some more thoughts on video games and their relation to other media

My son Sam (6) is a natural-born movie buff, and that is a good thing. His younger sister, Kit (5), not so much. Sam wants to know how movies are made, how effects (both narrative and special) are achieved, how “they get it to look that way.” Kit is attracted to characters.

I’ve tried to carefully manage my kids’ exposure to movies, not so much to keep them ignorant of subversive material but to present a canon: Star Wars movies are good, Barbie movies are not. Justice League is good, The Wiggles is not. Pixar is exceptionally good, other studios require a more project-by-project assessment. The purposed end result of this cultural editing is that, when they become old enough to choose their own entertainment, they will be able to recognize quality over crap. I also want them to have an understanding of movie history and be able to appreciate older movies (like, you know, Raiders of the Lost Ark).

(My wife, who is a children’s librarian, takes care of the books.)

(And while I’ve stopped, let me just add that, by and large, our kids have developed very good taste. Left to their own devices, they have chosen Wonder Pets, Spongebob Squarepants, Jimmy Neutron and Fairly Oddparents as their televisual entertainment, all of which are pretty good shows.)

Here’s the thing: as we move into the 21st century, an idea is, increasingly, no longer being conceived of as “a book” or “a movie” or even “a TV show.” Instead, an idea is a piece of “intellectual property” that can begin as almost anything and is not deemed worthy of widespread distribution by major media outlets unless it can be a movie, preferably a series of movies, a TV show, a video game, a website, a children’s book, a theme-park ride, a line of toys, a brand of furniture, a clothing label and a school of architecture.

This has been happening, of course, since the beginning of time. I’m sure that soon after a caveman drewa picture of a mammoth hunt on a cave wall, another caveman copied the images and printed them up on cheap t-shirts. The rule seems to be, it doesn’t matter what the origins of the idea are, if an idea is worthy it will eventually find its proper expression and that expression will dominate the public’s understanding of the idea.

An example: Gone With The Wind was a huge bestselling novel when David O. Selznick decided to turn it into the most popular movie of all time. But how many people who went to see the movie had also read the book? One in five? One in ten? And in the ensuing 70 years, of all the untold millions of people who have watched Gone With The Wind, how many have read the book? One in a hundred? One in a thousand? Say “Gone With The Wind” to people, and the image that comes to mind is not this but this. The same could be said for Jaws, The Godfather, the James Bond series, Mary Poppins and The Bourne Identity. They were popular books before they were movies, but the movies made were so definitive that it’s hard to imagine someone reading the books and not seeing the movie playing in their head while they read. The movie adaptations have supplanted the source material in the minds of the public.

Superheroes present another interesting aspect of the adaptation question. Superman, for instance, was a huge hit right out of the box on comic-book racks, but the radio show was also a huge hit, and many aspects of the character, including the “faster than a speeding bullet” line, were written for the radio show, not the comic book. The Max Fleischer cartoons lent more aspects to the character, then the George Reeves TV show, on and on, until one would be hard-pressed to find the “original” Superman — is Superman, in the minds of the public, a comic book, a daily strip, a radio show, a series of animated shorts, a live-action serial, a TV show or a movie series? When the average person thinks of “Superman,” do they see Joe Shuster’s squinty-eyed drawing, or George Reeves, or Chris Reeve, or Brandon Routh, or one of the other dozens of Supermen who been drawn by various DC artists down through the decades? A similar question arises with Batman. At the word “Batman,” do you see Bob Kane’s Batman, or Neil Adams’s, or maybe Jim Lee’s? Do you see Adam West, Michael Keaton, Christian Bale? (And how many people think of George Clooney? I mean as Batman?)

About a year ago, I showed Sam Star Wars and he became an instant fan. And almost immediately he was able to play the Lego Star Wars video game. And after a hundred or so hours of playing the Lego Star Wars video game, he would watch one of the Star Wars movies again and find himself in an occasional state of mild cognitive dissonance because, well, the movie diverged from what he knew from the video game. On some level he understands that Star Wars was a series of movies “first” and that the video game sprang from the movies, but at the same time he doesn’t necessarily accept the movies as the “official” version of the story.

And Kit? Forget it. She’s too young to grasp the video game and she’s gotten her Star Wars history piecemeal and out of order. She’s watched Sam play the video game quite a bit more than she’s watched any of the movies, and as far as I can tell, she sees no reason to differentiate between the two. They’re the same characters, presented differently, with different “looks” to them, but I honestly couldn’t tell you if, when I say “Darth Vader” Kit sees this or this.

I’m not really fearful that Star Wars will be supplanted in the public’s imagination by its video-game spinoffs (or James Bond, or The Godfather), but I dare say that, at some point in the future there will be some movie that works okay in its own right but works like a motherfucker as a video game. And the title will then be remembered that way. And I think that event will come to pass, honestly, before the opposite happens. That is, I think that the gaming business will develop a video game that presents a better expression of an idea than the original movie sooner than Hollywood will figure out how to make a half-way decent movie out of a video game.

