Game-Movies: The Growth of a Genre by Abigail Merritt
Because of the rushed game based on the hit movie, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the popular game company, Atari, developer of Pong, nearly closed its doors for good due to financial loss during the North American Videogame Crash of 1983. Never again to rise to the same height as before, Atari has lost more than money because of the failed movie-game. Now the remains of this dark time in videogame history are out in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico. In 2014, the landfill was unearthed, an exhumation of millions of unsold game cartridges and consoles, standing as a monument to poor transferring of media between the cinema and videogames.
If only there was such a monument to attribute to all the poor game-movies that have been created in the past few decades! Instead of taking a movie and making it a game, consumers and producers are equally interested in taking videogames to the movies. However, this relatively new genre of movies has a reputation of being immature with a lack of quality put into its creation. No doubt, these mixed feelings towards these movies only suggest that the genre has a lot of growing up to do, primarily in story structure.
Once upon a time, I would have agreed that these game-movies were cheaply made, but with increased graphic quality, which means an increase in budget to produce such CGI, music, and sometimes a companion game, shows that companies are investing more into making game-movies than before. Even big-name actors, such as Gary Oldman and James Arnold Taylor, are cast for roles in voice acting for the games and sometimes their movie counterparts. Game-movies aren’t cheap anymore, facing the same risks as Atari financially. Some movies lose millions of dollars due to poor earnings from the box office, such as Sony’s Ratchet & Clank, which despite this harsh reality wasn’t as horrible a movie compared to others, following a simple hero’s journey and considered only slightly better than the dreaded Super Mario Bros. movie from the early ‘90s. Yet the question behind these movies and several others remains in the back of my mind: What went wrong?
There are two sides to consider when thinking about the audience of a game-movie: moviegoers and gamers. Moviegoers are going to come to the theatre, grab some stale popcorn and a soda, sit in a sticky chair and hope the movie will distract them from their dark surroundings and awkward neighbors through immersive storytelling. A gamer might be considering something more problematic than sticky chairs.
Gamers come to see their favorite franchise brought to life on the big-screen, to take a break from all the fast-flippin’ controller tactics and relax to enjoy the story, characters, and action. For them, it will be like the sweet relaxation of a cinematic cutscene in the middle of an intense portion of the game, except they haven’t even started playing it yet. So what are their expectations? Much like the moviegoer, they’re going to want an immersive story that they can generally follow along with. But they know the story. They’ve lived the story, so their expectations will be much harsher than the general moviegoer.
There’s a charm or quality of the game that gamers and producers thought would be great for the big-screen, whether it’s the characters, the worlds, the choreography, or just the general story. But if the director of the movie deviates from what gamers have come to know as the story behind the game, immersion will be much harder to come by. Most frustrating of all, gamers can’t take the controls and show them how it should be done.
However, there is a bright side to all this. What is a game if not interpretive? There is a set story, there are major plot points and side quests. There is also gameplay, where the gamer gets to reinterpret how the characters should use their set of skills to traverse the environment. If the game-movie is an adaptation, directors have room to get creative, show things that lie underneath the original story and play with the environment in their own way, like all gamers do. If they play with the story like a game, perhaps the game-movie would be more aesthetic for gamers as well as moviegoers, who will be waiting with reserved curiosity to see if this movie knows how to tell a story and live up to the advertisements.
These movies tend to have biased reviews. Either moviegoers “don’t get it” or underestimate the franchise’s potential and gamers either hate the adaptation or remain loyal to the poor film because it wasn’t that bad. But who wants an “okay” movie? Is there hope to make it a “great” game-movie? And if adaptations cause so much ruckus in the reviews because of the new vision the director has placed on an already solid franchise, perhaps a different approach should be taken.
There is another, albeit selfish approach, to make a game-movie more appealing—to the gamers, that is. What I’m hinting at is a move towards what’s called “transmediality.” This is a technique used by several franchises, but you may not have known there was a word for it. What it means is that there is one storyline, but it’s spread across multiple media formats. For instance, there may be a franchise with a comic that takes place between two games. There might also be a novel or a series that branches off too. But the clincher is that it’s all accepted as canon. What if a game-movie was to be based on a new event between games? There would be a new story, which would please fans and a reintroduction of the characters, which would be beneficial to the moviegoers. There wouldn’t have to be a delve back into the origin story, but a jump right into the middle of things.
But at this point, the genre is still growing. Who’s to say that even these ideas will make a great game-movie? We can say that the more they try, the more opportunity we have to learn from our mistakes, as Atari had provided for itself and other gaming companies. As experimentation on format continues from company to company, making movies, comics, television series, and novels alike, one thing for certain is that people are trying and want to see this genre become fully developed and produce something remarkable. Until then, the idea of a game-movie remains something between a flick and a hard place.