Why Movie Adaptations Of Video Games Will Always Suck
So we finally have the first trailer for Michael Fassbender’s Assassin’s Creed movie.
(Let’s be honest, we’re all thinking it: ‘Fassassin’s Creed’)
And, well, here it is:
For those who have no knowledge of the video games, Assassin’s Creed is an anthology series split always between two time periods: the present (or near future), and various pasts. In the present, a bland cipher character enters a machine called ‘the Animus’ which allows him to relive the genetic memories of his ancestors. Tied into this is the millennia-long conflict between the evil Templars and the Assassins who oppose them, and the ancestors whose memories are being relived are always pivotal to this struggle. The games themselves are a soulless cash cow trotted out on a yearly basis with little-to-no innovation, and they vary quite wildly in quality (Ezio’s self-contained mini-trilogy in the series that ran from Assassin’s Creed 2 through to Brotherhood and Revelations being, by and large, the gameplay as well as story high point in the series).
The movie will be borrowing the essential framework — Animus, genetic memories, Templars VS. Assassins — but will be spinning off its own story, starring Michael Fassbender’s original character (which, as anyone who’s played the games and has had to deal with Desmond will attest, is a great relief).
This latest attempt to adapt a successful video game into a movie is brought to us by director Justin Kurzel, who most recently gave us last year’s Macbeth adaptation, also starring Fassbender; cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (also Macbeth, as well as Animal Kingdom and all of the gorgeous first season of True Detective); and writers Michael Lesslie (Macbeth) and the duo of Adam Cooper and Bill Collage (Tower Heist, Exodus: Gods And Kings, Allegiant).
So, a pretty damn mixed bag.
Rounding out the nevertheless excellent cast are Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Brendan Gleeson, amongst others.
You may have noticed that I have said basically nothing at all about the trailer itself. I’ve not attempted to use it to guess or gauge how good the final product is going to be. That’s for a very simple reason: the movie is going to suck. I don’t need the trailer to know that, I’m calling it now.
And, yes, there are very specific reasons why this movie here will not be good (lookin’ at you, writers of Exodus), but what I’m concerned about here is the bigger picture. The one that explains, at least to an extent, the track record of raw suckage that video game movie adaptations have racked up over the years.
It all comes down to the fundamental differences between video games and movies, and the all-too-common failure by creative individuals in both camps to understand these differences — because, as we’ll see, this ignorance does cut both ways. At its core the issue boils down to video games being, by their very nature, interactive. They depend on your active input. If you idle, they idle. Cinema, on the other hand, relies only your passive observance; but even there its dependence is ephemeral: if you look away, it keeps going.
Video games are a comparatively new medium, only a few decades old, and as such they still have strong role models — idols, even — that they look up to. Chief among these idols is cinema, and this has become more and more evident as the technology powering video games has evolved. Actually, ‘evolved’ is a weak word for the quantum leaps that the tech behind video games has performed over the years. From allowing just a few pixels to move on a screen at any one time, to depicting scenes limited only by the programmers’ imagination, the progress we’ve seen is staggering.
Video games in 1972:
Video games in 2016:
This rapid narrowing of the technological gap has had a curious consequence: similar to the teenager experiencing a growth spurt so fast that they feel awkward and alien in their newly transformed body, so too have video games grown into something that they were not ready for. The technology now making it possible, video games started chasing the prestige and the cultural acceptance attributed to cinema, and they did this by aping its techniques and its visual grammar. In a certain way it has to be said that they have been successful, as video games can now — like cinema — be said to have genuine auteurs. People like Hideo Kojima and David Cage (both tellingly self-attributing the title ‘director’ in their game credits) have stamped their unmistakeable identities on their respective series, for better or worse. The ‘better’ is a frequently inventive and effective utilisation of a physically unbound camera, as well as the ambition to try tell larger and more insightful stories; the ‘worse’ is the disappointing spectacle of a video game director forgetting the interactive nature of their medium. Games like Metal Gear Solid 4 (Kojima) or Beyond: Two Souls (Cage) all too often reduce the player to a passive observer, forced to sit through scripted scenes, controller growing cold in their hands.
This problem is compounded by the often frankly quite atrocious writing that accompanies a lot of games. The screenplays for the two (amply budgeted) titles mentioned above would be laughed out of any writers room were it not for one crucial consideration: awful dialogue and two dimensional characters are things can easily be forgiven, or at the very least ignored, in a fun and challenging game. If you are presented with a gorgeous and immersive three dimensional world that you can interact with, either at your leisure or to complete some prescribed task, the focus shifts drastically. The building blocks of the entire construction morph under your feet, and you are suddenly no longer so concerned with what you can see, but what you can do.
