by Tom Reed
I want to preface this by saying that while I play video games, I am reluctant to call myself a Gamer. My approach to playing games falls into two categories: 1. Is it Pokémon? 2. Can I buy one get one free at JB Hi-Fi? I don’t do online stuff, I usually play on the easiest difficulty and I am useless if you need me to do anything for you in a co-operative game (think Leroy Jenkins with less actual skill). I enjoy playing them but by no means would I say I am an expert in the realm of the game. Okay. Now that we’ve got that clarified: Video game film adaptations do not work. And they probably never will.
A few weeks ago I saw the first trailer for Assassin’s Creed, the hugely popular franchise that sees players invent parkour and jump off buildings during the Renaissance. In it we see the signature shot of the series, the hooded Assassin (weirdly played by Michael Fassbender) leaping off a church spire. It’s the money shot. The trailer bait. And it heralded the arrival of what is definitely going to be another disappointing attempt to bring a much loved video game franchise to life on the big screen. Now before you stab me in the back and then slink off into the crowd, this isn’t just me climbing onto a high horse and riding it around your backyard until you pay attention to me. I’m not being a snob. The failures of video game adaptations aren’t because the stories they are telling aren’t good or that the stars they enlist to tell them aren’t talented. They don’t work because, at this stage anyway, the video game model of storytelling does not translate to a film.
The first aspect of this is the most obvious and perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome: the hero is us.
Can you name the protagonist of Jurassic Park? Of course you can. What about Star Wars? Sure. And The Dark Knight? Absolutely. What about Pokémon Silver? Or Call of Duty? Assassin’s Creed? Crash Bandicoot? Sure there are main characters in most of them, but who is actually the protagonist? In a film the protagonist is the character the audience is empathizing with. The character who’s traits we come to know and understand to the point where you begin internally panicking when they are presented with a bad choice and you just know because of that one aspect of their personality they’re going to do something stupid and no don’t you dare set your daughter on fire you stupid bastard!
In video games, regardless of the form the playable hero takes (purple dragon, battle hardened soldier, astronaut), the protagonist of the video game is the person holding the controller. Not the character on the screen. Crash Bandicoot’s flaws and strengths are actually the player’s. One player’s Crash might be impulsive, which means they might die more often but possibly complete some challenges faster. Another might be a meticulous collector of items. Another a nervous wreck that will always take the easier option in boss fights. Another a cheat. Another could be a duo working in tandem. And so on. In each scenario the ‘story’ would differ slightly.
A good film relies on a good protagonist. As soon as the time comes to try and take the ‘player character’ from a video game and turn them into a movie protagonist the whole thing gets shaky. The intrinsic design of the main player character is deliberately vague so that the player can slip into the world seamlessly, especially in games where the players create the character themselves from scratch. So there’s always going to be a disconnect that makes it fairly hard to generate any sort of empathy or understanding of who this person really is, because they were designed to be all of us. So even if you have an absolutely sensational actor like Michael Fassbender jumping off buildings and stabbing priests, the audience is going to find it very hard to commit and to care about the hero of your adaptation.
The other roadblock standing between video games and successful adaptations is the almost episodic nature of the storytelling. Depending on the genre of the game it’s broken down into levels or quests or stages or rounds that you can play through. Taking Assassin’s Creed as the example, there are clear episodic aspects to the main storyline which sees the player take part in a brain experiment that lets him travel back time and jump off churches as his long dead ancestor (I’m sorry what the fuck is that even?). However buried in these ‘chapters’ are side quests and extra narrative, often the player is required to complete these before you can get to a high enough level to continue the main plot without getting pole axed by CPUs. This story telling mode is even more so for games like Skyrim and Fallout that have far less linear or no main storylines.
Now, sure the main storyline is there for Creed, but it’s still a fairly long storyline. Generally it’s to be completed in large chunks, and that’s without the side quests and extra church steeple jumping thrown in. So let’s say at a fair estimate you’ve got 12-24 hours of gameplay. Now try boiling that down to 90 minutes and still have a story that makes sense and has all of the beats of the original. Imagine trying to cram three seasons of Game of Thrones into a stand-alone film. Sure in adaptation there are changes and alterations along the way, but that’s a lot of trimming down. Video game story structure just doesn’t snap into a reasonable run time for a film.
And at this point I’m sure the solution seems like: Then make it a TV series Tom you fucking ignorant dildobadger. But once again we have the protagonist problem, and this time it’s magnified for the smaller screen. A TV show has to work even harder for you to buy into it’s characters, because you have to want to go back to them episode after episode. I know I’ve started on shows and failed to get past episode four because the characters are just not engaging. The effort to make your blank slate playable character Walter White becomes that much harder.
Now at this point we’ve got no protagonist and a story structure that’s either too long or too loose, but there’s one more nail in the video game coffin (there’s probably more but like I have a limited supply of nails and am not good with a hammer so three will have to do). A video game is an active experience. It’s an immersive experience. It’s a communal experience. You are participating in the story, you’re solving puzzles, you’re using parts of your brain to understand why you can’t make your person go over there and do the thing, why can’t I make the person go over there and do the thing, WHY CAN’T I!?
I love film but a film is a passive experience. Yes you’re still engaged. Yes you can watch it with other people. But it’s not the same. By its very nature, a video game is active and involved. As soon as you try to shift it across to another medium it loses something fundamental. The story and world of the video game are designed to be interacted with. Assassin’s Creed is successful not because of the main storyline (which is bizarre) but because of the immersive nature of the game. The fact that during the story you can nip off and have adventures in a visually stunning world that you normally wouldn’t be able to wander around in. You can leap from roofs and sneak around in shadows. You could feasibly ‘go off course’ for hours before coming back to the main storyline. And that aspect of the video game just doesn’t exist when it’s sent across to the more passive world of film.
However having said this, perhaps with the rise of VR we might see more immersive films or a nice blend of the two story telling modes. But until then: video games should stay where they belong. With idiots like me being bad at them.