25 April 2009

"Bad Videogame Movies" considered redundant phrase

We had been talking this week at work about the difficulty of making good movies from videogames. Apropos to that, Time magazine has a feature on the Ten Worst Videogame Movies, which as they observe, "is like shooting fish in a barrel with a plasma canon."

My observation is that there is actually a specific reason videogame movies are hard to do, which has to do with a fundamental limitation of game characters. In linear narrative, any screenwriting book or teacher will tell you to demonstrate the personality of the characters to the audience by the choices they make. A well-written screenplay continually forces the character to make choices, and from those choices we learn more about who they are. At the beginning of the movie, those choices are small: what do they do after work? Does he remember to buy flowers for his girlfriend? In a well-written screenplay, the choices both become harder to make and larger in consequence as the movie goes on. But the point is, the character is defined by the choices they made.

In a videogame, particularly for the main character, the choices that occur during the game are typically made by the player. Thus, nothing about the character can be defined by those choices. Typically in a videogame, the key choices that have made the character who they are, were all made prior to the beginning of the game. For a game to be fun, the choices made during the game need to be up to the player, meaning they can't define the character since every player plays differently; or, there have to be no meaningful character-defining choices made at all, and the player simply focuses on skills. The second one is actually more common, as it's much easier to develop. Either way, the actions taken by the character in the game cannot define who that character is, as far as the overall property is concerned.

Thus, almost all videogame characters fail the "of course he would" test. With a well-drawn movie character, you should know (by the end of the movie) how they would respond to a whole range of moral dilemnas, whether you saw them face that particular situation or not. Would Luke Skywalker lie on his resume to keep his job, at the expense of a co-worker? Of course not. Would Han Solo? If the money was good!

But can you project that on to most videogame characters? Almost all videogame characters are known to us from the following: their boss/organization/syndicate gives them a job to do. It's hard and there are complications. If we play the game long enough, we finish it. We don't get a chance to learn much about their moral dilemnas because either we're busy shooting aliens or because we rather than they make the choices. Would Lara Croft flirt with a friend's boyfriend? Well, how we would know, it doesn't come up much when killing bears with a pair of pistols.

Anyway, none of this proves that it's impossible to make a good movie from a videogame, it's just that even very well-known videogame characters don't give screenwriters much to go on if they want to craft a story. Personally, my guess is that the good videogame-based scripts (surely there will be some someday) will start by taking the world of the videogame and finding a side story in it; the main characters, the Marios, Laras, and Sonics of the world, are of necessity too shallow to work well.

1 comment:

Matthew Meyer said...

That's a really good point.