Video games are popular. Action movies are popular. So, much like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you’d think mixing the two together would make something that is ultra popular. Yet past attempts show that is not the case. From Hollywood’s very first attempt to adapt a video game to the big screen with Super Mario Bros. in 1983 to the most recent outings of Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed, the “video game curse” continues to vex the genre. Not that continued failure is stopping the momentum. In the next few years, Rampage, Minecraft: The Movie, and Five Night’s At Freddy’s are among the adaptations on offer. Will any of them finally be the Pirates of the Caribbean of video game breakthroughs? Probably not. But hope springs eternal.
What exactly is the problem? Millions of people have played the Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time franchise, but the film bombed. Same for Silent Hill, Ratchet & Clank, Max Payne and dozens of others. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts thinks he has the answer. While talking to Slashfilm about his upcoming project Kong: Skull Island, the topic of video game adaptations came up since Vogt-Roberts will next tackle turning Metal Gear Solid into a film. According to him, the key is translating gaming, which is an active experience, into an interesting passive viewing experience.
[M]uch like there was not a good comic book movie for a long time, it took directors who had grown up with comic book influences like Sam Raimi [who] legitimately loved Spider-Man[…] I think that like you’ve got guys like [Dan] Trachtenberg and a handful of people like me now who are growing up having our brains rewired by Zelda and Metroid, ’cause there’s a logic to videogames. Right? There’s a language to them. […]I think that [directors] fundamentally don’t understand the difference between an active experience and a passive experience. [T]here are things that you can get away with in an active experience in a video game that would not fly in a movie in terms of storytelling, in terms of a lot of different things, in terms of characters. In terms of set pieces. There are things that, when you take [it] out the active experience, suddenly it’s not compelling anymore.
You can head over here to read Slashfilm’s entire interview about Vogt-Roberts’ hopes for MSG as a live-action film. As for his theory on why video game movies are awful? He has a point. For me, Prince of Persia failed because the fun of the game is the parkour, which doesn’t translate well as a passive experience. Also, maybe don’t cast white people as Persians. Meanwhile, Resident Evil succeeded by using the lore of the games without being beholden to the characters. But that too can be a fine line, as fans of the franchises want those shout-outs like zombie dogs breaking through glass windows. But go too far into fan service and you get something like Warcraft, which I loved but my non-gaming friends couldn’t parse due to how thick the inside baseball lore was.
As video games become more cinematic in nature, with longer cutscenes and interactive quick-time events, you’d think the jump to film would be easier. But the critical failure of Assassin’s Creed proves even a rich story set against a fairly linear gameplay path isn’t easily lifted to the big screen. Yet someone, somewhere is going to crack this code. Whether it’s Vogt-Roberts with Metal Gear Solid, the still-percolating Tomb Raider reboot, or some far off franchise matters not. One day there will be a video game movie for the entire world to enjoy. There just has to be.