Do videogame movies need to level up?

News Editor Em Richardson explains why videogame movie adaptations struggle to make money at the box office and to engage audiences.

Em Richardson
19th February 2020
Videogame movie adaptation posters. Image: Youtube
Sonic has become the latest videogame character to be immortalised in a movie, with the recent release of Sonic the Hedgehog. The film has proved exceptionally popular, becoming one of the most successful videogame adaptations of all time. However, critics’ reviews have been somewhat mixed.

Historically, videogame adaptations have struggled to win over both critics, and the viewing public. On the movie reviewing website Rotten Tomatoes, only a handful have ever received a rating of over 50%. There’s an argument that videogame plots simply don’t translate onto the big screen. They tend to be either far too simple, or far too over complex.

The interactive, high-speed nature of a game means players give the plot less attention than they would when viewing it as a film

If a game revolves around a very simple objective, it can be hard to create a detailed screenplay based on the concept, with film-makers often resorting to including lengthy fight scenes to ‘compensate’ for a lack of plot. Afterall, it is arguably easier to hide a poor plot within a videogame, than it is to hide one within a movie. The interactive, high-speed nature of a game means players give the plot less attention than they would when viewing it as a film.

Dialogue is a particular problem, with one critic estimating that the entire 15-hour Tomb Raider game contains just 45 minutes of dialogue. That doesn’t provide much inspiration for a screenplay.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some games contain so much material that they are difficult to condense into a feature-length film. A prime example of this is Warcraft- the film’s creators tried to condense over 100 hours of game play into a single film. The end-result was described as ‘confusing’ for anyone who wasn’t familiar with the videogame.

Super Mario Bros. lost out on the Oscar for Best Picture to Schindler's List , Image: Youtube
Super Mario Bros. lost out on the Oscar for Best Picture to Schindler's List. Image: Youtube

An obvious solution for the fact videogame plots rarely make good movies could be to stray away from a game’s original plot. Yet, this tends to lead to criticism that the plot is no longer appealing for fans of the original game. Plus, it can be difficult to find a way to transplant characters from a videogame into a film setting. This was shown by Super Mario Bros., a bizarre live action adaptation of the classic Nintendo game, which saw Mario and Luigi living in modern New York, as evil Nintendo characters who evolved from dinosaurs attempted to merge their parallel universe with real-life. Yes, really.

Videogame characters often end up seeming two-dimensional and simplistic, when transferred to the big screen. Actors have found them notoriously difficult to play over the years, with fans often complaining that their portrayal differs massively from characters in the original game. This is most likely because of the limited characterisation they are given to work with- it must be very hard to play a character who has very little dialogue.

Sonic has no respect for road safety or speed limits, Image: IMDB
Sonic has no respect for road safety or speed limits. Image: IMDB

As for animated videogame adaptations, it seems animators must choose between changing the characters’ appearances, and risking disappointing fans, or leaving them the same and facing allegations that the animation is unrealistic, and retains its ‘game-like’ quality. This issue was actually faced by the team behind the new Sonic film, with fans giving the film’s initial trailer a largely negative reaction. The titular character has since been redesigned, much to fans’ delight, and the updated version now appears in the film.

Time will tell whether the redesign has managed to truly win over Sonic fans, or whether the new film will join a long list of other much-maligned videogame adaptations.

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