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Game On: The Video Game Curse…

Prince of Persia is coming soon. You can’t miss it, what with all the airtime they’re filling the television channels with, and all the movie specials. The movie is what it is – it’s a cynical attempt to cash in on the retro-chic of the old swords-and-sandals pulpy serial adventures in the same way that Pirates of the Caribbean originally did, while remaining anchored to a property with at least some geek recognition attached. It isn’t by any stretch of my imagination a must-see movie this year (not even making it into my top ten most anticipated films), but it looks it might manage to do what it says on the tin. It might offer a distracting low-brow Middle-Eastern-themed romp with an effective cast and competent direction masking what’s undoubtedly a weak premise. However, the movie has one major fact playing against it: it’s a video game adaptation. And those have something of a dodgy history in Hollywood.

Is Prince of Persia going to get to the next level of video game adaptations?

Of course, it’s possible to counter on the observation that the massively successful franchise which this seems a conscious decision to ape – the Pirates of the Caribbean series – was in fact based on a roller coaster ride. How can it be easier to transition a roller coaster ride to the big screen than a video game, particularly given the fact that… well, there’s more to transition from a video game.

However, history speaks for itself. Even excluding “the Uwe Boll school of film making” with its long list of special video game related failures like In The Name of the King, Postal or even the “so-bad-it-used-actual-video-game-footage” House of the Dead, the long list of video-game-to-movie adaptations that Hollywood has offered doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the latest offering. It seems that at best you end up with a lifeless piece of snooze-inducing cinema like Resident Evil or a perfectly forgettable crap offering like Silent Hill. On the other hand, you could end up with film as soul-destroying as Mario Brothers. And no, I don’t buy the admittedly cleverly constructed argument that it’s an under appreciated masterpiece.

Part of the problem is that a whole host of the iconic video game properties – I’m thinking games like Sonic, Mario, Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter here – simply don’t have complex enough plots or characterisation to make fully formed movies. That’s why you have spoof ads like those for a movie version of PacMan or a big screen adaptation of Minesweeper – the concepts are so ridiculously obvious yet abstract that they don’t work as a linear narrative. A movie needs a grounding and a flow, while this generation of video games simply required good gameplay and an addictive hook. Seriously, why must you line up the blocks in Tetris? Who cares – it’s a great game?

Of course, the issue of narrative complexity has greatly evolved in video games – to the point where this year’s release Heavy Rain is credited as a revolution for the video game as a storytelling medium. Even discounting the more recent revolution, I think it’s very possible for a gameplay to feature an epic and expansive plot. Take any of The Legend of Zelda or Metal Gear Solid series of videogames as an example. Hell, Grand Theft Auto has been structured as an affectionate homage to the works of directors like Scorsese and Mann, offering a sprawling saga of crime and corruption which draws in such high profile names as Samuel L. Jackson, Ray Liotta, Dennis Hopper, Gary Busey and James Woods among others (there’s also a whole rake of cult actors like William Fitchner and Chris Penn involved).

However, to play devil’s advocate, Roger Ebert, the patron saint of film criticism, suggests that video games will never truly evolve as a means of narrative storytelling (or even art). I don’t entirely agree with his opinion. I concede that they are in a crude phrase at the moment and are still well capable of evolving as an art form, but I believe that in recent years they’ve shown the capacity to emotionally affect their audience in a way similar to films or novels. It may be a basic response, but playing Doom 3 in the dark is as terrifying as the best scary movie. Steven Spielberg has gotten involved in producing video games because he believes that such an emotional connection with the audience is possible. However, if you accept Ebert’s logic, it might go a long way to explaining the difficulty in translating them from one medium to another.

There’s also the argument that maybe video games offer such a different method and approach to storytelling that they shouldn’t be adapted – or that such a translation is pointless.  For example, Metal Gear Solid and Grand Theft Auto offer such open-ended storytelling possibilities with such grand scope that a cinematic adaptation seems almost redundant. I think there’s a lot of sense in this approach – there’s no need to clutter screens with stories that work fine in their original format. This argument doesn’t simply hold for video games, but all forms of media. I’d argue there are books and plays which don’t need to be transposed to cinema. Perhaps this is more the case with video games because of the different dynamics and the core differences between it and cinema (and also, paradoxically, because of its similarities – you could argue that a video game is a movie that the player, to one extent or another, controls). However, this doesn’t offer a reason why it’s impossible to make a good video game movie, just indicates that it isn’t always a good idea.

I disagree with those who state that video games cannot be adapted because of their differences. I’d suggest that these sorts of complicated video games simply adopt a different method of storytelling. It’s easy to compare film and video game, they are both essentially visual media. However, I think there’s a massive difference in how they function – playing a game and watching a movie are fundamentally different experiences. I’d argue that transitioning a story across such different forms of media requires a great level of skill – akin to the careful thought and consideration required to translate a book, for example. However, looking back at the track record of video game adaptations, there simply isn’t that level of talent involved. If you want to translate a hugely successful best selling novel to the screen, you draft in the highest caliber writer and director – at least if you want to do it right. On the other hand, the talent involved in video game translation is typically less than top notch. The process of adapting requires more than mere emulation, which certain recent movies have in spades, it requires the capacity to pragmatically recognise the core and heart of the object you seek to transpose. For every truly iconic book-to-screen translation – The Godfather, The Shawshank Redemption, Blade Runner – there is a crap or lacklustre one. It takes talent to adapt a work, and I think that that is part of the reason why no video game has been transferred to the cinema truly successfully.

Though, who knows? Maybe Prince of Persia will be that movie…

12 Responses

  1. It will not, but it looks like it’ll make an effort, at least.

    I just noticed you had TV Tropes on your sidebar. Excellent.

  2. One day there will be a freakin’ phenomenal video game movie. This won’t be it, but I’ll see it anyway.

    My vote: the six-part HBO miniseries of Metal Gear Solid directed by Aiden R.

    Get excited.

  3. Video game movies….tsk tsk. The only good one for a fact that its so bad its great, Street fighter, the original. Its stupid, full of action, and has Raul Julia fighting JCVD. What else is there to ask?

    • You forgot one little bit: “We can go holme.”

      It’s an amazing speech, a shining light in Van Damme’s career.

  4. Will it be a success? I don’t know, rather I don’t care. I was never huge into the game and can think of ten more that would have better possibilities for movie success than it, but it sure does look pretty. I’ll watch it with a superficial eye and expect nothing less, but I will wait for DVD.

    No new ideas for Hollywood. All re-makes, American bullshit adaptations, TV translations, books, comics, cartoons……….you name it. If they can manifest something from peoples love of bananas they will do it and as you pointed out, are sometimes successful at it, but for every good one there are five bad apples.

    • Yep. Sometimes I miss the seventies – you always hear directors and writers talking about how adventurous the studios were during the seventies. Now, as you said, it’s all remake this and remake that. The only reason there are relatively few sequels this year is because there are so many adaptations and remakes going on.

  5. I was upset over the reference that Street Fighter doesn’t have complex characterization. As someone that has followed the storyline closely, I would like to say other wise.

    • I might have been a bit rash, there. As somebody who played the game recreationally, I actually didn’t have a proper appreciation of all the back story and history. I suspect that might be the disconnect though; to most people, even people who game recreationally, Street Fighter is not so much a story as a vehicle for beat-’em-up action. Which creates all sort of problems when trying to deliver on that brand.

      (Truth be told, I suspect I’d rather heavily re-write this article if I wrote it today.)

      • Street Fighter actually has a large interconnected storyline with each character following their own narratives in relation to one another.

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