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Why Are Video Game Movies So Awful? 385

An article at CNN discusses why big screen interpretations of video games, even successful ones, often fail to succeed at the box office. Quoting: "The problem with successfully adapting video games into hit Hollywood spin-offs may lie in the way in which stories for both mediums are designed and implemented. Game makers chasing the dream of playing George Lucas or Steven Spielberg will always strive to coax human emotion and convincing drama from increasingly photorealistic virtual elements. The Hollywood machine, in its endless chase for big bucks, can't help but exploit the latest hit interactive outing, often failing to realize it's often a specific gameplay mechanic, psychological meme or technical feature that makes the title so compelling. Both sides may very well continue to look down in disdain on the work that the opposite is doing, which can doom any collaborative efforts. But where the two roads truly diverge is in the way stories are fundamentally told. Films offer a single, linear tale that's open to individual interpretation, whereas games are meant to be experienced differently and in a multitude of ways by every player." On a related note, reader OrangeMonkey11 points out that an 8-minute short has showed up online that appears part of a pitch for a potential Mortal Kombat reboot movie. Hit the link below to take a look.

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Why Are Video Game Movies So Awful?

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  • by apostrophesemicolon ( 816454 ) on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @03:40AM (#32507208) Journal
    Two words:

  • by dirtyhippie ( 259852 ) on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @03:40AM (#32507210) Homepage

    it's simple, really - spin-offs are, by definition, lame and derivative.

    books based on tv shows, books based on movies, tv shows based on movies, movies based on movies (aka sequels), video games based on movies, and movies based on video games - all are driven by profit over artistry. these products don't start with the question "wouldn't this be a neat idea?", they start with "can we extract more profit from this franchise?" because people already have a positive relationship with the brand, there is less incentive to work on quality, because there are large numbers of people who will consume the product regardless of its quality. since the product's quality does not dictate its profitability, the quality tends to suck.

  • Two words... (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @03:42AM (#32507218)

    ...Uwe Boll.

  • by Ethanol-fueled ( 1125189 ) * on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @03:42AM (#32507220) Homepage Journal
    In Short, the staff who make the creative decisions never actually played the fucking games.

    Maybe there was one time they got it right: The first-person scene [] in Doom.
  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @03:51AM (#32507276)

    Now, that many games didn't get big because they have such a great story but rather because they offer a new twist or gadget that people liked has its analogy in movies that live off their effects rather than a compelling script. The cynic in me would say that similarity should actually lead to a GOOD movie adaption. The writers sure know how to write show over substance movies today.

    The problem is that you are dealing with two completely different kinds of entertainment. You can't even say it's like sports where you can actively participate or be the spectator, it's a completely different kind of entertainment. Movies have to tell a story. Their challenge is to convince the spectator that he cares about the hero and that he wants to know how it ends. And that ending has to be logical enough to not smell like a cheap deus ex machina hodgepodge but also unpredictable enough to keep the watcher from snoozing off after 15 minutes because he already knows how it's going to end.

    Games necessarily do not have this "depth" of a script, not because game makers don't invest as much time into developing the characters and story, but because it would distract from or even outright disrupt or even destroy the experience. If you are playing an adventure game and simply CANNOT guess what to do next because you would have to have knowledge the character has but you cannot have because it has never been told during the story (Agatha Christie, anyone?), it's not a surprising twist, it's just plainly annoying.

    If you are playing a beat 'em up, jump'n run or any game that relies more on twitch skill than thinking, the story is often pretty straightforward and "simple". Be honest, who didn't figure out the story of Mortal Kombat right from the start? But would you want a more complex story? Would you enjoy it if you beef up your character, spend hours training him and improving his stats only to find out that he's actually the bad guy and that he will be taken from your control, replaced by a new character and you have to compete against the character you pumped up? Frustrating. Not interesting.

    Take a shooter. Call of Duty for example. They now have some sort of story, you follow the "life" of a soldier during his missions. But what kind of story is it? We go from battle to battle and fight. End of story. What do we learn about the soldier we control? Nothing, basically. Is there a family? Kids? A love affair? Why did he join the forces? We don't know. And frankly, we don't care. We want to play this soldier and guide his actions, we want to aim his gun and shoot the enemy. And those cutscenes that deal with his life off battle can be skipped, I hope!

