Taking Away the Controller: Why Video Game Movies Are Such A Hard Sell

Assassin's Creed 4 pirates

Video games have an odd relationship with the medium of film, simultaneously aspiring to be more like movies and aspiring to be better than them. From the short-lived trend of using full motion video in games like Phantasmagoria and Night Trap to the Assassin's Creed Unity development team's baffling claim that the game was designed to run at 30fps because "it feels more cinematic," many developers seem to believe that the mark of a successful video game is its ability to be mistaken for a movie.

This is reflected in the way that high profile video games are marketed. Trailers that feature actual gameplay will emerge eventually, but when games are first pitched to their potential audience it's commonly in the form of glossy, pre-rendered cinematics that often don't contain even a single frame of in-game footage. They're effectively short films designed to capture the spirit of the game and to get people excited for it, and some of those trailers are outstanding in their own right. But why don't they include gameplay?

One reason is that in-game graphics will never look as good as a pre-rendered trailer, and even that is tied to an ideal that video game graphics should approach photorealism as closely as possible - in other words, that they should look like a movie. More pertinently, however, gameplay is by its nature designed to be made fun through player interaction. While it might come across extremely well in a demo, there's a limit to just how exciting gameplay can be when viewed passively.

"We wanted to do ads that had nothing to do with video games," former Xbox boss Peter Moore explained in an interview with The Guardian, referring to the "Jump In" series of Xbox 360 commercials that accompanied the launch of the console in 2005. "We didn't want to advertise video games, we wanted to advertise fun." Moore's idea of fun turned out to be a little too extreme for Microsoft, and a commercial titled "Standoff" - depicting dozens of commuters engaging in a pretend shootout - was banned from ever appearing on TV.

This odd relationship between video games and films has thus far been noticeably one-sided. While video game developers strive to deliver a "cinematic" product, filmmakers aren't exactly breaking their backs to make movies look more like video games. There are occasional exceptions to the rule (Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh's Act of Valor may as well have been titled Call of Duty: The Movie), but the most appealing element of video games is player interaction, which is something that the medium of film doesn't allow.

Film studios have made cursory attempts to adapt video games into movies - after all, video games make a lot of money and they come with pre-existing franchises and fan bases, two things that are enough to make any producer sit up and pay attention. Yet almost all of these adaptations have failed to impress critics and, more crucially, they've almost all been box office flops.

That really is important, because audiences will flock into theaters to watch even the most terrible movies. So what has made movies based on video games such a hard sell, especially since even casual players will at least have heard of franchises like Prince of Persia, Mortal Kombat and Super Mario Bros.?

It would be misguided to claim that the creative media exists on any kind of hierarchical ladder, but it's also hard to deny that adaptation to film is regarded in special esteem by audiences. Fans will clamor to see scenes from their favorite novel or characters from their favorite comic book on the big screen, but it's rare to find anyone pleading for a novelization of their favorite movie. Such novelizations do exist in abundance, but they rarely if ever become famous in their own right. They receive little to no marketing, and they are generally written by authors who are quite poorly paid.

By contrast, adapting a novel or a comic book to the big screen is viewed as a way of trading up: taking the stories and characters and bringing them to life with actors, elaborate sets and expensive CGI. But since video games already have voice actors (sometimes with eerily accurate character models), elaborate sets (albeit in a virtual environment) and expensive CGI, what does adapting into a movie actually add? More importantly, what does it take away?

Cinematic video games like the Uncharted series have a simple and effective baseline for all their marketing: "It's just like a movie, except you're in it!" By contrast the baseline for marketing movies based on video games is, "It's just like the game, except you're not allowed to play it!" Talk about starting with a handicap.

Kat Harington in Silent Hill Revelation

Silent Hill: Revelation is not only one of the best examples of how taking away gameplay can cut out the heart of a creative work, it's also one of the most aptly titled movies of all time. Virtually every line of dialogue is clunky exposition as the screenwriter attempts to faithfully cram a story that was spread out over 10 hours of gameplay into an hour and a half of screen time. The end result is like listening to someone trying to tell an anecdote about something incredible that happened to them, and finding that it doesn't quite have the same impact when described in bare terms.

Silent Hill: Revelation is faithful to its source material and is peppered with Easter eggs for fans of Silent Hill 3. It's also a terrible movie that barely scraped $50 million at the worldwide box office. A fan of the games can enjoy the brief novelty of Heather Mason and Pyramid Head cosplay, but ultimately they'd have a better time just playing Silent Hill 3. Meanwhile, someone who hasn't played any of the games will be completely baffled by the endless volley of backstory and exposition.

Is the solution, therefore, to make video game movies that are unfaithful to the source material? Actually, it just might be. Since the interactive element is being lost in the adaptation, it needs to be replaced with something unique. Perhaps that's why Ubisoft Motion Pictures CEO Jean-Julien Baronnet has said that the studio's upcoming movies - kicking off with Assassin's Creed in 2016 - will feature original stories rather than the same plots that have already been played out in the video games.

Creating hype for a game with an exciting three minute cutscene/music video, like the above trailer for Assassin's Creed Unity, is one thing. Generating that same excitement over the course of a two hour movie is quite another. Yet there are cinematic video game trailers that have become more famous and well-loved than the product they were advertising, such as the devastatingly moving trailer for survival horror game Dead Island, so perhaps there's hope for a video game movie that matches or even outshines the appeal of its source material.

Next year will see adaptations of two highly narrative-driven and highly "cinematic" video games franchises - Uncharted and Assassin's Creed - arrive in theaters, backed by the same companies that produced the games. Will Sony and Ubisoft finally manage to find the recipe for a successful video game movie, or will they be nothing more than a trailer for the real thing?

Sources: Sony, Techland, The GuardianVanity Fair

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