Video game movies: Let’s try this again

Variety, the American online publication, wrote a bunch of tweets and articles about ‘Hollywood bringing video games to the big screen’. This is not the first time studios have tried to turn beloved video games into movies. Anyone paying attention knows it’s been done before, and every time, it has failed. But who knows, maybe this time it’ll be different. Let’s talk about why they have failed before, what they are trying to do differently this time, and what else they need to do to succeed. I would love to see good video game movies.

Why video game movies fail

It’s because of the story. There are of course numerous factors that can contribute to the success and failure of a film, but ultimately, it is going to be decided by the quality of the story. Studios look to make a profit on an existing fan base, characters people already know, and by doubling down on already successful material. But whether in the adaption process, in the rush to get it out, or out of sheer greed, 9/10 times something goes wrong. Let’s look at some examples of failed video game films and what they did wrong:

World of Warcraft

WoW is a hugely popular MMORPG (mass multiplayer role-playing game). Millions of people have played and fallen in love with this game. It’s an open-world game where you go around and do awesome fantasy stuff. It works because of the deep (deeeeeeep) lore and expansive world that players can explore and interact with. It gives you the feeling of a never-ending game, where there’s always something more to do, as if each aspect has been thought through.

It failed as a movie because it missed exactly those points. Trying to cram hundreds of hours of user experience and interactive open-world adventuring, into less than three hours, was insane. Because they jumped into a complex world with a complex story they ended up doing too much explaining, too much introduction, and the story turned to crap.

They had a huge CGI budget, a good cast, heaps of source material to work with and a fan base of millions all over the world. It made $439,048,914 worldwide but needed $450 million to break-even. It failed because of the story.

Prince of Persia & Assasin’s Creed

This was a much better choice to turn into a film. It’s a story-based game that follows the main character through an almost singular plotline. It has millions of players, when the film came out nostalgia was ripe for the picking, and the action in the game was great. Perhaps too great? In fact, all of this could be said about Assasin’s creed too. Another game that was made into a movie and failed for the same reasons.

Prince of Persia and Assassin's creed both have stories that people enjoy. They have holes and faults but the game makes it worth it. The movies butchered them. Fans love those games for the action sequences and the plot threads that tie it all together. The films had stints of interesting action and there were at least threads in the costumes in both films, but nothing plot-related that translated at all well to the big screen.

To correct for this, both films had big budgets and both had A-list actors, Jake Gyllennhaal and Michael Fassbender respectively. World wide Prince of Persia grossed $336 million and needed somewhere between $300 and $400 million to break even. Assasin’s creed grossed $240.9 million but needed $250 million to break even. Both failed.

Super Mario Brothers

Everyone on the planet has heard of Nintendo’s Super Mario brothers game. You’re usually a short Italian plumber with a liking for red hopping through platform levels to get to the bad guys, to defeat them, to save Princess Peach. hundreds of millions, if not billions of hours worldwide have been poured into these games. Their simplicity makes them addicting and the ‘just-enough’ variation gives you all the intrigue you need.

To be fair to the film, it didn’t have a lot of existing source material to begin with. It’s hard to turn a 2D platformer game into a rich and interesting story. But then, why did they try? Instead of writing a story with the established characters, in the established world, with established motivations, they explained away everything with a meteorite splitting the world into parallel dimensions, one where a handful of dinosaurs survived and evolved to be humanoid creates (the bad guys) and the good guys who we know and love hopped to the world through a toilet. Abort.

The Super Mario Bros film grossed $39 million worldwide, against a budget of $42–48 million. Mamma mia. Super fail.

Successful video game adaptions

Okay, that’s quite enough of the bad. There are more to look at but the lesson is the same, don’t compromise on a good story and don’t try to adapt the complexity and interactiveness of a video game into a few hours. I can’t think of a video game to film adaption that actually works. But there is one video game to T.V show adaption (ish) that works and then there are the comic book adaptions too. So let’s look at why they work.

The Witcher

This is cheating a little because The Witcher video games are based on The Witcher book series. Though arguably the video game is more successful than the book series now. Regardless, it worked, why did it work? Because of the story.

