Tomb Raider has set out to do the near impossible: make a good video game movie. This shouldn’t be as mammoth a task as it first appears. After all, other kinds of media have been hits on the big screen for generations, with books and comics both receiving stunning film adaptations over the decades. Even board games can see success as a feature film, if 1985’s cult classic Clue is anything to go by.
In spite of this, the good video game movie is one of the most elusive in the industry, as in reality the number of good video game adaptations, or even passable ones, can still be counted on one hand. Mortal Kombat is a fun action romp, while Silent Hill brings some genuine unnerving moments. The best of the rest, however, instead fall into the guilty pleasure territory: the Resident Evil series, Prince of Persia, the Tomb Raider duology, and Need For Speed. Meanwhile, that Papers, Please short film was a powerful piece, but it still only sits at ten minutes long.
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It’s not for want of trying, though, as there has been a large number of video game movies released since gaming became a part of the popular landscape. Tomb Raider is not the first to make a real attempt at a good video game movie, and nor will it be the last. It does, however, walk a path in the steps of great, expensive failures. The question, then, remains: why do video game movies do poorly?
One potential argument that is sometimes given is that the budget has simply not been there to make these films into something special. However, this is not always the case, and some of the more recent examples have had at least passable budgets on their hands. Assassin’s Creed had a budget of $125 million, and Prince of Persia was made for $150 million. Warcraft, meanwhile, had $160 million at its disposal.
Even some of the more modest budgets still show a level of underperformance. Resident Evil had a budget of $32 million, which is certainly not the largest amount, but that’s still a bigger budget than some of the other top action movies released that year. It’s more than both Equilibrium and The Transporter, a pair of films that reached a higher tier than Paul W. S. Anderson’s adaptation. It gets even worse when compared to horror movies of that year, with its budget absolutely dwarfing that of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, a film that effectively changed zombie movies forever.
Some have also raised concerns about the difficulty attracting top talent to these projects, but particularly in recent years this hasn’t been a problem. Duncan Jones is a wonderful filmmaker, with Moon and Source Code still held up as strong science fiction movies, yet Warcraft was something of a stumble. Prince of Persia shares a director with Donnie Brasco in Mike Newell, and that film also had the clout of Jake Gyllenhaal behind it. Max Payne was a flop that starred Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis. Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard starred in Assassin’s Creed. Doom had The Rock, and the original Tomb Raider films had Angelina Jolie.
So, where exactly does this failure come from? The lazy argument is, of course, that video games fail to tell good stories. However, this is far from the case. Mass Effect‘s huge space opera builds a world and plot that most science fiction movies would dream of. BioShock‘s claustrophobic and paranoid story lives with players to this day. The emotional impact of Telltale’s The Walking Dead is seen by many as stronger than that of the original comics or the television adaptation. That said, there’s something about the way that these stories are crafted that feels different, and this is where the issues lie.
To begin with, the framing of a video game is very different from any other kind of media, and this in turn means that there’s little by way of correlation when it comes to adaptation. Games often have a habit of leaving space for player autonomy, which in turn deliberately causes the appearance of gaps in characters and plots for the player to fill. In some of the most important titles in the video game world, the player is either left entirely as an open canvas, or left with no personality whatsoever.
Grand Theft Auto 5 is a prime example of this. There is a plot, and a trio of rich characters for the players to control, but their actions are defined by the players. Fallout and The Elder Scrolls leave the character, and effectively the entire story that the player chooses to involve themselves in, up to them. Gordon Freeman of Half-Life is a silent protagonist, a void with no personality. It both leads to a greater level of immersion in Valve’s beloved shooters and also leads to anxiety from fans when the notion of a Half-Life movie rears its head again.
There are ways this can be worked around, of course. Writers can build a character from scratch, and throw them into the world that the video game envisioned, but that then leads to problems of its own. Without that flexibility of character, instead the plot has other matters to contend with, and the drive and desire of this newly fleshed-out lead may not align with what the game initially created. It can cause a tonal shift of the overall plot, with Doom a perfect example of a film that failed to capture the same gut instincts that the game provided.
The best video game movies know this, and adjust accordingly. Mortal Kombat is an ensemble cast of cartoonish characters in both the film and the games, and so a slight tweak and a shift towards a little bit of extra camp did the film a world of good. For all its faults, Resident Evil knew when to cut characters and when to change them. Meanwhile, Silent Hill did make some odd changes to be sure, but it took the core concepts of the plot, retained those main themes and desires of the characters, and streamlined it into a solid horror movie.
It’s not only the character-versus-player dichotomy that causes issues though. Games are also unique in their pacing structure, as the participant has so much more control than in any other media. They have authority over the actions of the characters, in come cases even control over the path of the story itself. In cinema, viewer control comes (at most) from pressing pause, while the reader of a book can only control the text itself by reading at their own pace. In both cases, the core story, and all of its intricacies, isn’t going to change.
So, there are some subtle difference in terms of what makes a game or a movie fun. Games rely as much on reflexes or active thought as in sound and visual design or acting talent. For some gamers, their favourite moments within the medium come as prolonged shootouts in action games, a particularly fearsome puzzle to overcome, or a long, silent journey in a role-playing game. In short, games are an entirely different beast from the media that have come before them. In a way, it’s as difficult to adapt a daydream to the cinema as it is a video game.
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