Pay attention, now, because I’m going to tell you a secret, one that many people already know. When talking about movies, the phrase “based on a video game” does not have to mean simply “dumb.”
This despite Resident Evil and last summer’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, which, if you’ve seen them, probably have you believing that the only thing dumber than movies based on comic books (which I’ll come back to later) are movies based on video games. About the only thing Resident Evil has to recommend it is that it begins and ends with Milla Jovovich naked (fortunately, she’s put on a little weight, and looks less like a concentration camp victim than she used to), just as Tomb Raider garnered loads of attention for Angelina Jolie’s breasts, and little else.
If you take a longer view, things get even worse. Remember Street Fighter? This one actually starred Van Damme. Street Fighter‘s rival at the arcade, Mortal Kombat, also became a movie, one that was pretty good, but the sequel, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, is considered by many in the know to be the worst movie ever made. Even those video game-based movies that might have been good shoot themselves in the foot. The Super Mario Brothers movie was quite inventive, and incredibly weird, in a Terry Gilliam sort of way. But the studio marketed it as “perfect for the kids!” and it bombed.
Tomb Raider might have been a half-decent Indiana Jones clone, which would have been better than what it ended up being, which was, admittedly, pretty dumb. Jolie looked great, and jumped from action scene to action scene, but no one seemed to have any idea why. The truly tragic thing about Tomb Raider, though, is that it had some good elements: some interesting looks (thematically speaking) at Lara Croft, and a sly sense of humor that seemed conscious of the odds stacked against the picture. In the preview, there were actually 4 or 5 really good lines, like the exchange between Lara Croft and her nemesis:
Lara: “You might try to kill me.”
Manfred: “I wouldn’t kill you.”
Lara: “I said you’d try.”
However, just prior to the picture’s release, the studio recut the entire movie against the will of director Simon West, and took out all the good lines, and God only knows what else.
The only one out of the whole bunch to be successful was 1995’s Mortal Kombat (directed by Paul W. H. Andersen, who also directed Resident Evil), which made over $100 million in box office and rentals on a meager-by-Hollywood-standards $20 million budget. And, as my brother, who knows way more about video games than I do, pointed out, it was also the only movie based on a video game to keep the original plot intact. It didn’t try to “reinvent” the concepts behind the game, and it didn’t try to compress the plot of 3 or 4 games into one film.
This speaks to a dilemma facing filmmakers looking to venture into the field: how to make a movie that both interests fans of the games, and is accessible (and interesting) to a wider audience, who may have never played them. For, although game players are the obvious audience for a film adaptation, of a movie costs $30 or $40 million to make, the small number of game fans, even at $8 or $10 a head, is not going to make the money back. What’s more, traditional thinking is that if you make the movie too much like the game, then game fans will be bored. This is surely a fallacy, however, since it has been shown many times that a simple story, told well, as in The Matrix, will draw a larger audience than a shabbily-executed complex plot.
So, for Resident Evil, the powers that be decided to change the plot around. This is a damn shame, because the plotting in the original “Resident Evil” game is brilliant. The primary reason for this decision? An effort to get around that most difficult-to-pull-off device of storytelling: misdirection, as we find out midway through the game that it’s a completely different genre than we’d thought.
While the movie begins, in a most heavy-handed way, with a text description of “Umbrella” as the evil corporate entity that owns everything, the game only alludes to Umbrella a few times, and most importantly, not until the last quarter or so. What you know at the beginning is that a team of special forces operatives is sent to investigate a disturbance in Raccoon City. Upon arriving, they are attacked by a pack of dogs, and the survivors take shelter in a local mansion that appears to be deserted.
The plot gradually unfolds from there. The obstacles the team encounters in the house—flesh-eating zombies, mad dogs, evil crows, and a giant snake—all cry out “horror,” and the first half of the game is an obvious homage to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. (Whenever you resume a saved game, the game tells you that you are returning to “the world of survival horror.”) It is only later, as you stumble onto the secret laboratory, that you learn the zombies are diseased humans (not the reanimated dead, as in the movie), and the game moves into science fiction territory, and you have to re-evaluate everything you’ve seen already.
Even as I describe the plot now, it sounds a little wonky, as most SF/fantasy plots do when you try to describe them to other people, but the game is atmospheric, creepy, engrossing, and fun. Trust me, you have no idea how much fun it is to blow off zombies’ heads with shotguns. And while the mansion sequence takes up the first (and best) half of the game, in the movie, that part is dismissed in a couple of scenes. If the makers of Resident Evil had simply stuck to the original game’s plot, the movie could have been highly enjoyable. It is telling that the creators of the game series, which has spawned 5 or 6 sequels or remakes, have recently admitted that the storytelling has gone downhill since the first game, and are returning to the series’ roots.
Of course, critics’ and viewers’ reactions to VG-based movies emerge from a larger cultural perception: that video games themselves are dumb. It is, of course, common for film critics to dismiss a mindless action movie by comparing it (oh, the incisive critical wit!) to a video game. As an art form, video games receive a level of respect slightly below that of child pornography. The situation parallels that of comics: both media feature some amazing storytelling, but no one outside of a (relatively) small and insular subculture ever hears about it. But while people are starting to recognize the artistic value of comics, thanks to the work of people like Art Spiegelman, Neil Gaiman, and Alan Moore, even the most legendary video game creators remain unknown to the general public.
