the artistry and psychology of gaming

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In Defense of Video Game Movies

In Defense of Video Game Movies

Recently, my good friend Ali wrote as part of his weekly feature The Controller and the Lamp an enjoyable overview of the existing movie adaptations of popular video game franchises. If you haven’t seen his article yet, please do so, its a fun read! While I would say his article certainly offers a painful helping of truth behind the quality of said releases and their questionable assessments of the content at hand, I would also argue that there’s another side here that is being overlooked. While video game movies get an awful lot wrong, you’d be surprised with just how creatively they can present the things they get right, and ultimately what they get wrong isn’t a problem limited to video games alone.

So it was with this thought that I wanted to write a few words down in response; taking a look at some of the difficulties experienced in moving a video game to the silver screen, some ways video game adaptations have chosen to work around those difficulties, and where I think a few mild successes were achieved. I should say that I’ll be going over a few details from some of the movies previously discussed, so a general spoiler warning should be in effect.

Part I: Complication

It should be common knowledge that in adapting any artistic medium into film, certain attributes can and will be lost; if you don’t believe me, ask Alan Moore. Novels can lose chapters, Super heroes can lose backstories, video games lose their interactivity, heck, there was even that Beatles movie a few years ago that lost its enjoyable music. Still, regardless of where the content comes from, anyone going in to see a movie based on previous experience with its source material will likely head into the theater with one thing in mind: I wonder what will carry over. Bearing that in mind, its the screenwriters job to walk a fine line in attempting to balance out the experience for its existing fanbase, and the average unaware movie patron (read: the person being dragged to the movie by their significant other in the case of video games) so everyone might have something to look forward to. “Might” is the keyword there, as it certainly doesn’t always happen… looking at you, Double Dragon.

Nothing…Nothing could save this movie.

But anyway, I digress. One area that Ali was able to capitalize on in his article was “What did they miss,” reviewing valuable things that were unable to carry over from a game series into the big screen. Certain things he mentions, like the subtle charisma of Lara Croft, the artistry of Max Payne, and any sort of relevance or staying power to Wing Commander with the guys from Scooby Doo, are spot on in my opinion. I think they are incredibly valid criticisms for their omission at the box office, especially since these are areas that can and have presented themselves under similar circumstances within the film industry. Did their loss matter to the fans? Absolutely! It makes their existence a damn near travesty!

However, how much did this loss impact the uninformed patron? I’d wager not as much, as they were simply unaware of what was being lost; many perhaps just having their (likely low) expectations fulfilled of seeing spaceships, some guy out for revenge, and Angelina Jolie…hell, Tomb Raider even got a sequel with a near $100 million budget. When screenwriting focuses too much on appeasing the uninformed, we see these movies divulge into average (and slightly lower than average) popcorn flicks that have a wider reach for attention, but a greater detachment from it’s origin. That’s lame, and we deserve better.

Now, with all that said, what happens when the reverse is true? What if video game movies focused heavily on the fanbase (the reason such a movie project received a greenlight in the first place?). Well, likely the movie wouldn’t exist based on projected financial returns. The uninformed movie patron can outnumber a video game fan 20 to 1; that’s an awful lot of people to have tons of information flying completely over their heads while fans are cheering their hearts out. Unfortunately, contrary to what Operation Rainfall would have you think, in most every facet of life, money talks. Alternatively, if true 1-1 conversions occur with regards to story in adapting video games to the screen, I’d also argue that even fans may be deterred as they become fully aware of plot points and surprises all the while losing the interactivity and gameplay they had previously been coupled with; a point Ali has also made in his feature with regards to “cinematic” video games.

Part II: Relation

So where does that leave us? Well, one option is to go the route of parody, such as with Super Mario Bros, which I really don’t think is as terrible as people say. Yes, there were creative liberties aplenty, but can you honestly tell me that anything presented in the movie had one iota of seriousness to it? No, not even close; that’d be as ridiculous as making a movie about Super Mario Bros. Now, if you can wrap your head around the logic behind that statement, you will find that the movie is simply a fun twist on the world of Mario and friends where nothing is sacred; where the mushroom kingdom is in fact a usurped monarch turned to fungus, where high jumping requires special rocket boots, and where people question the plumbers’ perceived surnames (a funnier observation than people give it credit for).

Bullet Bill isn’t the only special nod, you can also find signs for Hammer Bros., Thwomps, and Wiggler

While the movie does deviate from the source material, many moves are never entirely without origin and act more as situational homages to the game rather than repeats or outright replacements, which seems to have been the misconception. Plus, the movie was not without it’s extra logical services; Snifits can be found in the junkyard, the princess is Daisy since nobody cares to see Bob Hoskins get the girl (no offense), and they even threw in Iggy as one of Koopa’s underlings for sport. If the writing staff was truly as detached from the game as people have believed, wouldn’t they have just let Luigi fall in love with Peach?