Cinema, on the other hand, does not have this option. It can’t rely on interactivity to distract you. More often than not, if it needs to do this, it falls back on visuals (*cough*Zack Snyder*cough*). Now, cinema is of course a visual medium, and one capable of telling great stories with images alone, but its central pillars are characters and writing. Rare is the movie that can be classed as ‘great’ if the only thing going for it are its visuals; much more common is the game in which the core gameplay is excellent and the writing is awful, but which is still very highly regarded.
So then, we have two mediums, one non-interactive and concerned mostly with telling a story; the other interactive and at first interested only in player agency, fun, and the feeling of satisfaction derived from getting from point A to point B, but which, thanks to technology, has been trying to achieve an effective symbiosis of the two: the seemingly contradictory act of telling a good story, while letting the player create/control it.
It is instructive at this point to focus on two modern games that approached the problem of storytelling from different directions; that both succeeded for different reasons; but for both of which there have been calls for a movie adaptation: 2005’s Shadow of the Colossus, and 2013’s The Last of Us.
Shadow of the Colossus is an adventure game, and broadly speaking it follows the standard adventuring template of plopping your player character into an unknown land, and then pointing you in the vague direction that you must go in order to complete some task. But to describe it as such would be like saying that The Sistine Chapel is some bloke’s ceiling graffiti. Shadow of the Colossus is a game like no other, transcending so many of the medium’s limitations and leaving a permanent mark on your soul.
It is an almost totally wordless story in which you play an adventurer who must roam a desolate land to find, confront, and defeat a series of increasingly tough colossi in order to appease a spirit that will bring a loved one back to life should you succeed. As the game progresses you wander beautiful and varied but barren-of-life landscapes in search of the colossi. As you find, scale, and slay these impressive beasts a gnawing feeling starts to bother you in the extended quiet moments in between battle: ‘Am I the bad guy here?’
Every colossus you encounter only ever acts in a territorially defensive way; always lets out a mournful cry when slain; and with each ‘successful’ encounter a deathly pallor gradually takes over you. The game’s narrative gets under your skin as much as it does because you are with the character every step of the way. You are complicit in every morally ambiguous action, and you have to convince yourself that it’s worth pushing on, even though the game — designed as it is to be finished — knows that you will. It’s an incredible work of singular genius and any calls to adapt it into a movie are misguided from their inception: as beautiful and crafted as it all is, Colossus shines as much as it does because you are in it.
The Last of Us takes a different approach, but ends up with a similar result. Essentially a harrowing survival story set years after a zombie apocalypse has decimated mankind, you play Joel, a survivor having to escort a young girl, Ellie, who was born after the downfall and knows no other way of life. It tells an incredibly visual, wonderfully written, and perfectly acted story, one in many ways rivalling the best that similar cinematic works have to offer; but it does this while still maintaining player agency. All the ingredients are there for a powerful story, but in the end it is the fact that you are in control, and how, that shoots it into the stratosphere. It is arguably the best example of game/movie interface, as it excels so much on cinema’s terms, while tying it all to the magic of interactivity that is unique to games.
The best games acknowledge this duality. They don’t try to put on a disguise to go ‘play in the big boys’ league.’ They create their own league. Whether focusing on almost pure gameplay, like Shadow of the Colossus, or deftly merging pure gameplay with more traditional cinematic storytelling, like The Last Of Us, the experience they create is unique to their medium, and cannot be replicated on the big screen in any meaningful way.
For sure, you can write and shoot a story set in the world created by a video game. You can create a new narrative path for its characters to traverse. It might even be a better story than the one in the source material. But it still will never replicate the effect the game had on its players (by letting them have an effect on it). Adapting a book to a movie, or the other way round, is a different ball game: you are still working in basically the same language, and the same audience-narrative interface prevails. To successfully adapt a video game you would need to plug the hole left by the removal of audience agency, and that is a hole of such scale that it can seen from outer space. You would need a total and fundamental, ground-up understanding of — and empathy for — the world, the characters, and the story that the game was trying to tell.
Video games often ape cinema. Cinema can’t be said to often ape video games. The only examples of this are stylistic lifts like Hardcore Henry, and that movie — while an incredible amount of pants-shitting fun — was very much akin to watching someone else play a video game: fundamentally an empty experience, adrift in limbo, incomparable to either watching a movie, or playing a video game yourself. Cinema does love adaptations, but these — certainly when it comes to video games — are born out of financial, not artistic, considerations. Assassin’s Creed is a huge franchise. Leagues of players have devoted considerable swaths of their lives to the stories of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, Edward Kenway, and Evie Frye; and a decent number will probably go see Michael Fassbender scale some historic landmarks and wield a hidden blade. But the reason we kept coming back to the games, the real reason we tear up ever so slightly when we hear the strains of ‘Ezio’s Family’ start to play, is not because we watched someone else do parkour. It’s because we scaled those landmarks with Evie; we wielded Edward’s hidden blade; and we were Ezio Auditore da Firenze.