Game-to-Film Adaptations: Lost in Translation?

Games can tell great stories. Games can offer great experiences. But why is it so hard to adapt those stories and experiences to other mediums?

It’s no great secret that films adapted from games largely tend to suck. While the Silent Hill movie drew some attention thanks to its art style confidently evoking the game series, and Mortal Kombat captured the sillier tone of its videogame inspiration, game-to-film adaptations have yet to reach the heights seen by recent films adapted from superhero comics.

So why is this? Frankly there are a plethora of reasons in my mind. For today though, we’ll start with a fundamental story-telling basic: the lack of a relatable protagonist. For me, the biggest problem — nay, sin  — these films are committing is not even trying to consider the most important character arc in all videogames: the player-character arc.

Street Fighter: So bad it's good…?

When you play a game for the first time, generally you’re not as good at the game as you are by the time you reach the game’s conclusion. You probably won’t know how high or far your character can jump, how many bullets it takes to drop a particular foe, or their attack patterns, how to handle every course’s corners or access the shortcuts to the finish line.

As you play the game, you learn all of this. It’s called ‘mastery’, and mastering a game’s controls and its rules is one of the things we gamers love about playing games. It’s very satisfying, and means we get to gradually turn the characters under our control into superheroes. It’s one of the many reasons we grow to hold these characters dear, while also making us consider the wafer-thin plots of some games (*some* games!) to be timeless masterpieces of storytelling.

Unfortunately, the characters in game-to-film adaptations seem to be playing with cheat codes enabled. In the Tomb Raider films, Angelina Jolie doesn’t bat an eyelid, no matter how steep the odds set against her, nor how ridiculous the foe she is faced with (and not even at Daniel Craig’s fairly ropey American accent). The cinematic Prince of Persia was a free-running pro more or less from birth. They had no room to grow, to improve, to become more than they were at the start of their adventures — the literal opposite of what we go through when these characters are placed under our control.

Max Payne: Oh dear.

I think this disconnect was really nicely summarised in the second Resident Evil movie. There’s a moment towards the beginning where some survivors of the Raccoon City zombie outbreak gather in a creepy church, stalked from the shadows by a group of lickers. They’re all a bit afraid… as you would be. If this were a game, you’d be trying to figure out if you had enough bullets to tackle the mutated foes, or if there were too many of them for you to handle. You’d feel the triumph of safely sneaking past them, conserving your ammo for your next (inevitably more difficult) challenge or of successfully confronting them, barely living to fight another day.

Back in the film however… the tension is up. The lickers are about to strike and it’s not looking good for the survivors. And then —  BOOM!  — Alice bursts through a stained-glass window astride a motorbike, parking it handily upon one of the afore-mentioned lickers. A few bullets, backflips and explosions later, the lickers are no more and the threat level (and our interest as an audience) has been reduced to zero. The most ‘Resi’ elements (danger, vulnerability, the against-the-odds nature of the game) are irreversibly diluted by the least ‘Resi’ element (a superhero with Matrix-like abilities and infinite ammo).

Resident Evil Apocalypse: Goodbye, survival horror.

Mortal Kombat, for all its faults, is a surprisingly close adaptation in terms of tone, plot and the visuals of the game. Itself a gaudy tacky mess (that strangely worked) of cartoon characters and cartoon violence. Both film and game were loose retellings of Bruce Lee classic Enter the Dragon (e.g. Bolo = Goro, Han = Shang Tsung), which itself didn’t have the most sophisticated of plots. In terms of translating a player’s experience, I think it’s among the best of a (pretty damn terrible) bad bunch.

Mortal Kombat: Genuinely one of the better adaptations. Just don't mention the sequel.

Who knows… one day folks, one day we will have our day in the multiplex. We will walk out with a big grin and we will tell the non-gamer doubters that we KNEW there was a good game-to-film adaptation out there somewhere. That it WAS possible to take what we love, to identify everything that makes the games we hold dear as incredible as they are and translate that to the silver screen in a way that works for film.

But for now… don’t hold your breath.






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