Unlike video games, a book series is all about the story. If a book does well it does so because of how well written the story is. If it’s successful you can bet you have good source material. The Witcher is a series of nine substantial fantasy novels that follow Geralt on his monster-hunting adventures. Before the games or the TV show, the books had their own fan base.

Adapting the books to a video game was a good idea because they could expand the world and interact with it in a whole new way, it added you to the story. The author calls the games a ‘free adaption… written by other authors’ but it capitalists on what people loved about the book. The monster hunting, and the expansive, gritty fantasy world. Expansion and addition of the story. Despite different authors, the story itself came through.

Then adapting to a T.V show was risky. They could have easily fallen prey to the examples we talked about earlier. But while it had its problems, the series was ultimately successful. Not because of the very good casting or the relatively large budget, but because they expanded and added to the story. The key differences between the show and the books are that the show follows two other characters, Ciri and Yennefer, more closely. It spends time expanding and adding to the already established, well-liked, characters. All while following Geralt along in his monster hunting escapades.

Comic book movies

The same arguments apply to the incredibly successful comic book movies that have broken box offices for over a decade. In almost every case where the movie was successful it stayed true to the established source material, the already tried, tested and loved comic books. They were able to expand the world and add to it with the benefits of being a film.

In almost every case where a comic book movie has failed it has been because the writers went away from the established source materials. The material that you know is already good. Instead of taking that and running with it to build something new and exciting, they pivoted and either explained away the story or go in an entirely new direction. Not good.

Will Hollywood succeed this time?

This time Hollywood seems to be picking beloved video games and slapping some big-name actors on the cast list. Beloved video games is a good idea, it means the source material does something well and you have an established fan base. Big-name actors really mean nothing for the success of the film, as long as they are good actors, the film is unlikely to make or break because of them. The actor doesn’t make a successful movie, the story does. Let's look at two of the movies variety announced as getting film adaptions.

Borderlands

The Borderlands movie will not succeed. It really has no business being a film. It will run into all of the same problems that World of Warcraft had.

Borderlands is an open-world, first-person shooter game famous for its variety of weapons, original enemies, and crazy sense of scope and humour. Nothing about that says this would be a good movie. The only way they could succeed is by honing in on the main player characters and exploring their story that just so happens to be in this crazy apocalyptic future world. But then it’s no longer a Borderlands video game movie, its a movie set in the Borderlands universe and I struggle to think of any successful movie that follows this pattern.

They seem to have Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Kevin Hart and Jamie Lee Curtis all on board. An impressive cast with, I’d wager, a lot of the right fan base already around them. But without a good story, it doesn’t matter what big names or how much CGI budget you throw at it. For this to succeed they would have to do something radical and get very good writers. Prediction: Fail.

The last of us

The last of us movie has a good chance of succeeding. It is a game that follows an intense, emotional, and intriguing story. It has the potential to be a huge hit.

That is only if they stay true to the already renowned story and, like the witcher, use the medium of film to expand upon things that are less important in the game. There are now two ‘The last of us’ games set in the same world with a lot of unanswered questions and a lot of potential to work great movie magic. In fact, the story is so visceral that when the second game was released the major plot-twists sent truly horrific waves through the fan base. Actress Laura Bailey (who is a GEM) received death threats and terrible abuse online, because of something her character did. The game elicited such an emotional response. As awful as that fact is, it means the writers did something right.

Of course, they’re still going to run into the problem of cramming hundreds of hours worth of game into 2 hours, a T.V show would be a better idea, but at least there’s hope for this one. It makes sense. And with two actors who already have the right kind of following and have played the right kind of roles, who knows. Prediction: Success.

Conclusion

Adaptions of anything onto the screen only really succeed when they get the story right. The big successes on Netflix or at Disney come from properly leveraging the already rich and successful source material. No amount of A list actors or CGI budget make up for that. For the upcoming video game movies to do well they need to get this right. I hope they do. I would love to see some of these turned into T.V shows or movies. But as a fan of games like Borderlands, I would kindly like to ask them to not.

Come read about product management, humane technology, some sci-fi and fantasy noodling and maybe some reviews if the boot fits

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