Why Do Video Game Movies Suck So Much?

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I’m not a game creator or a movie director, but I do think that both of those mediums require an immense amount of effort and money, no matter how good or bad they end up. And it usually takes a lot of people a lot of time to make that happen.

Having typed that unwieldy disclaimer as diplomatically as I can, the arrogant part of me insists that I use the analytical eye I’ve picked up during my time as a game/film reviewer to break down why (live-action) movies based on video games are like kryptonite to those titles. Over the past few decades, gaming has increased its foothold in the zeitgeist. There’s been a mindset that games need to be more like films, in order to legitimize the medium. This has led to game publishers continually turning their IP over to Hollywood, even though movies based on games often fall into the pit of critical, and sometimes commercial, defeat. But why?

Game characters aren’t people.

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This may seem obvious, but it needs to be said: video game reality is completely different from our reality. Games have come a long way in terms of character design, but whether it’s Super Mario Bros or Heavy Rain, game characters just don’t move or act like real humans, adding a layer of disconnection when porting franchises to the silver screen.

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Not even close to human movement.

Within the confines of their respective games, most characters look, move, and act in a way that makes sense within that world (that’s good game design), but even games that strive to be as “realistic” as possible often favor experience over realism.

A basic concept like walking animations, even when mo-capped, are edited or sped up to help gameplay flow more effectively. Kotaku published an article revealing that CJ from GTA: San Andreas can walk up to 7.54 mph — the average human walking speed is 3.1. So seeing someone portray CJ on screen will always feel off to a gamer who’s used to controlling CJ in-game.

Avatars aren’t film characters.

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I fell in love with gaming because of the escapism it granted me. Whether I was shooting a character on screen, selecting my next car, or succumbing to evil instead of staying upright, it allowed me to live vicariously. Whether that applies to you or not, I’m almost certain there’s a part of you that’s drawn in by the interactivity of choice, no matter how minuscule. Whether it’s the nameless, faceless avatar of an FPS or a heavily customized RPG character you’ve spent dozens of hours with, you feel a connection, at least with their actions.

Taking away those decisions makes a film adaptation a lot less personal and adds to the sense of detachment. This lowers the connection to your big screen counterpart and, subsequently, your interest.

Game creators are separated from movie production.

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When a game franchise gets a movie deal, it’s usually an IP licensing, where Film Company X buys the rights to make a film based on Game Property Y, which belongs to Developer/Publisher Z. Unfortunately, that’s as far as Developer/Publisher Z’s input usually goes. They may be able to suggest ideas to Film Company X, but if they haven’t negotiated it into the contract, then the writing, directing, casting, and more are handled by Film Company X.

This isn’t uncommon. Films based on books undergo the same treatment, but the difference lies within the source material. Books create a world with words, but that world is open to visual interpretation because of its written nature. Most video games are heavily visual already, so the look and feel has a definitive, objective look. Cutting the game creators out of the process makes it difficult to achieve an atmosphere familiar enough to the source material.

So why are they still being made?

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We’ve had 22 years of bad movies based on games, and they’re still being made. So why are these crappy port jobs still being cranked out? The simple answer is money. No matter how critically panned these films are, a decent chunk of them actually turn a profit.

As listed in this Wikipedia article, there have been 29 internationally released films based on video games (28 of which are live-action); 11 of those had a loss at the box office, while 17 made a profit. Over the last five years, they’ve all been money-makers, including the recent, critically panned Hitman: Agent 47 sitting at 7% on Rotten Tomatoes and 28/100 on Metacritic, as of the writing of this article. Either I’m in the vocal minority here, or the fans of these video game franchises are irrelevant to the movie industry.

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It seems like Hollywood either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care enough to make good movies based on games, but maybe they just need more time to gestate. I look forward to a time when standards are increased, or some type of shift causes terrible shoe-ins to be the minority. Hopefully, that time’s on the horizon, and maybe then I’ll be less of a miser.

Article by contributor William Aryitey.

2 thoughts on “Why Do Video Game Movies Suck So Much?

  1. Eh, for better or worse, liking something has now become being a “fan” of an “IP”, so I think people have drank a strange brew of their feelings and corporate-speak, that means they are oddly duty-bound to defend and support a concept. It seems like corporations have caught onto that and exploited it, from creating idiotic “universes” and incomplete pieces that demand you watch two crappy movies to fully appreciate a competent third movie; to a kind of veiled blackmail that videogames company use when they say, “well, we won’t be making anymore games in this series because no one bought our awful re-release of a 90’s era itteration.” I hope it does change; as people become more discerning, even with their fandom, it will apply pressure to do more thsn just shovel out crap with a fondly-remembered logo or character on it.

  2. The upcoming Warcraft movie violates numbers 1 and 2, but not number 3. Makes me curious what the result will be with the game creators are so involved. Blizzard has always excelled at very movie like moments in their cut scenes so I am interested to see if that carries over into their actual movie making. This could be the movie that sets up a mold for the future. OR, it could be Blizzard/Activision at their most egotistic.

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