Mortal Kombat. Street Fighter. Super Mario Bros. Doom. Warcraft.
With more than two and a half decades of studios attempting to adapt popular video games into blockbuster movies, we’ve had grand total of 0 that are undeniably good.
While a lot of these films, like Tomb Raider and the Resident Evil Series, have had middling to mediocre franchise success, and quite a few have achieved cult status in one way or another, Hollywood has yet to produce a video game movie that will bring in financial success and franchise security.
And look, I know there have been enough articles written about this sort of thing to fill a small encyclopedia, so the only reason I’m writing about this is because I think I’ve finally found the solution. Well, some other people did and I’m just writing about it…
Anyway, let’s jump in!
So one of the biggest issues with adapting video games to film is the story. Although many video games possess intricate stories with compelling twists and turns, I think we all need to recognize that isn’t how the average player — or any player, in fact — experiences the vast majority of their time interacting with a game.
No matter how much story is crammed into a particular game, plot will only ever be window dressing for the actual gameplay experience. And this makes sense for the medium. With the exception of the Metal Gear Solid series, most video games want users to spend more time playing the game proper than watching cutscenes and reading text scrolls.
That’s not to say players don’t experience a narrative while playing a game, but the narrative they follow is solely sequential. You complete one task then move to the next one, and on and on it goes. Even in a sandbox game where the player is encouraged to juggle multiple objectives at a time, the nature of gameplay dictates you can only focus on one task at a time.
When you translate this to a story structure, you end up with something known as an “And then” plot. It’s like how a lot of kids tell stories: “First I went to this castle and then I beat the boss in the castle, and then I had to find these three crystals, and then I had to fight this other big guy, and then I had to assassinate the president and then find a getaway car and then and then and then…”
But this works completely fine in video games, but if you try to attach that to a movie narrative, where the audience is no longer an active participant, it’s a whole lot less entertaining.
With any story structure — whether in movies, TV, books, or even a really good Vine — you need to follow the “But, Therefore” structure, as explained by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park.
What makes any story fascinating because the direction of the plot and character development is constantly moving and changing. Think of any movie: “First the bad guys attack the Princess’ ship but then the droids escape from the bad guys and land on a new planet, and therefore Gandalf is able to find them and tell them to go destroy the Ring, but then their boat hits an iceberg and therefore everybody’s gonna drown, but then the Avengers all overcome their differences and are therefore able to close Zull’s portal and save Westeros!”
OK, that probably wasn’t the best example, but essentially you want to keep the audience interested by having stories and characters change from scene to scene. The “buts” are twists and turns that grab attention while the “therefores” make cause-and-effect connections to give the story flow.
The problem is you can’t just take any video game premise and slot it into a “But, Therefore” three-act story structure, because then you end up sacrificing what makes the game appealing in the first place.
Take 2010’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The appeal of the original Sands of Time series was combining quick-paced platforming with the ability to “rewind” time in order to defeat enemies and accomplish tasks. However the movie used the time-rewinding mechanic only a handful of times, instead focusing on straightforward action-adventure narrative with the Dagger of Time serving as magical McGuffin.
The main selling point of the games became secondary to the movie’s pace and plotting instead of dictating it. Fans of the game got a movie that barely featured what they loved about the franchise while regular moviegoers got a generic movie with nothing special to distinguish it. The writers couldn’t find a way to reconcile the sequential nature of using time-rewinding mechanic with the regular fluctuations of plot and character a movie requires.
Now, you’d think this is all to say “therefore, video game adaptations don’t work because you have to direct focus away from the best parts of any game: the parts the player controls!” BUT you’d be wrong! There is a way to balance both the “And then” narrative that makes video games fun and the “But, Therefore” plot structure that makes stories interesting. And it’s already been used successfully several times in theatres.
Over the past decade, Laika Entertainment have carved out a niche for themselves in the animated movie industry with imaginative, eye-catching movies like Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings.
What really separates Laika from the likes of Dreamworks, Illumination, and Pixar (aside from their gorgeous hand-crafted sets and stop-motion) is that a lot of their movies feel like video games.
In both Coraline and Kubo, the titular heroes are tasked with queststhat sound like they’re straight out of Super Nintendo Games: Collect the three spheres to end the destroy the evil witch and free the captive spirits; Find the three pieces of indestructible armor by battling giant monsters.
In spite of their sequential plotting, neither film feels very “And then” because they weave character development and dramatic moments around every puzzle and mini-boss.
In Kubo and the Two Strings, Kubo meets two two characters, Monkey and Beetle, who join him on his quest to find his father’s lost sword,armour, and helmet. The story moves quite quickly, so Monkey and Beetle are given rather hasty introduction right before the trio suddenly are fighting a giant skeleton. But the fight is used to further flesh out the new characters. Monkey prefers a meditative approach while Beetle rushes in with guns blazing, but it’s only when they set aside their differences to help Kubo that they are therefore able to destroy the boss (Spoiler Alert, I guess).
With no time wasted, the characters are suddenly given a new puzzle challenge to get to the next item. But instead of just showing the characters working on the puzzle (which would no doubt be a lot more entertaining in video game form), Beetle and Monkey resume discussing their creative differences while a Kubo solves the puzzle behind them (Spoiler Alert again). This part mainly plays for laughs, but the action itself (solving the puzzles, continuing the quest) continues, therefore keeping the audience entertained without slowing down the sequential “And then” nature of the story.
Whereas most movies would use a lull in the action (like when everyone is about to go to sleep for the night or while they’re eating a meal together) to let the characters interact with one another, Kubo uses the action to show off different characters’ traits. Although, to be fair, there is a moment in the movie where the characters eat a meal together then go to sleep, but the rest of the plot plods along pretty quick. Were Kubo to be based on a video game, none of the traditional gaming elements of fighting bosses and overcoming obstacles are left behind, but the movie itself still provides twists and turns in the characters to keep audiences interested.
Likewise in Coraline, Coraline spends most of the second act exploring a magical world she finds in her closet. Later on, without adding anymore spoilers here, she is tasked with finding three magical items hidden somewhere in this fantasy land. Now, as she hunts each item down, she has to go through the same locations she explored earlier in the movie and uses the things she’s learned about the world (as well as the relationships she’s built with some of the characters) to find each item (Crap, sorry I guess that’s a Spoiler). The sequence of her tracking down each item plays very much like “And then she finds the first one and then she finds the next one…” but she’s able to do so using knowledge and experience she’s gained throughout the film and is therefore able to find them all (OK, there’s more to it than that, so I’ll leave that Spoiler untouched).
In this way, both movies use classic video game progressions of traversing obstacles and enemies to collect items, but the audience never feels like they’re just watching someone else play a video game.
Now, I don’t think this technique of showcasing character development amongst sequential plotting would work for every video game adaptation, but I think Laika has done the best job so far of translating what make an action-adventure game interesting and combining it with “But, Therefore” storytelling and character development. So if Laika were to make a Prince of Persia: Sands of Time game, they would have the characters and plot unfold while showcasing the time manipulation and platforming elements that make the series unique.
And for that Angry Birds sequel we’ve been warned is coming, it would be better to have the story structure around birds firing themselves at increasingly strong forts all while dealing with their fear of loss, hatred of immigrants, or whatever it is these birds are angry about.
These are just my thoughts, but let me know why you think video game movies have had so much trouble. Or let me know which ones you think actually do a good job of bridging the two types of narrative. Personally, I think Warcraft came the closest, but that may be because I just love it when a movie commits to ridiculously oversized shoulder pads.