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Movies vs. Video Games, a Debate

Movies vs. Video Games, a Debate

To adopt or not to adopt? That is the question! When Ali Nazifpour wrote about why it is not advisable to adapt video games into movies and David “BGH” Kempe disagreed with him by writing another article, we knew they had to sit down and discuss the subject. And they did, and this the result. It’s an amusing and yet informative exchange of ideas which delves into the nature of video games and cinema, and also adaptation as a whole. We’ve enjoyed discussing it, hopefully you will enjoy reading it!

Ali: Hello David! Today we’re here to discuss video game adaptations into movies. I’ve already written quite a few ones against the idea, and you defended them eloquently in another. Before we delve into the subject of video games however, I think that brings up a more important, general question, and that is, what is a good adaptation?

Well, firstly, a good adaptation is not a copy-cat of the source material. If I wanted the same exact thing, the source material would be enough. Secondly, it mustn’t be completely alien and take strange liberties with the source material, or that would not be an adaptation (it might be a great original).

I believe a good or a great adaptation is one that takes the source material as its ingredient and then cooks it into a new food. As if, it reinterprets the work, rereads it. Therefore it’s the same old thing in a new light.

I can support my definition with examples. Imagine some great works such as The Godfather and Vertigo. Many of our readers might not know that but these movies are actually adaptations, based on bad novels. Both of these movies have been called the greatest film of all time by some and both have defined a genre and a generation succeeding them (Vertigo might be said to have defined the entire cinema after its making) and yet, the source material of both is a mediocre unimportant novel. The art of the filmmakers lies in the fact that they (meaning Coppola and Hitchcock) have realized that this crude stone has the potential to be crafted into a valuable statue, and they’ve done that. Hitchcock actually insisted that he would never adopt a good book into a film, as a good book has already done what’s there to be done with a story. Sure enough, during his long career he only adapted one masterpiece into a movie, Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent, and he wasn’t satisfied with it.

But there are adapted great movies based on works of literary masterpieces, and this one really illustrates my point. Akira Kurosawa adapted King Lear into the movie Ran. The movie shifts the scene to a feudal Japan. The story is basically the same, while Kurosawa only introduces necessary changes (for examples he turns the daughters into the sons). Shifting the places, the tragedy suddenly means another thing, completely derived from Japanese culture, about Japan, about our time, and Kurosawa does the impossible, adding a new dimension to a play which can be interpreted in any way. Or the same goes Pasolini and his Salo. He takes 120 Days of Sodom and translates it into a movie. He changes the time though, and connects it to the Italian fascist dictatorship. The change seems subtle and turns the novel on its head. The novel is a manifesto against humanity, and a great condemnation of all walks of life, (and a great masterpiece), while the movie is a social and political commentary.

So… that’s my definition of a good adaption. What’s yours?

David: While it is perhaps in poor practice to start off a debate by agreeing with the opposing side, I can find little alternative in doing so. A simple mimicry of the source material may present little value to those already familiar with an adaptation’s source material, while a complete divergence from the source material with only a minimal level of recitation (simply adopting naming conventions, for example) only serves to alienate its existing base, potentially becoming a mockery of what they’ve come to understand.

I would, however suggest that your ultimate definition may in fact be too loose in the implications of its wording, as an adaptation may present itself as a “new food” with a reinterpretation of ingredients while still functioning under the latter extreme situation with fundamental disconnects from its source.To that end, I would suggest that a good adaptation is able to contextualize its source material; able to demonstrate a level of understanding of how those “ingredients” may have previously interacted with each other, and what interactions and ingredients can and should logically be carried over, swapped out, combined with others, and ignored when transferring the content from one format to another when adhering to the new author’s vision.Now, this is not to say that an adaptation should not be free to provide its own meaning that is separate from the original source. Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, for example, was able to recount the historical actions of Balian of Ibelin during the Crusades in a heavily fictionalized manner in order to offer correlations to modern day times and the War on Terror, however this was not at the expense of an overall abandonment of the Battle of the Hattin and events around it (in fact, I would also argue that the debates over its historical accuracy from historical, political, and religious parties on both sides involved following the film’s release only seemed to further Scott’s message). A source’s meaning, as it functions in adaptations, can simply be one ingredient at the disposal of the new author, similar to story, characters, setting, symbolism, and contextual data; all of which should have equal opportunity in the source’s transference. A director or screenwriter must remain free, and in fact be encouraged to deviate from the original source, but with each substitution made in the ingredients they use, their adherence to the remaining ingredients held over may become all the more important.