Take Doom, for instance. Great game, and seemingly made for cinematic adaptation. A foolproof conceit — a man alone in a terrifying scenario, a kind of I Am Legend in space. When I first played Doom back in the late Cretaceous Period, I heard they were planning a movie starring Arnold Schwarzeneggar and my heart raced with the enormous possibilities of such a movie. But the eventual movie of Doom, starring the better-than-Schwarzeneggar-ever-was The Rock, was a dramatic non-starter — it utterly failed to establish its own identity as a property — that is, to take the idea of Doom and make it its own. It got across none of the game’s visceral terror and it added a bunch of crap on top of it that had nothing to do with anything. And I would say the same for Mortal Kombat, Tomb Raider, Street Fighter, Resident Evil and, yes, even Super Mario Bros. So while Half-Life is a great game, by any standard (I just played it again — ten years later it still kicks ass), the only thing Hollywood could hope to do with Half-Life is shorten it and give it slightly better production values.

In other words, weep not for the troubled Halo project — it’s just going to be a bad movie of a great game. But keep an eye on, say, Juno, the Video Game.



34 Responses to “some more thoughts on video games and their relation to other media”
  1. gdh says:

    For some reason super-heroes (or as Warren Ellis sometimes calls them, “underwear perverts”) seem to maintain their comic book roots despite myriad adaptations. Batman has been portrayed in every medium you can imagine, from video games to lunch boxes, but he still remains a “comic book character” in most people’s minds.

    This is mainly, I think, because in most people’s minds the concepts of “comic book character” and “super-hero” are practically synonymous. It’s a weird case where a specific subgenre of writing has so dominated a medium that it’s come to actually represent that medium.

    Which is a shame, because the comics medium is quite stifled as a result. Imagine if the movie industry worked in an analogous way to comics: You’d have only two big studios, both of them producing only Westerns. Hundreds and hundreds of Westerns every year. Of course, in the ’80s they changed it up a bit, got edgy. Made gritty, dark, realistic westerns! Re-imagined John Wayne in all sorts of ways! Really pushed the boundries! Well, the boundaries of Movies About Cowboys. And meanwhile anything that’s not a Western can’t draw an audience, because the only people who go into movie theatres are those cowboy nerds.

    • Anonymous says:

      Your analogy breaks down because the comic book industry seems to have undergone a boom time where a myriad of non-super hero related projects are really grabbing a big audience.

      Brian K. Vaughan’s masterpiece Y: The Last Man is just one example of an extremely popular comic book, not related to super heroes, and is currently undergoing it’s transformation into a movie (well, it’s in pre-production at least).

      Heck, even the masterful Fables by Bill Willingham (who comments on this here blog every now and again) is extremely popular and has even less to do with superheroes.

      These aren’t underground comics in anyway, either.

      But, yeah, the average person when you say “comic book” will say “super hero”. So I guess the average person sees the comic book genre as stifled, when the curious can discover a wealth of books not dealing with men in tights.

      • gdh says:

        I never claim my analogies are perfect isomorphisms! 🙂

        It is getting a lot better, but non-superhero books are still the exception rather than the rule, and there’s still a stigma on the medium. The hardcore superhero comic audience has been dwindling for years though…

  2. If I was more savvy and listened to in the 80s, I would have pictured the Neil Adams Batman…

    And continuing with my therapy, I do find himself in an occasional state of mild cognitive dissonance because, well, the movie diverged from what he knew from the comics…

    Brilliant ideas re intellectual property here for free for we wannabe screenwriters with day jobs – many thanks

  3. Anonymous says:

    Beware the Video Game adaptation…

    What I’m puzzling over at this point is the adaptations in general. Realistically, I’ve only ever seen a few games adapted from movies that were any good. The only ones that have had any level of consistency have been the Lucasarts releases of Star Wars material. Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) and KOTOR 2 were absolutely brilliant, but they weren’t necessarily adaptations of Star Wars so much as stories set in the Star Wars universe.

    I guess that’s the only consistent thing I can think of in the realm of video games adapted from other mediums. They utilize a well crafted universe as opposed to a specific story. The Baldur’s Gate games as well as Planescape: Torment (which is arguably one of the best game stories ever) were both set using the D&D rule set and universe.

    Perhaps a movie or series of movies can inspire a wonderful video game, but I’m not holding my breath for a close adaptation that will actually work.