    How about RTS? Command and Comquer actually has some kind of story built around Cain. Maybe even enough to make a movie out of it. Now. After, how many? Ten? Games. Yes, we could by now have enough "meat" to actually puzzle together about an hour of story. Add a few filler FX and we can make a movie. And that's one franchize, with nearly a dozen games. Usually the story is also pretty straightforward and, and here's the problem why this doesn't lend itself well to movies, tailored to the missions the player would have to play. The focus of a RTS story has to be the game the player should play. Not driving that story forwards. And that requires that he'll first play a few introduction maps where he gets to learn the interface and the units, then maps where more and more units are introduced (and the matching story why that unit becomes available to him now), he has to combat the various other factions that exist so he gets a taste for all of them (as adversaries, and possibly allies) and so on. The progress of the game dictates the story. Not the other way around. Doing something like that in a movie would end in a desaster. People would, rightfully, wonder why alliances switch faster than you can adjust to your new ally.

    You have two very different kinds of entertainment here, with very different requirements to make them "fun". Just because both are visual and because both rely heavily on computer generated FX doesn't mean they somehow have to be compatible.

  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohn&gmail,com> on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @03:52AM (#32507290) Journal

    "It often comes down to money, as movie studios frequently choose to make films based on the franchises that sell the best, not those with the most cinematic potential," said Corey May, co-founder of Sekretagent Productions.

    Yeah this, I think, is the heart of the issue. What's more is that they pick the most popular games and shell out the most money for licensing and royalties those franchises. Then you pile on that they rarely spend money on good actors (although some do and that's a sink for money). And that these these are video games so the required special effects are almost always through the roof costing more money. And it seems like when they're done spending on any of those things they'll stick Uwe Boll as director and phone in the rest of it. I mean, I would almost say that they think something stupid like "Man, if we could only license rights to make World of Warcraft into a movie, then we'd have a base viewership of twelve million world wide already!" Then it turns out that Blizzard knows they could milk that for tons of money and there goes all your funding. And after all is said and done it seems like the director has no freedom to deviate from anything. Why is that Mortal Kombat eight minute pitch bad? Because it's absolutely unrealistic. What is the motive to hold the tournament? Doesn't matter. Why are all these people fighting each other? Doesn't matter. We probably don't have time to develop any sort of meaningful relationship with the characters and as such every single character in Mortal Kombat will forever be laughable to a viewer. Mortal Kombat was known for being a great two player fighting game with just round after round. The thing that made it interesting was the moves and counter moves and inventiveness of special moves that players got a kick out of exploring. To take that away (inherent to movies) and to try to focus on the plot does not work. The plot's really kind of insane.

    This, of course, is some weird Hollywood money magic that perpetuates the problem--because the movies are still seen as successes in the eyes of producers. But there is hope that someone could get this right. For example, Shadow of the Colossus [] was optioned for a movie ... but of course they gave it to run of the mill action director Keven Misher and written by run of the mill action movie writer Justin Marks. Why? For what possible reason? You need to give a game like this to Darren Aronofsky or -- if you must go with an action film -- at least Quentin Tarantino. What's more you have to give them freedom to adapt the game into a movie. Not rely on what the game already has. I think that these games have other great things to offer like the artwork, feel and atmosphere but a stupid action director strips all that away down to stupid action.

  • by gzipped_tar ( 1151931 ) on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @03:57AM (#32507314) Journal

    Because selling crap is easy while real artistic creation is hard and demanding and does not guarantee quick money.

  • by domasx2 ( 1828656 ) on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @04:02AM (#32507334)
    A lot of (perhaps even the majority) of grood movies are based on books. Also there is s a growing trend of making pretty decent movies based on comics. Therefore, spin offs are not automatically doomed to be lame. The biggest problem, i think, is that movie studios don't take video games seriously enough yet - the general attitude is "it's for kids, throw in a few half-assed CGI effects and it will do". But if comic books broke through this barrier, certainly it is possible for video games.
  • by deniable ( 76198 ) on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @04:10AM (#32507370)
    Why not, Uwe does.
  • by jabbathewocket ( 1601791 ) on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @04:13AM (#32507394)
    The problem with Doom was that they tried to turn it into something it is not..

    Doom is about 1 guy alone going rambo on some aliens.. and trying to get out alive... NOT about a group of people getting saved along tthe way by a heroic soldier.. which is what they tried to turn the movie into.

    The funny thing is.. for as bad as game to movie conversions are (generally speaking), the movie to game conversions are far worse (perhaps its because there are so many more movies to game than the reverse?)

