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Video Game Theory: The Videogame to Movie Craze: A trend that has to end?
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posted by: Chris Martin
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date posted: 12:00 AM Sat Mar 5th, 2005
last revision: 12:00 AM Sat Mar 5th, 2005


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The Videogame to Movie Craze: A Trend that has to End; or does it?

I remember when Mario Bros.? came out - the movie, not the game.  I remember, vividly, my disgust after Resident Evil? which burbled up my throat like warm vomit.  Then came House of the Dead,? Resident Evil 2,? Alone in the Dark.?  Need I go on?  There is something of a plague in the movie industry right now and we, my dear readers, cannot stop it with all the antidotes of the world.  What have we as gamers done to deserve such unfaithful renditions of our beloved games?  For one, we still go to the theater hoping that the next game-to-movie film will justify all the priors.  Next we will have Bloodrayne,? Doom,? possibly Halo? and Half-Life.?  It was announced lately that Microsoft was in the works on a script for Halo,? seemingly following a craze that they just can't let alone.  A number of other scripts have been circulating Hollywood too, and it would seem the videogame-to-movie streak is far from over.

I do not wish to rip into the film industry - which has been nosed out by the videogame industry in dollar for dollar value.  Nor do I wish to pose we send death threats to Uwe Boll.  No.  I wish to offer help.  I'm not the only one disappointed in the movie industry; those who have seen the abominable Alone in the Dark? can nod heads knowingly.  The problem isn't that videogames are unsuitable for Hollywood.  The problem is simply that Hollywood doesn't yet understand how to suit the games.  How can videogames successfully be translated into movies?  Is it even possible?  I firmly believe so.  Just remember that book-to-movies haven't always had the best of luck - there's one abominable version of Lolita that has nothing to do with Stanley Kubrick.  Even Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby translated somewhat poorly to film on three different attempts.  Even a number of Stephen King's books?

Maybe the problem is that the videogame industry only recently came into its own as socially respectable in the United States.  Maybe videogame adaptations are just lagging behind with a lack of real theory on the subject.  I remember when, if you mentioned you played games, people would say, Uh huh. But do you have any real hobbies??  Being a gamer wasn't always easy - it wasn't easy for the Lumiere brothers to promote their cinematographe (the precursor to the contemporary projector), but persistence won over.  Persistence in the gaming industry has, likewise, won over many.

Art and Origin of Videogames

Film and videogames share a common origin - technique.  The idea of games as a medium arose out of the technical development of computers - visual input/output - which was less a form of art than a technique.  Pong, of course, was technically brilliant because it combined a simple objective and with simple function in a brand new medium.  But Pong was hardly art - even in code.  It was simple and, unless I'm missing something, that's all it really had to be.  Erwin Panofsky writes about the origin of film in the Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures?:

Film art is the only art the development of which men now living have witnessed from the very beginnings; and this development is all the more interesting as it took place under conditions contrary to precedent. It was not an artistic urge that gave rise to the discovery and gradual perfection of a new technique; it was a technical invention that gave rise to the discovery and gradual perfection of a new art. (Braudy 279)

Contrary to necessity we did not desire a visual art out of games: merely something technical or, to use the lay, something to amuse ourselves with.  But this technique of videogame development, production, and distribution that we know today - if we can allow ourselves the liberty to say we know this blossoming field - has arisen out of the desire to create art.  This technique has become worth perfecting.

Panofsky writes, If all the serious lyrical poets, composers, painters and sculptors were forced by law to stop their activities, a rather small fraction of the general public would become aware of the fact and a still smaller fraction would seriously regret it. If the same thing were to happen with the movies the social consequences would be catastrophic? (280) and is he wrong?  We could even add game developers alongside movies could we not?  Has not game making reached a point to where, had it stopped entirely, we would feel that a way of thinking - a way of protest, even - has been unfairly destroyed?  One only needs to look at games like Black & White as a comment on hierarchy of being: man, creature, god.  Or, take a look at Xenogears as comment on organized religion, and eternal recurrence, and eudaimonia (a word Plato scholar John M. Cooper translates to human flourishing?).  Or even Final Fantasy III which deals with too many issues to be expressed here.  Beyond Good and Evil.  Deus Ex.  Yes, videogames have, too, become art.

