I have exciting news to announce, my readers. I have an XBox 360! I've joined the modern world! At last, those of you who have asked me for video game / movie related columns can have your wishes fulfilled. (I think there's five of you out there. If I can make five people happy, that makes my existence and digital ink worthwhile.) I haven't played a game system in a long, long time. (The last time I touched a controller was the Dreamcast.) It's actually really exciting to be part of this world again, especially since gaming and cinema have developed a fascinating, symbiotic relationship.
Wait, what's that? Oh. It's the elephant in the room. It's Hollywood's attempts to make video games into movies. Fine, we'll tackle that first. I had a different point to make, but we'll just go obvious and I'll keep everyone hooked by making a very daring declaration right off the bat: I don't understand why video game adaptations fail. I really don't. I haven't understood it since they tried to make Super Mario Bros into a movie. I remember scoffing at that idea (I must have read about it in my movie magazine of choice, Disney Adventures) but as I played Super Mario Bros for the millionth time, unable to get past level 6, I thought "This could work. You could really make it about two plumbers who are sucked into a crazy world, and have to save a princess. They don't know what these giant mushrooms and turtles are, but they are doing their best. I can't wait to see how they do the fireballs." I still remember seeing it in the theater, and thinking that they took the most difficult and awful route that a movie could take. As I said before, it was one of the earliest memories I have of realizing that films could be awful.
Nevertheless, I was always optimistic. I wanted to see an Ecco the Dolphin movie. I wanted a Legend of Zelda movie. (Knowing the fanbase for that -- a fanbase I was unaware of until stumbling into conventions -- I wasn't alone.) When I played Tomb Raider for the first time, I immediately wanted a Tomb Raider movie. I still remember the confidence instilled by the Superbowl spot, and how my sister and I thrilled to the scene of the dog sled. If it had the dog sled chase, then it would be as awesome as the games. Well, we know how those turned out. (And that's coming from someone who owns them. In my defense, they were joke gifts. At least the first one was. The other may have been a gratuitous crush-on-Gerard-Butler purchase.) And even though I know they always turn out badly, I continue to have the enthusiasm of a studio executive when it comes to translating them to the screen. As I play Left 4 Dead 2, I think "This would be an awesome movie. Will Arnett could play Nick the conman. I can even think of a reason that a samurai sword is just sitting in a hotel room."
Even in my limited, sporadic gaming I know that the best games have good plots and personable characters. They're just like movies that way. Left 4 Dead 2 is only marginally interesting if you're an anonymous person shooting zombies, but it's ten times better once you're attached to your survivors. You want them to succeed and survive, not just for your own points, but because you like them and feel responsible for them. I never exactly played Tomb Raider for the mind-numbing puzzles -- even as I struggle through Anniversary, I can't understand why I subject myself to it -- but because I liked Lara Croft and Egyptian tombs. I can't be alone in that.
Why does this never translate to film? Modern games have so many mini features between the levels that bridging the gaps should be pretty easy for a screenwriter. They managed to turn a plotless Pirates of the Caribbean ride into a far more entertaining film than Max Payne or Tomb Raider did and both had far more to work with. It's perplexing to me as a viewer and an erstwhile player, and it's particularly bizarre when modern games lift more and more inspiration out of movies. Shouldn't Hollywood be able to double back on itself when making a Max Payne movie, and remember that it's just a little John Woo? We already knew and liked the games for doing so.
I suspect that's really the crux of the problem, though. Video games are fun because they fulfill that wish of being in a movie. It's far more fun to be a zombie killer than watch one. Even as I sit and ponder the possibilities of a Left 4 Dead movie, I wonder why on earth I want to see it when it's so much more fun to play it. I can make my own gore splatter, and shoot my own AK-47. Why would I want to see Will Arnett do it? I have no idea. In some way, it's the same desire that makes us long to see particular books and comic books made into a movie. It's quite inexplicable, really. Things are almost always better in your brain -- or in the case of a game, in your own hand-eye coordination.
Even if the game-to-movie adaptations keep failing, I love the tight relationship that movies and games have developed. Modern games are miles away from those original NES ones I played. They truly tap into a love of movies, and the deep desire so many of us have to live in them. I'm sure there's a powerful argument to be made that our century is too dependent on screen-based narcotics (television, video games, movies), and that something is deeply wrong with us because we keep seeking to escape reality. Historians and scientists may even figure out what it is. But I'd like to see it in a positive, cathartic way. If you think I'm stretching my topic thin, consider the plot of The Last Starfighter, made when video games were still joysticks and poorly rendered pixels. Games couldn't begin to approach the visual level of film, but the idea of playing it as a way to be Luke Skywalker was there from the very, very beginning. The fact that it comes true for Alex Rogan outside of the arcade? Icing on the cake. The game was enough for him up until that point.
What's fascinating now is the way movies are borrowing from video games for content. The films of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor are the most obvious examples, but even Avatar allegedly has its roots in gaming culture. (I say allegedly because it's difficult to understand how a movie celebrating Jake Sully's transformation can also be a screed against gaming addiction. Doesn't that mean he should have pulled the plug and lived as a human, then?) Even the so-called "graphic novel style" of films like 300 and Sin City really have just as much in common (perhaps even more so) with video games than their paper origins. It really is a symbiotic relationship -- games lifting gleefully from movies for their plots, characters, and action sequences, and cinema running with the concepts of characters who can't die and hyperrealistic worlds. The worlds are rapidly blending together, and not just from the tie-in games. What if Avatar -- a movie I wanted to play more than I wanted to watch -- is groundbreaking not in 3D motion capture, but in some way we have yet to imagine? What if you'll end up with movies you can actually play as you watch? Something akin to a Holodeck experience?
But hey, that's pure fantasy. For now? I'll be happy if Prince of Persia proves the exception to the poor adaptation rule, and continue to dream cast Left 4 Dead 2 as I wait for my character to be revived for the dozenth time.