You can take the game out of the movie, but you can’t take the movie out of the game

There is a moment towards the tail end of Rockstar Games’ epic western Red Dead Redemption when, after a long campaign filled with violence, you are finally allowed to return home to your wife and child.  As you ride across the plains the soundtrack swells.  It feels triumphant, sentimental and incredibly cinematic.

Yeah, she's a beaut.

Red Dead is not alone.  Video games in general have become increasingly cinematic.  They are essentially fulfilling a niche market the film industry has only toyed with (rather unsuccessfully): The interactive movie.  But where the film industry failed—film viewing is still inherently passive, regardless of the viewer’s ability choose which scene to view—the video game industry flourished by actually allowing you to play the “film” out. You become attached to characters like John Marston because you are John Marston.  You control his every move.  If you want to stroll along the banks of a great lake at sunrise, you can do so. (Yes, I have done this. The game’s environment is as beautiful as it is expansive.  Also, I’m a sensitive guy.) The story progresses at your whim.

An even more literal example of video game as interactive movie comes in the form of Quantic Dreams’ Heavy Rain, in which every decision, from action to dialog choice, affects the games outcome.  Heavy Rain‘s story involves a serial killer and the four player-controlled characters investigating the case.   Its emphasis is not on action, but plot progression and character development. And there is Uncharted 2, which features some of the best video game writing and voice acting I’ve ever heard, and plays out like an old school action serial in the vein of Indiana Jones.  Films disguised as video games.

This merger of film sensibility and video game interactivity makes for an exciting future in the gaming world.  In the film world, however, it hasn’t fared quite so well.

At least somebody's having fun.

In 1993 somebody thought it was a good idea to adapt Super Mario Bros. for the screen.  It’s a video game about a plumber and his brother battling a giant turtle-dragon thing in order to rescue a princess.  It doesn’t take a genius to know that that probably wont translate well.  Or how about the dreadful Street Fighter (1994) film, which starred Jean-Claude Van Damme opposite Raul Julia.  Raul Julia?!  Yes,  Raul Julia (RIP).  Ever resilient, Hollywood gave it a second go in 2009 with Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li. It starred Kristen Kreuk, Chris Klein, and Moon Bloodgood.  With an all-star cast like that, how could they have gone wrong?!

Mortal Kombat’s (1995) “plot” had several human fighters being transported to an alternate dimension so that they could compete in a mixed martial arts tournament against monsters and evil wizards.  You know, when you say it out loud (or type it) it sounds a little ridiculous, doesn’t it?  You know what sounds even more ridiculous?  Christopher Lambert playing an Asian lightning god, that’s what.

Speaking of ridiculous, there is 2005’s Doom, which starred Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and featured a sequence shot entirely in the game’s first-person shooter perspective, and House of the Dead (2003), which features actual video game footage inserted into the film!  2006’s Silent Hill was arguably one of the better video game to film adaptations, if only for maintaining the game’s unique style and look, but its nearly incomprehensible story makes for a confusing and ultimately anti-climactic film.

I believe the inherent problem here is video game fans or, more to the point, the film industry’s perception of video game fans.  They believe that fans simply will not be satisfied with a high quality film that may forsake a few of the games’ details in favor of a better story.  Please, stop making films based on games that won’t let us forget they are based on games!  Do not try to “organically” insert game elements into the film!  It is not clever.

And lastly (I am running into rant territory, after all), please spare us the games based on films as well.  Aside from the LEGO series (LEGO Batman, LEGO Star Wars, LEGO Indiana Jones. Hell, I’d play LEGO Fargo!), they are lazy, clunky and wholly unnecessary.  Rebuttal?

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4 Responses to “You can take the game out of the movie, but you can’t take the movie out of the game”
  1. Gavin Craig says:

    “You become attached to characters like John Marston because you are John Marston. You control his every move.”

    There’s actually a big argument in the video game discussion world over whether the most purely cinematic features of some video games–narrative cutscenes used to advance the storytelling–actually interrupt the sort of immersion and identification you describe. You can’t actually make John Marston do anything. There are several things Marston does (in cutscenes) that you can’t stop him from doing, unless you decide to totally neglect advancing the story. In fact, as I noted, once Marston goes back to the ranch, you can’t even make him change clothes.

    I think it’s no surprise that Super Marios Bros> makes for a lousy movie, since it’s a game with essentially no story. But what do you think it says about the quality of the stories that games tell when even a game like Silent Hill makes for a disjointed, confusing film?

    • Kevin Mattison says:

      “There’s actually a big argument in the video game discussion world over whether the most purely cinematic features of some video games–narrative cutscenes used to advance the storytelling–actually interrupt the sort of immersion and identification you describe. You can’t actually make John Marston do anything. There are several things Marston does (in cutscenes) that you can’t stop him from doing, unless you decide to totally neglect advancing the story. In fact, as I noted, once Marston goes back to the ranch, you can’t even make him change clothes.”

      I think Red Dead Redemption is an example of a transitional game. It’s neither fully cinematic nor fully player dictated. I suppose what I meant by “You become attached to characters like John Marston because you are John Marston. You control his every move” is that the storyline moves ahead only if you choose to move it. You can spend hours doing absolutely nothing if you want. Going to the store, watching the sunset, etc.. You get to spend time with him and his surrounding environment. I probably could’ve said it better/more clearly, but I wrote this piece through the foggy haze of half-sleep. : )

      As for the cinematics interrupting immersive gameplay, I suppose I view them more as rewards for gameplay. But some of the cinematic elements I eluded to only add to the immersion, like the music cue I mention at the beginning of the piece.

      I think that the more games merge with movies the more their stories will improve. I haven’t played them (yet), but I’m told Mass Effect & Heavy Rain are essentially movies already. Do we forgive weak story telling when there’s good gameplay/graphics? Absolutely. But I never said films and games should become one. I just think that the film world has more to offer games than visa versa.

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