Why Are Video Game Movies So Bad?

Video games have reached new heights over the last few years as a medium, but why have video game movies continued to be so bad?

By Michael Ruiz

February 20, 2019

A couple weeks ago, DualShockers’ own Chris Compendio brought to my attention a scene from a movie I had long forgotten but perfectly encapsulates my view on video game movies. Some of you may be familiar with this magical scene from Resident Evil: Afterlife, the fourth movie from the Resident Evil film franchise starring Milla Jovovich, in which Claire Redfield (Ali Larter), Chris Redfield (Wentworth Miller), and Alice (Milla Jovovich) have their final confrontation with Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts). Honestly, I think the scene speaks for itself.

While this scene brings me so much joy – I now watch it every so often when I’m having a bad day – it’s bad. It may be indicative of what Resident Evil became during that dark period between Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City and Umbrella Corps, this is clearly not representative of what the franchise is now, with Resident Evil VII: Biohazard and Resident Evil 2, or what it was in the first place, a survival-horror game. I mean, the first Resident Evil film released in 2002, the same year that the first Resident Evil remake and Resident Evil Zero released, and only two years after Code: Veronica, all of which are considered good to great games within the franchise.

This one scene led me into a downward spiral of watching all six Resident Evil movies. Yes, I did enjoy them, but for all the wrong reasons. They are bad movies, but they aren’t the first bad video game movies by any means. Just about every movie based on a video game franchise is bad. Which begs the question: why can’t anyone make a good video game movie?

Video Game Stories are Too Simple

Obviously, there are some exceptions, but the majority of video game stories aren’t great when compared to film or books. Even something like The Last of Us or Red Dead Redemption 2 couldn’t outmatch the storytelling prowess of a literary masterpiece like Dune or an Academy Award-winning film like Whiplash. It’s hard to adapt something to film if the story isn’t great in the first place.

Let’s steer away from the fantastical story that is Resident Evil and look at something like Super Mario Bros. The story for each entry is essentially the same: Bowser steals the princess and you have to save her. That is it. With the exception of Super Mario Bros. 2 – which wasn’t a Super Mario game to begin with – it wasn’t until maybe Super Mario Sunshine where Mario’s story isn’t just saving Peach; even then, she still gets kidnapped by Bowser Jr. (disguised as Shadow Mario) and you are still tasked to save her.

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This simple tale was “adapted” in the 1993 film Super Mario Bros., and boy is it terrible. We’ll discuss some of the visual design choices in a bit but just based on its story, they somehow turned a game about saving a princess into this story about two plumbers from Brooklyn, New York getting run out by the mafia and then finding an inter-dimensional portal with an NYU student who happens to be the long lost princess of this dimension ruled by a very pale King Koopa…it’s very bad.

The problem is most of the games being adapted into movies are ones with fairly straightforward stories. Movies rely on a plot to draw in an audience. Sure, there can be some great action and cool set pieces within it, but a plot is needed in order to begin and end a movie. That isn’t necessarily the same with video games. You can just have a monster destroy buildings – like Rampage which was adapted into a movie last year – and have no plot tied to it whatsoever; as long as a score is there, the goal becomes getting a high score, not “finishing” the game. Even if there is a beginning and an end like in the Super Mario games, it is just too simple of a tale to adapt into a movie, and usually leads to writers trying to find plot devices to move that story along.

But What About Games With Good Stories?

I mentioned The Last of Us and Red Dead Redemption 2 as great stories within the video game space. They are indeed that: great video game stories. While they may have been influenced by film or books, I still don’t think they would make great movies. This is due to the fact that I think a lot of the emotions we feel are less about the game’s story and more about us experiencing these characters’ stories first-hand.

In a video game, we control a character’s action regardless if that character is pre-made or we created them ourselves; in a sense, we are role-playing these characters and experiencing everything they are. In a movie, we are on the outside looking in; we still experience everything the characters are experiencing, but we aren’t controlling any single action. Player agency is imperative in evoking an emotional response in a video game.

