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Discuss: Can A Good Movie Ever Be Made From A Video Game?

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist July 12, 2012 at 11:03AM

After a few years that have seen studios deciding to focus on trying to make movies out of board games, it looks, from the last couple of days, as though video games are cycling back around as the hot source material. Monday saw Michael Fassbender announced as the star and producer of a film based on Ubisoft's hugely popular "Assassin's Creed" franchise, while yesterday a movie based on the long-running "Deus Ex" series was set up at CBS Films, Sony's "God Of War" film got new writers, and Dreamworks' "Need For Speed" got a firm 2014 release date.
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Resident Evil

Which leads directly into problem number two. Gamers -- the core, and hardly insubstantial (far bigger than comics fans, in fact) audience that studios hope to capture by translating their favorite properties -- are used to interactive experiences, and film is an inherently passive medium. Involving and immersive at its best, sure, but still passive; you watch things happen to other people. Having guided the protagonist through ancient ruins or zombie-filled cities yourself, why would you want to watch someone else do it for you? It's an inherently unsatisfying idea, and game-based movies haven't yet done much to add to the experiences that the fanbases already have.

What's more, cut-scenes are already an extensive part of modern games, with the upcoming "Resident Evil 6" featuring more than four hours of non-interactive moments. And while writing for games is still pretty weak, for the most part, filmmakers seem happy to sink to the levels of the games (or even lower, in some cases), rather than elevate the material.

Shadow Of The Colossus

All of which is not to say, necessarily, that a great film couldn't be made from a video game. Good movies have been made from crappy novels and TV shows, from comic-books with decades of patchy storytelling, and even from a theme park ride (while sullied by the sequels, the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" remains in the upper tier of modern-era blockbusters). A literal translation of "The Godfather" or "The Bourne Identity" likely would have made for a poor film, but they, along with many others, were lucky to get filmmakers who picked up the material and ran with it, and that's what video games haven't yet had; at best, they get someone workmanlike like Mike Newell, at worst they get Paul W.S. Anderson. Of late, game movies have had more promising names like Josh Trank, Gore Verbinski and even David O. Russell (briefly, in the last case) attached, so things may be changing in that department. Hell, "Deadwood" writer David Milch was penning a "Heavy Rain" movie, which is more than a little intriguing.

But perhaps more importantly, they need to realize that a simple (and usually watered-down) translation of plot and characters isn't going to work. Games as an artform (and sorry Roger Ebert, but we think the potential is there, even if the reality is disappointing 99% of the time) do two things well; embrace the interactivity to produce something you couldn't do in any other medium (see "Portal" or "Braid") or create detailed, immersive and (sometimes) original worlds.

Bioshock

It's why we're a little more optimistic about "Assassin's Creed," particularly now that the picky Fassbender is involved. An action-thriller with sci-fi elements set in the Crusades, in Borgia-era Venice, or in Colonial America? We haven't seen that before at the movies, and that makes it feel immediately more promising to us. Similarly, another big-selling game series, "Bioshock," and its upcoming spin-off "Bioshock Infinite," has delivered an entirely unique retro sci-fi setting that could have looked extraordinary on screen (which, ultimately, proved too expensive for Gore Verbinski's film to get the green light while preserving an R-rating). Pair this kind of backdrop with top-flight creative talent (Verbinski had Oscar-nominated "Hugo" writer John Logan working on "Bioshock," and Fassbender is sure to pursue A-list writers and directors for his film), and you might have a chance at making something that you wouldn't be ashamed of.

Of course, we say this not having played either game (or really, any game since high school) in more than passing detail. We've been intrigued by what we've seen, but we don't know the worlds or characters to the extent that true fans do. And that's why we also think it's important to use the source material as inspiration, rather than as a Bible. Don't tell the same story as the games, tell a new one within the same universe (for all their many, many flaws, this is likely the secret to the longevity of the "Resident Evil" franchise -- past the first film, they've mostly diverged down their own path). That way, existing fans don't feel like they're retreading something they already devoted 20+ hours of their life to, and non-gamers get their own entry point. In a way, the in-development movie version of "Asteroids," as ludicrous a proposition as that is, has a better chance of doing something new and interesting than a film of "God Of War," which risks coming off as "Clash Of The Titans 3." And by the same token, game fans need to be more open to changes -- the uproar that greeted David O. Russell's plans for "Uncharted" -- which surely would have been more interesting than yet another "Indiana Jones" retread -- pretty much killed the film stone dead.

There are undoubtedly terrible movies made from video games still to come. But just as it was the generation that grew up on comic books that made the best comic book movies, filmmakers like 26-year-old Josh Trank are starting to arrive, who grew up with games as a key part of their cultural upbringing. And if someone as talented as Trank clearly is, thinks he can make a "Shadow of the Colossus" movie -- one of the more artful games around that potentially promises something unique at the multiplex -- than we'd be inclined to want to see him try. But what do you think? Are video game movies intrinsically doomed to failure? Or is there a glimmer of hope out there? Let us know your thoughts below.

This article is related to: Features, Assassin's Creed, Need For Speed, Shadow Of The Colossus, Deus Ex, God Of War, Resident Evil: Retribution, Silent Hill: Revelation 3D


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