Op-Ed

Op-Ed
The Medium Problem

Michael Zenke | 17 Jul 2007 21:00
Op-Ed - RSS 2.0

Removing a story from its natural medium, in many cases, is a waste of a perfectly good story. Though there are a few exceptions, in general, ripping a story from its original format tarnishes the experience. Gamers may know this lesson even better than the most cynical book lover. Just the same, it seems like a videogame is optioned for a movie adaptation every other week. This past Tuesday's showing of a live action snippet of a possible Halo movie did nothing to alleviate my frustration; though it was well put together, it had the ambiance of a fan-film set in the world of the Alien movies.

Most adaptations in the U.S. are made in the form of feature-length films. But while there's obviously big money to be had in selling a story to Hollywood, many a cash-hungry author has also found that there is plenty of room for disappointment. The problem is one of visualization. Movies are, at their core, a visual medium. Books, the most commonly adapted stories, have no visual elements outside of their front covers. As such, fans of a novel are often left disappointed when the actors on screen bear no resemblance to their own mental casting call. More seriously, from a story perspective, budgets are infinite within the written word. In a movie, every new character, every line of dialogue, every special effect adds cost to the production and time to the final run time.

Games then, one would think, would be much easier to translate into a movie format. They already possess the visual component books lack. Though they're almost always longer than movies, most modern games are a shorter experience than reading a book. There's less to leave on the cutting room floor, theoretically leaving the fan happier. So why is it that there has yet to be a single videogame-to-film adaptation that is an unqualified success? The first Resident Evil movie wasn't bad. It was scary, at least. Final Fantasy: Spirits Within wasn't so much bad as it was boring, and the original Mortal Kombat it was cheesy but charming. All three of these movies, though, require hedging your bets. They require you to hem and haw before admitting to liking them. There isn't a single game-to-movie adaptation we can all look on proudly as gamers and say, well done.

The problem is, again, the core of the medium. Games are about interactivity. Most games are about surprising and engaging the player, with story coming in second or third after graphical prowess. Whereas books often have too much story to fit into a film, games often don't have enough. New games are beginning to move away from that point of view, or integrate their story fully with gameplay; for most, though, story is an afterthought tacked on to provide an excuse for gameplay. Games also use forced perspective in a way a book never could; game-makers force you to view their world from a particular point of view. The term "first-person shooter" is the most obvious example of this practice; just look at the film version of Doom for the result. Many gamers thought the first-person portion of the film was the only good part. That's because they've taught themselves to think of Doom from only that perspective.

What truly bars a game from being made into a great movie, though, is the lack of respect for games as an artistic medium. Even the most puerile movie seems to garner more respect as an artistic expression than the average game. Uwe Boll's efforts to destroy the reputation of game-to-movie adaptations haven't helped matters, but his trauma is just an expression of a trend. If we're ever going to see a truly respectable game adaptation, games will have to be recognized for what they are: simply another form of storytelling.

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