At the beginning of the year, I was asked to write a short introduction on myself to be used on the Writer’s Block website. Honestly, I don’t know how people are able to condense their entire person to less than three sentences and still manage to make themselves sound even remotely interesting. Instead, I just figured I could mention some of my interests and then proceed to write about those. Looking back at the little Writer’s Block archive dedicated to my ramblings, however, I noticed a gaping hole in the subject material (and no, I am not talking about my failure as of yet to write an entire piece on my love of Ice Tea). I have written about films, I have written about video games, I have written about memes, but never about the ultimate combination of the three: the utter meme that is the video game movie.
On the surface, the premise of making a movie out of a video game in the current year seems like a great idea. Games nowadays get so complicated with their diverging storylines and character lore that I sometimes nostalgically wonder about what those early days of playing Pac-Man in an arcade would have been like. Those times when you wouldn’t be smashed over the head every two seconds with the intricate background of why your yellow bleep was trying to gobble up the little spooky ghosts. It seems only logical that, in an era where videogames feel more and more like interactive movies (some, such as the 2016 “movie” Late Shift, even taking the form of such), why not have movies explore the vast potential of the video game?
I will tell you why, but first, let me relate one of the most disappointing cinematic experiences I have ever had (for which I myself am partially to blame): last year’s Assassin’s Creed movie. As I said, I am partially to blame for being so immensely let down by that monumental disappointment wrapped in smooth Hollywood marketing. The Assassin’s Creed franchise, for the uninitiated, revolves around people in modern times accessing memories of their ancestors, the eternal battle between the Templars and Assassins and other such video game lore that must seem like complete hocus pocus to those not familiar with it. Basically, you play several hooded, secret blade-brandishing, parkouring assassins in different historical cities filled with huge set-pieces meant for you to climb and then fall off of and die. Repeatedly. Needless to say, I love the games to the point that I will even tolerate some of the more outlandish parts of the lore (I mean, the consciousness of a Roman god in digital form? Really?). So when an Assassins Creed movie was announced, starring some of the talent responsible for the recent adaptation of the most video-gamy of Shakespeare’s plays (Macbeth), I was mildly interested. Basically, I was out loud squeaking in the hallways of university when the first trailer was announced. And, of course, seeing it on the biggest screen in cinemas I could find (which happened to be across the Belgian border). Boy, was I setting myself up for disappointment. Where I was hoping for an action-packed, lore-abiding movie based on an awesome concept (I mean, assassinating people during the Spanish inquisition?), instead I got a movie that felt like it should have been a straight-to-Netflix flick. Sure, it looked great and the talent was definitely there, but the thing had no soul. None of the unique flavour of the video game franchise. The historical storyline was forsaken for a modern-day, conspiracy-con type storyline, and the fight scenes largely boiled down to an all-out, guns-blazing, stabbing-in-broad-daylight approach. There was none of the stealth-based shadowy combat that goes with being an assassin in anyone’s book. That film made me emotional, and not in a good way.
So, what then is the problem with the “video game movie”? After all, videogames have managed to successfully inch closer to the medium of film without failing miserably (or, at least, consistently). I think a large part of where video game movies seem to fall short, is their perceived difficulty in uniting the video game audience with the movie-going audience. The big-shot Hollywood marketing executives seem so scared of losing out on a pay check from either audience that the movies often awkwardly fall somewhere in the middle, leading to a film that nobody wants to see (looking at you, Assassin’s Creed). What they don’t seem to realise is that their core audience already is a combination of both: people who love videogames are no longer uniformly living in their moms basement, hissing at the slightest hint of sunlight. Instead, videogame lovers and movie lovers have slowly come to realise not their respective media’s differences, but rather the way they complement each other. Videogames are interactive movies and movies are cinematic videogames, and to shun one based on the merits of the other would be cutting oneself off from a large source of entertainment that matches their already established interest.
Moviemakers should therefore learn to do what videogame creators have already tried to do: focus more on the videogame aspect of their next blockbuster (yes, even the aforementioned lore has a part in this) and less on making it appealing to a random cinemagoer who is just looking to pass a pleasant Saturday night. Truth is, just like movies based on books, if you produce a great product while keeping the source material feeling authentic, rather than alienate part of your audience, more often than not you will find yourself making a product both appealing to both the die-hard video game fans as well as the casual cinema-goer because of its well-thought out nature and unique aspects inherent to the source material. A great example is the recently released Ready Player One, which, albeit not directly based on a video game, still engages with and incorporates video game culture in a unique way without alienating the part of its audience that has never touched a PlayStation in their life. Go in the other direction, however, and you will find yourself producing a shapeless, generic, blob of special effects and CGI that absolutely no one finds enjoyable. Your choice.