These concepts would factor into my own thoughts on the relevance of adaptations, however I should also note that unlike successful adaptations from novels, which may have the benefit of originally existing as a failed format for a particular story, you would rarely, if at all, find a director willing to locate similar “crude stones” within video games, and even fewer executives with enough trust to financially back such a project. A harsh reality perhaps, and I would be happy to be proven wrong here (I happen to think Bad Dudes would make a terrific comedy), however for the time being I would say that adaptations of video games (being a considerably newer concept than adapting novels), would need to remain focused on sources that have already met with success, at least until the industry as a whole has established greater critical attention.

Ali: Well, I’m not sure if I see myself in an opposition against you; so I say it freely: I agree with your what you say.

Now, I’m going to address a specific issue you brought up in your post. The topic of an uninformed patron. To me, this can’t be a very good defense of video game movies. An uninformed patron is even more likely to dislike the movie. We, as gamers, have at least a background and a ready made sympathy towards the characters; while s/he is facing an entirely new concept. How do you expect them to stomach a gibberish like Mortal Kombat? YOU of course might enjoy that movie, but seriously, if you haven’t enjoyed the games, would you go near that movie?

An uniformed patron must be convinced to try the source material after watching the movie. Won’t movies like these strengthen the false picture of video games in the public mind? Won’t they make them more determined in their stereotypes of gamers?

It’s true that the uninformed patron has no expectation of loyalty; but at the same time, s/he’s going to associated that crap with the source material and his/her expectation is for a good movie. And video game movies aren’t good. There’s only one movie which disappoints me as a fan but may please the uninformed patron and that’s Silent Hill. The movie is clearly superior to the average horror flick while remaining average, and a person with no knowledge of the game might find it a good movie. But the rest of the video game movies are only artistic disasters and will send any patron unsatisfied out of the theater.

There are of course a portion of movie audience go to watch junk movies- but they are the most unsophisticated and least educated movie patrons, and therefore don’t count.

What do you say to that?

David: Well, first I would point out that a source material’s previous format does not dictate a genre in itself, and that video game movies are able to fall into a variety of different film genres, to which each will have its existing fans and non-fans anyway. Was everyone who chose to see Wing Commander or Hitman aware of the video games? No more likely than everyone who saw the Godfather and Vertigo realizing they were based on novels as you have already mentioned, or everyone viewing Michelangelo’s David being aware that he also paints ceilings.

Expectations from these patrons come from their experience within the film genre itself, not that of the existing content, so certain standards are already at play regardless of the tier of audience member. Martial arts movies will have choreographed fight scenes; Horror films will likely have jump scares; Action movies will have explosions. Some patrons will walk away with their standards for the genre fulfilled while others wont, just like every movie, but it’s important to note that patrons who hate zombie movies won’t be looking forward to Resident Evil any more than they would for Dawn of the Dead (the original, not the so so remake). I can admit a considerably large amount of fan service is what ultimately carries Mortal Kombat for me, but I can also acknowledge that the movie also carries with it a fantasy setting, some entertaining fight scenes with visual effects, and distinct characters that would not be entirely without their own demographics for appeal.

Now, in terms of disappointment, or an active dislike of the adaptation, I would argue it’s the fans who stand to lose out the most. The uninformed patron may not have the background going in and may grade the experience on what they see, however the fan will review the adaptation based on what was presented as well as what was not, doubling their level of investment in the work, especially if their previous experience had been positive. Who would you say is harder on 10 Things I Hate About You, for example; some poor sap roped into seeing a romantic comedy, or a fan of Shakespeare? While anyone can label an adaptation as bad (and hey, I’m not saying there aren’t some real stinkers in the bunch), fans are the only ones who can accurately label an adaptation as inferior, which I would say is the more scathing and lasting comment of the two. I would also consider that it was not merely fan support that allowed for Tomb Raider to garner a sequel, or for Resident Evil to earn its quadrilogy, to which uninformed patrons may in fact be carrying the larger share of interest in certain occasions.As the fans, we’re simply harder on these movies because we can be; we know what they’re capable of, making their misfires all the more palpable.

