Sunday, 29 October 2017

All In The Game

So movies based on video games have not had a shining history, regardless of the quality of the cast, the effects, the cinematography, they all seem to fall down when it comes to story telling. What is the apparently insurmountable problem with writing a good video game movie?

Once upon a time games had zero narrative, no one felt the need to provide a detailed backstory for Pong, or Pacman or Space Invaders. Over time though narrative began to creep in even if it didn’t amount to much more than ‘the princess has been captured jump around all these platforms to save her, which of course brings up one of the earliest, and most infamous, game movies, ‘Super Mario Bros.’ This set a something of a template for future failure decent budget, decent cast (Bob Hoskins and Dennis Hopper included) and yet rejected by critics and the paying public alike as a disaster.  There are plenty of versions of what went wrong, but it can all be stripped down to a fairly simple issue. The makers of the film had a story in mind, however it had nothing much to do with Mario and Luigi. The film effectively applies a thin veneer of Mario Bros. over a generic story to little or no effect, appealing neither to Mario fans nor the general viewing.

This set something of a pattern for video game movies, a few name checks from the game pasted into a generic movie plot in the hope of a quick pay day before anyone notices how poor the film is. Now to be fair stripped of the gameplay elements the narrative of a game could quite often be comfortably fitted on a post-it note. In recent years though narrative has become a much richer affair in gaming, games like Bioshock, Prey or Red Dead Redemption are to a large extent driven by their story rather than simply treating it as an excuse for the action. This would seem to make things easier when it comes to creating a game movie, but I think it's actually made things worse.

For one thing more complex narratives has gone hand in had with the development of 'open worlds' and multiple ways to play the game. it wasn't uncommon in the past for what looked like open maps to contain 'invisible walls' to make sure the player stuck to where the designers had actually filled in the details and allowed interaction. Now the trend is towards games where you can wander where you like and interact with everything. This goes hand in hand with offering the player multiple options to complete a particular objective, you can kick in the doors and shoot everything that moves or slip in and out without anyone knowing your character was ever there. This makes for entertaining gameplay, but a nightmare for anyone trying to write an essentially linear film script. You may create a good script, but it doesn't necessarily reflect the experience of the majority of players and unless your story can resonate with those completely unfamiliar with the game, well lets say that to date it seems no one has managed that latter achievement.

There may though be a more fundamental problem at work though, when you've lived a character's life vicariously, whether it's Max Caulfield from 'Life is Strange' or John Marston from 'Red Dead Redemption' is there really enough appeal in simply sitting back and watching someone else's take on the same experience to ever make a successful box movie?

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