Of games and movies

 The Angry Birds movie is out. And soon Warcraft movie will be out as well. Neither of them has been getting rave reviews, though at least Angry Birds is at the moment in the rare category of game movies that will actually turn a profit on the box office and might just prove to be the vitalizing energy shot Rovio's dwindling flock needs. But Warcraft might not be as lucky as if there's a common theme in game adaptations it is, that they don't really sink in well with the general audiences.

Games are, despite being already well ingrained in the modern popular culture,  a young field in the entertainment industry. When you think about it, it did take comic book movies a long time to get really popular. There's a well-done adaptation here and there before the comic book movie craze that's going on now, but movies based on comic books were mostly seen as childish and silly. And that's pretty much where games are now. While gamers, in general, are getting older, the games themselves have still seen as a form of juvenile entertainment the same way comic books were for a long time. The World is still full of people, who really haven't played games and as such aren't very aware that the games industry has already started to go in the more serious direction as far scripts and plot lines go.

What comes to scripts though, one problem still remains and that is, most games aren't great because they have great scripts, they're great because of technical aspects, like the gameplay itself. If the gameplay is good enough, a lot of people will overlook things like a bad script. Super Mario is a good example of this: the games have a very little actual story. It's just a moustachioed plumber trying to save a princess, who's always in an another castle. The simplicity if the plot doesn't matter, as the gameplay itself still works today, being fun and challenging and above all, very well tuned.

The cinematic tension swells: does Mario hit the Koopa or is he a goner? Stay tuned.

When you look at the most popular games, they usually tend to be either huge open world games, where a coherent narrative is flooded with a massive amount of  non-plot related side quests, which often can be more interesting than the main story itself or games, that bank all on gameplay, like FPS genre usually does, and leave the plot just as an excuse to go out and start playing towards the objective. In a game that is fully acceptable. The enjoyment of playing doesn't come from following a plot, but from doing tasks or from achieving something. They aren't static, not even when you talk about "choose your own adventure"-style games that Telltale does.

Now, you'd think a choose your own adventure like The Wolf Among Us would turn easily into a movie. Hell, it's already an interactive animation, so why not? The problem, however, is, that while the story is good, how to decide what is the movie people want to see? What kind of character development they want from what is offered and what "choose your own"-story elements they'd actually want to see get in the movie.

This would be an easier thing to turn into a movie though. Hell, Telltale titles are almost movies at times. Or episodes in a TV-series, to be apter.

When we talk about huge open world games, like Assassins Creed, of which there's a movie coming as well, or Skyrim, what are the narratives people want? How much the players have invested in the side characters who aren't part of the main plot? Is the main plot even that good? Skyrim for an example has a terrible main plot, but the game itself is good enough because of the freedom it offers in allowing the player to just forget about it entirely. That just doesn't translate into a good movie.

And here we come to something like Warcraft, that is a game, that offers very little in the form of originality. It's because when the first RTS Warcraft came out, it didn't need any, as it was a war game about two warring races, orcs and humans. Sure, it had some plot, but the plot wasn't what the players were focused on for most of the time. What they saw was a birds-eye perspective map, where they controlled little orcs or humans on their war efforts, building things and entering in skirmishes. Any plot or mythology the game had was just a bunch of fantasy cliches. And when new games got out, they just added more cliches on the top of existing ones in order to expand the game universe.

Orcs Build a Farm (in order to help the war effort) - the movie

When Blizzard got to the World of Warcraft, they just kept expanding the cliches into a full-blown lore. Yeah, there's a lot of lore in the Warcraft universe, but it all is mostly just common stock material from fantasy cliches. It tells a lot, that they got into a place with their expansions, where their new race was just kick ass panda bears, because why not? Even the name "Pandaria" was lazy, but people seemed pretty happy with that, because hey, new game content.

But that's World of Warcraft, the upcoming movie is apparently based on the RTS games, so I guess there are no pandas here. What we have, however, is a movie that is based on a heap of cliches, offering very little in terms of novelty. That by itself is okay, I think, as most movies are based on cliches and often do it very well. It is the context though, that matters. Being based on cliches isn't really the big problem game movies have.

First, game movies have a bad rep. They have a reputation of being, well, no very good. A lot of gamers don't like them, because the movies aren't like the games, even in the case of that the game itself wouldn't provide enough material to make an actual movie. And the bigger audiences still might see games as a juvenile and not worth their time, as for why watch a war movie based on Call of Duty for an example, if you can see an equally generic war movie that's based on other material. Then there's the thing, that games also are a visual experience as well already. So when someone is playing a game, they can imagine how those visuals would look like as a movie. But the problem is, that a lot of games allow the player to approach them in a different manner, especially if we are talking about open world games, so what one might expect the movie to do isn't necessarily the same thing someone other is expecting.

In the 90's, when I hadn't even played Street Fighter, I knew I'd rather be playing it than watching this.

