Why the Movie Is Better than the Game

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If there’s a successful movie out there that appeals to males aged 18 to 35, you can bet someone somewhere is wondering how to make a game out of it. From Krull and The Dark Crystal to Avatar and the new Harry Potter, the gaming industry has always been quick to adapt successful properties from the silver screen to the computer screen and, with few exceptions, they usually suck. But why is that? Is there something inherent in the process of adaptation that ensures most games based on movies will be terrible? Frankly, yes. While there are certainly some notable exceptions, it’s been hard to come up with any games that we thought were better (or even as good) as the movies they were based on.

So why is that?

Well, let’s talk about the two mediums first. Movies aren’t games. I know that may not be the most profound statement anyone has ever uttered on the pages of The Escapist, but it’s still worth saying. Movies rely primarily on images to engage audience interest. Sure there are other crafts and techniques that moviemakers employ to hold our attention, but it is first and foremost a visual medium that communicates primarily in a visual way. Contrast that with videogames which, although they have a strong visual component, rely more on the player’s interaction with the world as their main point of attraction and contact. So right away we’re talking about two forms of entertainment that might share many superficial elements but still differ from each other at their very foundations.

The process of adapting a movie to a game then is a form of translation, of selection, and of interpretation. What is the easiest part to transfer? The action, of course. Action works very well in the visual medium of film, and it also works well in the interactive medium of videogames. So simply isolating action sequences from a popular movie and then using them as the basis of a game level isn’t terribly hard. What is hard is making a five-minute action sequence the basis for a half-hour game level. In expanding and stretching the film’s classic action sequences, the developers sometimes make what was a thrilling experience while you were sitting in the theater feel tedious and monotonous when you’re sitting on your couch or at your desk. How much time does Harry spend in direct combat with Voldemort? Have you ever had a boss fight that was as brief?

Additionally, the encounter between the movie’s hero and a handful of villains loses some of its impact when you multiply those villains by the dozens or even hundreds. John McClane may have only killed a handful of terrorists in Die Hard, but those sorts of small enemy numbers just don’t work in the videogame market. The problem is that merely throwing more enemies at the player doesn’t heighten the emotional intensity. In fact, it has the opposite effect, turning each kill into meaningless rung on an ever lengthening ladder.

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There’s also a certain amount of fan expectation involved in the way these games are made. It only makes sense that publishers rely on fan familiarity and the massive momentum of the Hollywood marketing machine. But all too often, that discourages developers from creating experiences that stand on their own, at least from a narrative standpoint. Yes, it’s fair to say that most people who pick up an Indiana Jones game are fans of Indiana Jones. But that doesn’t mean that developers can take the shortcut of skipping exposition and transition. Many games based on movies do just that, leaping from action sequence to action sequence with only the barest attempt to connect them with plot. It’s assumed, of course, that fans won’t have a problem following the story, but that makes the game more of an extension to the movie than a fully-realized independent experience.

Along with that comes the problem of predictability. Films rely on a scripted plot that moves from A to B based on the artistic needs of the story. Videogames require a certain level of freedom to let the player feel in control over the experience. The two approaches are essentially incompatible. Even if they weren’t, part of the problem of playing through a game based on a movie you’ve seen is that the developer is tied to giving players what they expect to see, which leaves no room for surprise. Like watching a movie after someone has told you the entire plot, playing a videogame adaptation often feels like the player is merely going through the motions. At the same time, there’s such a strong expectation from the audience (and the license holders), that the developer is actually discouraged from branching out and doing anything original within the story.

Strangely, MMOs like Star Wars Galaxies and The Matrix Online have realized that it makes more sense to use the massively detailed and beloved worlds of the film series merely as settings in which players can tell their own stories. Of course, that approach has its own problems, not least of which is placing every character in a secondary relationship to the iconic characters from the series. Players in those games could never be Luke Skywalker or Neo, which always set an upper limit on their success.

Finally, because the game needs to be released alongside the movie, the development schedule is often compromised as the team tries to make a ship date they themselves did not set. Consequently, some movie games feel rushed and incomplete, which doesn’t do much to discourage the notion that they’re merely attempts to cash in on a movie’s success. Given the huge licensing fees videogame publishers have to pay to secure the rights to adapt a movie, that’s often not too far from the truth. Any why bother throwing development money at a project when the brand itself is going to drive more sales than a good story and good gameplay ever will? Maybe that’s a cynical point of view, but experience bears it out.

So what do you think? Have you played any movie games that you loved? If so, what about them worked?

Be sure to come back tomorrow to read our thoughts on how movies are made from books.

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