After sitting through the awful Assassin’s Creed movie three months ago, I wrote a blog post titled, “How To Make A Good Video Game Film“. It’s probably one of the highest-viewed posts on this site and I had fun writing it and it led to some good conversations with people who disagreed with my points.
I was playing some Minecraft with some friends and I mentioned that there was a Minecraft movie in the works. My friend sighed loudly and said there was no point to making a Minecraft movie because, “…it would take out the entire reason for playing Minecraft, the gameplay.” I understood where he was coming from, (it’s one of the main reasons given for stopping game-to-movie adaptations), some games are inexorably tied to their gameplay.
(SPOILERS AHEAD for Bioshock and Spec Ops: The Line) Bioshock is a key example. While it might be fun to see Rapture on the big screen, “Would You Kindly” (the phrase that controls the main character) would lose pretty much all of its awesomeness, since we are not playing. Spec Ops: The Line is another. We decide to enter Dubai, we decide to use the white phosphorous and game chastises us for how we play the game. Those choices wouldn’t be there in a non-interactive medium.
To take away the thing that separates games from all other media makes sense, so we should stop game-movies, right?
Before we decide that, let me show you a few things.
The Defence of Video Games – The Last Question
Books have been a main source of adaptation since the inception of filmmaking. The Bible, Shakespeare, Dickens, Christie; several key books and authors have been successfully transposed from page to screen. Heck, Chuck Palahniuk is on record as saying the film version of Fight Club is better than his book.
So, we can all agree that book to movie’s work. And believe it or not, there are some books to games. A non-interactive media working in an interactive one. Let’s look at some examples.
- I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream
One of the best science-fiction stories ever written, Harlan Ellison’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi story is a slim tome, I think it’s around ten pages. And they managed to make it into a sprawling hours-long adventure game. Reading it again and again, I’m surprised they managed to make this short story, one with not a lot of character backstory or traditional narrative, into a game, but they did and they managed to create what is regarded as an actual mature game, when mature meant dealing with themes such as sexual assault and the Holocaust (see the link below), rather than mature meaning an 18 Rating and lots of blood.
Harlan Ellison worked on the script with the creators (showing that getting people who care about the property makes it better) and it while it is technical ‘sequel’ and throws out a couple of the themes, it’s thought to be one of the best point-and-click games ever created.
- Metro 2033
I got to read Metro 2033 before I played the game, surprising how it came out in the United Kingdom the same year as the game did. The Metro series, written by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky tells the story of people living in the Moscow Metro system (partly designed as the Soviet Union’s nuclear bomb shelter) twenty years after a nuclear war.
The game follows the same story of the book fairly closely. Players/readers follow Artyom as he travels from one side to the other trying to save his station while encountering hostile humans and supernatural enemies. In the game we get all the main characters from the book, like Bourbon and Khan as well as some of the minute details such as staring down the Librarians or the mummified lady in the ticket booth. I guess this is what happens when the writer of the book helps write the game.
- Rainbow Six
Much like Metro, I read Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six before I played the original game (which sold 25m copies when it was released). There has only been one R6 novel, and while the newer games have made their own stories, the first game stuck extremely close to the novel, with missions directly lifted from the novel. It’s not even a run-and-gun shooter. Violence is to be feared in Rainbow Six, where one stray bullet can kill you, something which the book emphasised heavily. And again, just like the two cases before, Tom Clancy not only helped develop the game but was one of the founders of the company that made it, Red Storm.
So what’s my point? Well, if a book can be turned into a film and be successful (LOTR, Harry Potter etc.) and a book can be turned into a game and be successful (the three above, as well as The Witcher and Parasite Eve) why can’t a game into movie work? A book into game shows a non-interactive media working in interactive, so that dispels the usual video-game-to-film argument that the film would just be gameplay footage.
Heck, most games have equivalent films. Tomb Raider is Indiana Jones, Assassin’s Creed is both The Matrix and The Mask Of Zorro, Rainbow Six is Sicario (not to mention the five other Tom Clancy films, showing that his action can work in all three mediums). This is what I meant in my original article about choosing a correct property, something that would work as a film, not Angry Birds or bloody Tetris. A follow up argument might be, “well why do we need video-game films if other films do it the exact same?” That’s a non-argument. Every slasher film has pretty much the same story, but we watch it to see the new things added to it.