    I disagree that the director/author need to play the game, the problem is often that hollywood wants to take a HUGE hit that has little to no story, and convert it into something it is not (such as doom) or worse, they don't add anything at all to it.. and leave it as a special effects set piece..

    this is also prolly caused by the fact that most games have plots that are essentially ripped off from 1 scene in a movie from 20 years ago.. its kinda hard to stretch "that cool scene with the zombies and the dude with the chainsaw" into a game.. its even harder to then stretch that back into a 90 minute movie.
  • by Uncle Tractor ( 1736514 ) on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @04:17AM (#32507404)
    I was going to make a snarky comment about how most games have really lame stories, but then I remembered that that also goes for most movies.
  • Bad Writers (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Prien715 ( 251944 ) <> on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @04:39AM (#32507546) Journal

    There's a wonderful creative team behind most games. How many of them are taken seriously in film at all?

    If we look at good book-to-movie movies, it's clear that the artist -- whether Stephen King (Shawshank Redemption), Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany's), or even the G.B. Shaw's My Fair Lady (shot for shot based on the writer's adaption Pygmalion) has input and if not, the screenwriter is intimately familiar with the material.

    With games, the writer/director/etc are just trying to make a buck -- has anyone heard of an independent video game movie -- and the original expression is lost. It feels like taking the Declaration of Indpendence, and using Babelfish to translate to Japanese and back.

    To be sure, it's a much harder transition, but it could be done. If only, you had the original creative team -- or at least someone who's logged 60+ hours in the game -- doing it.

  • Re:Two Words: (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @04:48AM (#32507586)

    Most video games:

    • Boring story bit yawn... make it quick
    • fight! fight! fight! fight! fight! fight
    • More boring story bit - poorly acted - who cares - back to the fighting please.

    So when you want to adapt that into a movie you have a choice: fill out the paper thin story... usually by changing/expanding it... which is guaranteed to piss off the fans... or live with the godawful tripe story in most games.

    This is the reason most video games make shite movies. There has been more of a focus among the better games in recent years on making good narratives. Perhaps we'll see those turning into good movies soon. We shall see.

  • by pecosdave ( 536896 ) * on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @04:53AM (#32507610) Homepage Journal

    They're adapting the wrong games. They're adapting the best sellers, which of course sells on name.

    I can only think of a few game franchises I would actually like to see as movies:

    The Gabriel Knight series.
    The Tex Murphy Series - maybe
    The Broken Sword series

    These games of course have a common element, they're basically movies to begin with. The Oddworld series was designed to be a video game and movie series to begin with, nobody has actually taken the plunge to make the movies. I think they could work out, but I'm not sure. I still think the Alice game could have made an awesome movie with the right director at the helm, however I fear the crap fest that was the recent Disney Alice in Wonderland ruined any chance of American McGee's movie getting an interest boost on name recognition.

  • by NoZart ( 961808 ) on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @05:14AM (#32507714)
    Games traditionally have only simple characters, so the player can "fill" the games narrative easily with his own persona. This way, the 4th wall is broken more easily and the player gets the feeling of experiencing the story. Movies are about characterization and the story is just a vessel for the characters to act out their motives. The rare games that actually have characterization actually as a built in game play mechanism provide better material for the move adaption, as there are not so many blanks to fill in.... Also it depends on the movie viewer perspective: as a fan of the game, you look at different qualities as the normal movie watcher. Silent Hill, while being a terrible flick from a movie standpoint, is a very good adaption that the gamers of the series can relate to. Tombraider was good pop-corn cinema with some nasty mistakes but really failed to convey what the game was really about...
  • Ya, pretty much (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @05:34AM (#32507838)

    When you look at it, it turns out he does make most of the video game movies out there. His movies tend to suck because there's no incentive for them not to. When you look at it, they generally do abysmal at the box office. However he can afford to do so because of an oddity with German tax law. It basically allows businesses to write everything off if the movie doesn't make money. So his investors are fine with his movies losing money, because all the writeoffs allows them to have a net gain from the government. So even though his movies do bad even by mad movie standards (even crap movies often make back what they cost), he can keep making them.

    That accounts for a lot of it right there. Also from something like that you get a secondary effect. Because of those movies being bad, it casts a bad light on the whole genre and does not encourage quality competition. Some of the best and brightest aren't interested in working in the area, and studios aren't interested in funding it. You get a feed back cycle of: Well it sucks so we don't want to be involved in that. Since good people aren't involved in it, it sucks.

    While Uwe Boll going away wouldn't fix the problem, it'd really help. Without his crap continuing to come out, it would help improve the image of videogame movies.

    However, there may be some changes coming. Currently a Warcraft and a Mass Effect movie are in planning. In both cases, you have a world with a lot of back story associated with it, and some good writing for the game (particularly in Mass Effect's case). So there is a much more solid foundation to start on (many video game movies can use the game as a setting/style only, as the plot and writing are very minimal). Also in both cases they are being done by people and studios with some experience making movies that are quite good. None of that means they'll be great, of course, but it means they have a chance. If we start to have some really quality game movies come out, it may start to gain standing as a legit kind of cinema.

