In February 2015, 20th Century Fox released the first trailer for the new Hitman film, based on the popular video game franchise. However, many hopeful fans of the series were quickly disappointed by the trailer which boasts a mix of cheesy dialogue, CGI, and over-the-top fight sequences that make a Jason Statham movie look tame. The quality of the trailer—or lack there of—most likely failed to surprise most considering that video game films are historically poorly made and critically unsuccessful. Barring a few exceptions like the Resident Evil franchise and the recent Prince of Persia film, good movies based on video game franchises are few and far between. The films usually only appeal to hardcore fans of the games or exist as “so bad it’s good” cult classics like the famously disastrous Street Fighter film. That hasn’t stopped studios from trying, and video games based on the Assassin’s Creed and World of Warcraft games are currently in development, stirring up considerable buzz among gamers and attracting big name talent (Michael Fassbender is starring in Assassin’s Creed, and Duncan Jones will direct Warcraft). Could the world finally be about to see a good video game adaptation in the next few years?
20th Century Fox’s first attempt at a Hitman movie was a financial success, making close to $100 million at the box office on a budget of $24 million, despite being critically panned with a Rotten Tomatoes aggregate score of 14% positive. This is a common theme among video game films, which are obviously making money despite the poor quality of the filmmaking, or studios would not continue to make them. It’s possible that these films are guaranteed to whip up some amount of buzz due to the fact that they are based on popular existing properties. For example, the many Tomb Raider fans that have helped the video game series sell a collective 42 million units are likely to continue to support the franchise on the big screen (and casting Angelina Jolie in the role of Lara Croft doesn’t hurt).
Video games by their nature present certain challenges in terms of adaptation, namely that the defining feature of a video game is interactivity. The player of a video game is in control of the experience, a distinction that forms a major part of Roger Ebert’s famous argument that video games are not, and cannot be, art. The primary pleasure of playing a video game comes from being presented with and achieving goals, giving the player a sense of accomplishment. The player’s engagement is a fundamental part of the experience of consuming a game; there’s no way to play a video game passively. Story, art direction, character, and themes are all secondary to rewarding game mechanics, which is why many of the most popular video games of all time need not have any of those elements. Pac-Man has no narrative and Sonic the Hedgehog doesn’t have a complex character arc, and yet these games are very fun to play. Emotional engagement in a video game, unlike in a film, is not a key part of an enjoyable and entertaining experience.
That being said, video games are a young medium that is continuing to evolve with new technology. The video game industry took off in earnest in 1985 following an industry wide crash of $500 million that decimated reigning home console giant Atari and allowed Nintendo to capture the US market with its Nintendo Entertainment System. That means modern video games are the product of 30 years of artistic development; given the same timeline the medium is still 15 years away from its Citizen Kane (although Empire magazine took the liberty of bestowing this title on Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, released in 2013).
The Last of Us is a shining example of video games’ potential as a storytelling medium. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic world in which a young girl named Ellie may hold the secret to curing an infection that has turned humanity into deranged flesh eating monsters. Over the course of the game the player mostly fills the shoes of Joel, a smuggler working in a quarantine zone that effectively functions as a police state. He is tasked with delivering Ellie to a rebel group known as the Fireflies. The bond between Joel and Ellie develops over the course of the game’s twenty to thirty hours of gameplay despite Joel’s best attempts to stay unattached. The fact that the player is so directly connected to these characters, essentially becoming them as they lead the characters through the story, makes the emotional connection even more tangible. As Joel becomes attached to Ellie, so does the player, making the moral questions raised in the narrative all the more personal.
A film adaptation of The Last of Us is in the works, written by game director Neil Druckmann, which will reportedly retell the events of the game’s narrative almost exactly. This seems like exactly the type of video game adaptation the world doesn’t need. To take a game that already tells a story so well in a long form and interactive way and force that story into a two hour long non-interactive medium is just a reduction from a visual and interactive story to just a visual one. However, another place where video games can be particularly successful is through building a world, and this is especially the case with role playing game like World of Warcraft or Skyrim. These games take place in fantasy universes with their own complex histories and mythologies. A film developed on this kind of video game property could give the filmmakers an opportunity to tell new stories set within an established and well-loved fantasy world. Luckily this seems to be the case with the Warcraft film, which brings some of the NPC’s (non player characters, a term that refers to any character who is part of the background or narrative of the game but is not controlled by a player) that are a part of the game’s mythology to life.
Comic book films also took time to find their groove and also had their fair share of misfires (looking at you, Daredevil), but in the past decade, especially in the past five years or so, the genre has established itself as a pop culture phenomenon. The Marvel Cinematic Universe in particular has been a constant source of high quality comic book films since 2008 with the release of Iron Man, and it shows no sign of slowing down with films planned through 2016. There are currently at least five films based on video game properties in various stages of development, many of which (including the Assassin’s Creed movie starring Michael Fassbender) will come out of game developer Ubisoft’s in-house production studio, through which they also plan to adapt many of their other beloved franchises like Splinter Cell starring Tom Hardy as the protagonist Sam Fisher. At the same time video games themselves are becoming progressively more “cinematic” and developing as a serious medium for good storytelling, so the need for a film adaptation may seem redundant. Ultimately, the video game movie could end up recorded in film history as a failed experiment.