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  • Author Stephen Graves
  • Published March 26, 2015

OPINION: Why video game movies don’t work

Tomb Raider, Doom, Super Mario Bros – they’re all games. And movies. But is the jump from living-room TV to silver screen a leap too far? Yep, says Stuff.tv’s Stephen Graves…


“Virtually all movies made from games are awful,” says Rockstar Games’ Dan Houser. He’s not wrong. Hollywood has tried many times to adapt popular video game series for the silver screen, and a glance down the list of titles – Tomb Raider; Super Mario Bros.; Doom; Resident Evil – shows that they have yet to succeed.


Even Peter Jackson was stumped; his attempt to produce a Halo movie with Alex Garland writing and Neill Blomkamp directing came to nothing (though we should be grateful, since the collaboration between Jackson and Blomkamp gave us District 9).


So why have we yet to see a genuinely great video game movie?


First, up until recently there was a problem with the source material; early games just didn’t have the complex narratives required for a successful adaptation. Two hours of Mario climbing a building and dodging barrels would get old very quickly.



As games matured, they started to develop more layered storylines, but film producers felt compelled to tinker with the material – partly because games were still seen as a primarily for children and teenagers, and didn’t command respect among Hollywood higher-ups.


“Their stories were just so bad,” says Valve’s Gabe Newell of the numerous Hollywood pitches for a Half-Life movie. “I mean, brutally, the worst. Not understanding what made the game a good game, or what made the property an interesting thing for people to be a fan of.”



That’s how we ended up with the likes of Super Mario Bros., which turned the cheerful cartoon world of the games into a nightmarish dystopia populated by pinheaded lizard monsters. Or, later, Resident Evil – which ignored the game’s characters and shoehorned in Milla Jovovich as genetically-altered superhuman Alice. And let’s draw a discreet veil over Uwe Boll, who’s made a career out of turning popular game franchises into truly risible films.


But even respect for the source material doesn’t guarantee a good film; Wing Commander, directed by the game’s creator Chris Roberts, fell flat on its face (and, lest you think that’s due to Roberts’ inexperience in the film industry, he went on to produce the well-received Lord of War). Then there’s Doom, Tomb Raider, and Silent Hill; all faithful adaptations, but average films at best.



Maybe there’s another factor at work here. Maybe cinematic game adaptations don’t work because of an intrinsic quality of video games. In the cinema, the audience is a passive observer; in games the player is an active participant. Halo’s Master Chief is effectively faceless behind his helmet, and (mostly) mute, to encourage the player to identify with the character; “We left-out details to increase immersion; the less players knew about the Chief, we believed, the more they would feel like the Chief,” said Bungie developer Joseph Staten. Great for a game, but it doesn’t make for an engaging protagonist; even Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name is more expressive.



Take away the immersive qualities of games, and what you’re often left with is a grab-bag of influences drawn from the cinema; half of the appeal of games is in putting you into situations you’ve seen in the movies. Red Dead Redemption lets you act out your fantasies of being in a Western film; Medal of Honor: Allied Assault drops you into the opening sequence from Saving Private Ryan. Doom creator John Carmack was inspired by Aliens and Evil Dead 2 when making the game; so of course the subsequent film felt derivative of those earlier movies. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City pits a Tony Montana-esque gangster against the cops from Miami Vice; what new elements could a film bring to the table?


Sitting on the sidelines
Take away the player’s agency and you lose more than just the visceral thrill of participating in the action, though. Video games increasingly derive much of their thematic weight from the fact that you’re an active participant in events. Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski has spent years trying to make a film based on Bioshock, yet – without wanting to give the game away – a key plot point hinges on the fact that you, the player, have been making decisions throughout the game. Likewise with games such as Braid, The Stanley Parable and Shadow of the Colossus; they all hinge on the fact that you’re the one controlling the lead character.


There’s also the question of whether we even need video game movies. In the past, games strived for cultural recognition; like all new-minted art forms, they faced attacks from the moral majority and accusations that they were corrupting the minds of the youth. In that climate, a successful film adaptation would’ve been considered a mark of approval from the tastemakers in Hollywood.



Nowadays, though, games are as popular an entertainment medium as the cinema – if not more so. In an age when Kevin Spacey and Gary Oldman lend their talents to Call of Duty, do games need Hollywood’s approval? Video game films used to aspire to the heady heights of the summer tentpole flick; but these days, blockbusters exist largely as hubs for tie-in merchandise – including games. From Disney’s point of view, Guardians of the Galaxy exists largely to sell copies of Disney Infinity.



People will keep trying to make video game films; even now, Moon director Duncan Jones is beavering away on an adaptation of World of Warcraft. Perhaps his approach is the right one; rather than try to adapt an existing video game narrative, he’s creating a new story set in the already-established world of Azeroth. Persistent-universe games like World of Warcraft and Eve Online have already thrown up player-generated narratives that are at least as thrilling as any story drawn from the newspapers; indeed, the creators of Eve Online are already working on turning those narratives into a TV series.


Maybe we’ll get that good video game movie soon, then. If we do, it’ll be because writers and directors can craft new stories set in game worlds that have become original, sophisticated and rich enough to sustain those narratives.


Stephen Graves is online deputy editor of Stuff.tv


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