Still, arguments can be made against this point that, games like Unreal Tournament prove nothing more than killing is fun.  Do we look at movies in the same way?  Does Taxi Driver? tell me to murder as long as your goal is justified?  No.  This would be a terrible fallacy of criticism.  Viewing games has taken on that fallacy as well.  Unreal Tournament can still be viewed as an expression of art despite the amount of time gamers spend ignoring it.  For example, UT can be a comment on the world's fascination with deadly games (notably that of the fictitious Running Man? type).  There's just something about the fact that you get points for killing people...as if, in the future, shooting hoops isn't enough. 

Games inadvertently comment on society, as do movies.  Another example: we don't look at The Matrix? and see that shooting armed guards is an acceptable social practice.  The population that believes such forgoes looking at the film critically as representation of society, and thus, dismisses looking inwardly at themselves for the surface image of a film - that population is in the minority.  In "The Matrix" humans have been taken over by machines and, the apt viewer therefore transposes that idea to his or her own life - humans/computers and dependence.  The same happens with videogames.

Although the problem can largely be viewed that, until recently, games were geared toward a younger audience and did not need theory or criticism.  Indeed, the idea of game theory might even seem ludicrous now!  But it exists!  Videogames have taken a radical, adult-oriented turn since the inception of games like id's Wolfenstein. Games are no longer solely for children: can this mean that games and theory have room enough to co-exist?

Let us look at the technique of videogames, which has become an art form. Telling a story in the Metal Gear series has become an art of camera placement, character motivation, and dramatic silences. Even technically minor things such as voice acting or sound effects come together to create something more than a technical marvel.  And programming itself, as is obvious in Half-Life 2 and the Gran Turismo series, has made aesthetic out of real life physics.  This perfection is aimed for because it lends the technicality an air of purpose.  Purpose of videogames is now to entertain, to inform, and to invent. And that, as one example, is art.

So if games have become art, why has the medium been represented so poorly in film?  This question is not entirely easy to answer, but it resides in the idea of the narrative system.  In film, the narrative system is how the film has the ability to tell a story.  Tom Gunning, film critic and theoretician, writes in Narrative Discourse and the Narrator System? about this ability of film:

Filmic discourse has an ability to appear nearly neutral. A single shot can seem to show a great deal while telling very little about it.  If we approach film as a narrative form which presents stories to an audience, it nonetheless would be foolish to ignore a unique quality of its narrative discourse - its inherent photographic tendency toward mimesis, toward the representation of a world from which the filmic narrator can seem to be absent. (Braudy 465)

The narrator in videogames - which I am going to term the Program - acts in much the same way as it does in film, with a few exceptions.  In film, the narrator (the concept which shows the story, I do not mean the physical projector) tells a story with montage, long takes, or other techniques depending on time and physical restrictions.  But in videogames, the Program tells the story through any number of long, sweeping camera shots, or changes that are in direct control by the User.  Because the camera is in control by the User, the game does not operate in any set fashion like film.  In fact, there can be any number of stops, dollies, pans, etc., provided the User is given that sort of freedom of control.  So, while the Program tells the story through cut-scenes, level restrictions, written or recorded dialog, and basically everything pre-defined, the User has the ability to interact with the objects within the game as he or she sees fit, creating a connection to the creation of the cinematic experience.  In other words: the User defines the experience.  This control is not able to be transferred to film.  Film, which operates linearly, cannot show pick up herb? or use healing patch? because those functions are unique to the game medium.

What does this mean for film?  Well, fidelity to the videogame medium is drastically reduced because film narrates, as I have previously mentioned, in a strictly linear fashion.  That means film must do something to encapsulate the videogame experience and not try to reproduce it. 

