The Escapist Bulletin: Lights, camera, 'start' button

Why videogame movies are so bad

The Escapist Bulletin: Lights, camera, 'start' button
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What does Just Cause have in common with Doom, Hitman and Postal? Just like those other games, Just Cause is now being made into a movie.

It’s safe to say that video game movies vary wildly in quality. Uwe Boll’s Alone in the Dark currently occupies the #84 spot on IMDB’s list of the 100 worst rated movies, while movies like Silent Hill, although much more watchable, differ so much from the source material that they run the risk of alienating the existing fan base.

So what’s going on then? Why is it apparently so difficult to turn a good game into a good movie? Well, there are three reasons, essentially hurdles that a movie needs to overcome to have any chance of being good.

The first reason is a pretty obvious one: most games are not a good fit for the big screen. They either have far too much plot, or far too little. Mario might be ultra-popular, but there’s not a great deal to work in terms of plot, so scriptwriters end up making things up and we all know how that turns out.

The other end of the scale is something like Final Fantasy. Advent Children is great and all, but it was specially written to be a film, because Final Fantasy VII itself was simply too big to be condensed into a couple of hours.

The next problem is getting past the fact that games as a medium are not a good fit for movies. That seems counter-intuitive at first because superficially video games and movies - or action movies at least - seem to have a lot in common. They’re both action-orientated visual media and they tend to have relatively simple plots and little in the way of characterisation. But there are three key areas of difference that make the conversion a difficult process.

The first is simply length, as even the shortest game is usually three or four hours longer than the average Hollywood movie; and, unlike converting a book, you can’t abridge a game by turning written descriptions into visual ones, because games already are a visual medium.

The visual element leads to other problems to, as replicating the look of a game’s characters can be tricky if all you have to work with is flesh-and-blood actors. Some games are pretty easy, as in the case of the Tomb Raider movies, but you just have to look at the frankly bizarre casting in the Street Fighter movie to see how difficult it can be.

Of course, the biggest difference between the film and games is that games are interactive and are constructed and paced differently because of this. In Terminator 2, before the fight at Cyberdyne Systems, there's a good half hour where James Cameron took the energy right down as a weary Sarah Connor explained Judgement Day to Miles Dyson.

The video game equivalent of this scene is pausing briefly to stock up on ammo before an end of level boss. Movies are about showing you something cool, while games are about letting you do something cool, and it’s this fundamental difference that's the biggest barrier.

The third and final reason that games don’t work as films is the big one, the main reason that it so very rarely works, and it’s that the people involved don’t have enough respect for the source material. The first two issues aren’t insurmountable, but if you trip at this hurdle, you end up with a bad movie.

Compare the two versions of Bloodrayne. The game is set in the early 20th century and starts in America, and then goes to Argentina and Germany, while the movie version, directed by Uwe Boll, is set in 18th century Romania.

Even the comparatively good Silent Hill movie falls down here: Christophe Gans might love the games, but that didn’t stop him turning the movie into an anti-Christian parable.

Making a good video game movie isn’t impossible: Disney managed to make a great movie out of a ride, proving that with the right approach you can make a great movie out of anything. What’s clear, though, is that no one has made a good one yet.