If you want to play a game about being a be-tentacled horror walking among contemporary humans disguised as one of their own, you strange person, I would heartily recommend Prototype over Darkness 2. I guess that’s because of the way the main character is perceived by the world around him. Civilians flee in terror from Alex Mercer because the last time he exposed himself in a public place, he bowled a perfect game with news vans as balls and pedestrians as pins. The military have locked down the city in pursuit of him and will instantly gun down their fellow soldiers at the merest suggestion that they’re him in disguise. Now that’s what I call holding the enemy in the grip of fear.
By comparison, no-one seems to be that bothered by the things that sprout out of Jackie Estacado’s back. All the men in his crime family refer to it with nervous diplomacy as “his thing” but it doesn’t make them want to work for him any less. And it doesn’t seem to have been absorbed by many of your enemies that very few things have escaped alive from an area around you approximately eight feet in radius. If it had, not so many of them would charge at you with baseball bats. It just takes me out of things when everyone in the world seems to be seeing different things when they look at me, like there are party streamers coming out of my back and an evil goblin running around force-feeding people birthday cake.
But anyway, the Darkness games are of course adapted from the Darkness comic book series published by Top Cow, and the main topic I want to talk about today is adaptations in general. Recently, while recording one of the horrible podcasts I do for my personal site with my horrible colleague Gabriel, he produced a copy of the novelization of the terrible movie Spider-Man 3, and posed me the question: who, exactly, is this product for?
It was a bit of a stumper. The word “retards” froze on the tip of my tongue as I realized that the retards are the ones enjoying the film. Perhaps, on reflection, novelizations of bad Hollywood movies – retaining none of the big-action spectacle that are the only reason anyone would want to see the film – exist for the benefit of some hypothetical caste of social-climbing retard who all dream of one day being allowed inside a public library without all the staff members pointing and screaming like Body Snatchers.
The Spider-Man movies are themselves adapted from comic books, and such things are the ongoing success story of the film industry, because adapting a comic book to a film is a transformation that makes sense. It’s all visual action and quick, bite-size storytelling, and seeing it all in an animated format adds what the stationary panel artwork is trying somewhat inexpertly to simulate. All it does is add to the experience of the story.
By the same token there are an awful lot of cases of popular lengthy literary works being ill-served by their transition to the silver screen (David Lynch’s Dune springs to mind) and that’s because things usually have to be cut out from the story to fit into the standard two-hour model. But on the other hand, short stories adapted into films tend to do significantly better (Total Recall, Shawshank Redemption, Benjamin Button) because there’s a lot that can be added and expanded upon.
All of this is leading to my latest cultural theory: that adapting from one medium to another only works when there’s room for things to be expanded, and almost always do not work when things have to be removed. Partly because fanboys will choke on their own double chins if you take out Doctor Manhattan’s naked willy. There are certainly exceptions, the last Lord of the Rings film omitted an entire concluding plot concerning Saruman and the Shire, but it’s debatable whether that was an improvement or not. Let’s just assume the theory works for now and use it to analyze what works and what doesn’t when adapting to and from the videogame format.
As I would hope we all know by now, one of the most inevitably disastrous transfers in culture is videogame to film. And that’s surely because it involves the removal of the central aspect of a videogame, the interactivity. A lot of videogame stories and characters are still rather hideously clichéd and badly written, but the gameplay aspect can carry them through that. Put under the unforgiving black eye of the film camera, they don’t have a leg to stand on.
Things aren’t so immediately doomed when adapting from the linear media – films and by extension comic books – to videogames, but a lot needs to be added. Too many film adaptations feel the need to simply follow the plot exactly. Spider-Man 2 is the example I always give of a good film adaptation, because it took the bits from the film that wouldn’t have made a good game – the bits where Spider-Man is trying to give up being an action hero and interesting person – and replaced it with more superhero fights and swinging about. By the same token I rate Darkness 1 over Darkness 2 because it actually feels like things are being adapted and expanded rather than having to stay shackled to the original material.
But games-to-films never work because when you take the interactivity out of the story then you’re reducing a million potential stories to one. But what’s the alternative, besides just not adapting anything from the videogame format at all? Obviously, there’s no other medium precisely like videogames because of the audience in the driving seat aspect. But I’m going to risk mockery from the intellectual circles here with my next point and argue that the closest equivalent storytelling medium to videogames is none other than the humble written novel.
The Witcher games are adapted straight from books and some people seem to like those, while there seems to be an entire cottage industry of novels adapted from games like Assassin’s Creed, Halo and Mass Effect. You see, the reason why books and games are comparable is because the essence of games is that the experience is a joint effort between the creator and the audience. And when you’re reading a book, you’re assembling your own vision of the characters and the action inside your head. That’s why so many readers will say they prefer the book to the film adaptation.
Books are also immersive and more suitable for extreme long-form storytelling, just like videogames that can hold your attention for six or seven hours in a sitting if you’ve nothing better to do and your head doesn’t start to hurt. And with both books and games you can get frustrated and throw something across the room. Can’t do that watching a film. Well, you can, but you’d probably put your back out and the projectionist will raise objections.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.