That being said, the reverse is also true, in that gamers should ideally have the most to gain, ideally able to enjoy the adaptation above and beyond anything experienced by the uninformed patron. It’s the act of putting in the effort to allow this to happen while not detracting from the uninformed experience, that are more often the larger failures at play.

Lastly, “must” is a strong word, but I can agree that the argument to try the source material after watching the movie is at least a goal in mind. If I knew nothing of DOOM, I wouldn’t be very interested in it based on what I saw, even with its crazy first-person ending. I can’t deny that a level of franchise promotion has always been present within these projects, but can you say with any certainty that it isn’t working? How many parents do you think picked up a copy of Max Payne, just knowing that the series was deemed important enough for a film? Simple awareness can be all that is needed, and may prove effective regardless of a film’s quality.


Ali: I’m not sure if that answers the problem I raised though. For example, imagine a movie like Mortal Kombat, which you liked. What merits does that movie have for an uninformed patron?

David:I had said that MK had a fantasy setting, entertaining fight scenes with visual effects, and distinct characters that would not be entirely without their own demographics for appeal.I obviously can’t say that any video game movie will have merit for everyone, but that’s true for all movies. Liking a movie is just not certain, however fans of similar movies in correlating genres have a better chance than others. Individual preferences aside, what matters the most for the uninformed patron is that a basic level of details are introduced (not necessarily up front; it can be delayed like in Silent Hill) that can be logically understood without prior knowledge, and for the most part I would say that this has been achieved in certain adaptations.

Ali: But what demographic would that be, which a movie like MK appeals to them? I mean, sure, there are people to whom the Z movies, exploitation movies and Chuck Norris/Jean Claude Van Damme movies would appeal, but what kind of people are they?

Am I right that your basic defense of video game movies (or some of the video game movies) is that they appeal to the worst kind of movie demographic?

David:I’m not talking about the greatest common divisor here (read: lowest common denominator), or even the trendy “it’s so bad its good” crowd (although I must admit I also do enjoy taking in the occasional monster flick with visible zipper lines); I’m talking about people who enjoy science fiction, people who look forward to a nice horror/suspense film, and so on. Surely you must concede that any genre has the ability to be “done right”, even though it has its own trappings to which fans will look forward to while non-fans may either ignore or even detest. Regardless of overall quality, these uninformed genre fans (if they’re honest with themselves without being dismissive of the overall product) will still find some (not all) areas in which the adaptation’s adherence to its respective genre had been a success, and fans of the source material may find even more.

I should perhaps point out before we move further, that my ultimate intention here is not to label any existing video game adaptation as an indisputable film classic; but to identify where certain components have already been implemented effectively in order to offer some hope for adaptations to come. If I were to relay by basic defense of these movies, it would be that they have their moments of quality and can get better if these moments are expanded upon.

Ali: But now I think we’ve reached a very serious point in our discussion, and that is I disagree with you. The corresponding genres in games and movies can’t match. For example, a Survival Horror is not equivalent to a horror, or a WRPG is not equivalent to a fantasy. And that’s because of a very simple fact; and that is, each genre comes with its own rules, stock characters, conventions, cliches, etc. These genre conventions are fundamentally different in video games and movies. That’s why Fallout 3 and The Witcher are the same genre in video games, but they would belong to completely different genres in movies.

The problem is not only that there has been no great movie based on a video game, the problem is the basic difference between the two mediums. MK is not a great movie because it CAN’T be a great movie.