Turning a book into a movie is a bit different. While a reader can imagine what a movie based on a specific story could look like, books rarely offer strong visual cues about it. That allows the movie makers to decide what kind of sets and clothes or weapons they use, whereas games, as a visual medium as well, show what things look like, so people will have more specific expectations and opinions, despite some visual cues might not work well when turned into movie, especially if the visual cue is a part of gameplay. And yes, I do know that comic books are visual medium as well, but with them it's more generally accepted, that not all of them translates well, especially when we talk about long-running series, where personalities, clothes and even the tone of the characters has changed from comedic to serious to brooding back to comedic or anywhere in between. Besides, there's a tonne of great comics that didn't translate well in translation.

Let's tackle the problemacy of an almost plotless game, like Super Mario. When it was turned it into a movie, it ended up looking nothing like the games and there was a good reason for that: no one would have wanted to watch Super Mario jumping over turtles and mushrooms for two hours. But from some reason, they chose a direction and tone that was so different from the games themselves, that even if people were expecting a totally different story, the end result was hard to swallow. I mean Dennis Hopper as some sort of evolutionary dinosaur Koopa king? And a king of the Mushroom Kingdom who really is just a drooping ball sack of mycelium. And the world that looks like a post-apocalyptic New York rather than the colourful Mushroom Kingdom familiar from the games.

While I'm no Super Mario scholar, I'm pretty sure the king of the Mushroom Kingdom was a bearded dude with a toadstool cap instead of a testicle hanging from a ceiling. I'm pretty sure I know what Hoskins is thinking there.

I do get it why changes happen. The first Mario games aren't exactly cinematic gold. There's no way to turn them as is into movies, so a real plot and story need to be constructed. And that plot by itself can be very different than what the game offers. But there's still a question of trying to retain the tone of the source material and there Super Mario Bros missed the mark so badly, that the writers shot themselves in the face instead of the target. Apparently Angry Birds the Movie, while not cinematic gold either, is doing far better in this department

Then there are the action games turned into movies, like Street Fighter, where the question becomes, why'd you really watch a generic action movie, while you could be playing a great action game. Why would you watch Doom the movie, if you can have more fun by playing Doom the game? The fact just is, that a popularity of a game doesn't necessarily correlate with a success of a movie, as people do tend to look other things from movies, as unlike games, they're static experiences. As a lot of really good and popular games are based more on technique, skill and self-improvement, so they really even aren't that good of a choice as movie material in the first place. That won't stop moviemakers from trying though.

Confession time: I didn't hate Doom the movie. Its biggest problem really is, that overall it's just a generic action movie, not a redefinition, or like the game was a definition of the genre.

Now yes, at this moment Angry Birds movie seems to be doing fine. Rovio has stated, they're hoping for 300 million worldwide as that would make it a success in their books. But not many recent game based movies have been as lucky. A very recent Ratchet & Clank movie failed miserably at the box office. The current record holder for the biggest box office is Prince of Persia, with 336 million dollars worldwide. It's a good number if you forget that the movie itself cost more than 200 million dollars to make and the studio gets roughly half of what a movie does in the theatres, as the theatre takes its cut as well. And better yet, Prince of Persia is the only video game movie that has passed 300 million worldwide. Not even Lara Croft managed to do that, as her Angelina Jolie starring movies passed 274 and 156 million respectively. And back then Tomb Raider was far hotter commodity than Prince of Persia was back in 2010. And on a general level, the movies were mostly panned by the critics and non-playing audiences, despite they were in some cases liked by the gamers.

I'm not saying that there's no money or success in game based movies. Resident Evil movies have shown, that with a reasonable budget they can be successful. None of the movies have been humongous, even the most successful of them have done only a hair under 300 million worldwide, but in the contrast of budgets under 100 million dollars each, the series has been successful enough to spawn 5 sequels. Rovio was smart to keep the budget under 100 million for the birds, not counting advertising, but they also were lucky, as is shown by Ratchet & Clank, which has managed to make only a bit over 10 million as of now. Luckily for that one, R&C movie wasn't terribly expensive either, but dud is a dud.

Back to Warcraft. As I said, the first games weren't popular because they were well written. They were popular because they were very good games in their own genre: strategy games. The story was secondary to them, just an excuse for the forever lasting war effort and was mostly constructed of stock cliches. That tied to the reputation of game movies being less than stellar, makes it a  hard sell.

In a very likely scenario, there will be a hugely successful, runaway hit based on a game. It will happen the same way comic book movies turned into monster hits, but I do think, it will require some more time before it happens. Games as such need to be ingrained even deeper on the pop cultural psyche. And then they need to be directed by people who grew up with games and who really do understand the fundamental differences between movies and games and manage to figure out how to turn an interactive experience into a really successful static movie experience. I just don't think Warcraft will be that movie.

As I said though, I do think a game based movie hit is waiting to happen. There's already a generation of directors who have lived with games their whole lives. But it still won't be easy to turn those games into movies, as their main draw, the gameplay itself, is a pretty difficult thing to turn into a  movie.

So, how about a movie about an orc who goes to the woods and kills 90 elks? People would love that, right?