This is too bad, because the medium is finally starting to move beyond the conventions and genres that emerged in the first great boom of video games, in the early ‘80s. The recent trend has been for games with a richness of storytelling that is alternately timely and timeless. The 2 “Metal Gear Solid” games (which did garner a fair amount of mainstream press) are brilliantly plotted, examining issues like patriotism, loyalty, national sovereignty, simulation and simulacra, the nature of technology and society, and the role of soldiers in a post-Cold War world; they certainly blow anything Tom Clancy wrote right out of the water.
On the other end, reaching back to the birth of storytelling, the “Legend of Zelda” games, which have consisted of a series of remakes, each one adding a level to the overall plot, culminate in the Nintendo 64’s “Ocarina of Time,” which is, among other things, a good approximation of mythologist Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth,” the hero’s journey. Both “Zelda” and “Metal Gear Solid” also use the best features of other media, such as film, in combination with the interactivity of video games. MGS uses voice acting that’s actually, well, acting, and varied perspectives (instead of the same type of interface over and over), while Zelda puts the N64’s graphic capabilities to great use in creating an immersive and “lifelike” fantasy environment similar to Peter Jackson’s version of Lord of the Rings.
And just as we are seeing VG technology reach the point where graphics arguably can’t get any more lifelike, there has recently been a massive shift in the video game demographic. While video games are traditionally considered kids’ fodder, a growing number of gamers are 18 and older. This can be attributed in part to video games’ increasing complexity in recent years; most 8-year-olds simply don’t have the motor coordination to do well in a lot of games these days. The other explanation, perhaps a bit romanticized on my part, is that the generation that grew up on Nintendo (some now lit majors) has now grown up, and now demands more complex games; some are even designing games of their own. More to the point, a growing contingent of game designers consider themselves storytellers first, and video game designers second.
No company typifies this shift better than Silicon Knights, best known for the game, “Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain.” “Kain,” in my opinion, the best-written game of the last decade, tells a story of a man reborn as a vampire in a dying land, who must choose between revenge and the healing of the land, which will require him to sacrifice himself. While video game plots have frequently wandered into the realms of mythology, either explicitly (the original Nintendo Entertainment System’s “Kid Icarus”), or with the trappings of sword-and-sorcery fantasy (like the “Zelda” series) “Kain” is the first game I have encountered in the medium that has the dramatic and moral weight of myth. Admittedly, this quality is difficult, if not impossible, to define, but “Kain” has it.
Furthermore, the story behind “Legacy of Kain” has implications for the future of the medium. “Kain” was released in 1996, under a system where Silicon Knights designed the game, and another company, Crystal Dynamics, distributed the game, a common arrangement in video game circles. Crystal Dynamics then went on to make a sequel that many people (including those at Silicon Knights) believed betrayed the theme and character development of the original. Silicon Knights sued to prevent the release of the second game. Both parties are prohibited from talking about the settlement, but it is known that Crystal Dynamics, not SK, retained the rights to the franchise, including sequel rights. The “Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver” series has spawned 3 games to date, with more on the way.
The “Legacy of Kain” struggle, while largely ignored by the gaming public at the time, stands as the first large-scale fight over creative control in the industry. Every medium has its own stories about the creators wresting control from those who sought to imprison their work (think the printing press, the “open source” movement in software design, or Todd McFarlane’s founding of Image Comics, prior to his dealings with Neil Gaiman).
On www.siliconknights.com, the online guide to the first “Legacy of Kain” game includes a description of the longer “cinema” scenes, along with the important themes encountered therein. When was the last time you saw a video game’s creators talking about “themes”? Also on the site, the game’s creators espouse the following view:
“There is a problem in our industry. The problem is that the majority of the developers of products do not get credit for their creations. Let’s make an analogy to the book industry: if ‘Kain’ was a book (which is a linear form of entertainment), we would be known as the authors. However, we believe that this is not always the perception with the game industry. Perhaps our industry has not matured yet. We believe that as the book industry matured to the point where the readers began to look for the authors when buying books, so will the game industry mature so that gamers will look for the developers (or authors) of games. Make no mistake: we created ‘Kain.’ The game industry is changing in many ways, this is just one of the ways in which it will change.”
While Silicon Knights’ view of the industry’s future may sound optimistic, they are at the forefront of advancing the role of storytelling in that industry. The shifts in video games towards a greater interest in storytelling, however, have yet to see any large-scale results in the recent proliferation of video game-based movies. Even with better-written games, the question remains: how do you produce a good cinematic adaptation? The question reminds me of the one that was asked about comic book-based movies, and answered, at least temporarily, in 2000’s X-Men: hire talented writers and a talented director, and then let them work. (Of course, X-Men was still a major blockbuster, and its creative team had their share of battles with the studio, but the film was far better than any previous comics adaptation since 1989’s Batman.)
And in the coming years, those looking to adapt video games into movies will have much to choose from, because at last, we are dealing with well written, sometimes funny, sometimes sophisticated stories. And it all comes down to stories.