Video games have long been a genre that bleed over into other types of media. Games are often created based on popular culture, but over time it has become much more popular for the flow to go the opposite direction. Video games have been the source material for other types of media almost since their creation. As the stories being told in video games have gotten better themselves, the tie ins and adaptations have become bountiful. However, the video game experience is often a personal one, and that doesn’t always lend itself well to entertainment that is meant to be presented and consumed as a complete entity. It’s my belief that entertainment based on video games should expand on the game world without taking away from or minimizing the individual experiences of players. Sometimes this is done well, but more often than not it doesn’t go over well with the fans.
Video game movies are, as a whole, pretty terrible. I’ll preface this topic by admitting that I am a person that wholly enjoys terrible things, so I actually like most video game movies. However, I can still see where they have significant issues. I think the one thing many people truly enjoy about video games is that you get pulled into a story, and become a part of the world. You’re an active participant in the narrative. In movies, we are simply passive observers as a complete story is presented to us. I see a few ways that this creates problems for movies based on video games. Perspective is a big one. When we play video games, the hero’s perspective is always our own. It’s difficult to translate that experience on the screen. First person perspective movies exist, but they aren’t very popular. The main character in the movie can be the same protagonist, but seeing it from a different perspective that the one we are used to in the game takes away from it a bit, in my opinion.
In general, the story also has to be less personal in order for it to work as something consumed by a mass audience. You as the viewer don’t help create the movie, or impact how it will all play out. You just sit back and watch someone else tell their story. Not to say that a good story can’t be told about a game in this way, but it often doesn’t hit the same parts of our heart when we aren’t actively involved in it.
The other issue I often have with video game movies is that the story just doesn’t translate well in general. There has to be a balance between reaching a broader audience, while still giving fans of the games something exciting that authentically represents the game world. There is a formula to movies that, from what I understand, seems to involve a lot of explosions and extensive fight scenes. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for explaining the game story within the hundred plus minute timeframe. This is a difficult task, it seems. Let’s take a look at some examples.
Here’s an example of a film with a ton of storytelling potential that went to waste. I think about the Brotherhood of Assassins a LOT, so when I saw that a movie was coming out I was hype af. However, while it’s a decent action film, it really isn’t much of an Assassin’s Creed movie. It has all the pieces, but just doesn’t fit into the already established world. With source material that literally spans centuries, why did they make a movie with entirely new characters and a whole new plot? Sure, they attempted to tie it into the games that followed, but even that seemed more like trying to smooth over their own mess than actually connecting the new plot to the game universe. There was a lot of amazing storytelling possibilities that got passed over for a subpar action script that fans and newcomers both would find pretty mediocre. Aguilar never even jumped in a pile of hay.
The most recent Tomb Raider Movie was also one I actually enjoyed, but it’s an example of another issue I see in adaptations pretty frequently. Unlike Assassin’s Creed, where they developed an entirely new story, Tomb Raider actually sort of followed the plot of the 2013 reboot. I say sort of, because in order to fit it all into a movie they had to cut it down significantly. They made a few big changes to the plot that were a bit unnecessary, particularly cutting the mythological aspects of the tomb and totally changed the conclusion. My favourite part of Tomb Raider is that the myths driving the plot that Lara often feels skeptical about end up being real! Getting rid of that magic was disappointing to me, as a fan. Why cut out the part of the games that ends up being the most exciting? It made the whole thing fall flat at a pinnacle moment, when it had otherwise done a good job of portraying Lara as a character similar to the game. That’s fine, instead of getting an adaptation that featured otherworldly and supernatural adventures through tombs, we got a film that watered down the game’s exciting story in favour of a 10 minute bicycle race.
Prince of Persia
If you haven’t watched the film adaptation of Prince of Persia, don’t. It’s bad. Parts of the film actually do capture the game magic, mainly all the running and jumping on rooftops and walls. However, the film both differs in a number of ways from the original game, and fails to be a good movie in general. The plot takes numerous weird turns, and the dagger that plays an integral part of the game is demoted to a useless prop. Don’t even get me STARTED on the casting. It’s called Prince of Persia, and it stars an American actor with a fake British accent. The supporting cast isn’t any better. Basically, they pulled “rogue type character in the desert” from the game plot and scrapped the rest.
Super Mario Bros.
