The hard and fast truth about video game characters is that they will never be as raw or real as a movie character. Even in the fine examples of cinematic storytelling in games, there’s a human dimension missing, the same that fades into the green screen when Michael Bay uses too much CGI.
I think of it this way, as I can already hear some tapping into their memories of Nathan Drake or Ellen Page for counterpoints. If video games could make stories truly applicable to the cinema, there would be Uncharted animated movies that stand with Raiders of the Lost Ark as shining examples of adventure pulp. There would be movies based on Mass Effect as crunchy as Star Wars with action and as sweet as Guardians of the Galaxy with talky humor. But there aren’t.
As engaging as some of the cut scenes are, involving Nathan Drake and pals in one mishap and then another, imagine Uncharted as a movie, exactly as it is as a game: endless action scenes, strung along with quips, followed by an out-of-character blood bath as Drake murders rooms of people, followed by more quips. Were it a movie the masturbatory self-indulgence of the whole thing would be breathtaking. We think of its cut-scenes as “cinematic,” but they have only just begun to be a movie. A game just has to fill gaps between skirmishes, almost like commercial break sketch comedy. There’s a reason that we call movies heavier on spectacle than on humans “video gamey,” but we’re understating the truth. I love the idea of a video game adding in motivations and even romance. But in the end we’re faced with two experiences: the game, which is about shooting, and the cut-scenes, which are about characters. We can watch, but not interact, in matters of the heart or mind.
Mass Effect comes to mind as a game that tries to defy that idea. Colonel Shepherd seems like he would make great movies, but in your mind you’ve given him the basic humanity that he will always lack. That romance was a quick-time event followed by a short movie. A feature-length film based on Mass Effect would be nothing like your idea of them, which is where the real emotions live and breathe in the experience of playing the game. They would be only literally as they are, in action scenes drawn out too long, in dialogue that would never pass as organic human speech. They would not become Star Wars but Battlefield Earth.
An example nearer to my heart: when the most balanced romantic couple I’ve ever seen in a game (at the time) got turned into a faceless stereotype, when Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time became the film of the same name. Characters with impressionable personalities turn into movies that are barely better than those based on no character at all. Can you honestly rank the Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, and Mortal Kombat movies against each other? Despite a vast difference in the effort each of the games takes to develop its people, as movies they conform to a single, dull standard. Michael Fassbender, the greatest talent ever put in the driver’s seat of a video game movie, could not make Assassin’s Creed better than any other.
These movies are like black holes, converting all matter equally into the same negative energy. It doesn’t matter if the game is high falutin’ fun or low brow arcade action. It doesn’t matter if the films cast from the Oscars or the Razzies. The movies, inevitably, cannot exist as themselves.
This tells us something about how we think of video games. So much happens in the player’s mind, to give us characters with personalities and depth, that the way games have gone with cut scenes and voice actors is wholly unnecessary. Nathan Drake is the idea of a personable adventurer wrapped up in our experience of playing as him. The essential Nathan, who is real to us, is a sum of our playing his adventures. That cannot be adapted into a movie.
Nintendo understands this. Its mascots have always been more like the player’s thematic avatars than “characters” as movies would understand them. They have endured so consistently as our idea of them that they reject all revisions, particularly those that would occur in the creation of a movie, or even of a more “cinematic” game.
Though some claim that The Legend of Zelda would make a good movie, how many great movies have you seen that have mute main characters? Metroid seems ripe for an adventure horror film via Aliens, but anyone who played Metroid: The Other M knows what happens when someone tries to add motivations, voices, and cinema to a character that can only be experienced as the avatar of a play style.
Everyone knows video game movies are bad so what’s my point? We need to stop thinking of each failed film as an exception that another attempt will fix. When we imagine characters in a game to be applicable to the set emotional arcs that occur in a film, we’re putting both movies and games in a box too small to contain them. We’re saying that games have value outside of our interacting with them, at the same time we’re saying movie characters are just mascots of a genre. In either direction, the result is failure.
For you see, these story-driven games are struggling to fit into a movie mold when from a certain perspective games have more to show, not less. The worlds a game can generate for the player’s intuitive exploration exceed the camera frame, and can offer motive experiences that films never can. Why then are so many games struggling to be movies? A topic for another time.
But I’ll end on a constructive note and ask: how could a video game movie ever be good?
The only answer is to take a game’s strength – its world – and use it as the basis for a film, but invent new characters and stories to inhabit it. Warcraft is an example in the right direction. The idea would have to prioritize the product’s medium before the medium of its inspiration. This means that if a game can become a movie, it has to be made as a movie first and foremost.
But can we bring ourselves to do it? It would be like turning James Bond into a painting and ignoring how all the characters look and act, to try and visually reduce the essential feelings that add up to Bond, before characters and stories ever get involved, and to paint that. Otherwise, what would you have? A secondhand reproduction of an image, with a style that refers to material without having anything in common with the basic experience. Sound familiar?
All adaptation is an act of reduction. We have to discover the base content at the center of all the extra stuff that becomes the experience of play. This, only this, would be worthy of adaptation. Or video game movies will never change.
And I’ll let you in on a little secret. They won’t.