The technology news has been full of reports of the arrival of "Red Dead Redemption," the newest western-themed release from Rockstar Games, the creators of the popular "Grand Theft Auto" franchise. After years of development and millions spent on production, a massive marketing campaign has been rolled out, including a half-hour short film directed by John Hillcoat, most recently of "The Road," (that I still haven't watched, but I swear I will) that will air this Saturday night on FOX. It will mark one of two video-game-to-film adaptations that will be premiering this weekend, the other being Disney's massive Memorial Day theatrical tent-pole, "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time."
It's taken a long time for video game films to arrive at this point, poised to enjoy massive popular and financial success. The past two decades have been littered with ill-conceived adaptations like "Super Mario Brothers," "Doom," "Wing Commander," "Max Payne," and the ghastly creations of the notorious Dr. Uwe Boll. There have been a few bright spots, such as the horror film based on "Silent Hill," and the moderately successful "Resident Evil" series, but no real breakthrough hits to prompt a new wave of higher-profile projects. Instead the public is more likely to remember campy misfires like "Tomb Raider," which couldn't sustain viewer interest for more than one film. Planned adaptations of the popular "Halo" and "Metal Gear Solid" have been shelved or trapped in development purgatory for years.
But beyond failing to achieve lasting financial success, there were many who question the inherent artistic quality of games and game-based media. Most adaptations have been cheaply made B-movies with lots of violence and little to no story. Though many have made money, there have been no video-game based films that have acheived any measure of critical success. One of the strongest public blows against the genre came from Roger in Ebert in 2005, who characterized video games as "inherently inferior to films and literature" because their interactive nature required a more simplified narrative. Many directors ran into trouble trying to translate the straightforward gameplay of video games into compelling stories onscreen. At least one film, "Doom," tried to incorporate sequences that emulated the first-person-shooter POV of its source material, to remarkably lousy effect.
Of course, the studios keep trying to adapt video games, because the gaming industry is extremely lucrative and its properties are popular with the most desirable target demographic - 18-34-year-old males. Thus, we have the newest video-game property trying to cross over to mainstream audiences: "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time." Based on an installment of the "Prince of Persia" video game series that was released in 2003, Disney is hoping it will be a successor to their "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, which was also based on unconventional material - a theme park ride. Unlike most other video game films, "Prince of Persia" has considerable resources and talent behind it, including director Mike Newell and producer Jerry Bruckheimer. The film falls into the familiar mold of an Arabian adventure story, with obvious ties to "Thief of Baghdad" and "The Mummy," which should help its appeal. It's too early to say anything about the film's quality, but the buzz is decent.
The willingness of a major studio to foot the bill for a big adaptation should help future projects in the pipeline. But even more encouraging, I think, have been the striking changes in video games in recent years. The best games have become increasingly elaborate and innovative, with more complicated environments and gameplay narratives. "Red Dead Redemption" is a good example of this, as it uses random event generators and immersive settings that allow gamers much more freedom in their gameplay. Though there are still predetermined stories to follow, the AI of these games are now so advanced, a player's actions will affect the kind of narrative they can expect. Villainous acts in "Red Dead Redemption" will prompt the creation of wanted posters and cause posses of lawmen to target the player. Benevolent acts lead to different scenarios.
This may not exactly be the sort of compelling storytelling Ebert would appreciate, but it's certainly an important step in the right direction. Future filmmakers, though they may still have their work cut out for them trying to find better plots for these video game worlds, at least now have worlds that are getting subtler and deeper as gaming technology advances. Though arguably, there may not be a point in doing so for much longer. As video games get more involving, and the production values keep getting better, there may not be any need for adaptations at all. Fans have long contended that some ambitious games, like those of the "Final Fantasy" series (still a contended for the greatest misnomer ever) are essentially films already, with lengthy, plotty stories where the gameplay is intercut with filmed or animated sequences that can add up to hours in length. It's only a matter of time before some ambitious director is impressed enough with the new technology to tackle one of these projects.
In other words, as video games are coming to the cineplexes, movies may be coming to your home gaming consoles. And I wouldn't place any bets on who'll come out on top.