In 1986, comic legend Alan Moore gave an interview about Watchmen in which he discussed how the comic art form is fundamentally different from movies even though both of them are visual storytelling mediums. The difference is in the pacing. Movies drag you along at a pre-determined speed, whereas you can spend as much time as you like staring at a comic page analyzing it, which if you read a lot of Alan Moore you definitely should do.
Of course, Watchmen was eventually made into a movie, and as with most Moore comics, what happened to it was glorious while simultaneously missing the entire point of the source material. Zack Snyder tried his absolute best to put every frame of the comic on the screen in an effort to prove Moore wrong about what film could do for comic stories, and all he did was prove Moore eternally right. Most attempts at straight comic book adaptations to film simply do not work (with MTV’s The Maxx series being arguably the sole exception).
Speaking of comic book movies, I finally got around to seeing X-Men: Apocalypse last week, and attached to it was the trailer for the upcoming Assassin’s Creed film adaptation starring Michael Fassbender. It’s part of a crop of hopeful-sounding video game movies on the horizon that also include The Last of Us and a new Mortal Kombat. While I’m definitely going to be seeing all of these, I don’t really imagine I’ll walk away from any of them spellbound. There will probably never be a great video game movie, because movies can’t do what games can do.
Similar to Moore’s musing on his own work, there’s a really fantastic Ian Danskin video about the game Dear Esther that lays this out, but I’ll give you the gist. The only way to experience a movie (or a comic book either, despite what Moore said) is for one frame to follow the other. This happens, then that happens, and then this next thing happens after that. You can play with the audience’s perceptions some, but in the end you cannot spend more time in the movie except by stopping it.
Games work as artistically unique media because you inhabit them. As in Danskin’s example of Dear Esther, you can sprint through the game in a couple of hours, or you can linger and notice things for as long as you want. Since some elements in the game are randomized, you’ll even get a slightly different experience every time you inhabit the game.
My viewing of X-Men: Apocalypse is not going to be noticeably different from anyone else’s. We are all interpreting the same artistic work, but the same is not true of a game. The way I play Thief as a staunch pacifist will make it a very different game from the way someone plays it who has a more murderous bent, even as our experiences weave in and out of each other in places where those choices don’t come into play.
Games don’t really tell stories. They give players the tools to create stories, or at least narratives. The act of play is the point; otherwise, they would be movies. Even fairly cinematic games, like Beyond: Two Souls or Life Is Strange, which would seem to make great movies probably wouldn’t when put to the test. With something like Life Is Strange, the engaging thing isn’t watching the story unfold, but the feeling of consequence that comes with making a hard choice in a difficult situation. When someone does that in a movie, you feel empathy for that character. When it happens in a game, you feel it inside you.
That’s not to say movies can’t make you feel empowered or terrified or a whole host of other emotions, but there’s no comparison to the terror you feel watching a monster hunt someone on the screen and having a monster actively hunt you in a game, knowing that you can die. That feeling, that you have to do something to make progress in the experience, is virtually impossible to create in movies.
What this means is that every movie adaptation of a game automatically loses the very thing that makes the game something you enjoyed in the first place. That doesn’t happen with books or plays or comics.
I sometimes get the feeling that we’re all sitting around waiting for the video game equivalent of Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird. As a young medium, gaming still suffers from an awkward self-consciousness about itself, which is why so much of gaming since the ‘90s has been either grim and violent “mature” content or classy indie art titles. We don’t just want a good movie made of a game. We want one that smashes box offices and wins awards and legitimizes gaming as important.
A lot of this has to do with the idea that movies are the ultimate expression of art. A book can be a bestseller, but it only seems to enter the public mind-set as “done” once the movie version is out. It’s a little weird that this never seems to go the other way. No one gets terribly excited about the novelization of a movie. Something like Bioshock, largely regarded as one of gaming’s most artistically valuable works, inspiring a well-regarded film lifts the source material to the level of books.
I don’t think Hollywood is ever going to do that. For one, gaming is for the most part an animated medium, but we all pretend that it’s not. Games are cartoons, but we don’t generally make video-game animated movies. We make big-budget live action flicks with guys like Fassbender that sort of cringingly scream: “This is for adults! Take it seriously!”
I think it’s time to stop waiting around for that “great” video game movie. I’m going to go see The Last of Us because anything that puts more Last of Us in the world in whatever format is a win in my book, but I’m not going to hold my breath for people to treat it like The Road or anything. I’ll even see the new Mortal Kombat, though honestly I doubt it will tell me a better story than just watching the story modes of the last two games did. Assassin’s Creed looks good, too, but I’ll probably end up telling people, “The game was better.” At this point, it’s clear Hollywood needs gaming way more than gaming needs Hollywood.
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