Monday, October 22, 2012

Article: The Movie - The Game

On the inaugural episode of my awesomely amazing podcast The Dirty Sons of Pitches, my good friend Nathan put forward an argument that due to the nature of their respective mediums, there would never be a truly great video game movie that was both faithful to the original source material, and entertaining in its own right. This argument was made in the context of defending the merits of the 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie and presumably was more of a thinly veiled articulation of his homosexual, Single White Female-esque obsession with Bob Hoskins, but it got me thinking about the relationship between video games and movies, and whether our experiences with them are really supposed to be so different.

Roger Ebert famously groused (if one can grouse without a functioning lower jaw) that video games could never be considered great art. Without spending pages upon pages uselessly sputtering out nerd rage over his reductive definitions of art, great art, video games, and film, I'll just say that I found his position to be somewhat frustratingly dismissive. To his credit, Ebert would eventually concede that, while he still holds the same opinion, his personal unwillingness to actually play any video game that might prove him wrong may have left him somewhat ill-equipped to deal with the subject fairly. Oh well, live and let live.

The thing is, my good friend Mr. Zoebl essentially went even further by arguing that the interactive nature of video games themselves, so apparently alien to how we appreciate movies and how they are designed to be appreciated, makes them, as a genre, almost impossible to adapt into film. Films can be great art, as can novels and even comic books, which can be adapted into films which can then be considered great art, but somehow video games are different. And it's not just the presence of rules, a system of scoring, or a clear objective "win" as in Ebert's example, but the fact that our immersion into video games involves active physical participation, as opposed to passive watching or reading, that renders them into something else opposed to translation into another medium.

But is this actually the case? Going back to the Mario example, is it really the interactivity, or really any aspect of Mario specifically as a video game that makes it difficult to translate? At first blush it does seem so, what with all the crazy imagery and non sequitur elements thrown together into a hodgepodge of colorful nonsense that is intrinsic to the Mario universe, but while I can't say it would be easy to take all of those elements and make them into a coherent story, I would argue that this has more to do with the surrealist nature of the material than the fact that it's a game and not a novel. It's difficult to translate William S. Burroughs into film too, but that doesn't mean that we should stop making books into movies. Certainly there are more linear and even cinematic games, and more surreal and non-linear movies for that matter (David Lynch, I'm talking to you, and I know your reading this!). I just think that the rush to blame video games as an art form (fuck you, Ebert) for the terrible works they inspire is misplaced, as it would be to condemn all novels for the narrative complexity of a few.

No doubt there is an element of literature that is fundamentally different from cinema such that the complete scope of any novel is never going to be absolutely filmable, and the same is true for cinema and video games. The primary difference is that translating novels to film is typically a problem of condensing the material to fit the structure of a movie, while adapting a video game typically involves expanding on the story to fit that same structure. Either way, the process is essentially taking one thing as the inspiration to make a completely different thing, such that there will always be some degree of pain for those who enjoyed the original, but ultimately, the goal is to come as close as possible and to at least maintain the spirit of the source material being used. Obviously this is a very subjective standard, but still, I don't see how video games are inherently different in this regard.

A much simpler explanation would seem to be that the difference has less to do with the medium as those working within it, or to put it another way, the desire and pressure to maintain the spirit of the source material is greater with a book, because literature is a more respected art form. Movie people are not always and I would guess very rarely game people. The people who love, appreciate, and respect films enough to want to make them are not typically going to be the kind of people who love, appreciate, and respect video games as a narrative art form, otherwise they would be making them. Instead, most video game movies are done by committee and helmed by hacks like Uwe Boll who don't care about fans of the original or anything other than German tax loop holes and straight to video boobs. This is also why video games based on movies almost always suck, because the people who made the movie are usually in charge of the game, and have no understanding of how to make it good or inclination to do so. By contrast, the cross section of literature and film fans is much larger, at least in terms of that one book a writer or director might fall in love with and want to put on the big screen with the respect that he feels it deserves.