And if we want to look at it the other way, we can. Several games have been turned into books, and not just concept art books or behind-the-scenes. Max Payne 3 had a three-comic series written by Sam Lake and Dan Houser which fits right into the series. Halo, Splinter Cell (a Tom Clancy property) and Assassin’s Creed (which was also based off a novel, Alamut) have all jumped from games into book form and are well-received by their fan-bases. The new Tomb Raider comics had Rhianna Pratchett and Gail Simone (the latter being comic writer of Deadpool, Wonder Woman and Batgirl). That’s an interactive media moving into non-interactive.
And to finish, there is a long-running game series known as S.T.A.L.K.E.R., which is set around the nuclear site at Chernobyl. And before it was made into a game, it was a book before being turned into a play, another book and even a tabletop role-playing game. The creators managed to move between all those types of media, both interactive and non-interactive. But the main thread I want to bring up was the film that was based on the same text. The film is called Stalker (that’s where the game got the name from). And do you know who made that film? Andrei flippin’ Tarkovsky, one of the premier filmmakers to ever come out of the Soviet Union. That film is ranked 29th at the BFI’s ’50 Greatest Films Of All Time’.
While the game is much more bang-bang-shooty than the film, which is a 163-minute philosophical breakdown, the New York Review of Books still said that, “…much of the players activity is oddly in-keeping with Stalker‘s spirit, sometimes even managing to expand upon it.” And while NYRoB says, “…on the face of it, the games don’t have much that in common with the film,” S.T.A.L.K.E.R. isn’t just defined by it’s shooting. Again, it’s one of those games that it’s gameplay might be boring if it were beamed straight into a theatre, but moving away from that might create a great film. I never said that game-films had to stick to their gameplay, but it’s knowing which gameplay can translate into movie action well.
So, let me put that question to you again. If a book can be turned into a critically and commercially successful film and a book can be turned into a critically and commercially successful game, why can’t a game be turned into a critically and commercially successful film?
Argue with me in comments if you have a reason why it wouldn’t work.
So, 16% on Rotten Tomatoes for Assassin’s Creed eh? And after seeing it myself, I can whole heartedly agree. Seeing as we are all disappointed after Warcraft, Ratchet And Clank (remember Ratchet And Clank came out in 2016? No you didn’t, because nobody went to see it) and now Assassin’s Creed, I’ve decided to help Hollywood and the rest of cinema out. As a film fanatic and a gamer, I have been hoping for a good video game adaptation for a LONG time. And while some have come close, none of them ever become worldwide smashes. So, I have devised the four major points of how to get a video game film going in the right direction. Directors and producers, when you approach a video game film, feel free to use this as a tick list to make sure you are on course.
1.Know Your Source Material (And Whether It’s A Good Choice)
To truly understand a book you are adapting, it is widely accepted that you read it multiple times. Why are video games any different? Sure, some games range from four to forty hours, but you don’t even have to play the whole thing. Watch a Let’s Play, or if that’s still too hard, have someone in the crew play it and give you a highlight reel of moments.
You wouldn’t try and make a film adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings if you had only read the blurb and if you’re serious about adapting it, you should know the lore and story of your game. I’m not a huge fan of Halo, but I really enjoyed Halo: Legends because the creators knew the source material. They took the time to learn the lore of the galaxy and world and didn’t deviate from it, creating some exciting action anime fights.
Knowing your game also means knowing whether it is a good property to adapt. Usually this means having a game with a narrative, as you don’t have to faff about with devising a new script. Tomb Raider, good. Silent Hill, good. Warcraft, promising. Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, Tetris, FNAF, terrible, terrible, terrible.
- Understand Your Source Material (What Makes It Successful)
Now that you’ve invested time into learning about your video game, you now need to understand why that video game has fans and is widely celebrated. For example, I give you Hitman.
The appeal of Hitman is simple. A stylish man heads to exotic locales, kills usually the maximum of one person in an understated manner and then leaves without anyone knowing he was ever there. Understanding Hitman means that you know this is the gold standard for play, and that unnecessary killing, especially spectacular explosions where everyone in the surrounding area becomes aware of you is seen as the worst and wrong way to play Hitman. Yet both Hitman films have gone down the explosions and gun-battles route because it’s “easier”. To some the proper way to play Hitman may not seem cinematic enough. In response, I would offer up 2010’s The American of how to do a Hitman-esque film and it to still be entertaining.
