...hellish - but probably not in a way the developers intended.
peej about Dante's Inferno
The biggest Hollywood studios still have the capacity to surprise and astound us with their output. For every piece of popcorn-fuelled brainless cinematic nonsense, there are a couple of genuine gems put out each year that become tightly woven into our culture, garner 5 star reviews, end up winning all those pig-ugly awards and ensure that their directors become as legendary as the actors they cast in their flicks.
Despite so many efforts by Hollywood to connect with the vast sea of gamers who give up valuable play time to sit in a packed cinema full of nasty spotty little herberts who paid 12 quid for the privilege of fiddlearsing with their phones (or each other) for the duration of the film, the relationship has been a rather flimsy one at best.
With so many common elements between the two mediums, why on earth don't games and movies make better bedfellows. Here's 5 reasons why Hollywood systematically fails to produce decent game-based movies, and why the greatest game studios in the world are pretty bloody hopeless at adapting films into games.
Kicking off with the movies first:
There is absolutely no way anyone is going to sign up to a film project that involves the central character effectively dissolving into the background. Take every single game you can possibly think of where you play the main protagonist. Bioshock, Portal, even Doom - largely you are required to see through the eyes of the character fighting (or thinking) their way out of trouble. No actor ever born, no matter how humble, wants to become the unseen eyes and seldom heard voice of a successful game's hero. Even once the simple act of casting a tricky game-to-movie project has been completed, the movie takes on a completely different form simply because people's preconception's about an actor's suitability for a role changes the way a film will be received.
Similarly, no director wants to take on a game project without bringing their own vision to the screen, often scrubbing out elements that a game development team have spent years building into a successful franchise. For a prime example, take the mangled "Uncharted" movie and look at the berk they picked to play Drake (Mark Wahlberg) and the director's unique vision of what the game is all about (a family of antique dealers? WHAT?)
2) Game writers normally aren't that great.
Paper thin plots, cliches all over the place, identikit characters and an endgame you can see coming a mile off. Even the most finely crafted games are often decades behind the most tightly woven plots of the best movies ever made. The simple fact of the matter is that the majority of writers writing exclusively for games are pretty bloody hopeless at providing a plot that could stand up as a story in its own right. The attraction of a game's plot needs that gigantic injection of player interaction in order to keep the game ticking along nicely. Without it, with the 'player' taking the passive role of the 'viewer', the entire paper thin premise falls apart like a tissue paper tent in a rainstorm. For a game adaptation, writers basically have to put so much meat onto the flimsy bones of a game's original plot that often the resulting project bears little or no resemblance to the game's original theme.
3) Game time cannot be successfully condensed into movie time.
Gamers often slam new releases for being too short, over too quickly, or strip-mined to provide DLC later on. Taking a lengthy and intricate epic like Mass Effect or Bioshock and condensing it into a 120 minute film inevitably means that something's going to get trimmed. Though in certain cases this point contradicts the previous idea that game plots often need padding out in order to turn them into worthwhile stories, often game movies will also pull the opposite trick of slimming down an 8 hour game storyline into something trimmed down to the bare minimum. Even the most linear game experience can't really be transposed straight into a movie structured in a similar fashion, without providing an experience that feels predictable and hackneyed.
4) A million-selling game does not equal a multi million dollar movie success.
Box office records are smashed year in, year out and if you consider the average cinema ticket price even for the latest blockbuster filmed in 3D, you're paying a lot less than you would for the latest game releases. The most successful game franchises of all time, the Grand Theft Autos and the Call of Duties, would not automatically become massively successful movies. For a movie to recoup the cost of the film rights alone, even before you've factored in the production costs, it would have to appeal to gamers and a widely extended audience who don't necessarily know about or care about the original game.
Often, big Hollywood studios will try every trick in the book to ensure that a game movie hoovers up the peripheral viewers who have nothing to do with videogames in any shape or form, but with the element of player interactivity removed, the relatively passive experience of viewing a movie does not necessarily automatically mean a gamer will go out of their way to watch something based on their favourite game series.
5) Hollywood picks the worst possible subject material from videogames.
Street Fighter, Super Mario Bros. Caught up in the heady successes and excesses of gaming in the 1990s, Hollywood mistakenly believed that lashing together a movie idea would simply work because the original game franchises were huge and successful. We're sort of repeating ourselves here, but time and time again Hollywood studios seem to make terrible ill-judged decisions on what to adapt into films.
Fighting games plainly don't work because the original games have absolutely no plot to speak of and no one really cares because they're not paying for a story, they're paying for the chance to pound some other poor sucker into the dirt using a dazzling array of finger-twisting button combinations.
Platform games also don't work because no matter how much you dress them up, the sight of a famous actor bounding along like a kangaroo on steroids is just ridiculous. Even with the Tomb Raider movies, when you take the most successful female videogame icon of all time and cast an actress who does a fairly good job of mastering the plummy accent, and straps her boobs and arse into the character's trademark clingy clothing, the essence of the original game's mix of puzzle solving and acrobatics is inevitably lost when the movie is forced to provide more spectacle and dazzle than just a female character sashaying her way around crumbling ruins looking for a lock to prod her key in.
