A Gears of War film is in the works at Universal, prompting us here at Zatu Games to take a look back over other game adaptations, shed a single tear dramatically down one cheek, and ask ourselves, generally speaking, why it is that they never seem to work.
The first point worth noting is an obvious one: different media necessitate different formal and narrative decisions. A film has around two hours to tell its story, and its narrative and characters need to progress accordingly. A TV show might have ten, fifteen, twenty hours to tell a single story, and as such can linger on a shot of a man who’s dying inside or a dramatic tree whenever it likes, devoting more time to character development and pacing itself differently.
Games stand apart in the sense that they’re not really beholden to time, least not to the extent that other audio-visual media are. Games do have ‘lengths’, but the maximum and minimum playtime are dependent on the actions the player takes as they progress. If a well-designed craggy outcrop catches their eye, there’s nothing stopping them from ramming their face into it for five minutes like a myopic geologist. Not true of film: in the cinema it doesn’t matter how into Annette Bening’s floral tablecloth you are; when the camera cuts away you have no option but to weep and ring Argos.
As such, in a game, a story isn’t broken up according to where we are chronologically, but where we are actively. Has the player finished de-scaling that large marlin for their crime boss? Alright, now they can hear his subtly threatening speech about the importance of family and guns. So, story revelations are conditional upon the actions a player has successfully carried out, which means that, in a lot of games, the story is delivered piecemeal between stretches of shooting/exploring/dying.
From this angle film/TV and games act in complete opposition. The language of film functions in such a way that you can refrain from showing things you can comfortably assume to be true regardless. For example, if the protagonist is potholing in Belarus in one scene, and drinking a mimosa at LAX the next, we can assume that they traveled, presumably in some form of transportation, to get there. We don’t need to see it. It’s implicit.
Of course, games can pull the same trick if need be, but often it is precisely these ‘A to B’ moments that make up the actual gameplay. If a character needs to drive to a fancy gala in a film, you cut the drive because it’s dull to watch. If a character needs to do so in a game, you keep the drive because it’s fun to play. The two media deal in different currency.
The stop-start nature of game narrative can often mean that they don’t present enough pre-existing story to carry a film, mainly because narrative was never their point in the first place. This problem is perhaps most obvious in movie adaptations of fighting games: 1995’s Mortal Kombat, 2006’s DOA, 2009’s Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li, all of which desperately try to justify all the fighting with plots so thin I’m waving at you through them right now.
Obviously there are also plenty of games that do rely on narrative, but the irony is that these, with pre-existing stories easily rich enough for film, aren’t worth adapting for the simple reason that they already exist as engaging narratives in their original form. If you think of games like Life is Strange or basically anything by Telltale, there’s a definite (and effective) blur between ‘game’ and ‘visual story’. What would a film adaptation of The Wolf Among Us or Life is Strange bring to the table that sets it significantly apart from its source material? If anything, they’d lose the element of choice that forms part of their core. An adaptation would have to completely eschew the pre-existing narratives of both games and just use the world as a backdrop.
This is at the root of the problem with video game adaptations. Misunderstanding what is worth keeping and what isn’t. One thing that the writers of more recent attempts have done well is choosing to take the world and tone of the source material and transpose an original story into it. That solves our ‘different media different narrative’ problem…
…and creates another one. The issue of set up, i.e. to what extent does the world of the game need explaining in its film adaptation? It’s an understandable problem: worlds in games tend to be the highest of high concept and not everyone watching the film will have played the game. They might need to know where the ten-foot-tall woman with guns for biceps and thigh-wheels comes from. Equally though, if you tell them too overtly people who have played the game are going to get bored. They know all this, and came to see something new.
As a result, there are two extremes. Something like Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children explains nothing. It’s confusing even if you have played the game, and if you haven’t it looks like a misjudged advert for shampoo and machinery. On the other end of the spectrum is over-explanation, beautifully exemplified in anything adapted by Uwe Boll. If it doesn’t have a novel length text crawl of tedious explanation at the start, which it may well, the characters will be sure to keep reiterating how all the things and stuff and events are really important things and stuff and events for real.