For another example, Max Payne. The fun in Max Payne comes from the slow-motion action and the over-the-top hardboiled detective genre. The film didn’t include either of those, with terrible slow-motion effects and a dull script. They took the two things that separated Max Payne apart in the video game world and didn’t add an ounce of them into the film. A film that would be a good template is John Woo’s Hard Boiled.
And I obviously don’t need to talk about Super Mario Bros and why that failed.
- Get People Who Are Enthusiastic About The Project (And Dismiss Those Who Aren’t)
I know films have a limited budget, but you can at least try and get people who are interested or have investment in the film. I’ve been critical of Warcraft, but at least Duncan Jones was passionate about his film. Another one would be Christophe Gans, the director of the first Silent Hill (which in my opinion is the best video game based film so far). Gans went out of his way to make sure it was as true to the game as possible, even recreating shots from memorable sections. Actors can also help the film, such as Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft. Jolie wanted to do the stunts for real and worked with the filmmakers to create some amazing action scenes (go back and watch Tomb Raider II before you dismiss me, some of those are great action sequences). And most of us will sit through the turgid Street Fighter for oodles of Raul Julia. Passion from the filmmakers makes things watchable.
Don’t get people who aren’t going to invest time or effort or think video games aren’t worth it. Mark Whalberg loved the original script for Max Payne but became wary after learning it was based on a game. Skip Woods looks like he hasn’t played any of the Hitman franchise before writing the scripts to BOTH Hitman films. And it seems Uwe Boll just uses the name of the games he adapts to generate interest, rather than create anything remotely connected to the games. This type of bounty-hunter approach to filmmaking needs to stop.
- STICK AT IT
I’ve been hearing over and over again from many facets of both the film world and the geek world that video game movies should just stop. We got our hopes up that 2016 would be the year where video games films started achieving critical success from both fans AND critics, but we were once again left saddened at what could have been.
But we mustn’t shut video game films down. The only way to get good is to persevere. Let’s look at superheroes. Comic book/superhero films are dominating the box office nowadays, but they weren’t always a massive success, critically or commercially. Another geek touchstone, Star Wars. We had to get through two terrible Star Wars films to get back to good ones (yes, two. Phantom Menace is entertaining). Video games are a young medium. Superman was introduced nearly eighty years ago; the superhero genre has had a while to simmer before becoming the hottest property in Hollywood. Lord Of The Rings was almost a century old before that got the full cinematic approach. Games as a cultural phenomenon have had only a fraction of that time; they will have their moment any day now.
So, do you think they are any legitimately good video game films? Are you waiting for a singular property to get the silver screen treatment? Or should we all just drop them and never speak of video games and movies again?
Banner picture courtesy of cbcnews.ca.
The first teaser trailer for the Assassins Creed film came out last night morning and as both a connoisseur of film and a fan of the games (up until Assassins Creed III, because that’s when it went too far into stupid territory) I thought I would give my thoughts on the trailer and then general ideas about the film and casting.
First, roll call of the men and women involved in bringing Assassins Creed to the cinema. Kurzel, Fassbender, Cotiallard, Kurzel (again?), Arkapaw and finally Kyd. To most people, they are just a load of names, so let’s break it down.
- Justin Kurzel. The director of Assassins Creed. Director of 2015’s Macbeth (prepare to see that film pop up a lot in the following paragraph) my number one film of 2015.
- Michael Fassbender. The main star. To see his best work, I recommend Hunger, Shame (if you’re feeling up for it) and 12 Years A Slave (all by Steve McQueen). Also Macbeth.
- Marion Cotillard. The first female role in the trailer. To see more of her work, look for the Edith Piaf musical biopic La Vie En Rose or if that ain’t your thing watch her work in Public Enemies. Also Macbeth.
- Jed Kurzel. The composer. Brother to director Justin. His best work includes Kodi Smit-Pchee and Fassbender’s Slow West last year. Also Macbeth.
- Adam Arkapaw. The cinematographer (aka the guy who makes the film look like it does). Responsible for the camera work in season one of True Detective and THAT six-minute long take (WARNING: Contains strong language and violence). Also Macbeth.
- Jesper Kyd. The other composer (although for Assassins Creed he’s in the “music department”). Composer of the AC games from the first through to Revelations and the superb Hitman game scores. Sadly no ties to Macbeth.
