For someone who enjoys a great story, is there anything better than a narrative that engages you from the very start? Imagine a world so rich you can almost smell the scents in the air, a delivery so clever it forces you to think in a way you never thought you would. I’m Ryan J. Hodge, author, and I’d like to talk to you about…Video Games.
Yes, Video Games. Those series of ‘bloops’ and blinking lights that –at least a while ago- society had seemed to convince itself had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. In this article series, I’m going to discuss how Donkey Kong, Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and even Candy Crush can change the way we tell stories forever.
Why We’ll Never See a Good Videogame Movie
(And Why That’s Okay)
To many of us, there’s a certain inimitable quality to cinema. Despite its many disappointments of Hollywood, we still feel a small sense of giddiness when our favorite book is slated to be adapted into a major motion picture. Of course, films have not been limited to text-only literature for some time now; comics, theme park rides, and even board games have all enjoyed film adaptation over the decades.
It was inevitable, therefore, that videogames would have their day on the silver screen. However, many of the early attempts left much to be desired. The most glaring example of this, of course, is the utterly forgettable yet-so-unforgettable Super Mario Brothers Movie (1993). Now the source material itself presented many problems, not least of which was the question: how does one write a compelling plot to carry the story of a plumber who jumps on goombas to rescue mushroom people & princesses from a turtle dragon? For directors Rocky Morton & Annabel Jankel, the answer was apparently setting the film in a Judge Dredd / Bladerunner style dystopian parody of Manhattan.
To quickly sum the plot: the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs actually created a parallel universe wherein humans and dinos evolved separately. The villain, Koopa (Dennis Hopper), is trying to unite the two realms so he can rule them both. The Mario Brothers (Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo) are unwittingly funneled into the Dino universe and ultimately manage to stop Koopa.
If that sounds as if it has nothing to do with the videogames; it’s because it has nothing to do with the videogames. The Mario movie is perhaps the best example of how disastrous a project can be when it is chosen for marketability over respect for the source material.
However, it isn’t as if other mediums haven’t suffered similar treatment at the hands of less-than-invested filmmakers. Comic book movies were often regarded with the same skepticism as videogame movies for a good long time.
When Spider-Man released in 2002, it marked a radical sea change. While Blade (1998, film) demonstrated the proof of concept four years prior, the modern resurgence of comic book super hero films can be traced directly to Sam Raimi’s adaptation of the friendly neighborhood wall crawler. From those humble beginnings, we now enjoy (or perhaps suffer) two distinct ‘cinematic universes’ of comic book superheroes. Surely the same must eventually be true for videogame movies, right? Well, I’d advise my audience not to gather their hopes just yet.
Games provide a rather unique obstacle when it comes to cinematic story-telling; mainly that games exist largely to render experiences than stories. Tomb Raider and Uncharted are clear attempts to ape the spirit of Indiana Jones. Deus Ex offers a mirror-quality reflection to the themes of Blade Runner. And Mass Effect’s Reapers are essentially no different from Star Trek’s Borg.
It is little wonder, therefore, that the plot of 2016’s Warcraft film feels more like a Saturday morning cartoon than a $160m picture. After all, it isn’t as if the award-winning 1994 strategy game Warcraft: Orcs and Humans was considered revolutionary for its story. For those who think ‘Saturday morning cartoon’ was an insult, you may want to spare those Caps Lock keys; because those animated features may be the key to successfully translating videogames to film.
Consider 1993’s Sonic the Hedgehog television series. In a way, it’s very similar in concept to the Super Mario Brothers movie. It’s set in a grungy SciFi dystopia wherein the villain (Robotnik) is intent on subsuming the last remnants of organic life into his industrial machine.
However, as a series, it is not forced to spend a significant portion of its runtime expositing its premise and can devote far more time exploring its themes rather than rushing to explain them. Furthermore, it is given time to create and explore its iconic characters rather than rush them scene-to-scene in a mad effort to tick as many checkboxes as possible before the runtime expires.
While Sonic reeks of 90s cheese, it still displays considerable creative effort and careful handling (particularly when one considers what else was on offer in the way of kids’ programming in 1993). This of course, was only made possible because it had around 520 minutes of content to work with rather than the typical 100 for a feature film. But does this robo-dystopia accurately reflect the ‘experience’ of the Sonic games? I’d argue it does!
The main thrust of the games is to ‘rescue’ animals ensconced in robotic shells. If we acknowledge these animals are actually sentient, then this paints a fairly grim scenario despite the colorful setting. However, the creators wisely chose against making the tone of Sonic series ‘grimdark’, as the protagonist himself is not suited for brooding.
Moreover, the episodic nature of the media reflects the ‘level-by-level’ presentation of the game itself. Videogames tend to avoid a single easily-condensed adventure (after all, you wouldn’t get much value for your money in such a case). Therefore, a slower, more iterated pace is not only warranted; but arguably essential.
Consider a title like Homeworld (Relic,1999). Its main theme centers on the Hiigaran’s journey home, but interspersed are encounters with fanatics, rogue asteroid storms, and ancient technology. To render Homeworld as a cinematic experience would require eliminating many of these interstitial encounters, but to do so would eliminate much of what made the game unique. As a series, however, none of it need be sacrificed and the efficacy of this approach can be observed in the success of the similarly themed 2009 TV Series Battlestar Galactica.
An episodic conveyance also allows this medium to ‘find’ itself. A great deal of the joy we draw from games is not just the titles in themselves, but observing them evolve over time. We see them change graphically, technically, and tonally. In many respects, we have ‘grown’ with the medium; watching it totter from clunky interfaces and murky graphics, to crisp and masterful executions of the form. Such too is the case with a series, and a glimpse of what awaits us can be observed in the Fallout fan series Nuka Break (2011). While altogether, the series comprises the approximate runtime of a feature (and thus suffers from the same symptoms of rushed plot); evidence for potential abounds! The world Wayside productions crafted is chock-full of character and back-story just waiting to be explored and woven into a greater plot –and for a title that demands Players turn over every stone; isn’t that what the on-screen experience deserves?
The main reason we enjoy games; why we sink dozens if not hundreds of hours into our favorite titles is because they are so much greater than a one-and-done experience. The main reason cinema leaves us wanting is because the whole point of gaming is to keep audiences coming back for more! So the next time you want to see your favorite gaming icons on the big screen, remember: gaming is about the stories we discover, not the story that’s told. Who knows? It just might make you a better writer!
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