Stuck on the same level: K Narayanan on why videogames make such bad movies

Stuck on the same level: K Narayanan on why videogames make such bad movies

Has there ever been a film adaptation of a videogame that has done well commercially and critically? From the original, dreadful, Super Mario Bros (1993) — with Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper, no less — through endless iterations of Resident Evil and Final Fantasy to the uniquely awful Uwe Boll films (the German behind BloodRayne and Rampage is often called the world’s worst director), every attempt to translate games to film has failed.

And now we have news that there’s going to be a Pac-Man film. And no, it’s not animated but live-action. Will it have a giant yellow stress ball (with a section cut out) prowling the streets of Manhattan, chomping up every unhappy human that crosses its path, while being chased by a remorseless squad of assassins called Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde? Will it be a parable on continuous consumption and the inevitable doom that follows? One has to wonder what the pitch meeting for this was like.

It’s not that Pac-Man doesn’t work outside the videogame medium. There was a Hanna-Barbera animated series featuring Pac-Man and his pursuers that was viewed by 20 million people. But that was in 1982, when Pac-Man fever was at its height, and children as well as more than a few adults lined up at arcades to play what would go on to become the best-selling arcade game of all time. But kids don’t play Pac-Man anymore, and those who played Pac-Man in the ’80s don’t play it either. We will likely end up with one more terrible videogame adaptation, added to an ever-growing list.

Why does this keep happening? It’s not that there isn’t potential. There are videogames that tell stories of the criminal underbelly of urban America, such as Grand Theft Auto. There are games set in the world of the Westerns, such as Red Dead Redemption. There are space operas of all kinds: Halo, Mass Effect, StarCraft, Gears of War and so many more.

Planescape: Torment, first released in 1999, remains one of the best examples of in-game storytelling, though it is set in a fantastical city peopled by chaste succubi, fallen angels, honest demons, talking skulls and a goddess who promptly ends any attempts to worship her. All of these have potential for great cinema, and yet…

The most successful game film of all time was the 2016 Warcraft movie, with global earnings of $439 million. The movie cost about as much to make and market. The game franchise it is based on has made more than $23 billion since 1994. And even the $430 million came about because the film was a smash hit in China, with Chinese audiences accounting for about $220 million in revenues.

It’s not that directors don’t get videogames. Steven Spielberg created the game Medal of Honor in 1999, after watching his son play GoldenEye 007. James Gunn is a fan of the 2003 classic Star Wars game, Knights of the Old Republic. Guillermo del Toro has worked with game creator Hideo Kojima on Death Stranding. But their involvement has been more successful going from films to games than the other way around.

Perhaps the time factor is partly to blame. A complete playthrough of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild can take about 200 hours. Adapting a 200-hour experience down to two hours requires filmmakers to understand both mediums completely; there don’t seem to be enough of them, and the ones that do are staying away, perhaps put off by the results so far.

Another oft-cited reason why game movies fail is the gameplay element. If a game can tell a great story, with cinematic cut-scenes and steadily improving motion capture, while also providing absorbing gameplay, why should it even be adapted to film? It already provides most of what a movie can offer, and it offers agency as well. Any movie adaptation of a great game has to figure out how to compensate for this loss of agency.

There have, of course, been some modest commercial successes. Pokemon Detective Pikachu (2019) and the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise are examples. But even these have not been blockbusters. And if the Pac-Man news tells us anything, it’s that Hollywood has learnt nothing from past experience.

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