Traditionally, the relationship between films and videogames has been strained at the best of times. Game-based movies, from Super Mario Bros. to the Resident Evil series, are pretty much uniformly awful. Videogames based on movies, meanwhile, are rarely anything other than rushed and uninspired pieces of work, albeit with the occasional patch of greatness (Alien Isolation, the LEGO series) that game movies never find. Even this year, films with prestigious director-cast combos like Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed have fallen short of being genuinely good, which begs the question: could we ever see a truly great videogame movie?
The obvious answer is a simple ‘no’, or at least not for a good few more years. Fundamentally, Hollywood just does not understand videogames. Old Nintendo consoles remain the only gaming reference point outside of ‘80s-style arcades for most films, as they have been for the last 20 years. Until this barrier is overcome, and more writers and producers start to actually ‘get’ the appeal of videogames as a medium, then adapting them will remain fruitless, as they’ll continue picking from all the wrong elements.
Obviously, videogame movies are often made solely to cash in on a recognised brand, so a dearth of quality is inevitable, but even the most well-meaning adaptations make basic mistakes. This year, both Duncan Jones’ Warcraft and Justin Kurzel’s Assassin’s Creed got bogged down in the nonsensical lore and magic-science gibberish of their source material, forgetting what actually makes the games a success. World of Warcraft is designed for groups of friends or strangers to run through dungeons, killing monsters in search of ever more absurd clothing, and every Assassin’s Creed game lives or dies on how fun parkouring through its historical setting is.
Both films have dour stories trying to tie in to ‘real world’ issues, with Warcraft’s tone in constant conflict with its look and setting, and Assassin’s Creed focused mainly on present day parent-child relationships (rather than the Spanish Inquisition fun times promised by the trailers). Examining immigration or the psychological impact of the ‘sins of the father’ is a noble goal for a blockbuster, but requires you to tone down the use of phrases like ‘genetic memory’ and ‘the Apple of Eden’. Videogames generally have an incredibly difficult time when trying to mesh the necessary exposition-heavy dialogue with a coherent or engaging story, and to willingly bring those problems with you when adapting them into films is a baffling decision.
Had Warcraft just been a fantasy romp, or had Assassin’s Creed been based entirely around a hidden war in Spain’s past, there’s a good chance both would have found themselves translating more easily to the screen. Tonal consistency is rare in games but essentially required in cinema. Given that games with cutscenes are essentially already movies, faithfulness to the source material is redundant and likely to be more a hindrance than a help.
With Uncharted and Last of Us films reportedly on the way, it’s clear that Hollywood has learnt precisely zero lessons from this year’s games-to-movies crop. Nothing could be more pointless than taking what are already incredible pieces of visual fiction and making them less exciting by removing the interactivity. Both games are heavily character-driven, and don’t really hint at there being equally worthwhile stories to tell outside of these characters within their respective universes.
On the other hand, the Assassin-Templar conflict at the heart of the Assassin’s Creed franchise is worldwide and eternal, setting up endless possibilities for historical action films. Squandering this potential by remaining enthralled by the overarching present-day narrative (easily the weakest element of the games) is frustrating, though comprehensible. Videogames are an incredibly young storytelling medium, and no one yet has quite figured out how to translate these new stories for more traditional audiences. The central strength of games is most often in their world-building, not their dialogue or plots, with works like Dishonored and Fallout creating remarkably alive and endlessly fascinating universes. Narrative looseness is integral to the construction of open-ended games like these, and yet, perhaps counter-intuitively, it’s this looseness that should make them the richest sources for cinematic stories.
Players in these games can create their own compelling mini-stories while ignoring the grander narrative. By taking these worlds and their visual and tonal uniqueness, skilled writers and directors could manage the same thing, pleasing hardcore fans with references to the game universe at large without getting tangled up in the intricacies of the lore. Great adaptations are possible, but only once creators start acknowledging that it’s impossible to port over the majority of the source material and have it remain coherent in a two-hour film.