Going back to The Last of Us, why would I ever have any positive feelings towards Joel, a man who is incredibly dastardly and selfish? Part of it is the storytelling. The opening of that game really gets you to understand his hatred and seeing his relationship with Ellie grow also helps. But it’s the fact that I am forced to play his narrative thread, performing the actions that Joel himself would be doing. That beginning scene with his daughter would not be as powerful if I had not been running around that city with her in my arms trying to avoid Clickers. I would not care for Ellie as much if I had not been guiding her through some of the environmental puzzles I had to do.

It is the gameplay of these story-driven games that actually give me some sort of attachment to these characters. It’s not that the story isn’t good, but the interactions between these characters and you activating those sequences through gameplay are more powerful than any video game story as of yet. By comparison, a film or (especially) a book almost solely relies on the actual story.

“I Feel the Sense of Possibilities, I Feel the Wrench of Hard Realities”

This quote from Rush’s song “The Camera Eye” has nothing to do with video games or movies, but it does encapsulate some feelings I have towards the subject at hand. I feel that the possibility of having a quality video game movie are there; as I said, there are great tales that have been told. But the “hard realities” or the restriction of making a profitable film hinder that possibility.

A lot of it has to do with time. Nowadays, I would say a movie averages around two hours in length. Video games can range from one hour to 200 hours. Compressing a lot of those experiences we love into a two-hour window makes some of the more important discoveries in those titles seem nonchalant in its film adaptation.

I think Warcraft is a pretty good example of this. Within roughly two hours, you are introduced to a slew of different characters, all of which are just as important as the other within that series’ lore, all trying to tell a cohesive story within a universe whose narrative is somewhat in the periphery. That’s not to say Warcraft doesn’t have a rich narrative, but I played Warcraft III and World of Warcraft as a means to hang out with friends.

A series like Warcraft has the means to become a really great movie franchise. The first could just center around the conflict between Orcs and Humans and then naturally grow from there with each sequel. Each one could introduce a new character or component to the story that way: by the time the series has its Avengers moment with everyone on screen at one time, it doesn’t feel like characters are being shoehorned in because they are a favorite or just to further the story, a la Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver in Avengers 2: Age of Ultron.

Lost in Translation

Going back to that statement I made about the visual design choices made for a film like Super Mario Bros., the general look of most video game movies hardly ever properly represent the worlds in which they are set in.

The video game Super Mario Bros. is bright and colorful with a playful visual design that evokes fun. The Super Mario Bros. movie is the exact opposite: it’s dingy, dark, and ugly as can be. There is nothing fun and playful about it. I mean look at the Goombas in the film compared to the ones from the game:

They are legitimately the exact opposite of each other. Goombas, as we know them, are basically walking mushrooms; they look mean but are harmless and even kind of cute. Then we look at the monstrosities known as Goombas in the Super Mario Bros. movie and they are tiny reptilian heads attached to these giant humanoid bodies, and it’s just weird. There is nothing great about this whatsoever.

I think that is an extreme case, but isn’t that far from the truth with other video game movies. The upcoming Sonic the Hedgehog movie seems to be suffering from the same fate. We haven’t seen a full reveal of what Sonic will look like, but it seems fairly derivative from the initial design. I mean, look at those thighs:

I do understand that some of the costumes or worlds in games would probably be hard to translate to film. There is a reason why those first X-Men suits were black and leather in the original movies. At that time, black leather was super popular, but think of the costumes designed before the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie and then imagine what a Wolverine costume would look like if it were designed to look just like the comic books. It would be ridiculous. I think with the design sensibilities now, that costume can be faithfully made and still look good on screen.

Is There Hope for a Good Video Game Movie?

I think we will see a great video game movie someday; just look how far comic book movies have come. They’ve been making movies based on comic books since the dawn of time I’m pretty sure, and have just recently — within the past 10 or 15 years — have started to be recognized as good films. There are still some hiccups, but even those get some Oscar love cough Suicide Squad is an Academy-Award winning film cough.

One day, we will get the Spider-Man 2 of video game movies, and we can finally move on from this silly conversation.

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Michael Ruiz

Michael Ruiz is a Senior Staff Writer at DualShockers. He likes video games. He likes wrestling. He likes beer. He likes music.

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