    *insert pause here for a 15 minute break discussion of this topic with coworkers who also play video games*

    The consensus from the gang is that it really does come down to fully realized worlds in combination with great stories (that thus far are all specifically written for the game). It’s possible to take the story from a movie and flesh out a universe around it or vice versa but that’s an extremely rare thing.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Beware the Video Game adaptation…

      Worse, the video game would then have to present that narrative in a manner more compelling and essential than the movie it’s taken from, which seems unlikely.

      I’ve played several of the Star Wars games and enjoyed them, but they’ve always felt marginal to the movies, I’ve never felt like they surpassed their source material.

      • gdh says:

        Re: Beware the Video Game adaptation…

        I haven’t really kept up, but I remember some of the old Star Wars games being fantastic. For a kid weened on the original trilogy, in the pre-prequel days of the early ’90s, getting a chance to “restore law and order to the galaxy” as an Imperial pilot in TIE Fighter was about the coolest and most subversive thing you could imagine.

        The main appeal of Star Wars adaptations in those days, I think, was that they fed a widespread desire for more narrative in that established universe. There’s not many movies that have achieved that widespread desire to such a degree.

        • Todd says:

          Re: Beware the Video Game adaptation…

          When my son became old enough to read I started investigating the world of Star Wars novels, and immediately shrunk back in horror — there are far too many of them, I have no idea where to start.

          • jedisoth says:

            Re: Beware the Video Game adaptation…

            Start with the Timothy Zahn novels, Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command.

            The rest of the Zahn stuff is also good. As is the X-Wing series of novels by Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston.

            Personally, I feel the store lost its direction with the New Jedi Order series and everything that followed (chronologically, there are other good books written since NJO, but they take place before the NJO). James Luceno has written some good stuff about Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, too.

            Some youngin’s dismiss my Star Wars opinions, but consider that I was born in ’74: Star Wars is, quite literally, the earliest thing I can remember. I grew up on it and Raiders of the Lost Ark (saw it 7 times in the theater with my sister!).

            • Todd says:

              Re: Beware the Video Game adaptation…

              I’m probably a little old for reading the spinoff novels myself, but when Sam is old enough I will remember to recommend the Zahn novels to start.

              I see nothing wrong with extended immersion in the Star Wars universe. I prefer it to D&D or LOTR or Warcraft or any of these other weird quasi-medieval things out there.

          • gdh says:

            Re: Beware the Video Game adaptation…

            And most of them are bloody terrible. The only ones I ever read and enjoyed were some of the first to be published, Timothy Zahn’s trilogy: Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command. They kept a very consistent feel with the original trilogy, and introduced some new characters that were actually quite compelling, like Grand Admiral Thrawn and Mara Jade.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: Beware the Video Game adaptation…

        Well, the movies are canonical. I wholeheartedly agree that the games haven’t surpassed the source material as far as story goes. As interactive entertainment set in an established world though, many of the Star Wars games have been head and shoulders above even many standalone franchises.

        Speaking of adaptations, Torment actually had a book released based on the game. I never read it, but it was mentioned in wikipedia as not well liked by fans of the game.

        I need to go play that again.

        One thing I forgot to specifically state in my earlier post…

        “That is, I think that the gaming business will develop a video game that presents a better expression of an idea than the original movie sooner than Hollywood will figure out how to make a half-way decent movie out of a video game.”

        I totally agree with that take on it.
        The immersion factor alone in most games can take many concepts and elevate them to something so much greater.

  4. teamwak says:

    Doom, like RE and Tomb Raider was such a missed oportunity. I actually liked about 10 mins of Doom – at the end when they finally follow Karl Urban around in the first person. It was just like the game, and pretty cool! The rest of the filck was absolute pants!

    Funnily enough, I quite liked RE2 as I thought some of the shots were straight out of the game, and was some clever direction from the director. The rest if the movie was crap, so any goodwill he’d earned was lost.

    I’ve never played Helo, but I know all about it. I would certainly be interested in seeing a movie about it. Espeacially if Peter Jackson is over-seeing it. Del Toro would have done a good job on it too, im sure.

    But Goldeneye the game was absolutely brillaint. Not even my favourite Bond film, but easily (say people who know more than me) the best game the N64 ever did! Go figure!

    • Anonymous says:

      Could someone pls explain why there’s a consensus “Tomb Raider 1 & 2” didn’t work?
      Todd, have you disseminated the films?
      I rather enjoyed both. I thought Angelina Jolie was perfectly cast.
      I worry there’s a misogyny @ work that gives the summer demographic of young males a knee jerk reaction to disliking a film w/ a female lead. Not to mention the studio heads who really have no affinity or ability to create movies w/ viable female protagonists in action contexts. If that’s the case, why didn’t the same attitude sink Ellen Ripley? But then, that was a different, smarter time for the studios & the American culture. At least for the 1st 2 movies.

      • teamwak says:

        I am a huge TR fan, and was quite excited by the idea of a movie. I also liked the idea of Angelina doing it too.