This is just a theory, but the issue that a lot of the film-makers responsible for these films seem to overlook is that there are some narrative techniques that games do better than films, world building being one of them. Perhaps it’s because games still occupy that ‘they’re a new medium and must be bad for you/ of less value than the others/ an insult to the Almighty’ space generally, and it’s difficult to admit that they might have something to offer more established storytelling media.
As a result, you’ll notice that the aspects of the source material that adaptations tend to use are mechanical. Adaptations of fighting games have a lot of ‘gamey’ fighting in them, while those of Prince of Persia, Tomb Raider, the Hitman series all take a stretched reality approach to their action sequences. There’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to maintain some of the style of the source, but translating game mechanics into visuals and then shoving them into a film narrative is like sticking a pudding up a duck: it’s incongruous and ruins both. Films are better at choreography and set-piece staging already… Of all the things you could use, why take that?
Games, however (and we’re talking games with at least some narrative now), tend to be better at incidental set-up because designers need to understand player psychology anyway. If they need a player to know that a certain item is important, they place it somewhere they eye naturally falls, and maybe set it apart from its surroundings with a subtle glow. If they want the player to go a certain way, chances are the landscape will lead your eye there, ensuring that you choose it without feeling like you have.
This same logic can easily be used for world building. The first half an hour or so of Bioshock: Infinite is a great example, setting up a world subtly but effectively without resorting to either aforementioned extreme. When the player first reaches the sky-city of Columbia, they see:
1. A huge statue of an angel silhouetted by god rays; a poster of the city’s leader and prophet; stained glass windows showing him leading his people; a beautiful church populated by calm, cult-like monks. This tells us the city is not only religious, but a theocracy.
2. Statues of the founding fathers of America in the church garden, portrayed as though they too are religious figures. This tells us that American values are at the core of this society, to the extent that they’re seen to have holy significance. It is worth noting that up to this point, the player has followed a relatively narrow path.
3. The city’s inhabitants. The landscape opens up and the player can move more freely, hearing snippets of conversations, entering shops, watching a celebratory parade, hearing singers. Despite the overbearing religious imagery, everyone here seems quite free and happy, as do you given your path is no longer narrow. It’s almost… nice.
4. A fair. Again, more free movement, and a clever way to introduce the technology this society uses. Tradesmen peddle wares and show off new designs. Fairground shooting games help show what people here view as the enemy: a rebel organisation acting within the city.
5. A raffle. A crowd. All very idyllic. A nice lady gives you an entry number. Your number wins. All you have seen is instantly twisted when your prize is a chance to pelt an interracial couple, colouring everything that has come before and showing you the true nature of the place in which you’re now stuck. The religion is poison. The American values are corrupt. The happy citizens are ignorant, cruel. The rebel organisation has every reason to rebel.
This what the best games do well: immersion. They present a world that seems to function under its own rules, that seems lived in, and that conveys its own qualities by virtue of just existing. All that information conveyed in Bioshock: Infinite is conveyed incidentally in the knowledge that the player will be drawn to it in its buried form. Too often big-screen adaptations forget what the cinematic equivalent really is. It’s not an aural or written explanation of the relevant set-up. It’s subtlety. A movie can convey information incidentally too. We don’t need the Hitman film to show us his childhood indoctrination. The man is a suited killing machine with a barcode on his head; if you’re not coming to the conclusion that he’s part of some shady experiment you’re probably facing away from the screen.
What we need is for information to be given to us implicitly. That’s how you make a world feel rich rather than rushed. That’s how you convey enough to those who don’t know the source without alienating or boring those who do. We need a world in which every aspect has purpose, reveals something about the story or character or guides your eye to something that does. They need to borrow and adapt that manipulation of player psychology.
That’s what good games are good at. That’s what good games are better at. That’s what game adaptations, and to be honest a lot of films in general, should be good at too.
Anyway, to semi-quote Farmer Hoggett, 'that'll do'.