Video Games Are Already Cinema

By  · Published on January 12th, 2017

Maybe we should we skip film adaptations and just play video games instead.

December came and went with the hotly anticipated Assassin’s Creed getting unenthusiastic reviews from critics and failing to make a significant dent at the box office. While fans of the video games series seemed overwhelmingly satisfied with the adaptation, it struggled to captivate a larger audience despite packing some serious star power with Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons and Charlotte Rampling. While the film was eventually able to amass $150 million worldwide (a paltry performance when compared to its $120 million dollar budget), it struggled to perform against Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, earning just $50 million domestically.

With Assassin’s Creed now in the rear view mirror, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter is set to become the next highly anticipated video game adaptation to pop up on everyone’s movie radar, with its premiere coming at the end of the month. The final entry in the franchise marks the end of a fifteen year run of films based on the hugely successful video game series that have ranged from pretty good to truly awful. But these films are hardly the only efforts to bring video games to the big screen. Silent Hill, Tomb Raider (which recently saw a game reboot spark a new film with Alicia Vikander), Doom, and World of Warcraft have all received film adaptations or series that have either underperformed or fallen short with critics (though not always with fans). But when we consider how video game adaptations struggle to truly translate to the big screen, perhaps the failure is not on the films but on ourselves. Maybe it’s time we stop approaching video games as secondary source material for films and instead treat them as a unique new version of cinema.

First off, let me say that I doubt this will ever happen. The truth is mining successful video games or series will always be seen as a cash cow for studios, as they carry a built-in audience, characters and storylines. Moreover, most gamers enjoy the film adaptations that critics tend to deride or dismiss. While the first Resident Evil film doesn’t hold a candle to actually playing my beloved Resident Evil 4, it was still a thrill seeing Raccoon City, the Umbrella Corporation, Jill Valentine and zombie dogs (not to mention all of the other hideous and wonderful zombie creatures) come to life on the big screen as the film series unfolded. And Milla Jovovich is such a bad ass you can almost ignore that Alice isn’t a canon character. Video game movies aren’t going anywhere.

The formula for these adaptations is simple enough. Video games already offer compelling heroes and heroines to root for, usually clad in iconic or instantly recognizable gear. Storylines are cleaned up and turned into more of a streamlined narrative so that even audiences unfamiliar with the game can follow along. As a trade-off to faithful fans for changing things up, most films offer little nods to the source material – like the closeup of Alice’s eye at the end of the first Resident Evil film or Lara Croft’s infamous cargo shorts and tank top – for fans to spot and geek out over. It’s a formula that’s been used quite successfully with the swarm of comic book adaptations in recent years.

But the while the comparison to comics is an easy one, it’s also lazy. It’s easy enough to misinterpret the punchy art style in comics as simply static cousins to the fluid universes and characters that proliferate video games. Of course the two mediums influence and inform each other, but the connection between comics and literature is a closer one. Graphic novels such as Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which famously landed on Time’s 100 Best Novels list in 2005, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus challenged public perceptions of comics forever. These weren’t just trashy pulp stories or cartoon avengers caping around to beat up baddies and get the girl. Comics were finally being seen as a new way to tell timeless and vital stories using art – sometimes stunningly realistic like Alex Ross’ gouache work on Kingdom Come. As comics gained respect outside of its own community, the translation to film was an inevitable and obvious one. And films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Dark Knight have proven that superhero movies can have prestige. So what’s holding back video game adaptations?

It’s a question I keep pondering as I play my way through the BioShock series (this time remastered) for umpteenth time. When I first was plunged into the breathtaking world of Columbia in BioShock Infinite, I yearned for a big screen translation. But this time around I’m more guarded about it. As graphics have become so advanced and realistic, the action and cut scenes in the game already feel cinematic on their own. What could a film even add to awe of seeing the floating city for the first time? And how badly would a script bungle the convoluted but deliciously twisted timelines and multiple realities Booker and Elizabeth uncover and create? This goes beyond my revered love for BioShock as well. How could a big screen adaptation of Mass Effect surpass the superb experience of playing through the entire series (minus the awful ending), one where players can adapt their main character to reflect their own sexuality and even bypass gender binaries? It’s difficult to say.

As rumors of a film version of The Last of Us swirl I’m cautiously optimistic. Maybe, just maybe, a video game as cinematic as this one could finally make studios understand the possibilities inherent in video games. But I fear instead that the heart wrenching and captivating story of Joel and Ellie will just be seen as simply another way to piggyback on the success of The Walking Dead. Either way, I’ll be in line for this and the plethora of future adaptations that will inevitably find their way to the big screen. But I’ll also hold out hope that eventually, as video games continue to stun with beautiful graphics and masterfully written, suspenseful scripts, we might see a renaissance in our cultural appreciation for the medium. One that will see video games as their own form of cinema, interactive and often social, telling us stories about ourselves and others, and shining a light on the darker aspects we try to hide and forcing them to light. And when we finally recognize that video games can stir the same emotions in us as great films perhaps then we’ll finally get our prestige video game film – except we’ll be playing along instead of just watching.

The Life, Death, and Re-Spawn of Genre

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Jamie Righetti is an author and freelance film critic from New York City. She loves horror movies, Keanu Reeves, BioShock and her Siberian Husky, Nugget.