Monday December 28 2009

Why video game movies suck

They suck for the same reason The Phantom Menace sucked. They’re missing a protagonist.

The protagonist in a film is there to guide the audience through the plot. They’re a third party for you to identify with, cheer on, and eventually see succeed. But the player in a game is not someone who you identify with, they’re someone whose identity you assume, and the agency that affords you leaves little room for the drama you get in films.

You’ve been put into the shoes of the protagonist, but you end up directing the game’s action, rather than just acting out a small part of it. Start and Pause are your Action! and Cut!

Mel Gibson directs Braveheart. Photo by Andrew Cooper

Photo by Andrew Cooper

Well you’re actually closer to a cameraman than a director. Your job is to reveal the game designer’s story through cunning and the skilful application of your tools. Over and over again, until the game decides you’re ready to progress to the next scene. Your character is irrelevant.

A film’s audience never feel in control of the characters on screen. Dramatic tension comes from the constant reminder that good guys might fail. That’s the whole basis for suspense, and the sense of vindication you get at the happy ending. You have to believe that the protagonists can falter for it to be a relief when they don’t. You have to know that if they don’t succeed, there’d be nothing you could do to stop it.

Rather than building tension, the prospect of failure in games produces only frustration and tedium, leading to endless “restart from last checkpoint”s and “just one more go”s

And there’s little room left for a story arc. You’re put straight into the action, and it’s usually pretty unrelenting until the game ends. There’s no buildup, and no pacing, just lots and lots of shooting and a bit of levelling up.

And this is all fun, but it really doesn’t translate to cinema.

Avoiding the game movie trap

So how can filmmakers adapt games without pissing on their magic. Some games boast fabulously rich storytelling that’s ripe for adaptation.

One way might be to step away from the game’s protagonist. The best game storylines have secondary characters that are far more rich and nuanced than the player. Think Durandal or Paul Denton. Arguably, these characters are the game’s story, even if it’s usually told in terms of the player.

Ignoring the player character lets you bypass a lot of the baggage and expectations of a game, and focus on a story that can go deep. Many games go to great lengths to remove any depth from the main character, so that the player can more comfortably project their own personalities on to them, but this is suicide for movie storytelling.

Now, I suppose all this might not apply to all game genres. The dynamics of an FPS present very different challenges to a would-be filmmaker than an RPG, strategy game or puzzler might. But I think the treatment of characters, or lack thereof, is critical to the success of any adaptation, and the main character is usually not your best bet.

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