Why the Video-Game Movie Craze Hasn't Happened Yet

Unlike comic-book makers, the gaming industry may have little to gain from Hollywood

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Some days, it looks as though original content is going the way of dinosaurs, frosted tips, and the DeLorean. When Universal Studios released the trailer Wednesday for Battleship, the film adaptation of the classic blind-luck board game, it was almost as if they had attached a note saying, “Yep, we’re officially out of ideas.” Raiding other entertainment genres for film ideas has become the industry standard, and when done right, the results can be fantastic (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, X-2: X-Men United). But lately it seems like Hollywood has been scraping the bottom of the barrel looking for the next big thing to adapt to film: Remakes of All Quiet on the Western Front, Beauty and the Beast, and Snow White, along with rebootings of Spider-Man, Planet of the Apes, and Judge Dredd (really?) are all in the works. But what happens when every last viable comic book, children’s novel, and board game has been picked over?

"There's money in [movies], but it's not the kind of money we'd talk about releasing a successful game," says the co-founder of Irrational Games

Video games would seem to be fertile ground to the hungry film executive hunting for the next audience to squeeze. The gaming industry posted record profits of $21.3 billion in 2008, and even though those numbers dropped to $18.58 billion in 2010 (mostly due to the lack of new gaming platforms like the Wii and PS3 to boost sales), a major title like last year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops, can still clock in $1 billion dollars in just six weeks.

But the track record for Hollywood video-game adaptations has been dismal. The two that appeared in theaters in 2010, Resident Evil: Afterlife and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, earned just $51 and $90 million, respectively. Those numbers seem meager, but they still place them at the No. 6 and No. 2 highest grossing video game movies of all time. In fact, The Dark Knight alone, if you include its worldwide gross, singlehandedly beats out the top ten video game adaptations combined. On Rotten Tomatoes, the highest rated video game movies are Final Fantasy, Prince of Persia and Mortal Kombat, which scored 43 percent, 36 percent, and 36 percent, respectively.

It seems surprising: On their faces, video games seem comparable comic books, another former sub-culture that’s successfully secured a place in the mainstream and brought record profits to both publishers and movie studios. Video games, like comic books, have emerged from the convention center halls and basements to larger cultural recognition. This year, L.A. Noire, an interactive crime thriller developed by Grand Theft Auto creators Rockstar Games, became the first video game to be featured at the Tribeca Film Festival. Audiences were treated to an hour of gameplay footage on the big screen, followed by a panel discussion with the creators on advanced narrative and voice acting in video games. Many franchises also feature successful novelizations tie-ins. The Fall of Reach, a prequel to the Halo series written by sci-fi novelist Eric Nylund, ended up selling over a million copies and the Smithsonian is currently running an exhibition on the art and visual design of video games

But the parallels with comics end there. Video games aren’t primarily narrative devices. As Joystiq Editor-in-Chief Chris Grant points out, the appeal of a successful franchise is rarely, if ever, based on its story. “One of the things that Hollywood forgets is that video games are mechanical,” he says. “They’re technological show pieces.” Grant likes to compare a good video game to a good car, a vast and complex assembly of parts that, in the best of cases, work together as a seamless experience for the user. It’s the game mechanics, and not the plots, that make a franchise like Call of Duty or Halo a success. “Modern Warfare 2, narratively, is a complete disaster,” he says. “It actually makes me upset that it did that well and the story is that inscrutable.” Comic books, on the other hand, are built on story, and though their narratives build to dizzying levels of complexity, they can be adapted almost straight off the page, frame-for-frame. Grant says that to attempt the same with a video game—to try and divorce story from game—would be “a gross overestimation of video game audiences’ appreciation for the narrative in the games that they play.”

Game narratives, even when successful and engaging, unfold over the course of at least eight to ten hours of play. Some feature “decision points” that take the story in a different direction, while others, like the hugely successful Grand Theft Auto, are “sandbox games” that allow the player to explore the world as they see fit. Pulling a cohesive script out of these games can require a feat of Herculean creativity. The best video-game movies, Grant says, aren’t based on games at all, but rather original stories that mimic gameplay mechanics. “Run Lola Run was built like a really great video game,” he says. “You’re trying to do something in 20 minutes, fail, reboot, and try again. That’s the whole structure of the movie. It’s super-fast, hyper graphic play space that feels like a video game, and you’re playing along with her as you go.”

Plenty of recent games have flirted with Hollywood adaptations and big studio budgets, most notably the Gears of War and Halo action franchises, but none have managed to gather enough speed for takeoff. Gears came especially close but was scuttled after director Lens Wiseman (of Live Free or Die Hard fame) jumped ship and New Line Cinema slashed the budget. Likewise, 20th Century Fox and Universal Studios were partnered with Mircosoft to produce a Halo movie with Neill Blomkamp (District 9) directing and Peter Jackson as executive producer, but the project stalled and eventually died over profit sharing disputes. In the end, Universal had sunk close to $12 million into the effort with nothing to show for it (Fox refused to pay their half, citing mismanagement of the project).

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Daniel D. Snyder is a writer based in New Mexico.

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