Why can’t mainstream media write a good article about videogames?

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“There have been 35 major Hollywood live-action films based on video games,” says Shelly Tan at the Washington Post, “and none of them have done better than 50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes”. Her article, Why Can’t Hollywood Make a Good Videogame Movie?, is another one of those mainstream articles that assumes videogame movies are bad because they’re videogame movies, not because they’re bad. She says:

“Need for Speed” failed because studios scrambled to adopt something with strong brand recognition instead of something that actually screams out for a film adaptation. The original game’s story is purposefully empty so that the gameplay — car races — can shine. There simply wasn’t a story to adapt.

The template for the Need for Speed movie wasn’t any videogame. Instead, it was The Fast and Furious, a competing movie studio’s hugely successful racing series. Disney wanted a piece of that pie. The videogame label was just a branding deal. As a movie, Need for Speed was typical car culture silliness, with a hint of 70s cross-country counterculture. There were some bright spots in the cast — Imogen Poots, Rami Malek, Dominic Cooper, and a ridiculous Michael Keaton performance as a DJ — and the car sequences were adroitly staged and shot. Which is what you’d expect from a longtime stuntman. Need for Speed’s director had just done a movie called Act of Valor, which was little more than a string of action sequences that would have fit snugly under a Call of Duty brand. If the Need for Speed movie failed (I, uh, actually liked it) there’s no reason to blame the source material, because its connection to the source material was threadbare.

On the other hand, mythology-rich games like “Warcraft” suffer when adapted into movies, too. Trying to stuff over 100 hours of gameplay into a two-hour movie is a doomed effort…

There is zero gameplay stuffed into the World of Warcraft movie. Or inserted in any fashion whatsoever. It is a fantasy movie with lore and visuals inspired by Blizzard’s Warcraft license. The problem is weird cartoony CG, a director out of his element, and a confused script from an inherently ridiculous genre. It could have just as easily been based on Elfstones of Shanarra, Dragonlance, or The Witcher. It’s the same with the recent Prince of Persia, Assassin’s Creed, and Tomb Raider movies. Their problems have very little to do with the medium of their subject matter and everything to do with bad filmmaking. Consider the Resident Evil movies, which aren’t really Resident Evil movies; they’re Paul W.S. Anderson movies that he makes with Milla Jovovich. They are the Kurosawa and Mifune of movies that happen to have videogame licenses in the title.

Tan suggests “a better game to adapt would be something like “Oxenfree,” which has an eerie coming-of-age story that can be finished in about five hours.” There are two problems with this premise. The first is that the Oxenfree license will put zero butts in seats, and that’s the whole purpose of a licensing deal: it guarantees an audience. The second problem is that Oxenfree’s eerie coming-of-age story has already been done as a movie, may times over. Donnie Darko, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Super Dark, River’s Edge, and so on. But Tan then goes on to say that Last of Us wouldn’t make a good movie because changing it to live action “wouldn’t add much more”.

The problem with this article, and the many articles like it, is the writer’s lack of familiarity with videogames. If you don’t understand videogames, you don’t understand how little of them actually make it into movie adaptations. Movies are an established medium and when they’re bad, it has very little to do with the lack of story in a racing game, or the way games rely on interactivity, or the playing time of a videogame compared to the length of a movie, or the amount of lore in a Blizzard series that dates back to 1994. Tam concludes that there must be something uniquely difficult about adapting a videogame:

…filmmakers have that much more work when it comes to adapting video game material. It isn’t enough to rely on brand recognition or reuse the exact same story; something original and creative has to be added. The tough part is figuring out just what that original thing is.

It’s not tough at all. That original thing is good filmmaking.

(By the way, Shelly Tan does a great job with cleverly designed visual presentations at the Washington Post. Any Game of Thrones fan needs to check out this wonderful thing she made.)

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