Videogames don't fare any better when the boot is on the other foot though. If you turn a blind eye to the extremely rare instances when videogames based on movies haven't been hateful experiences, here's 5 reasons why movie licensed games largely suck.
1) Actors (and directors) still consider gaming as "the poor cousin".
The recent Bond games had the benefit of Daniel Craig's vocal talents but despite also containing most of the elements a James Bond game would need in order to mimic the movie's mix of derring-do and gadgetry, you could tell right from the off that Craig couldn't be bothered, that EON didn't offer much assistance, and that it was down to Bizarre Creations to put together a plot, a game dynamic and a decent length gaming experience that did the Bond license justice. Subsequent poor sales despite the game's solid construction mimicked the downturn in the film series' fortunes too, and probably led indirectly to the studio's untimely demise.
Even when game studios are given all the access necessary to a film's assets, rights issues often mean that movie studios take a dog-in-the-manger approach to games based on their properties. Film studios who own internal game development teams are swiftly sacking off projects and teams left right and centre as even relatively unique and innovative titles (such as the recent high profile flop Epic Mickey) fail to sell in sufficient numbers to register a hit. Movie and game studios need to be tightly meshed together and each needs to understand how each medium works, what its strengths and weaknesses are and build on those foundations before putting pixel to screen.
2) The "That'll do, that'll sell" approach.
Movie games are often seemingly lashed together as quickly as possible in order to cash in on a film project's hype and anticipated success. Small-time developers are often given projects that are too broad and ambitious in scope, and don't match the studio's ability. The assumption is that videogames based on movies will sell enough units purely by association, even if the resulting game is a pile of cak.
That assumption is based on a certain level of ignorance in gamers and the games buying public, but even the most clueless parent or the most spoilt kid on the planet will have access to a million and one opinions of a game from any number of review web sites, magazines, newspapers or TV programmes.
Movie game project directors seem to still be working from a model that provided a modicum of success in the late 90s / early 00s, but in a tech-savvy world that model is no longer viable.
3) The best movie game in the world can't match the original source's atmosphere.
Lighting, ambient sounds, prop and set builds by master craftsmen, a stirring orchestral soundtrack, the finest nuances of an actor's performance, top notch special effects and post production requiring many man-years of tweaking and fine tuning. These are the tools at the disposal of a movie director and producer when they put together their magnum opus. These are not necessarily the tools at the disposal of development studios often tasked with bringing the silver screen to the small screen. One recurring trend in the games industry is that very few big game studios touch movie licenses with a barge pole. In the few instances where videogaming giants have tackled movie projects, the results are often more successful than instances where small scale peripheral teams are given a big license. Westwood's "Blade Runner" game is still held up as a shining example of a game that successfully took a highly respected movie franchise and turned it into a near-legendary interactive experience paying perfect homage to the original source material.
A similar challenge must be facing Gearbox as they move a step closer to bringing Aliens: Colonial Marines to life. A project dogged by setbacks and delays (Gearbox must have a taste for projects like this, see also Duke Nukem Forever) must be carrying with it a massive weight of expectation but if any team can pull it off, it's Randy Pitchford's happy crew. Let's just hope it doesn't turn into another bug hunt like Rebellion's doomed Aliens vs Predator reboot.
4) Too little butter spread on too much bread.
Some movies are lightweight experiences that just cannot be stretched out into a lengthy and satisfying game. Spinning 2 and a bit hours out into even the minimum accepted game length (which hovers around 5-6 hours, ish) is like trying to stuff a gigantic cloth model of an elephant with a couple of balls of cotton wool. Games developers just aren't that great at providing meaty and substantial padding that provides a continuous and worthy gaming experience from the bare bones of a movie's core themes and ideas.
5) The world is not grown up enough for grown up games (yet).
Mature videogames are cursed from the moment the first teaser trailers hit the public eye. For some reason we still exist in a world where a film can feature graphic sex scenes, abhorrent acts of violence, depraved and twisted sado-masochism, swearing and even animal abuse but with the simple act of slapping an 18 certificate on it, the nanny state breathes a sigh of relief.
The moment a game dips into any of these dark murky waters, the 18 rating means nothing. If a game dares to follow in the footsteps of a proper grown up movie experience, it's eternally damned. Consider the cartoon violence and tongue-in-cheek innuendo peppering the Grand Theft Auto series. Rockstar's biggest IP is nearly always held up as the prime example of a game that warps and twists the minds of those unfortunate souls who play the GTA series. Often it's cited as a game that has a negative influence on the country's youth, despite that very prominent '18' sticker on the front of the box. Gamers who defend a developer / publisher's right to produce games for grown ups are considered to be apologists for a dark subversive way of thinking, a dangerous bunch of misfits and ne'er do wells who glory in virtual violence.
For these overblown reasons, games taking mature and grown up movies as their influence cannot possibly provide the same adult plots and themes without being instantly singled out as 'wrong'.
The games industry is cursed with being forever trapped in a state of insolent rebellious youth, not allowed to explore darker themes or psychologically disturbing material even with the industry's strenuous efforts to fit in with whatever censorship guidelines an over-protective world forces on them.
So there you have it. Agree or disagree? Let us know via the magic white comments box below.