By John Messer, E23 Reporter

Video game movies are constant entries in the anthology of schlock. Time and time again, they fall just short of being good. A few do rise above the sludge; the first “Mortal Kombat” was decent and so was the first “Lara Croft” for instance. But at best they’re just forgettably OK. At worst, they’re dumpster fires that are only enjoyed by masochists who take joy in the unintentional humor of a bad movie.

So what’s the big deal? Why can’t they make a good movie? Only recently have games themselves earnestly tried to have in-depth stories. The first stories in games were garnishes for the gameplay. Everything from the title opening in “Ms. Pac-Man” to the text explaining why demons are in the way of your gun in “Doom” exists to serve the gameplay itself. As machines got more powerful and game makers got more ambitious, things like cutscenes became more commonplace and there was enough space to add more and more dialogue. “Cinematic” became a word thrown around to describe these more narratively-driven games.

Some put the blame on the medium itself. Games, no matter how many cinematic elements they internalize, always come back to a player. A player is very different from a viewer; a game is very different from a show or a movie. To put it basically, this perspective claims that video games are so inherently different from movies that any story originally made for a game cannot and will not translate to a film.

Is this perspective accurate? On the one hand, the most successful game plots are designed for the interactive medium. Although, many successful game plots are loving rip-offs of movies. Want to see a good “Lara Croft” movie? It’s basically just Indiana Jones but with a girl. Want to see a good “Max Payne” movie? It’s basically just a John Woo film. Want to see a good “Call of Duty” movie? Michael Bay has your back.

Still, there isn’t an adequate explanation as to why a single good video game movie doesn’t exist. By now, at least one should have beaten the odds. No video game movie is being snubbed for an Oscar. Even after multiple decades of trying, not a single great or good video game movie exists. There are a few possible explanations that seem more likely than “It’s not possible.”

First, let’s look at some of the first few attempts. Big budget affairs like the “Super Mario Bros.” film and the American “Street Fighter” film bombed spectacularly, both critically and financially. These were no small losses either. These films and others like them in the 1990s set a precedent to filmmakers, video game makers and audiences alike: video game movies were cheap cash-ins on recognizable franchises. Perhaps later movies were then given tiny budgets, terrible actors and amateur directors as a result, as movie studios had no faith in projects based on a video game.

But why did so many video game movies come out? Usually, if something isn’t working, businesses stop doing that something. There are a few answers. Firstly, some movies were simply scams. Uwe Boll, a notable director of many low-budget, low-quality affairs, used his films as tax havens. Filmed in Germany, his movies took advantage of the nation’s then-hefty tax incentives for natively produced films. Boll would funnel money from shady sources through shell companies until he could launder it via the film’s budget. They would be taxed very lightly and then be “clean.” He used video game brands because the licenses were cheap and the brand recognition would land him ticket sales. Whatever he lost in taxes and spent on the film, he made back with the minor box office revenue that his films made off of the brand name alone. Eventually, Boll left the industry and wrote two books about his experience. You can read more about Boll at CinemaBlend.

Other films were just ill-fitted passion projects made by fans of the source material. The “Doom” game has a paper thin story and sold on aesthetic and gameplay. The “Doom” movie doesn’t have gameplay or resemble the game. In fact, “Doom” is an example of the trend of producers of such projects who are unwilling to fully commit to the outlandish nature many games are built on and often edit films to be more mundane. This is what happened to “Super Mario” and “Assassin’s Creed” as well. Big surprise then that the final project is both unoriginal and boring.

That’s really what the core issue is. Producers in Hollywood are unwilling to commit entirely to the aesthetic of the source material when said material is outlandish and unique. It’s a Catch-22 when the very thing that makes the game notable enough to get the advantage of Hollywood is often the very thing that Hollywood wants to sand off the final theatrical product.

For literature adaptations, viewers have to hope for a film that takes enough liberties with the source structure that it works on-screen. For comic books, it took the power of Disney, Marvel and millions of dollars to get a faithful on-screen version of those characters.

For video games, there simply isn’t anything left once you’ve removed aesthetic and gameplay. Until someone with a whole lot of money teams up with someone with an actual made-for-cinema plot in mind for a movie, video game movies will always have an uphill battle to fight. The substance has to come from both an appreciation of the source material and an appreciation of what works for a movie as opposed to a game.

As for myself, I’ve long believed a “Halo” movie has the highest potential for being the first game blockbuster. Between the cinematic material from the games and the robust story that exists in the book, someone out there with talent could twist a powerful story into a film.

Regardless, maybe video games don’t need movies. Maybe they tell stories just fine as is, and they are only going to get better at doing so. Maybe video games are a special new medium, just getting its feet wet. Maybe video games are the next evolution in storytelling, one that uses technology like no other. Maybe I’m wrong, and they’re just silly little distractions that sometimes put on Papa Movie’s big boy pants to play make-believe at being storytelling affairs.

And maybe a “Halo” movie is all we need to change these notions…

I’m John Messer, thanks for reading.

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