Adapting Games for the Big Screen: What’s Missing?

April 15, 2008 at 11:48 am 1 comment

Just read an article in this month’s issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly, entitled “Destination: Deja Vu”, about why games retread familiar settings. World War II, epic space battles, and the gritty streets of New York City have been featured in countless games. One of the reasons they give in the article is that these settings are familiar, we’ve seen them before and we know what to expect. As long as the game itself isn’t boring or hard to play, we can still enjoy them.

One thing that they mentioned caught my eye; it was in relation to certain genres of games. Almost every game, with the exception of something like a puzzle game or a music-rhythm game or something like that, needs to have conflict. That’s why most games would fall into an action category, like action-adventure (Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune), action-RPG (The Legend of Zelda), or stealth-action (Metal Gear). Games require your character (you) to physically do something, engage the enemy in a physical representation of conflict, or else the game would be boring.

Trying to represent conflict internally is much more difficult in games. Some games that try to tackle psychological conflict, like Eternal Darkness or the Silent Hill games, still require you to be doing something, even if the events and actions depicted are ‘only in your head’. This made me think about the art of film and how the one of the golden rules of screenwriting is that there must be conflict. Speaking primarily to narrative Hollywood-style films, without conflict, you don’t have a story. Simple.

**I won’t be mentioning Uwe Boll here because I think that subject’s been done to death**

So why, with the many video-game-to-film adaptations out there, and currently in the works (check IMDB’s Uwe Boll page and look at the titles he’s directing), how come there hasn’t been an adaptation that is an accurate representation of the gaming experience? I’m not talking about watching the movie and having the same ‘sensation’ as playing the game. For example, the Doom movie that came out a couple of years back with The Rock and Karl Urban. It started decently enough, then devolved into a boring sci-fi action flick that was devoid of any real thrills. On top of that, there was the absolutely terrible first-person sequence when we see through the eyes of Karl Urban’s character as he fights his way through hordes of enemies, a la Doom the game. What I felt the movie was missing was the fear that the game inspired. Playing the Doom 3 game really made the hairs on my neck stand up at parts, primarily because it was dark, you’ve got alien/demon things hunting you, and you’re limited in your firepower. That could potentially be some scary-ass shit right there.

The Doom movie had plenty of external conflict, but what it lacked was creating conflict for the audience. I didn’t care about any of the characters. It’s different for a game since you are the character, but a movie should still make you feel for the protagonist. You should want to see them exceed, defeat the bad guy, get the girl, etc. Also, whatever the game made you feel, the movie should as well. If there’s parts of a game that make you feel scared, then the movie adaptation should make you feel scared. If there’s a moment in the game that lets you waltz into a room, gun in each hand, and blast all the bad guys, then the movie should make you feel elated when you watch the main character stroll into a room, gun in each hand, and lay the smackdown on the bad guys, John Woo-style.

Another example is the Silent Hill movie, what I consider to be the best adaptation of a video game yet. Yes, the movie had it’s flaws, but what it did absolutely right was the atmosphere. The Silent Hill games are usually very industrial and corroded looking, with dried blood on the walls, fog-covered streets, and pitch-black hallways. Then the game will go even further, often going from the empty, lonely visual aesthetic to the Hell-on-Earth look, with mutilated bodies, torture devices, and grotesque creatures wandering around.

Aside from the look, what director Christophe Gans, screenwriter Roger Avary, and the rest of the production team did on the movie version was add some weight to the backstory. This gave the characters more to deal with. The objective for the movie was for the parents to find their missing daughter, but becomes complicated as the audience realizes both the mother and daughter are stuck in a nightmarish version of the world, while the husband struggled to find both of them. In the DVD, they mention that the husband character was not part of the original draft, but was added in to help explain the backstory. I thought it was an inspired choice, because as we learn more about their past, we care about their future (at least I did).

We learn about how this nightmare world was created (and it differs slightly from the game, since the original Silent Hill game had overtones of drug use with some of the characters, but the movie version is more occult-based). The ‘why’ can then answer the ‘how’ as we watch the characters struggle with survival and deal with some internal demons, as well. Again, not a brilliant film, but to me, the best of the bunch so far.

What the screenwriters and the filmmakers need to realize when adapting a game is the ‘why’ aspect. A movie adaptation I’m looking forward to is the Max Payne movie (both the indie version and the Hollywood version). It’s a straight-up action game that was inspired by gangster films and John Woo action epics. However, the beginning of the game is pretty ‘adult oriented’ as we see Payne’s family get blown away in an act of seemingly random violence. Then, later in the game and in the sequel, we get cut scenes that show Max’s psychological damage as he tries to deal with the loss of his family and the loss of another loved one. A cliche story to be sure, but it does take a more serious approach to the characters than the usual ‘here’s-the-hero-now-go-blow-shit-up’ mentality of most action games. If the Max Payne movie can capitalize on the ‘why’ of the Max Payne character, then it will prove to be a much more enjoyable ride than your standard action movie.

I know I’m not Robert McKee or some other Hollywood guru, but if the film industry wants to do the games industry justice, and maybe help bring some legitimacy to the art of games, then maybe Hollywood needs to treat video game movies like movies, and not just a way to make a buck.

(images from,, and Yahoo!)


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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. iloveoregon  |  May 6, 2008 at 1:14 am

    yeah, most movies based off of video games do tend to tank both at the box office and as movies in general, but I do agree with Silent Hill was one of the better ones. I’ve only watched it once and it stuck with me afterward. The atmosphere was just… I don’t know. Too… “real”? Hmm.


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