I am a gamer. I love — LOVE, an excellently crafted video game. When the story is right, the characters are deeply engaging, and I care about their emotional and physical struggles, it can be an amazing experience. A strong game with a rich history applied to the people, places, and events is like a film, where you personally get to peel back the layers of story at your own pace. Games done right can be an experience you don’t forget.
That said, do I believe we’ll see a game translate successfully (key word right there) to the big screen anytime soon? I’m highly doubtful, even if the source material is fantastic. With the news of supposed Hollywood buzz surrounding just such a fantastic game franchise in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I still remain skeptical. Before I explain why, even with a noteworthy fanbase and three well received games in the bag, that this game will likely never see production — let’s look at the trailer for the latest offering out of Eidos Montréal:
DEUX EX: HUMAN REVOLUTION
Intriguing, right? Dark and atmospheric with a character you want to know more about, yes? It doesn’t matter — it is highly likely you’ll either:
A. Never see it on anything but your console because buzz doesn’t actually mean a lot
B. Find the product so ravaged by “re-imagining” and the “vision” of the director that it will be a pale shadow of the game
C. See it die early in the process by the hand of studio heads that simply don’t understand gamer culture
The original Deux Ex (2000) was the story of a government agent named JC Denton, a nanotechnologically-augmented agent of an organization called UNATCO (The United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition) sent to track down supposed terrorists set in 2025. It is a story of pandemics, shady government officials, Templars, Illuminati — it’s a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream, and a whole lot of fun. It is a deep series with interweaving plots, literary references throughout, and characters that you can invest emotion in.
Deux Ex: Human Revolution is the prequel to this story, set twenty five years prior. The man in the trailer is Adam Jensen, a private security officer for a company that specializes in biomechanical augmentations, the predecessor of the technology seen in the first games. Story is still slim at this point, as the game is due out next year, but what is known is that the events in this story set in motion the formation of UNATCO, and the rise to power of the secret organizations that have worked in the shadows for so long.
Again — interesting source material, room to move toward sequels with a built in framework already in place, and a fanbase that would climb over one another to fill seats at a theater. It is considered one of the top games of all time by many outlets, won over forty game of the year awards, including getting a nod from The British Academy of Film and Arts. The writing of Deux Ex was considered a quantum leap in storytelling for games.
So…what’s the issue, right? According to any logical conclusion one could come to, Deux Ex is ripe for the picking — a studio’s dream come true. How could this possibly fail?
The answer? The Halo movie.
I’ve discussed the sad failure of the best-selling game franchise in history to make it to the big screen in spite of seemingly having everything going for it. Let me really lay out the details of that failure for you, however — and give you an idea of just what Deux Ex is up against in Hollywood.
The Halo movie was to be theaters in 2007, meant to ride the wave of Halo 3‘s astronomical popularity. In the first week on shelves, the game grossed $300 million dollars, shattering sales records. The film had a fantastic screenwriter in Alex Garland, backing from Microsoft Studios, Fox, and Universal, and the knockout punch of Peter Jackson as creative producer. With Peter Jackson onboard, the film had the extra added bonus of Weta, Jackons’ design/effects house, a $200 million dollar budget — and all of the amazing resources that entailed. Finally, the young and talented Neill Blomkamp (District 9) was christened director by Peter, seemingly closing the loop and starting the cart down the path.
What happened? Well — 20th Century Fox happened. They wanted a cheaper film — Jackson refused, understanding the vast scope of the Halo universe and the budget required to do it justice. They questioned the abilities of Blomkamp, and used his inexperience as a bargaining chip to attempt to negotiate lower profit cuts for Microsoft, Universal, Peter, and Neill.
It’s June, 2010 — there is no Halo movie. Both Jackson and Blomkamp have no intention of returning to the IP after having spent five months slogging through frustrating studio politics.
A perfect storm of studio power, creative writers, an excellent director, the best digital and practical effects house in the world, and the watchful eye of Peter Jackson could not breath big screen life into one of the most popular video game franchises since consoles came into homes — simply because one studio didn’t understand what they had their hands on.
Knowing this, do I see Deux Ex making the much deserved leap to movie theaters? I find it an exceedingly difficult prospect.
…but, what if it does? What if Eidos manages to jump through the correct hoops at the right time, with a studio willing to put up a budget and see it through to the end? It’s an excellent story, the characters are vivid, the physical landscape just screaming to be put to film — certainly there is enough going for it to not only make it through this process, but do so with that fantastic story intact.
Well, the answer to that? Max Payne.
Remedy Entertainment released Max Payne to rave reviews in mid-2001. It has gone on to spawn two additions, the most recent coming out later this year.
Max Payne is a fugitive DEA agent and former detective with the NYPD. His wife, Michelle, and their newborn daughter are killed by an organization covering up an experimental drug project that Michelle has stumbled upon. Payne proceeds to go undercover in the mob, and eventually becoming a nigh unstoppable vigilante once discovering the details of his wife’s death.
Max is deeply psychologically wounded. He wants to die, but his drive for vengeance paradoxically gives him an incredible will to live. The story is dark, gritty, and most importantly — you invest in Max Payne. His enemies are your enemies, and not simply because you’re the one pushing the buttons when he’s dispatching baddies in bullet-time. The Max Payne story is a no-brainer translation from game studio to movie studio; IP that is ready-made for a great director to grab onto and take to the next level, with what I submit would be a pretty tame budget.
With veiled allusions to Norse mythology in the game, writers Beau Thorne, Sam Lake, and director John Moore decided to go nuts with it. Instead of subtle references to the mythology, Moore beats the viewer over the head with flying demons, turning what was supposed to be a tough, noir-style film into a confusing mess that flirted with the supernatural. The film grossed relatively well, making over $80 million worldwide, but success was modest at best. Gamers saw it, didn’t care for it, and walked away.
CEO of 3D Realms, one of the producers of the game, couldn’t stand it. While IGN awarded it the best film adaptation of a game in 2008, they perfectly preface this with what ends up being the thrust of the problem with games that make it to the big screen:
“This is how sad games-to-film have become that the only one worthy of being named the “best” of the year is a movie that we panned.”
These are the substantial obstacles that a fantastic game series like Deux Ex has to overcome to not only make it to film to begin with, but to survive the process with the soul of the game intact. Film studios are content to skimp on budgets because they know that fanboys will fill seats early on and drive profits. They may not pull insane money, but making your budget back and a handful more is clearly worth the limited effort to them. When the money is there, the story is not — and I’ll submit that it never has been in the history of game-t0-screen translation.
As a fan, I’m still waiting for that.
The buzz in Hollywood for Deux Ex: Human Revolution doesn’t mean a lot right now, nor will it if there is a script, pre-production, or a cast. The Halo film had gone as far as artwork and creature design — it was happening. Wheels where turning. It will take nothing short of a complete film, completely true to the source material, well funded — and in the hands of theater goers to drag any excitement out of this gamer. I believe that feeling is shared by many of us. Still, it has to happen eventually. The laws of probability are functional, and the scales will eventually tip in our favor.
I hope Deux Ex is the game franchise to finally not only honor the gaming movie buff, but show general audiences what we’ve known all along — that there is a treasure trove of stellar big screen material on our computers and in our disk trays just waiting to be done right by.
What do you think?