Why Video Game Movies Will Always Fail... Probably
Updated: Jan 24, 2021
Ah, video games. Can’t live with them, definitely can live without them, but I most certainly don’t want to. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had some game that I wanted to play, from Frogger to Super Smash Brothers, to Super Mario Brothers. So, naturally, when my older brothers and I saw that there was a Super Mario Brothers movie, we were ecstatic. Up until recently, I remembered the movie being fun and quirky and being well, Mario and Luigi. But upon rewatching the movie a few weeks ago, I was shocked and appalled at how my childhood heroes had been absolutely mangled by this film. I don’t use the term “mangled” to be superfluous but it truly was awful to rewatch. The special effects aged poorly, as to be expected from 1993 CGI, and the film was gritty and convoluted, but there was something deeper that was wrong with the film. Up until recently, I didn’t know why. However, having played a few games that are truly influenced by a compelling plot, and worlds with incredible stories to tell, and it clicked. There are two main flaws with the video game movies we’ve seen so far. One, we have movies where there isn’t a fully compelling storyline, and two, the filmmakers take for granted the base level of engagement video game plots have.
First, the video game movies that we have right now are based on incredibly popular franchises. However, a lot of these games are focused more on gameplay rather than the plot. For games like Street Fighter, while there is a campaign, you don’t buy the game for that story, you buy it for the ability to beat up your friends. You don’t buy Mario for the plot, but because you want to stomp goombas. The Mario games have the most basic of plots, the princess gets kidnapped, you have to beat the bad boss and rescue the princess. It really is as simple as that, there is no nuance or fanciful notions of how the game can impact its players because the players are inherently impacted by playing the game.
One thing about games that are often lost in translation on their way to the big screen is the base level of engagement in a game’s story. In many modern films, cold opens exist to drop viewers right into the action. It generates engagement and excitement and drags viewers directly into what the movie is all about, video games have something directly opposite to a “cold open” in their tutorials. In order to play a game, you have to learn how to play the game. But that ability to play makes up for a large portion of the engagement in the story. People don’t necessarily care what Mario is doing, because they’re the ones doing it. Ryu fighting Chun Li doesn’t matter, because it is me fighting my buddy through those avatars. Even in more plot-centric games, players gain engagement through “surrogate” characters, who are dropped into the game world and are stand-ins for the players, allowing us to make our own decisions in the game world.
Now, this isn’t necessarily me damning the success of video game/film collaborations for all time. As a matter of fact, I sincerely hope that we do get video game films that succeed at the box office and in the eyes of critics. However, for my two cents, I think that the film industry is focused on the wrong thing. Rather than focusing on the stories themselves, what filmmakers and producers should be looking at instead are anthologies: stories that take place in the world of games, without directly being influenced by the main plot. A common anthology film is Rogue One: a Star Wars Story. While the film features characters from the main series, it leaves out the audience surrogate, Luke Skywalker, and instead tells a story we’ve heard of without completely changing the world we know. While this seems difficult, plenty of video games have brilliant world-building and characterization of non-playable characters. Destiny and Destiny 2, for example, have hours of lore and stories to dive into, and there are a bunch of YouTubers and other members of the community dedicated to diving into that lore. Skyrim, Fallout, and even the Legend of Zelda all have exquisite examples of creating deep, fleshed-out characters and worlds, all of which could have their time to shine on the silver screen. Hopefully, Tom Holland’s upcoming Uncharted movie will delve into how stories can be told in the world of games while giving honor to the world that players love and hold dear to their hearts, while also capturing a new sense of wonder and discovery.