In the better cases where we do in fact stay closer to the source material, we can also have a movie that, while never functioning on its own as a unique work of art, can still act as a supplementary source of entertainment that allows outsiders to participate, while every so often giving fans some moments of relatability. By inserting clever references from the source material without calling too much attention to them, the movies can proceed along their own set path while still striking a chord with fans for momentary flashbacks to the games they know and love. What I would suggest, is that the act of catching these references when they present themselves can in fact elevate the overall enjoyment of the movie far more than an accurate retelling of the story (or whatever garbage some Hollywood stooge has concocted) ever could. Are these movies great? Rotten Tomatoes would suggest otherwise. But can people have fun while watching them? I’m here to tell you, yes they can, if they know where to look.

Take Street Fighter for example. Sure sure, it’s terrible. Guile was unnecessarily elevated to take the lead, Dhalsim had some sort of PhD in genetics, and the name “Shadaloo” seemed so awkwardly out of place in a real life setting. I’d be lying if I said this was a good movie, but take a look at what they did at the end!

Left to Right: E. Honda, Sawata (movie only), Ken, Balrog, Cammy, Zangief, Guile, Chun Li, Ryu, T. Hawk

That’s right, the actors were able to act out each of their character’s victory poses as a deliberate tie back to the game. I believe that’s what we call a high-five moment! This shot did absolutely nothing to further the plot of the movie, yet its an immediate high note in an otherwise gruelling viewing experience. Somewhere along the line, somebody with enough sense, and enough authority, said to stop ignoring the game outside of its character names and throw the in-crowd a freakin’ bone! I would say that this type of action is exactly what we need to see in order to keep our interest in seeing any future video game adaptations.

A more thorough example would be Mortal Kombat which, of video game adaptations, I would actually consider one of the most accurate, given the limited story material they had to work with anyway. But regardless of the story, I didn’t go see Mortal Kombat to watch the battle between realms for dominance, or care about Liu Kang’s warrior of destiny outlook; I went to see Mortal Kombat to watch Raiden zap people and Scorpion shout “GET OVER HERE!!!”

He’s about to say it! He’s about to say it!

I of course got what I wanted, but I also got so much more than I expected. Scorpion pulled his mask off to do his fatality, Liu Kang ignored physics with his bicycle kick, Shang Tsung got to say “Flawless Victory,” and Shao Kahn announced Reptile once he gained a host body. Cage even pulled out his “Friendship” move when he dropped an autographed photo after fighting Scorpion. Did that last one get by a lot of people? Yes. Was it awesome? Double-yes. All of these fun game inclusions were layered over what would have otherwise been a goofy martial arts movie anyway regardless of source material that would have likely developed a following in the vein of 3 Ninjas, Surf Ninjas (anyone else remember that one?), and Big Trouble in Little China. For what Mortal Kombat was trying to be, I’d say it hit its mark, and the many series references that presented themselves along the sidelines made it all the more fun!

Part III: Interaction

While it is certainly fair to judge any artistic product without consulting outside sources, I feel in the case of film adaptations, special credit should be given to movies that actively work to secure these subtle nods to their source material, which while being a non-issue for some (since they won’t know they’re there), can lead to exciting 4th wall breaks and lighthearted displacement from the story in a very positive and meaningful manner for the informed viewer. Such has long been the case on TV with shows like Seinfeld, the Simpsons, and currently the Venture Bros. Comic books (another artistic medium with its own struggles in adapting to film) have also shifted towards a larger focus on this type of referential cinema with the recent Thor, where in addition to the movie itself, if you watch closely, you’ll find many special nods to the comics continuity including the Surtur, Those Who Sit Above in Shadow, the Infinity Gauntlet, Donald Blake, and even Journey Into Mystery (it appears on a Billboard in a scene), as well as some special cameos. While appropriate praise should always be given to timeless movies that can exist within a vacuum, I would argue that at least some positive acknowledgment of those that don’t while maintaining an intelligent and artistic level of referential outreach is in order. It is true that this form of extra content offers a means of distraction from the story, but they are nevertheless an intentional product of the artistic process, and crafted with a deliberate purpose in mind to which they should be treated as such.

Translated to video game adaptations, I feel that they are especially relevant, as the act of picking up on these references when they are made is (interestingly enough) able to restore a basic level of interactivity with the work on part of the participant that would otherwise be lost from game to film adaptations solely focused on story translations. By inserting the references without calling direct attention to them, the film calls for the player to take their previous experiences and proceed through the film in front of them while “playing” a game of hide and seek weaving in and out of the plot, calling up their “save file” on the franchise from their brains (read: internal memory card) to continue.

If done right, the series fan can walk away from the video game adaptation with a great level of enjoyment, regardless of the movie’s cinematic quality (to be fair, being an actual good movie is of course recommended as well). While there’s not much that can really save a movie with a bad story, subtle correlations and references throughout can still lead to a great deal of fun at the theater, and worth taking notice when they occur.

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