is ‘tenacious and sexy’. Story is secondary to action, in most cases is to a loose string of events, or is just a flimsy pretext for action. Legendary space trading game Elite’s story, for example, was simply this: your uncle died and left you a spaceship. The 1980s classic Elite was a great game, but it would make a lousy film. A more recent example is the Xbox’s Fable II. From a story point of view, its fantasy world offers nothing new, and it has a middling plot that you are free to ignore. But that’s kind of the whole point in games like these, you can do anything you like. Some, like Tomb Raider, say, or Resident Evil, have a plot, and dangle advancement of it as rewards for completing parts of the game. But these plots are, by necessity, sequential. They lack complexity or depth. Again, they are only hooks for the action. And that’s the problem, games are about doing, film’s aren’t. There’s a fat gap that needs filling.
Another issue is originality. Game stories are derivative, built of hand me down concepts. The inspiration for many games is, in the first place, other popular entertainments. Tomb Raider is Indiana Jones, Deadspace is Event Horizon, Homeworld is Battlestar Galactica. The worst offenders are generic fantasy lands, like that found in the World of Warcraft; an online RPG spun off an earlier game that was inspired by a number of other games, which themselves shamelessly plundered myth, history, books, films and yet other games. The only vaguely original thing WoW has brought to the table is a race of cow people! Game stories are photocopies of someone else’s homework, the films that they become photocopies of these photocopies.
There is so much going against game films that you have to wonder why adaptations are made at all. Money, is the simple answer. Game adaptations are loved by corporate bean counters as much as sequels to popular old movies and remakes. They’re all established franchises with built-in fanbases. They won’t bring in millions of viewers, but have a quantifiable audience. If a studio spends $20 million, they can guarantee they’ll get their money back. The fans know they will be disappointed, but a predictable percentage of them will go to the movies anyway.
Less money means lower quality. Short shooting schedules, lack of cash and unfinished scripts are common. There are fewer drafts of the script, less time to prepare. In those rare cases where there is a serviceable story, young turk writers and directors keen to make a name for themselves tend to throw out the original tale or vastly revise it, annoying the audience the film exists to service. (The Resident Evil series owes more to Alice in Wonderland and Mad Max than to the games, while Doom‘s script actually removed the one cool idea from the game – scientific tinkering had opened a doorway to Hell!) Yet at the same time, because the films have to have some kind of link to the source material, they often include ill-advised nods – pointless bullet time in Max Payne, or the first person shooting sequence in Doom.
There’s no doubt that the increasingly spectacular visuals of computer games and their growing appeal (the games industry now makes more money than the film industry) is attractive to filmmakers, but the lack of narrative strength at the heart of most games means many attempted adaptations languish forever in development hell. But, and only but, perhaps it all could be about to change. The Prince of Persia, being made now at vast expense, promises something different. Though the writers of the film have said it has more in common with The Pirates of the Caribbean than the game, (there Disney used the name of their ride to help sell a pirate film; here they are using the name of a game to help sell an Arabian Nights-style adventure) the plot does follow that of one of the PoP games.
It’s worth noting that comics adaptations used to be as bad as those of games, and for many of the same reasons; now there’s nothing else on at the cinema. Could The Prince of Persia be to game films what Sam Raimi’s Spider-man was to comics? Let’s not get our hopes up. The Prince of Persia franchise has an unusually well-developed story. Comic films might once have been held in the same contempt as game films are now, but comics could wait for their day, they have always had iconic characters, and a ton of great stories. Computer games simply don’t; and that’s why I reckon decent adaptations will remain few and far between.