I will use the example of the Metal Gear Solid? series to explain the differences in the game and film medium.

Though the Metal Gear series focuses on using filmic conventions to narrate the game, the opposite cannot be transposed to film.  Game conventions cannot be used to narrate the film.  Conventional filmic storytelling aspects can.  Metal Gear Solid is an example of a game that tried hard, almost too hard, to be like a movie.  It didn't fully utilize the medium of videogames enough, but focused too heavily on filmic convention: this was one of its criticisms when it came out for PlayStation.  Still an amazing experience, the gameplay was dramatically cut down while cut-scenes were more prevalent.

The means of transferring between mediums is, therefore, technical, or more specifically, knowing which techniques transfer and which do not.

Translation Across Media

To study this mode of adaptation, the analyst needs to probe the source of power in the original by examining the use made of it in adaptation.?
                                                            --Dudley Andrew from Concepts in Film Theory.

Novels, short stories, comic books, and even poetry have been translated to the big screen.  Sherman Alexie's Smoke Signals,? for example, is based off his book of short stories entitled The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.?  Michael Cunningham's The Hours? made waves a few years back and almost won Best Picture Oscar.  Most of the movie industry's films are based on a pre-written text.  Finding Neverland? was based on The Man who was Peter Pan,? and Fight Club? was based on?well? Fight Club.?  These are some examples of media that have translated well to the big screen.  But many films haven't, and that is an issue of ineptitude on the filmmakers' part than of incompatibility with the filmic medium.  What these films did right showed the source of the original and the power of that medium while remaining faithful to the new medium.

Taking one type of media and transposing it into another is tricky.  What we have to ask ourselves is how do we need to present this.?  Sometimes making a film that is related to the game in question is the best way to proceed.  It is not always a good idea to retell exactly an already told story.  Resident Evil? fell victim to this issue.  However a filmmaker goes about making the film, they should not ignore the already established conventions of the filmic medium.  Long takes, quick montage sequences, dollies, pans, etc.  These are just some of the conventions that are frequently used.  Problems often arise when filmmakers ignore one or two of the established conventions of film.  Long takes, for instance, are often useful to establish a filmic distance or closeness to a character.  Dollies are often used to establish the world around the characters - think of The Shining? when we are introduced to the Overlook Hotel. 

In the film Alone in the Dark,? long takes have been all but eliminated and dollies are flashy effects instead of technique informing form.  The director opted for invisible style close-ups, montage segments, and special-effect shots that not only distanced us from characters that we needed to be close to, but he also distanced us from the world established by the Alone in the Dark games:  the world in the film is silly and disappointing.  We don't feel alone in the film, we feel like the creatures from Aliens? have been crossed with the creature rules in They,? thrust together with some asinine detectives in a plot that's as contrived as they come.  I wanted to ignore the incredibly trite storyline altogether, because I felt, when I watched the film, the problem lingered in too many areas to be the fault of technique.  I seemed to be having a problem with suspending disbelief in the film, mainly because the film is too unbelievable.  Still, in Uwe Boll's case, the use of technique could have helped his already drowning endeavor and maybe, maybe, given it a little more credibility as a film. 

Translating a game across media has to do with transposing what is important from the game into the film and still retaining the fidelity of the filmic medium and not the videogame medium.  Why?  Because, as I mentioned above, the two media tell stories in different ways, in ways that are not translatable.  We cannot ignore the possibilities inherent in filmic narrative discourse.  If we do, we shall be trying, unsuccessfully, to translate a videogame into an ad for the videogame and not into a film independent of its videogame roots.  Mario Bros.? the movie, was successful in many ways because it told a story independent, but with allusions to, its roots.  The same movie was viewed as less than successful because the story was ludicrous, which is not a fault of the filmic medium, but that of the writers.  Or perhaps, disappointment arose because it was not faithful enough to the videogame medium.  In this case we have to consider when the movie came out, and that people were anxious to see the videogames represented on the screen.  [In my opinion, Mario Bros.? was one of the more successful videogame-to-movie adaptations simply because it was not meant to be taken so seriously, but merely as a diversion and a beginning of a trend for games to follow.]  Viewers who were disappointed were so because the movie didn't stay honest to the games (this is the main complaint I heard).  But this is a question of fidelity to the medium, not of quality within.