And to the other point, since when is a movie going experience passive anyway? Obviously I'm not directing John McClane through the building as he die hards his way through Die Hard, but I am no less invested in the story as I am in Mega Man's solemn quest to destroy his robotic brethren for the sake of the world. I don't want to meet the guy who watches a movie passively, slack-jawed and eyes wide as the story thoughtlessly washes over him with no analysis or anticipation. When I watch a movie for the first time, assuming it does its job, I'm investing in the main characters, identifying with them, empathizing with them, and trying to guess where they will end up. The only difference between that and video games is that it is easier to do with the latter, as you are directly in control of the main character's actions. The end will always be the same in movies save for the occasional DVD alternate ending, but the same is true for most games as well. Mario will always save the princess, we're just waiting to see how. The only choice a gamer has that a moviegoer doesn't is whether they decide to try hard enough to make it to that predetermined end. If anything, the interactivity makes the narrative experience ultimately more fulfilling. Yeah, that's right, fuck movies. Fuck 'em all right in the mouth.

And now, because no article on the Internet is complete without a pointless, arbitrary, and subjective top whatever list, here are the
Top Five Video Games I'd Like To See Made Into Movies (And Who I'd Pick To Make Them).

Number 5: Tim Burton's Chakan The Forever Man

The Story: The world's greatest swordsman wins a duel with Death and finds himself cursed to walk the Earth as a freakish immortal zombie until all supernatural evil in the world is vanquished. A somewhat ironic concept, being highly skilled in combat and immortal, considering how punishingly difficult and easy to die it was in this game. Perfect for what would be Burton's first real foray into full on, balls out action. The temptation would be to put Johnny Depp in the lead role given the director, but I'd give it to Hugo Weaving.

Number 4: Robert Rodriguez' Contra

The Story: Two commandos travel deep into the jungle to fight hordes of alien monsters for no other reason than a love of blowing shit up, aided only by their aerial support and its huge cache of special weapon balloons. Seems like the perfect vehicle for Michael Bay, but I'm giving it to Rodriguez for his nearly pitch-perfect treatment of Predators. Stars Jason Statham and another actor just like Statham, only in red pants instead of blue, and like me in the game, they can only beat the movie with the Konami code. At first, this was a tie between Contra and Ninja Gaiden, but fuck it, let's throw him in there too. Contra Gaiden. I just came in my pants at that sentence.

Number 3: Takashi Miike's Killer 7

The Story: When a demonic terrorist group threatens to de-stablize international politics, an elite team of supernatural assassins is called in to take them down, all of whom turn out to be psychic projections of the wheelchair-bound sniper Harmon Smith as your mind is fucked into oblivion. This list was originally going to be old school cartridge games only, but I couldn't help putting this one on here. I'd go with Miike to direct with Clint Eastwood or Gary Oldman cast as Harmon, or maybe an insane collaboration between the Ichi director and David Lynch with Kyle MacLachlan in old man makeup, though that might result in the movie equivalent of the brown noise, its weirdness so profound that it induces uncontrollable loss of bowel control at every viewing.

Number 2: Kenneth Branagh's Legacy of Kain

The Story: Time traveling vampires duel across the centuries of a fantasy landscape, unlocking the conspiracies of a conniving Chronomancer and his master, a giant Lovecraftian beast living at the fulcrum of life and death, as they curse each other with Shakespearean gravitas. Again, not quite an old school game, and a bit repetitive and boring to play at that, especially in the later installments, but that's how fucking good the story and the dialogue was that kept you playing just to see the next cut scene. I don't know enough British actors to cast it, and it would probably have to be Andy Serkis-style motion capture anyway considering one of the characters speaks with no lower jaw (Unless Ebert is available). Kenneth Branagh to direct, because so much of the movie would play out like the cool parts of Thor in Asgard, before the shitty Earth parts.

Number 1: Paul Verhoven's Mega Man

The Story: A robotic teenager is refitted into a killing machine, forced to wage a one man war against his own robot brothers to stop a mad man from destroying the world.I eluded to this in the article above, and yes, I know how silly it seems but just imagine it. A serious action sci-fi movie, played completely straight, with the director of Robocop turning the bright, sunny future world of Mega Man on its head the way only he can, doing for cyberpunk what Super Mario Bros. the Movie should have done for live action fantasy before it decided to do whatever it did to cyberpunk. You would almost have to go with an unknown for the Blue Bomber, but I'm thinking John Rhys Davis for Dr. Light and John Malkovich as Dr. Wily.

Alright Hollywood, you have your marching orders. Go make these movies! But only the exact ways described here, otherwise, you know, don't. Because left to your own devices you evidently suck at it. Which was kind of the point of the whole article. See above. That thing.
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