Game-changing game movies

Films adapted from video games have a poor track record, but with directors like J.J. Abrams and Duncan Jones announcing exciting new game-derived projects, Paul O’Callaghan asks whether the time has come for a great video game movie.

16 February 2013

By Paul O’Callaghan

Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

Wreck-It Ralph, current reigning champion at the UK box office, is something of a first for Hollywood – a video game-inspired film which has enjoyed both enormous commercial success and largely positive critical notices. An amiable riff on the Toy Story (1995) formula, this CG animation explores the secret lives of game characters through the eyes of titular protagonist Ralph (John C. Reilly), a bad guy from an 80s arcade title who dreams of being a hero.

Through a rapid succession of character cameos and playful references, the film exhibits both a genuine understanding of and affection for gaming culture. This approach is refreshing: ever since The Wizard (1989) was conceived essentially as a feature-length commercial for Nintendo, the relationship between Hollywood and the games industry has been defined by mutual exploitation and contempt. The first major screen adaptation of a game, Super Mario Bros. (1993), was an unmitigated disaster, met with fan derision and recouping less than half of its $48 million budget.

Subsequently, film studios tended towards the cautious and creatively bankrupt approach of churning out mid-budget, action-orientated game adaptations which aim solely to lure an audience of young gamers through brand recognition and the promise of mild titillation. Street Fighter (1994), Mortal Kombat (1995) and the Resident Evil series (2002-2012) have all turned reasonable profits by following this formula, but have done precisely nothing to challenge the notion of gaming as a shallow, infantile pursuit which exists in its own bubble.

Transformers (2007)

As games have become more cinematic and immersive, the industry has evolved largely by apeing Hollywood’s most cynical corporate practices. The Call of Duty series, now one of the world’s most lucrative entertainment properties, frequently draws comparison with the output of Michael Bay. The games are undeniably slick, technically impressive and viscerally thrilling, but also increasingly formulaic and almost pornographic in their relentless pandering to the empowerment fantasies of the adolescent male.

The phenomenal commercial success of the series has inevitably stifled creativity and risk-taking in the industry, with major studios all seeking to establish their own blockbuster franchises. At the other end of the spectrum, the meteoric rise of mobile gaming has seen a return to the values of the 80s arcade games nostalgically evoked in Wreck-It Ralph – simple, repetitive time-killers which strive for broad accessibility above all else.

Toy Story (1995)

But just as it would be foolish to write off mainstream American film on the basis of the Transformers series, to dismiss gaming as a culturally insignificant medium is a grave mistake. The nominations for the 2013 BAFTA Games Awards have just been announced. Leading the pack are Journey and The Walking Dead, two groundbreaking titles whose developers are intent on shaking up their industry from within, in a manner that may come to warrant comparison with the emergence of the New Hollywood in the late 1960s.

Journey was released last March to widespread adulation. The game casts the player as a mysterious cloaked figure traversing a barren desert landscape. With no apparent objective other than to head in the general direction of a distant mountain, what unfolds is an enigmatic, minimalist interpretation of the heroic monomyth which, through awe-inspiring animation and a haunting orchestral score, evokes sensations of wonder, fear and ultimately catharsis. It was inspired by a conversation Jenova Chen had with a US astronaut, who shared that he returned from space with a deep conviction of a higher power. The finished product might best be described as a non-denominational religious epiphany simulator.

Inception (2010)

In challenging and rejecting many of the conventions of mainstream gaming, Chen and his team have crafted a bracingly original and emotionally resonant piece of entertainment. Its commercial success indicates that the industry has sorely underestimated its audience’s appetite for more experimental titles, just as the box office takings of Inception (2010) can be cited as evidence that Hollywood operates under similar misconceptions.

Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, meanwhile, is perhaps the most impressive example of interactive storytelling to date, standing toe-to-toe with AMC’s TV series as a worthwhile adaptation of the acclaimed comic series. Released in five instalments over the course of 2012, it casts the player as a university professor with a dark past, who on release from prison is driven straight into the middle of a zombie apocalypse.

Eschewing action to focus instead on narrative and character development, the game unfolds largely through lengthy sequences of well-written dialogue. Tension is ratcheted up as the player is forced to make morally difficult decisions, and to live with the invariably grave consequences. A sense of deep melancholy pervades the experience, which builds slowly to a heartbreaking climax.

The Walking Dead (2012 video game)

As intelligent and innovative as these titles are, however, they remain wedded to mechanics which serve as a barrier to entry for non-gamers. Journey still occasionally requires you to jump around on platforms, The Walking Dead to solve puzzles – activities which for many seem inherently childish, and automatically disqualify gaming from serious critical discussion.

While the games media seeks to evaluate their industry in a broader pop culture context, the courtesy is rarely reciprocated by the mainstream press. As such, it’s unlikely that comparisons drawn in gaming circles between Journey and the work of Terrence Malick resulted in many inquisitive cineastes fleeing arthouse cinemas in search of a Playstation.

Nevertheless, the landscape of mainstream cinema is being shaped to some degree by a generation who grew up with gaming. Guillermo del Toro, Peter Jackson and Edgar Wright have all declared an interest in the medium which can be detected throughout their work, for better and worse.

Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)

On the one hand, Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) evolved from an episode of his TV series Spaced (1999-2001), which parodied the Resident Evil series. On the other, Jackson’s vision of the afterlife in The Lovely Bones (2009) was derided for its resemblance to the garish surreal landscapes of Super Mario Galaxy.

A couple of recent announcements offer the possibility of more substantial and meaningful convergence between the two industries. Having established himself as a sensitive and serious-minded sci-fi director with Moon (2009) and Source Code (2011), Duncan Jones recently confirmed his next project would be an adaptation of online fantasy game World of Warcraft.

Jones worked in game development after graduating from film school and revealed that a key sequence in Source Code was directly inspired by Grand Theft Auto. Indeed there are moments throughout the film, which sees Jake Gyllenhaal’s protagonist forced to continually relive an eight-minute sequence until he successfully completes a mission, which strongly evoke the experience of a modern action game. If anyone can rise to the challenge of successfully adapting a game for the screen, Jones seems a likely candidate.

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

And days after he was announced to direct Star Wars: Episode VIIJ.J. Abrams revealed that he was in talks with Valve Software’s Gabe Newell to work on both an original game idea and screen adaptations of Valve’s Half-Life and Portal. A collaboration between the two would signal the most high-profile creative partnership to date between Hollywood and the games industry. Half-Life and Portal are landmark titles which inhabit the same rich sci-fi universe and inspire cultish devotion, while Newell enjoys a reputation as one of the most pioneering and influential figures in gaming.

Abrams, meanwhile, is hardly struggling for work. Lucasfilm co-chair Kathleen Kennedy recently revealed that he had initially turned down Star Wars, but that she pursued him until he caved, convinced that he was the only person for the role. That a filmmaker of such prominence and currency should be actively and publicly courting a figure like Newell points not only to the inherent quality of Valve’s work, but also towards a possible future in which the games industry is no longer content to play the role of Hollywood’s embarrassing younger brother.

BFI Player logo

Stream landmark cinema

Free for 14 days, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Try for free