As an example, Imagine the game Mass Effect. What genre convention does it abide by? Is it science fiction? Yes it is, but only in a secondary degree. Mainly it abides by RPG conventions, in gameplay and story. It would be a very long discussion, but I believe gameplay dictates the story as well. For example the way that Shepard goes around collecting teammates in the second game are meaningful to a person playing the game. Now within the conventions of an RPG game these come to meaning, while if looked at from sci-fi point of view, it’s only cliche. Mass Effectis an innovative GAME, it would not be as a movie.And many of the things that a game genre dictates will end disastrous in a movie. RPG is always accompanied by hyperbole, which is absent from any respectable film. JRPG adds to that sentimentalism. A game might have many supporting characters, but they would only make the movie crowded.As I’ve said, games abide by game genres, and trying to convert these genres to movie is most of the time difficult or impossible. That’s why I disagree with your genre matching.

David: Yes, I can agree that video games have their own genre trappings that may not translate well to film, however I don’t see how that would necessarily matter. Ideally, these areas would be tended to during the process of translating the game to film; adhering to the elements from the game that would carry over well, while revisiting or removing the rest. Certainly not all adaptations have done this; if we look at the two Final Fantasy movies, for example, we see the same level of sentimentalism in the series proper, to which the movies play out like extended cutscenes rather than a unique experience. But, we’ve already agreed on how a 1-1 translation would be in nobody’s interest, and I see this area as a simple extension of that.

While this poses a challenge, I would not say it is an insurmountable one. The same story can be relayed in a variety of ways while remaining true to its source. However, this may be my unwavering optimism that the adaptations may get the care in editing they deserve to flourish.So with that I ask you, do you think that a successful video game adaptation is in fact possible?

Ali:Well, of course it is possible. However, they are really hard, and they need to be handled by the masters, not slash movie directors. And point is, these adaptations are harder than any that you may think of- of books, comics, any of them. It will be as hard as what Kurosawa did- and finally, it would work better when a game is suitable for the silver screen. But these games are only a few.

On a side note, I think anime and movie are very different as well, and anime is much closer in spirit to video games. So maybe adapting the games into anime is the better choice.However, when the best merit of a game is interactivity, can it be translated into film? I find that very hard to believe. It’s close to impossible. So what do you say to this factor- interactivity?

David:Now here’s where I think the concept of video game adaptations gets interesting, in that I do think that a level of interactivity can and has been achieved on several occasions, depending on how the participant is observing the movie. This interaction, however, is solely limited to the fans, as they are able to arrive at the theater with a prior understanding of the source material.To give an example, let’s look at the Super Mario Bros. movie. At first glance, there’s not much going on that ties in directly with the games; there’s something about a meteor and parallel universes, the mushroom kingdom is a distopian cityscape, and while character names like Mario, Koopa, and Yoshi are directly called to attention, they have little in common with their whimsical counterparts within the series. This synopsis would be the result of a ‘passive’ observation; a reaction based on little more than plot details, story arcs and characters that are accessibly presented.

Alternatively, if the fan chooses to engage the movie a little further in searching its full contents for referential instances, they may start to see more correlations to the source material than they might have expected. Within Super Mario Bros., one can actually find many deliberate references to the source material that are never called to attention, but exist outside of the main storyline to be found through this type of willful or ‘active’ observation. Did you, for example, notice those shiny jumping boots were called “Thwomp Stompers,” or that they took “Bullet Bill” cartridges? How about the shops such as “the Boom Boom Bar,” “Bullet Bills,” “Hammer Bros. tattoo parlor”, and the “Wiggler” Cab co? There’s also a sign for “roto-disc spheres,” a sign for “FryGuy Flamethrowers,” and a building labeled “Ostro” where you can apparently catch a show starring “Boo” Didley. Even the Devo Gun used towards the end of the movie has its own creative reference, in that it’s a repainted and modified SuperScope! A series fan who locates and acknowledges these references is watching the movie in a different way than both the uninformed patron and those who merely pay attention to the story as it unfolds, and is receiving a more enjoyable movie experience as a direct result. That’s interaction.

