Well, the World of Warcraft movie trailer has been released ay BlizzCon, and everyone seems all aflutter with the new scenes from the upcoming movie. Our own in-house cinephile and hawkish cultural critic Sunday has taken the genre of video game adaptations to task, often wondering as to the strange choices in what gets adapted and how these adaptations end up.
I also have been getting tired of the video games that are making the jump to the big screen. It's a thing I wish would end because I've never seen it successfully done. I love movies. I also love video games. So why does the media crossover so often leave a bad taste in my mouth?
Upon careful consideration of the facts, I've come to the conclusion that video game movies take our money and make us sad. We keep on watching them because we believe they will take our money and make us happy. This will (probably) never happen.
Adapting a video game to video requires one of two methods. The first is to create a story using the setting and trappings of a game, as is the case with Street Fighter, Super Mario Bros., or Battleship. The second would be to recreate one path of a video game/loosely adapt a story. I would probably put movies like Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale in this category.
These two methods have two outcomes, in my opinion: the first method creates a story where there really isn't one, or creates a story that doesn't mesh with the "world" created by the video game; while the second method tries to retell the story in a different visual medium and remove player input. The first is unsatisfying because it provides something that viewers probably do not want, the second is just as unsatisfying as it provides a distinct experience that the players of that game did not have. In both cases viewers are brought out of the fiction because it fails to align with the fiction they know.
It's why playing D&D around a table with friends will always result in a more satisfying experince than playing a party-based RPG video game like Icewind Dale or watching the Dungeons & Dragons movie. The experiences you build in that moment cannot be replicated in the same dynamic way as when they emerge when playing with other people.
Movies based on video games can only ever be an approximation of the experience. They can only show one path--the one that the writer chooses to take; they can only show one perspective--that which the director chooses to show. This means that even if a game is a 1:1 adaptation of a video game experience it still doesn't work. A movie is a static experience, but a video game offers dynamic choice. Even if a movie and game start the protagonist at "point A" and end at "point Z," the path for the film is set; the path for the player in the game is not.
A movie based on a video game story won't every be as compelling as a players experience with the video game because it cannot be. Players will always make meaning out of experience. Some of this meaning is anticipated and planned by the developer via the story of a game, but the narrative of the game and how it is played is constructed by the player between the scripted story.
So can there be a satisfying movie made from a video game? Sure, it's entirely possible. Video games are, at their core, interactive narratives, whether that narrative is gobbling up dots before ghosts can hunt you down or a three-game long series about saving the galaxy from a civilization-crushing sentience. These stories can (and I still think should) be told in different ways. Just realize that not all media are created equal, and what one can do, another cannot.
If you go to the movies expecting a film based on a game to offer a similar experience, you will walk away sad. If you turn to a video game made from a movie or book expecting to feel the same things you felt consuming the story for the first time, you will be disappointed.
Maybe one day someone will make a video game movie that circumnavigates my theories and finds a way to satisfy movie-goers and gamers. I'm not going to hold my breath, though.