        But with-in the opening shots I knew it had been made by people who didnt give a fuck about the games franchise. The opening has her fighting a robot in a training simulation!!! WTF??? Where in 5 or so games does that happen?

        Cheesy FX, like the Cambodian rock soldiers, and a final mystery that was cobbled together like Indy lite.

        They tacked a love story into each one, when (for once) there is no love interest in the games. Maybe TR is actually unfilmable as a movie. But Indy showed that set peices and a fairly intelligent story can work. Who knows. Not I.

      • mimitabu says:

        the failure of tomb raider had nothing to do with anyone’s inability to accept a woman as a protagonist. it was reviled by millions of fans of the game; an action franchise with a woman protagonist.

        i’m sure sexism exists and hurts certain movies’ creation and reception, but not tomb raider. tomb raider was just boring. thin characterization, boring plot, stupid effects, etc. i’m surprised i stayed in the theater until it ended.

        as for movies being adapted to games, it really depends… primarily on what you (todd) said in the last video game entry about marrying the medium with the plot, so to speak. further, you need a movie that had so much story to tell (hinted at, at least) that it couldn’t get it all out in movie form, but could develop it in a videogame. this would work especially well if the “tedium” of videogames (fighting stuff, traveling, buying or selling stuff, etc) can contribute to plot or character development (as it does in the most successful RPGs).

        • mimitabu says:

          addendum to that last part, videogames are crucially different than movies, because of interactivity (of course). that’s obvious, but the big difference i’m posting again to highlight is the fact that videogames benefit greatly from details/story/characters that are unnecessary, while movies generally sag under such weight. videogames require optional content to be truly interactive (though this is cheated or ignored at times, and its absence can definitely be overcome, but i can’t think of any truly compelling story in a game that doesn’t include optional content). while if a movie has 10-15 minutes in it during which you could have left, gone to the bathroom, maybe had a cigarette, then returned and ended up enjoying and understanding the movie more or less as well as had you not left… that’s a problem.

          (comment deleted and reposted due to proofreading failure)

  5. Hey, if nothing else, Street Fighter gave us the line,

    “For you, the day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me, it was Tuesday.”

    Then again, it was so bad it killed Raul Julia.

    • mimitabu says:

      i love street fighter the movie. admittedly, i’m usually doing something else when i watch it (i mean, the 1 or 2 times i’ve watched it)… but still i find myself incapable of following it. every time i ask myself “what the hell is going on here?” i can’t supply an answer until very late in the movie.

  6. Anonymous says:

    You are right, the Super Mario movie did not get across the visceral terror of the game.

    • Todd says:

      Not that they didn’t try.

      • adam_0oo says:

        Well sure, the decided not to jump around on clouds and things and instead decided to show us that magic power granting mushrooms in real life would look like an all consuming fungus.

    • Todd says:

      I wonder what the budget was on that — it’s much better lit than I was expecting it to be.

      • gdh says:

        LoadingReadyRun’s budget is essentially zero, apart from the fact that they own a decent HD camera and some basic lights and mics and stuff. They’ve been doing a new short comedy video every week for four years now and it’s amazing how much great stuff they come up with.

  7. popebuck1 says:

    Just FYI, but I’d love to recommend a book to you – film critic Ty Burr’s The Best Old Movies For Families: A Guide For Watching Together. He goes over a wide range of excellent movies that kids can really get into. I picked it up idly in Borders one day, and found myself writing down movie after movie that I can use as birthday/Christmas presents for my nieces and nephew. The commentary is a bit biased toward girls (since Burr has two daughters and no sons), but there is plenty of material for boys, and it’s all arranged by genre and age group. Definitely check it out.

  8. monica_black says:

    I find that thanks to the redawning of movie musicals, most people I encounter (even in the theatre) think of Rosario Dawson poledancing instead of the actual musical RENT (I prefer the latter) and actually find the musical inferior. Since Sweeney Todd, most people I encounter at school assume that stage productions of the musical are like Kill Bill, Vol. 1 bloodwise.

    I believe they did a Final Fantasy film, but it was just part of the francise and it wasn’t very good.

    I’ve been playing video games since I was little. Occassionally there’s the really good “Based off Film” video game (like Aladdin on the Super Nintendo). I will say that the Happy Feet game is the worst game I’ve ever played. However Juno, the Video Game would be much worse.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Nice post!

    well done, dude

    • Anonymous says:

      I believe that KotOR and KotOR 2 actually did pass the original movies as far as storyline is concerned, but I do not think of them instantly when I think of Star Wars. Unfortunately, the less cinematic feel and of course the relatively low cultural impact of videogames held them back so much. I really did feel more immersed in those games then almost any other form of entertainment I’ve experienced. Such brilliant ideas presented, going beyond the Light Side, Dark Side conflict.