Now, of course the viewer is unable to interact with the adaptation in a way that alters its story, such is the result of shifts in artistic format. Fans do not have control over Mario as he is going up Koopa’s Tower, however they do maintain control over their own eyes, to which they might have noticed that the tower’s interior walls are similar to the blocks in the SMB3 fortresses. What I would suggest for successful video game adaptations is to revolve around that same level of control, and embrace the source material on a level that allows for it to appear without intruding on the story at hand, in order to allow the series fans a level of interactivity in locating it.…or, to think of it in video-game terms; a rail shooter on “no-fail” mode, where your level of interaction determines the points you accumulate by the end.

Ali:I don’t think that’s interaction. Interaction happens only when you can change the material, it’s impossible in anything but a video game.Admit it; what makes most video games great is their interactivity and that will never be translated to a movie.

David:To answer your second statement first, I have no qualms with admitting that a video game’s greatest feature can be its interactivity, just as a novel features its language, or a sculpture features its use of three dimensional space, and I will concede that elements from any one artistic format may be lost in transition to another. This is nothing shocking.However, if I may offer a slight tangent to what necessarily qualifies as interactivity, I would bring up interactivity as it is understood in new media, and how we may perceive “human-artifact” communication.

You do have a valid point that a qualifier for interaction is the two way relationship between two components, however the degree of interactivity will always carry limitations when one of those components is previously constructed; video games included. To cite a few examples of video games with a lower degree of interactivity, we can look at Rock Band, where “no fail” mode allows for a song to play through to completion regardless of the amount of interactive participation, or we can look at Captain Power, which involved light gun interactivity over an otherwise linear (and criminally underrated, by the way) TV series. While these still would qualify as interactive experiences, their interactivity does not alter the content, and is relegated to the behavior of that content’s user interface as experienced by the user.Now, this same concept of the user interface, I think can also be mimicked (I say mimicked as no physical action occurs) by the presentation of film content in relation to the cognitive process one undergoes in observing them. Much as how a button press can be prompted, or a spaceship may be targeted, a particular area of the screen may be focused on and acknowledged by the user, potentially netting a reaction based on referential experience. The user chooses what to pay attention to, chooses what they ultimately enjoy, and chooses what level of experience they choose to start the process with, and based on their choices the ultimate movie-going experience is determined with the movie becoming a better or worse product as a result.

Ali:That “interaction” which is mentioned in the new forms of criticism is a purely abstract concept, while the video game interaction is concrete. Those two interactions are completely of different natures. Reader oriented criticism claims that there’s an interaction between the text and the reader (correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this is what you’re driving at) as the reader brings his or her personal experiences, prejudices, and ideologies to the act of reading and therefore the reading is a fusion between the text and the reader, thus an interaction.

Well I agree with that, but any form of interaction between literature or movies with the reader or spectator doesn’t really alter the text, and reader’s freedom is extremely limited. But the video game interaction is completely another thing. You may be able to alter the story (as in Heavy Rain) or the form (as in Oblivion) or even the possible interpretation (Bioshock 2 is an interesting example as the ending narrates “the lessons that you taught me as my father”).What I have to say is this, interactivity is the single most important thing in video game form. And this is impossible in movies. Therefore, translating good video games to movies is almost impossible, as they rely on interactivity and not other elements.Do you have anything to add or can we move on to the other things I’d like to be mentioned?

David: I’m happy to move on, the expansion on interactivity was only meant as a tangent.

Ali: I’m curious to know how do you address the issue of the suspension of disbelief and sentimentalism that I raised in my articles. As I’ve said, “The suspension of disbelief is far stronger while playing games than watching movies” and “You can stomach a lot more sentimentalism while playing games”.

David:I agree with what you say, however I would separate the two as I feel that sentimentality is the greater concern. The heightened suspension of disbelief in video games can, for the most part, be attributed to gameplay elements (falling from great heights, level restarts, accommodations for control mechanics, etc), which will not need to present themselves in film since gameplay is no longer the main focus. The rest can be established through proper care in explanation and immersion into the world on screen.Sentimentality, on the other hand, has the greater chance of being carried over to film since it revolves around character development and story, and can be highly damaging to how an audience member connects with the source material once game interactivity is removed (imagine sitting through conversations between Snake and Otacon, for instance).

