28 July 2009

When Gold Becomes Lead - Video Game Adaptations


Super Mario Bros. Max Payne. The Uwe Boll... boll-fests. Street Fighter. They've all been less than stellar attempts at big screen adaptations of video game hits.

Cool storylines that spawn sequels. Built-in, ready-made audiences. Why is the video game to film adaptation seemingly doomed (another one) from the start?

Because the appeal of video games in the first place is in their genie-like capacity for wish fulfillment. While the lead in a FPS may have a name, (Master Chief, Gordon Freeman, etc), the character you play is an extension of you. It is an immersive experience. You control your avatar's ultimate fate, even though there is already a defined endpoint already in place.

Forget films for a second - I despise cinematic cut scenes in games - it pulls you out of the interactive wish-fulfillment, and into the pre-ordained script that is your virtual self's ultimate endgame.

Video games use cut scenes as opportunities for exposition and to move the story forward. Too many film translations of video games are feature-length cut scenes that leaves the audience wondering - when do I get to shoot the alien?

Films by their nature are not interactive, though they can suck you into a world. You are not the main character, though you may identify and empathize with their plight. You are not running, hands outstretched, guns blazing into a swarm of Covenant, though you may be thrilled with the onscreen action.

The problem is that the scriptwriters and filmmakers try to make up for this fault by cramming excessive action and tits and relegating a damn good story to the testosterone-laden floor.

In my mind, a successful video game to film translation would at least start with the following tenets:

* The film version of you must contain universal traits that a wide number of people may empathize with. For instance, in a video game, you rarely know your avatar's backstory. You project a number of your own frustrations and dreams into this avatar, making an already pre-ordained script your own. In short - for a video game adaptation to succeed, the protagonist must be a fully-developed character that every member of the audience can empathize with. This is true in any film. Just because there's a built in audience doesn't give one the excuse to be lazy.

* The plot itself must be either retrofitted into the cinematic language, or, a new one must be devised based off a limited number of key plot points. Again, this is true of any adaptation. I repeat - built-in audience is not an excuse to be lazy.

And the biggest, most important thing to remember:

Books are about what people think. Theater is about what people say. Films are about what people do. Video games are about what YOU do.

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