Despite its global financial success, Warcraft is yet another in a long line of video game-to-movie failures that has failed to appeal to critics or fans (at least those not in China). This genre is so full of examples that haven’t worked, that it’s hard to point to one that actually has. What is the definitive video game movie? The genre-definer, the benchmark? Is it actually Warcraft? It is financially successful, not completely despised, and actually a borderline competent major motion picture. That sets it above, well, everything else.
So let’s get to the main question that hundreds of articles have probably asked before – why can’t (or, more accurately, don’t) video games work as films? It’s a particularly relevant question now that more and more games have earned mass awareness and are therefore being looked at as potential cinematic franchises. Even this December, we have Assassin’s Creed, which must be feeling pretty smug over the Rogue One: A Star Wars Story damage control. It’s another video game movie, but one can definitely tell it’s operating at a higher level than most anything that came before it with two incredible lead actors in Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard plus a gravitas many wouldn’t identify with the genre.
And now comes the disclaimer. To be fair, maybe I’m not the best person to tackle this subject as I’m not a “video game person.” I’m not opposed to video games – I even have a Steam account with a paltry ~20 games – but it’s an area of popular culture that has mostly passed me by. But I watch a lot of movies plus the status of Internet commentator, which allows me to speak on things I know nothing about. The important thing to remember is that these are movies based on video games. The source material of every adaptation loses something unique when converted into a cinematic form, but they can gain new and unique things to balance out these lost parts.
Part of the problem is that the people responsible for these movies may be trapped in the past with what video games are or could be. In addition to the “childish” stigma, think about how inherently problematic trying to convert a video game “story” into a feature film would be. People continue to complain about the Super Mario Brothers movie from 1993 – for many, many reasons, most of which are valid. But one area where maybe it should be given a slight pass is – how would one handle a story based on Super Mario Brothers? Seriously, what were the filmmakers supposed to do? Based on Mario lore, we have two plumbers from God-knows-where who fight walking mushrooms and evil turtles to save a Princess who is perpetually in another castle in an existential nightmare of futility. Maybe if you read Nintendo Power or the user manuals, you’d learn more about Bowser and the Koopa Kingdom and be able to appreciate some intricate Mario universe, but most people didn’t care. Nobody (or very few) played these games for the “story.”
Of course, things have changed a lot since then. You can complete a Super Mario Brothers speedrun in less than 10 minutes and it’s still beloved, but if a modern game has merely several hours of game play, it’s considered a failure. Console generation begets console generation begets console generation. E3 gets a similar amount of coverage to San Diego ComicCon. Yet in the cinematic world, we got Super Mario Brothers, Double Dragon, and Street Fighter. Can you really blame Hollywood for shying away from that experience again?
Another problem is the question – how does one begin to adapt a video game? We learned recently that it can’t be done “straight forward.” Look at Hardcore Henry. Nothing has come close to capturing the spirit and feel of a First Person Shooter in live action – and it turned out to be shockingly boring and repetitive. I guess if you were to strip any game to its bare bones, you might feel the same way, but we don’t get that sensation (or lack thereof) when we’re playing games. Yet the movie had all the heart of a bargain bin MA game that worked on Windows 95.
So, what can a video game movie adaptation do right? Well, the answer to this question is “relatively” simple. Do the same thing that any movie needs to do right – be a good movie first, good adaptation second. Again, the new property is not going to capture everything that makes a game experience special in the same way a movie based on a book is not going to capture everything that makes a novel novel. But if a movie feels special in and of itself, it might not please everyone, but it will certainly outdo Resident Evil. (Resident Evil: The Final Chapter due out next January! Seriously. Not a reboot or remake, but the same Milla Jovovich and Paul W.S. Anderson team we’ve had since 2001.)
Good characters are a good starting point, as obvious as it sounds. We aren’t controlling a lifeless avatar on generic missions; we never were. Even going back to the NES days, we instilled personalities in the likes of Link, Mario, and Mega Man, long before any animated series or Captain Lou Albano incarnations. These were characters in a simplistic, 8-bit world, but they fit exclusively in their own respective universes. Since then, video games have only risen in complexity and intensity, and our proxies have followed suit. Due to enhanced graphics and amazing voice acting, many players find modern video game characters to be as complex, if not more so, than their big and small screen counterparts. People become legitimately invested in these journeys – as they should after spending hundreds of hours on a single game.
However, movies have yet to heed this lesson or learn from this evolution. If the titular Hardcore Henry wasn’t mute or had some personality, the movie would have earned a lot more respect. Warcraft at least tried to accomplish this by giving personalities to some of the orcs (namely Durotan and his wife, Mrs. Durotan), but the human characters suffered from the same severe one-dimensional flatness that has plagued most video game adaptations. And disappointingly we end up losing both of the Tans at the end.
Another key thing is iconography. Much like comic book adaptations, the striking imagery is already there, the filmmakers just have to bring us up to it. Of course, these movies shouldn’t be so tied into the source material or the design as to make the rest of the film unapproachable to regular audiences. A lot of what I’ve read since the release of Warcraft makes it seem like the movie is fairly faithful to the game, and that it makes a lot more sense for those with a background in Warcraftology. It’s great to know that the movie honored its die hard fans, but it did so at the expense of the outsiders who make up the majority of the viewing public. People want to be sucked in by the visuals, not ostracized by them.
Finally, the most important thing is fun. Sure, not every movie – not even every major movie – needs to be lighthearted, but it certainly helps when your genre literally has the word game in it. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Fast and Furious franchise are notable examples that have managed to be both respectable and audience-friendly. These movies have succeeded tremendously because the audience has a good time watching them. Compare those films to something like Warcraft or either of the two Hitman films, and you can see just how important that element is and how something significant is lacking at its absence. While I liked the more humanistic approach taken for some of the monstrous characters in Warcraft, the entire movie suffered because all of the characters had the same level of intense seriousness, save for a few token snarky comments. After all, for all the earnestness that Warcraft tried to have, it’s essentially a movie about evil green magic vs. good blue magic.
Fun is an intangible quality, yet it permeates every frame of a movie – it exists on screen and it exists behind the scenes. It’s the difference between seeing Vin Diesel behind the wheel of a car in the Fast and Furious movie and seeing Henry Cavill slap on the Superman suit. Neither actor is particularly more charismatic than the other, but you get the sense that Diesel loves hearing the engine roar while it’s a burden to be the Man of Steel. The audience can sense this, and it is a huge factor in deciding how to spend one’s time. Rewatchability, replayability, at the end of the day, they’re the same thing. The same rules apply.