375. Why Video Game Movies Suck

Name three good video game movies.

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

You see, video game movies suck.

Granted, movies about games as a medium are sometimes good, like Disney’s superb Wreck-It Ralph. I love that movie.

Wreck-It Ralph coverMovies adapted from games, however, are another story: a sad, depressing story. I’ve seen a number of video game movies, and most of them are awful.

Why is this? There are many excellent films based on books; why not on video games? There are at least three reasons.

First, many games have either no story or only the barest semblance of one.

The plot of nearly every Super Mario Bros. game, for example, consists of a monster (Bowser) kidnapping a princess (Peach) and a brave man (Mario) setting out to rescue her. That’s it. This story (and minor variations thereupon) appears in game after game after game.

For a video game, such a simplistic story is perfectly fine—after all, the story is just an excuse to play the game. What matters in the Super Mario Bros. games is the what of the adventure; the why is a minor afterthought. It’s such fun to guide Mario through challenging levels that his reason for facing them in in the first place is hardly more than a footnote.

Unlike a game, which can be fun for its own sake, a film needs a story. The what is not enough; it also needs the why. Many video games don’t offer a strong enough why to be adapted into compelling movies.

The second reason video game movies often fail is that too many filmmakers, assuming their film has a guaranteed audience in fans of its source material, make it inaccessible to broader audiences: people who don’t play video games.

Final Fantasy VII - Advent ChildrenThe clearest example of this is my all-time favorite action movie, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. This computer-animated movie’s action scenes are ridiculous—this movie has a sword fight on motorcycles, guys. The animation looks great nearly a decade after the film’s release, the music is excellent, the characterization is compelling, and the ending is genuinely touching.

However, Advent Children has one damning flaw: it’s practically incomprehensible to anyone has hasn’t played an old PlayStation game called Final Fantasy VII. Even for those of us who have played the game, the movie can be a little tough to follow. This is a shame. In every other respect, Advent Children is an excellent film—but that excellence is locked away from most audiences.

The third reason games hardly ever make good movies is in the medium itself. Most video games are a repeating pattern of stages; many are nothing more than a series of levels. That’s hard to adapt to film.

Other games offer a more subtle take on this structure. Role-playing games, for example, generally feature a robust story, yet follow the same pattern: the player progresses from a town, to the open world, to a dungeon, and then back to a town, there to begin the cycle anew.

This approach works well for video games as a medium. It even works for television, in which a set of episodes allows for repeated rising and falling action. A film, however, is too short for this structure. The repeating pattern of a video game doesn’t fit in a movie. A game’s cyclical narrative can’t be compressed into a two-hour film.

Every now and then, however, there comes a game whose narrative isn’t a repeating cycle, but a focused story that could be brilliantly adapted to film. I can think of at least one video game movie that absolutely needs to be made… but I’ll save that for next time.

Are there any good video game movies?

Vide game movies that don't suckOf those I’ve seen, I can think of a few good ones. Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva, an animated film spin-off of the Professor Layton games, is accessible and charming, though it drags a bit. The aforementioned Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children boasts phenomenal action, epic music, and stunning visuals for viewers who don’t mind having no idea what the heck is going on. For those who like foreign films, Takashi Miike’s live-action Ace Attorney is really good, despite its absurd hairstyles.

Um, that’s it. Flipping heck, someone needs to make a good video game movie.

Question: Have you seen any video game movie that you would recommend? Let us know in the comments!

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