It is with this concept that I very much agree with your previous comment about the adaptations being “handled by the masters,” where quality screenwriting and directing will be needed to refine and limit sentimentality in a way that won’t deter the audience.

Ali: So, finally, which video games would you like to see as a movie?

David:That’s a great question, and as we’ve more or less established, it’s not a very easy one to answer. If I was asked this ten years ago, I would say Fallout, hands down. I think the series has the visual appeal, the story, the cultural relevance, and the characters to make an interesting adaptation. The trouble is, that “end of days” post-apocalyptic wasteland movies have already become more popular these days, so it runs the risk of just becoming another “me too” film project.So what are we looking for?

I would say we first need a property that features a story that is good to begin with, but is not reliant on its specifics and is able to be revised and altered. I’d also add that we need something that offers more than just a storyline; something that has a rich and immersive world that is believable with and without the main characters in it, and contains enough visual reference points from its source to keep fans happy. Lastly, while gameplay itself can’t be translated directly, I would like to see certain actionable aspects of gameplay carried over on screen; incorporating actions into the story from alternate perspectives, for example.

I want Fatal Frame. This series has everything needed to translate to film and offer fans and newcomers something exciting. Camera flashes for light have previously been used in a single scene in the movie SAW to great effect, and the concept can be expanded on here with a whole story relying on the flashes to offer some serious horror that should end up leaps above the average haunted house movie. Meanwhile, with the actual series being several games in, they have lots to offer as far as game references to appear within the stories, and cameoing in the background on furniture and in portraits. Frankly, I’m surprised this hasn’t been done already!

That’s the one I think would make the most sense, but it’s not alone. A few others I could see working out well would be Mech Warrior, No More Heroes (although maybe a comic book would be a better venture), Beyond Good & Evil, Mirror’s Edge, and a round 2 for Max Payne, as I feel the movie was so grossly mishandled the first time that it deserves (and can achieve) better.Those are the titles that instantly came to mind for me, do you have any of your own?

Ali:Well, actually, yeah. I’d like to see a movie based on Silent Hill universe, but not based on a particular game. I actually want the whole horror genre to follow the Silent Hill example. And I wholeheartedly back your Fatal Frame suggestion.

Other than that, I believe the best possible potential movies can be found not among great games- as in books- but among great-but-flawed games. I’d say L.A. Noire, as an example.Now an interesting question pupped out on my mind- wouldn’t you say that TV series and particularly anime is a better medium for video games than cinema? What’s their relationship you think?

Alice Kojiro: Not to interject here because I’m way out of my league, but do either of you think that perhaps the best film adaptation is something that could provide an interesting side story; a deviation to the standard plot?

David:If I may be so bold as to pose a single answer to both questions, I would say that a video game would only be suited for television and/or for interesting side stories if they have a significant content base to pull from, or a well established immersive universe to inspire creativity. I believe we can admit to Pokemon being the gold standard for video game TV, where the overall gym badge theme from the games is present, but not the main focus of many episodes (and their several movies, which are essentially extended episodes). TV may be appropriate for, and in fact in preference over full-length features for some video games, but only if there are enough concepts from the original content to allow writers to create something new yet grounded.

And to add a little more on Alice’s suggestion, I would very much encourage deviation from the games, as it often brings something new and exciting to the table. We’ve already seen how movies may in fact turn the influence right back around to the games, bringing good movie ideas into gameplay (Thinking specifically of the lasers in Resident Evil that ultimately worked their way into Resident Evil 4 as a result). However, deviation is not without its drawbacks, especially when taking into account familiarities and desires of prospective audience members; I would bring up the public reception of Enter the Matrix as a prime example of how side-stories are not always appreciated.

Ali: To answer Alice’s question, I believe that mostly, yes. I’d prefer if the movie covered the years we didn’t see, or follow a supporting character. And I agree with David. A game which doesn’t have the potential, shouldn’t be adapted, no matter how popular.

One Comment

  1. when I clicked “roundtables” I thought perhaps it would be a podcast! but alas…. you guys should make future discussions into audio recordings! :)

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