  • by Paradigma11 ( 645246 ) <> on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @05:42AM (#32507870)
    Compared to how bad games adapted from movies are they are all Oscar/Cannes material.
  • by raynet ( 51803 ) on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @06:20AM (#32508046) Homepage

    I agree. Why are video game movies so awful? Because of Uwe Boll.

  • by zippthorne ( 748122 ) on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @06:47AM (#32508178) Journal

    It's the same reason video games made from movies suck: They don't think they need to spend as much effort on talent because the name of the thing they spent money on licensing will put people in seats.

  • Re:Story. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @07:29AM (#32508418) Journal

    I disagree on Lord of the Rings - the film managed to mess up the characters, cut some of the important plot development, and replaced pages of gripping description with minutes of boring CGI.

    Tom Clancy films tend to be better than the books, because the books will contain two or three pages of description of exactly what kind of gun each character is holding, whenever said character picks up a new gun, while the film just uses a prop. A typical Clancy novel may take 10 hours to read, but only one hour is plot and the other 9 hours are military fetishism.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @07:54AM (#32508584)

    That is why one of the first thoughts as I played Bioshock is "Please don't let anyone make a movie, PLEASE don't let anyone make a movie of this!"

    What would making a movie do to you playing the game? Maybe you should relax and realize you're not in control of the world. People will do stuff. You're free to ignore them.

  • Not funny at all (Score:3, Insightful)

    by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) * on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @08:10AM (#32508668) Journal

    The original Mortal Kombat movie was directed with a lot of energy and style. The music was sufficiently rawking and there was some pretty innovative cinematography and the sound was very well done.

    It wasn't all that bad. It wasn't Oscar material, but it wasn't an embarrassment to the people who made it.

  • by Drakkenmensch ( 1255800 ) on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @08:28AM (#32508794)
    The sequel went a long way into making the original look like a piece of masterpiece cinematography.
  • by mcmonkey ( 96054 ) on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @10:14AM (#32509922) Homepage

    There's a much much simpler explanation that doesn't have anything to do with different story telling media, and it is this:

    I have a simpler explanation. Why wouldn't video game movies be awful?

    It's like asking, why do kids who play video games commit violent crimes?

    The answer has nothing to do with the video games, per se. The answer is, these days almost all kids play video games. Therefor the kids who end up committing crimes play video games. And the kids who commit no crimes play video games. You could just as easily (and truthfully) say most kids who get cancer have played video games. Does that suggest video games cause cancer?

    Anyway, back to the movies.

    Most movies made today are awful. Why should those based on video games be an exception? Why are most movies based on old TV shows awful? Why are most romantic comedies awful? Think of any genre of movie being made today by Hollywood.

    Most are awful.

    Why are comic book movies awful? Other than the remake of another movie (and most recent remakes are awful), the comic book or graphic novel format most lends it self to movie making. The source material is the farkin' story board.

    Even so, I'd say the success rate of comic book movies is under 50%. Yes, the good ones can be really good. And even considering the /. audience, which is partial to comic books, most (as is more than 50%) comic book movies suck.

    Why should video games be the exception?

  • by cowscows ( 103644 ) on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @10:52AM (#32510434) Journal

    Just to expand on your ideas, because they're really good...

    You're almost never going to be able to take a decent game or book and turn it verbatim into a decent movie. Something really well designed to work for one purpose should not be expected to automatically work just as well for a different purpose. Sticking two extra wheels on a nice motorcycle does not make a nice car. You've got to tear the game/book down, pick and choose the pieces that are useful, and then assemble them back with some new pieces to get something that works as a movie.

    There's really three good sources in a game from which you can potentially to draw ideas for a movie. Different games have these in different amounts, so you need to be careful about how you draw it. The three sources are Story, Characters, and the game's "Universe". Note that the other big element in games, namely the Gameplay, is basically useless for translating to a movie. Your example of Doom is the perfect illustration of this for all the reasons you described. The story is filler, there are no real characters, there's very little consistent "universe" to draw from except for some types of guns that have been consistent through most of the games. The positive experience of Doom was almost entirely due to gameplay (and to some degree that it generally represented a pretty cool technological achievement in terms of 3D graphics).

    Anyways, story and characters are tough to translate, because the pacing in a decent story driven game is generally much slower than a movie, especially if it's well integrated into the gameplay. It's meant to unfold through hours and hours of playtime, compared to movies which are pushing things at two hours long.

