Friday, June 1, 2018

The New Breed of Video Game Movie

I think it's high time I looked at the state of video game influenced movies again. Way back in 2010, I spent a post wondering Will Video Game Movies Finally Have Their Day? Movies based on popular video game properties have continued to perform below expectations, and there have been some notable busts including "Warcraft," and "Assassin's Creed." The new "Tomb Raider" got okay reviews, but it didn't exactly set the box office on fire. I continue to hold out hope that one of these adaptations is going to connect eventually, because the studios keep making them. The next best hope is probably the upcoming "Uncharted."

However, even if direct video game adaptations aren't doing very well, video game themed movies are definitely becoming more popular. The biggest surprise hit of 2017 was "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle," which is largely a parody of RPG style video games. You can also find major video game elements in this year's "Ready Player One" and the "Wreck-It-Ralph" sequel. "Edge of Tomorrow," which heavily relied on video game mechanics, has a new installment in the works potentially titled "Live Die Repeat and Repeat." Since "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" put video game iconography all over movie screens in 2010, we've been steadily seeing Hollywood get more comfortable with using and commenting on video game elements in mainstream films.

There are two distinct differences between these new video game movies and the adaptations that we've called video game movies up until this point. First, the adaptations like "Prince of Persia" and "Tomb Raider" tend to try their best to erase their video game roots. They look like generic action adventure films to those who aren't familiar with the properties. The newer video game movies do the opposite, often playing up the artifice of gameplay mechanics and exaggerating the video game graphics. The Adam Sandler comedy "Pixels," for instance, relies heavily on having monsters designed like old 8-bit arcade game characters. "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" gets a lot of humor out of parodying specific elements of RPGs, like the non-player characters who talk in loops, the cut scenes, and the silly hero attributes.

The other major difference is that the new video game movies are at least somewhat aimed at people who play video games. Nearly all of these titles have meta elements and humor that require the viewer to have some familiarity with actual gaming. One of the big selling points of "Wreck-it-Ralph" is its fantasy universe where classic video game characters can all interact with each other. Sonic the Hedgehog, Q-bert, a "Pac-Man" ghost, and several "Street Fighter II" villains all have lines, and a ton of others have cameos. It's interesting to note that most video game references are still to '80s and early '90s style arcade games, rather than the more recent Playstation and Xbox era games.

This is a strong indicator that gaming is still considered a niche hobby in Hollywood, despite all evidence to the contrary. I suspect this is a big reason why there's still this tendency to want to hand-hold when talking about certain video game elements, and nearly all the adaptations of existing properties tend to feel watered down and overly generic. When moving these characters and stories from one medium to another, filmmakers keep trying to make them more accessible to wider audiences. This usually ends up backfiring, of course, because video game heroes are already very tropey and generic to allow for easier player identification. Some early adaptations like "Doom" had to invent their protagonists out of whole cloth.

"Jumanji" mocks this wonderfully by sticking its players into game characters with clashing personalities. "Wreck-it-Ralph" subverts the good guy/bad guy dichotomy as part of its premise. It's no wonder that the majority of the successful video game movies are comedies that poke fun at video game conventions. It's way more entertaining to see video games being goosed for their wacky idiosyncrasies, and having their more distinctive gameplay elements put onscreen than it is to see them forced into the typical mold of your usual action blockbuster. It still baffles me that most video game adaptations don't take more advantage of this.

Going forward, however, I expect there's a good chance we'll see a video game adaptation actually embrace being an adaptation of a video game. And maybe that'll be the big break that this genre has been looking for.



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