Fidelity and the Videogame Medium

Fidelity from one medium to another is a funny thing.  When translating, you irreparably lose something important that made the original medium unique; you lose something that the medium did better than all the others (i.e. the ability to wander into minds in a novel).  Film, for instance, is a visual/auditory medium.  Games, too, are visual/auditory but contain an element of control that film does not.  Games nowadays feature cinematic appeal and big-budget development like movies, but still retain the aforementioned control. 

Dudley Andrew writes in Concepts in Film Theory, The making of film out of an earlier text is virtually as old as the machinery of cinema itself.  Well over half of all commercial films have come from literary originals - though by no means all of these originals are revered or respected? (Braudy 453).  What we need to do with videogame translations, as with all adaptations, is to make the new product (the film) revered and respected in itself.  It is argued by film theoretician André Bazin that faithful reproduction from one media to another, in this case from games to movies, does not mean transposing the skeleton of the former onto the latter (Braudy 67).  In fact it means showing fidelity to the spirit, to the tone, values, imagery, and rhythm.  This is style, making the film-making process into less of a mechanical aspect and more into that of an art form.  It has been argued variously that this is frankly impossible? writes Andrew, which he somewhat disagrees with, and, I believe, touches too lightly on.  Whether you agree or disagree with Andrew's statement, it's true we cannot expect a film to show absolute fidelity to the videogame because both media present their stories differently.  This is the same debate raging over fidelity from novels to film, and the same argument works here too.  Though film and gaming media share analogues in presentation, it is the obvious differences in control and linearity that make them so different, and ultimately, so unable to be completely faithful.

This is the same debate with novels like The Lord of the Rings, translated into Peter Jackson's super-epic: a topic today heated with name calling and ridicule.  So what we have here is a matter of taste as the filmic restrictions (time, narrative) will impede the faithfulness of the original medium. 

We should be aware that film cannot represent everything of a novel, a poem, or even a videogame.  The movie Final Fantasy,? based on an original script with little to do with its game origins, is the most successful game adaptation I have yet seen.  While it is easy to criticize the arbitrary gaea? twist toward the end of the film, Final Fantasy? does stay faithful to the game universe and the overall feel of the games - character interaction, strife.  In this way it is successful.  It is also successful in bringing the videogame feel through technical achievement in graphics.  Though this is not what usually makes a great movie, it indelibly makes it memorable for its time.

A trend that has to end?

Games and film are, in many ways, analogous.  It makes sense then, that games should feel right at home on the silver screen.  But maintaining fidelity to film while losing faithfulness to the game adaptation is difficult.  It is also difficult to analyze what about the game will translate, what will not, and what will need to be done to combat this inconsistency.  There is no reason the videogame to movie craze must end; this trend is an undeniably positive move in the right direction, and only time, trial, and error will result in a fine videogame-film.  Hopefully, filmmakers such as Uwe Boll need not apply to this venture.  These filmmakers lack the general skill to make an original film, lest one adapted from another medium.  If it's a question of competency, we need competent filmmakers.  If it's a question of fidelity, we need open-minded critics.  What we have though is a step in the right direction.  What needs to end is the use of videogame-films as advertisements for the games.  What needs to end is the gold-digging present in Hollywood that creates ambiguous videogame-films aimed at anxious game fans with money to burn.  Not only is this crookedness a plague we need to remedy, but it's one that will not be remedied by any medicine except the understanding of the medium of film.  It is said that to become a writer one must learn the form.  This is true for filmmakers as well.  Let us hope that, in the future, videogame-films attract those who know the form and can bring credit and admiration to the art of adaptation.


Sources

Braudy, Leo and Marshall Cohen eds. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Fifth ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.