Some weeks ago the internet when crazy with the release of the Warcraft trailer. The buzz came back when images of a hooded Michael Fassbinder surfaced for Fox’s Assassin’s Creed live action adaption. In its mad panic the internet assured us that these will be fantastic movies, Duncan Jones, the man at Warcraft’s helm, felt comfortable enough to go on record that his movie will right the wrongs of video game adaptions.
Brave words, and no doubt both Jones and Justin Kurzel think their movies can pull this off. I’m not doubting that they honestly believe this. I’m just doubting that their film will be able to deliver. No, not even doubting, I know their films cannot end the woeful game-to-film legacy. No film adaption of a game will be able to do this. They. Just. Can’t. Work.
As someone born on the cusp of Generation X and Millennials I can easily say I enjoy gaming. What’s not to like? It’s the ultimate insertion fantasy. Cathartic, it’s a medium unlike most others. It allows you to partake in the action, to be the hero. We get lost in novels, films and to music but we’re not the artists of the hero’s journey. From the Golden Age of 8-bit gaming to today’s battle between Indie Arthouse and Triple-A gaming we are in control of the characters, or at least given the illusion of control. So it is completely bizarre when a studio wants to make a film, an entirely non-interactive medium, of a title from the most interactive story format around.
Starting with Super Mario Bros. (1993) studios have tried, and failed, to make the films work while producing only something that alienates both fans of cinema and gaming. There are two main reasons as to why. As mentioned above, gaming is am interactive medium and I’ll come back to this point later. The second reason is the studio’s inability to grasp the setting and story world which have made these games famous. Super Mario Bros. was a whimsical and simple game based around platforming, a monster and a kidnapped princess. The film however provided us with a story world with parallel dimesons, evil corporations and feeling more like a child friendly William Gibson novel. Why the change? The simplest explanation would be that the studio, Buena Vista Distribution (part of Disney) felt the game setting would alienate movie goers. If this is indeed the case the question “Why even bother?” has to be asked. Street Fighter (1994) and Mortal Kombat (1995) both did the same thing, missing out the game story, what little there was of it, in favor of one barely connected to it. At this point gaming movies began to look less like adaption and more like exercises in brand marketing.
Silent Hill (2006) did not so much get the world setting wrong as the mood and style. For those familiar with the series, Silent Hill is a psychological survival horror drenched in Freudian symbolism and Jungian archetypes were monsters represent aspects of the characters shattered mind and ego. The movie was a monster of the week affair that had none of the games mood or feel. Empty, lackluster it turned the series most famous creation, Pyramid Head, a representation of guilt and disire for punishment into a cheep Jason knockoff. Most of Uwe Boll’s movies suffer the same, missing the key element of mood and style. The Resident Evil film series (2002-present) tries to maintain its story world but in doing so it introduces important game characters, factions or topics to cinema goers without prior establishment, making viewers feel left out in the cold if they haven’t played the games. A final point would be movies which try to capture the feel of videogames by having each act serve as levels of a game, Wing Commander (1999) did this and we got a film with little character development and a flimsy, convoluted plot.
So if a studio actually took the time to review the game and capture its aesthetic, would that improve the film? Assassin’s Creed will have the present day framing device based around genetic memories and will focus on the clandestine conflict between the Templars and Assassins with new characters and settings not previously seen in the games, given it a feel of a proper installment of the franchise rather than an adaptation of it.
So it will work?
And here’s why.
Go back to the pre-mentioned interactive medium. That’s what sells a game. Its actual game play value. There are games, usually indie ones, that can get away with basic but solid game play by adding moral choice system and/or rich stories (see This War of Mine, Papers Please and Gone Home) but they still have and need game play.
And that’s the key.
Assassin’s Creed may very well have a fantastic script, great acting and directing but the game is famous for parkour and stealth mechanics. It is very different to watching an actor do this and be able to do them yourself (with the aid of a gaming platform anyhow). It can’t capture the feel, the enjoyment or panic, when you mess up, from the game. This is what makes the games come to life. Same with Warcraft, working with a group of people to complete a quest. I can name at least twenty films off the top of my head that have this as a premise but why would you watch one set in the Warcraft universe when you can act it out in said online universe? By turning games into films, studios have removed the chief aspect of the game, the actual gameplay, and turned it into a 90min cut scene. Cinema goers end up isolated by a story-world they might well know nothing about while gamers feel disconnected from the main selling points of their favorite titles.
So can a game-to-film adaption work? Oddly, despite the last 976 words, it can, in a roundabout way. Wreck-It Ralph (2012) was arguably the best videogame movie of all time. It wasn’t based on any preexisting games but was crammed full of the features games have, with reference to classics and industry self-referencing humor that wasn’t painful as all hell.
However, days end, they are just too different a medium to work together. Enjoyable ones yet beyond that, they’re just incapable of compatibility.