Film Producers Need To Go Indie, Not AAA, For Game Adaptations
If you've seen and/or hear our review of Sonic the Hedgehog, the movie, you'll know that we (I) don't think it's all that great. It's not the disaster it could have been, for sure; and there are a few visual gags that'll raise a smile. But it's such a mess of contrasting tones, charmless characters and dramatic stakes that barely become half-awake, let alone high, that it's really nothing to get excited about. That it's not the worst film based on a video game (series) is, probably, the greatest praise it warrants.
Which is to say: it's not as bad as Assassin's Creed, and about on the same level as Tomb Raider. And it's certainly better than Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter. I'd rather watch Sonic for the rest of my life than sit through just ten minutes of Warcraft. But really, this doesn't represent all that much of a compliment. And that is wholly indicative of a problem that movie-makers have when it comes to video games.
For the most part, film studios have their eyes focused firmly on AAA franchises for adaptations. Not always, but that's tended to be the case ever since Bob Hoskins' questionable turn as Nintendo mascot Mario back in 1993. Resident Evil, Need for Speed, Silent Hill, Hitman - these aren't all amazing sellers in the gaming space, but they're names that have long been a part of the industry firmament, and therefore representative of franchises that could transfer successfully to the silver screen.
You don't need me to tell you that they haven't. That Sonic the Hedgehog - a mess, as I just said, up there - is the second-highest-rated games-based movie of all time on Rotten Tomatoes, behind the passable (and, well, adorable) Detective Pikachu, really says everything about the situation. Sonic's RT rating stands at 64% at the time of writing, and its Metacritic score is 47. Readers, please, I wanted to like it, I did, but it's not a good movie.
We're supposed to be excited for how the (pre-)production nightmare of the Uncharted movie is supposed to turn out; but realistically, looking at the precedents, are we? There's another Mario movie on the way - can't be any worse than the first, I guess - and Monster Hunter is meant to be out in the autumn. Gears of War, Metal Gear Solid and Call of Duty: just three more massive gaming names that are apparently becoming movies at some point. Hooray?
But filmmakers, please, press pause. You're going about this all wrong. You're consistently picking long-running series with all manner of twisty plotlines criss-crossing haphazardly over several games. You're trying to squeeze years of memories into 90 minutes. And that's just not working for you, as the ratings make clear. For further reference, 2012's Silent Hill: Revelation has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 8%, and Hitman: Agent 47, 9%. We can do better. And for the sake of gaming, we should.
So let's try something else. Let's look to games that are shorter and self-contained; games that have absorbing, mature stories, that can surprise without leaning on cutscenes and shiny visual tricks. Games that push the interactive medium closer to filmmaking's established tenets in their dialogue, their unique styles, their ability to have singular sensibilities come to the forefront rather than being the result of creation by committee. Let's look to indie games.
When I very belatedly played the indie narrative adventure To the Moon earlier this year, I commented that it has the kind of story that'd be right at home in a Black Mirror episode. Its story of fractured memories, of a life lived but goals not fulfilled, could be adaptable into 60 minutes, and very possibly longer. Why not look to a game like that for a movie?
To the Moon is a tender lament of a game, a melancholic meditation on relatable themes; but an adaptation of an indie game needn't be a wholly serious affair. (Indeed, To the Moon wouldn't be, with its sharp humour running in parallel to its sadness.) Case in point: the multi-award-winning Untitled Goose Game. How amazing would it be to see an animation studio like Aardman (Wallace and Gromit, Early Man) or Laika (Missing Link, Kubo and the Two Strings) take a honking-good swing at turning that game's physical comedy into a 90-minute rib-tickler? I am all for it, all for it, says I.
By now, if you're fond of an indie game, no doubt your own imagination is running away with itself. Campo Santo's magical Firewatch as a movie? A story of isolation and self-reflection, of companionship in extreme circumstances? It'd work, wouldn't it? And potentially very well - better, no doubt, than trying to do right by a series with multiple entries.
For the horror fans out there, how about Oxenfree? Night Schools' creepy teens-tune-their-radios-into-hell (kinda) game of 2016 would make for a neat twist on the old-school slasher formula, where the protagonists are picked off one by one. There was talk of it becoming a TV series, though that rumour-mill chatter seems to have cooled.
I can, happily, go on. Hellblade? Yes, do it. It won't be pretty, but it'll be mesmerising. Celeste? I mean, you couldn't have the film's lead making impossible leaps; but the story at the heart of the game, of someone coming to terms with another side of their personality through physical endurance, would certainly transfer. Line them up, and I'll green light them all: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (uh, my heart), Hotline Miami (omg, yes, right?), Her Story (it's halfway there already), Super Hexagon (okay, maybe we draw the line somewhere).
Brand recognition is a massive factor in all business decisions, which is why we see so many movies based on games bearing the names they do. I'm, I guess, hopeful that these films will improve - it's not for nothing that Sonic and Pikachu are both the two most recent releases and the best-rated of this particular bracket of motion pictures. But I think that for films to truly do right by video games, they need to respect the medium's own storytelling strengths, across short play times and limited releases, and harness that power to benefit cinema's own strengths.
If a few producers, here and there, take a punt or two on the best that indie gaming has to offer, there's a chance, however slim, that games-based movies turn a corner. The box offices might not ring with the sound of multi-million takes, but a few awards the way of films that began as video games wouldn't half help this medium that we love become less readily dismissed by the naysayers.
Featured Image Credit: SEGA, Paramount Pictures / House House