    Characters are even more dicey, because so much of a character's meaning to gamers is tied up in how they personally chose to play them. You as a movie writer/director/whatever would have to choose one of those personalities, and it's bound to be different in some fundamental ways from the personality that many players projected onto their playthroughs, and that's going to leave everyone unhappy with the end result.

    This really leaves a gaming "universe" as fertile ground for movie ideas, and although building on that foundation can potentially lead to a good movie, its connection to the actual games that people are familiar with is likely to be incidental, and that will upset people who naively expect to see their game memories somehow displayed on a movie screen. Warcraft being a great example of a franchise with lots of backstory from which some good writers could probably come up with some awesome stories. But how many Warcraft fans are actually familiar with that backstory and will appreciate a new exploration of that universe, verses how many will see it just as a cash-in where they just attached Warcraft to the name in order to sucker people into watching?

    You also brought up Mario, which I think is an amazing example, because as you mentioned the long running series of games has actually built an expansive and reasonably consistent universe that is familiar to millions of people. But as you mentioned, it's such a bizarre universe, consistent only within itself. It's tied so strongly to gameplay elements, yet in an abstract enough way that they can make decent games in all sorts of unrelated genres using all of the peculiarities of the Mario universe, and it makes intuitive sense to gamers. I automatically know a green shell can be used to attack my enemies, whether I'm 2D scrolling, 3D exploring, riding a go-kart, or playing soccer.

    So anyways, your post apparently inspired me to write all of that out instead of working for the past 15 minutes. Nicely done.

  • Re:Story. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by GooberToo ( 74388 ) on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @01:26PM (#32513062)

    I disagree on Lord of the Rings - the film managed to mess up the characters,

    In the end, does that really matter? Was the act of telling the story enjoyable to watch? For the vast majority of people the answer is yes. We all understand lots of elements were not true to the books but it doesn't change the fact that the movies were still enjoyable in their own right.

    That's basically the problem with book/movie translations. Many people get upset when its a literal translation. As such, they want something new which wasn't in the book. The inverse is also true - it must be literal and true else it completely sucks. Then there are stories such as LotR which are so long, have fairly developed characters, complex situations, so on and so on, its seems very reasonable that some things will simply not translate well while others are just too deep/complex to allow for a timely and comprehensible tale. Some say that means the story shouldn't be told then. Others say its a reasonable trade.

  • Re:Two Words: (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ArsonSmith ( 13997 ) on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @03:15PM (#32514754) Journal

    I would have shot the other three. They are the ones that gave me expectations to be let down. Uwe Boll never set anything as good.

  • by Reapy ( 688651 ) on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @04:44PM (#32515862)

    I mostly agree with you but that is more a representation of the mistakes made in other game-->movie crap movies then what could be.

    One of the first problems you have is games are often set in quasi fanatasy and violate reality. I think a huge portion of america has a problem with fantasy. Either you laughed when they took off in the air in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, or you thought it was cool.

    What filmmakers try to do all the time is ground the fantasy in 'reality' and it fucks up the entire movie. They always go out of their way to add a 'regular joe' character that is normal and that usually ends up somehow destroying the plot of the movie to keep this guy here to keep going 'woah woah' and to make people feel comfortable with the fact crazy shit is happening.

    But yeah, the games that need to be turned into movies are ones that have well defined characters and plots. Psychonauts, secret of monkey island, one of millions of RPG games, Dragon Age? Mass Effect? Anything really, lots of room to write to that setting.

    From there the writers can make a new plot set in the same world using the same characters, so long as they know how to actually capture the original characters personality. Also, they need to do the same thing games do to their audience, and that is, get the movie audience up to speed on the world and characters.

    The final fantasy CGI fest that came out a bit ago would have appealed to a pretty broad audience had they started the "plot" in a place that people could understand had they not played the game.

    But you are right, many game generas do not lend themselves to the movie format, esp ones that are about the mechanics rather than the people. But there are plenty of games out there ripe with interesting characters and plots that could be rolled into a movie.

    But again, I would say it is only till about now that games I think are popular enough that paying $$$ to use a game's IP would actually be worth it to a movie company to have enough popularity out of the box. Otherwise it would just be int their best interest to make up their own stuff.

  • by Intellectual Elitist ( 706889 ) on Wednesday June 09, 2010 @06:36PM (#32517296)

    it's simple, really - spin-offs are, by definition, lame and derivative.

    [...] tv shows based on movies [...]

    Yeah, that M*A*S*H show sure sucked. And no one on Slashdot liked Buffy or Stargate, obviously...

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