I couldn’t talk about bad video game movies and not mention this one. Like Prince of Persia, it is a terrible movie that does a terrible job of representing the game it is allegedly based on. Sure, Mario games don’t really have much of a plot to go from, but at least stick to the building blocks so that it somewhat resembles the game world! There is a princess held captive in a castle, and a plumber on a grand quest to save her. To be fair to this atrocity, and any other film adaptation, movie scripts go through so many revisions that what ends up on screen is rarely what was envisioned in the first place, and the writers don’t have much control. That seemed to be the case with the horrific, low budget mess that is Super Mario Bros. Would the original script have been better? It’s possible, but we sadly will never know.
So we have established what is wrong with film adaptations, but what about other types of media? There’s one often overlooked adaptation that I think deserves a lot of praise – novels. Tie in novels have a unique way of adapting stories from video games and expanding on them. All of the problems that I have with film adaptations (story not explained well, world not advanced in any way, waters down the game experience) aren’t applicable with books, and I often find that the approach novels take is one that I wish they would do for the big screen (though I do understand why they don’t).
Tie in novels have the advantage of being able to add to the lore of the game world, without rehashing or watering down the story. Often, I find that they even add more to the actual games, by expanding on small details or less significant characters. With books, the reader is still getting pulled into the story, and using their imagination to experience the world and get invested in the characters. If a game ends, and we are sad the story is over, books take us back into that world and tell us new stories.
Books that expand the game story from different perspectives are my favourite. It might be prequels, sequels, or behind the scenes adventures that involve characters whose arcs only intersect with the game at a few points. I’ve read tie in novels that made me go back and replay the game immediately, because I now had an entirely new perspective on characters or events. Books like those are a treasure for game fans. They’re even better if the story is good enough that they can stand on their own, and be an engaging story that pulls readers who haven’t even played the games into the game world. Here are a few tie in novels I think are particularly good at this.
The Stolen Throne – David Gaider
A Dragon Age story that preempted the first game by a few decades, but sets up a LOT of history, The Stolen Throne is a great example of a book exploring the lore of video games as well as giving details into important characters later on. The two main protagonists are the father of the game’s first companion NPC, and a game villain. This book taught me a lot about Ferelden (where the first game is set), as well as their conflict with Orlais (their neighboring country that controlled them for a significant amount of time). What I love most about the Dragon Age books (they’re all soooo good), is that they are written by some of the game’s main writers, so the world is being explored by the people who created it.
Mass Effect Andromeda: Nexus Uprising – Jason M. Hough
Here is a good example of a story that made me feel different about the game I was playing. Nexus Uprising takes place a year prior to Mass Effect Andromeda, when the first group of colonists from the Milky Way arrive in the Andromeda Galaxy. The story details everything that occurs from their arrival until the Pathfinder arrives and witnesses the chaos that occurred. You start the game dealing with a lot of the aftermath of these events, but the book gives an entirely different perspective, and fleshes out the setting and the political climate of the game. The game story is fine without the book, and the book explains enough that you can read it without the game, but once I read the book I immediately had to play the game again. The story gave me an entirely new appreciation of the game. It didn’t retell the story, it expanded it.
These are just two examples, and there are endless tie in novels that either directly connect to games, or expand the lore of game worlds. I enjoy the Assassin’s Creed novels quite a bit, and in terms of expanding the lore of game worlds the Elder Scrolls novels are also a good read. I didn’t get into graphic novels based on video games, but there are also a number of those that are fantastic continuations of their respective game universes (Call of Duty Nazi Zombies is a personal favourite).
To sum it all up, I think that video game movies have a lot of potential to be excellent, but they could take a page out of tie in novels books (no pun intended). They would be better off exploring more of the world surrounding the game, rather than watering down stories fans are familiar with. Introduce newcomers to the world in a way that pulls them in. Let us keep exploring a world we love in an engaging and exciting way.
I don’t think it is realistic to expect this from movies. They want to sell tickets, and they have a limited time slot. HOWEVER, I see a bright spot on the adaptation horizon that I have hope for as a happy medium – television. In the era of streaming services, TV adaptations have hit their stride. Great shows are being made, and finding success, where they wouldn’t have before (just look at novel adaptations like American Gods or Shadow Hunters). People consume TV at an alarming rate, and a tv series is a great medium for adaptations, because there is a lot of room to develop the characters and introduce the backstory. The story overall can also be fully explored without having to knock our socks off in 2 hours or less. WIth the coming of the Witcher tv show to Netflix this year, I hope we will see the dawn of good video game adaptations that let us enjoy our favourite worlds in new ways. Until then, I’ll be over here watching the Assassin’s Creed movie a few more times, because I just can’t stop. What movies and books based on video games do you feel passionately about, one way or another? Let us know in the comments!