I could stop writing there. Six names. Damn good pedigree and an exciting intellectual property. Let’s look at the trailer.
Done? Okay. Let’s talk.
The Assassins Creed trailer is how you do a trailer. Oh yeah, there are problems with it, but what a trailer should do is tell you the story, not the plot. To see of a film that does the reverse, look at the trailer for The Double. It gave away its twist long before it was ever in theatres. What does Assassins Creed do? We learn about the Animus, Michael Fassbender’s double lead role, his abilities as an Assassin and our setting, but what have we learnt about the plot? Nothing.
The trailer is giving us the nice blend of the things that made Assassins Creed the series it now is. Hack-and-slash combat, free-running across exotic rooftops, a brooding misery-guts under the hood and some bonkers modern day stuff involving sinister corporations. It’s got the iconography down; the eagle, the colourful rooftop base-jumping (Spain here is represented by Malta), the mantras of the Assassins and the signature Leap of Faith at the end. According to Fassbender, that move is a real guy and a real stunt, “We’ve got [stuntman] Damien Walters doing a 120-foot leap of faith, without any rope, into a bag.” If the rest of the parkour-infused set pieces are practical as well then this will definitely be one to watch just for the stunts alone. Malta is also a good choice of location/filming. While big films like Captain Phillips and World War Z were filmed there, no film has shown off the architecture of the small island or it’s capital Valetta.
From the clips, the film looks great. Arkapaw is earning his name as one of the greatest cinematographers alive today with the compositions. The fights look to be wide-angle shots with good choreography, so hopefully the rest of the film doesn’t mirror something akin to the fights in Quantum of Solace. There will obviously be handheld camerawork for some fights (ever since Paul Greengrass popularised it in The Bourne Supremacy it will feature in every film with a fight scene) but hopefully most will keep their distance from the actors.
The Animus was a sticking point for me. To any who don’t know, the Animus is a machine that when you are plugged in, you can jump back into the memories of your ancestors (Michael Fassbender will be playing two roles, one as Callum Lynch in the present and Aguilar the Assassin during the 1500s.) I thought this might throw a film audience. Gamers can suspend their disbelief while I think films need a bit more coercing. To anyone a bit confused, think of the Animus as similar to The Matrix. It’s a fake world that you can play around in to your hearts content. It might have been better to drop all present day stuff though. The games tried a similar double narrative and it only served to highlight how bland the present day character was in comparison to his ancestors. Eventually they did drop all pretence about a future-based war and got on with the free-running across European cities, but if the film handles it, again, like The Matrix did in the first film, it might just work.
The film moves away from the storylines of the game, which I think is for the best. The ability of the Animus is that we can have several unconnected films but they are all under the banner of Assassins Creed. I’m curious however on the choice of the Spanish Inquisition as a setting. Sure, it’s a great setting, mirroring the settings of the American War Of Independence in AC3 and the French Revolution in AC: Unity. But the choice of the Inquisition, the 1500s, mirrors the timeline of the “Ezio Auditore trilogy” three games following Italian Assassin Ezio Auditore during the Italian Renaissance. There is also a rumour of a Caribbean Assassin featuring in the film, which ties in with the Kenway Saga (which follows a grandfather to grandson storyline of the Golden Age of Piracy to the American War of Independence). If they do want to include these references to the games, I hope they keep them to a cameo at best. As a fan I want Assassins Creed to draw in more people than the games ever could and I think these titbits might detract from the story at play here.
Lastly, that trailer music. Ugh. The AC series is known for it’s rather excellent musical choices for it’s trailers (Justice for AC2, Imagine Dragons for AC3 and Nils Frahm for Unity) but here we have Kanye West. Remember this is a teaser to start with and it’s more a marketing decision rather than a reflection of the film. Let’s wait until the next one, it can only get better.
And to end, I’ll rank my list of Assassins Creed games. Note: I have only played up until AC3, so everyone shouting “B-but Black Flag…”, I haven’t had a game system for a while, so calm down.
- Assassins Creed 2
- Assassins Creed Revelations (mainly for the city and multiplayer)
- Assassins Creed (best combat of the entire series and the Arabian setting was interesting. Also you actually assassinated people)
- Assassins Creed Brotherhood (felt like a step back after AC2 and a terrible story. This is where is became less about the assassinating and more about faffing about)
- Assassins Creed III (the only redeeming thing about it was the tomahawk combat)
Cover photo source: Google Images.