There are many predictable aspects to the gaming industry. I am no analyst, but even I can make some pretty safe predictions for the next five years. Nostradamus says that EA will continue to release yearly sports videogames; first-person shooters will remain the genre with the most ‘hardcore’ credibility; and the industry as a whole will continue to rely by-and-large on sequels and ‘viable IP’, whatever the hell that means.
The most mind-numbingly predictable aspect of the videogame industry, however, is the persistence of the bad film-to-game adaptation. The film-to-game is notorious, and many of their number rank among the worst games of all time. Superman 64. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. These games are routinely critically demolished, and it is rare that a film adaptation gets a buzz amongst even the most enthusiastic enthusiast press. GoldenEye 64 remains one of the only film adaptations that makes it to top-ten lists, or even top-hundred lists. Indeed, it is telling that the just-released Quantum of Solace was compared to that 1997 game in almost every review I read of the game, despite their obvious differences. Not surprisingly, Quantum of Solace seems to be coming out very much the loser of this particular comparison (I wonder if the comparison, as inevitable as it is, is even meaningful at all these days), and by all accounts is a very bland shooter.
To cut to the chase, it’s probably fair to assume that most bad videogame adaptations aren’t the fault of the developer. I don’t know the circumstances of development, but from what I can tell, these games are treated more like merchandising than a meaningful exercise, and are designed largely to release simultaneously with the film and pick up consumers who haven’t followed the game and are more interested in reliving a good film than a playing a good game.
But adaptation could be the most interesting genre of videogame. In fact, it should be the most interesting genre. There’s reams of theory of adaptation in other media, and it applies equally to games as anything else. The videogame has unique strengths that can really enhance ideas from other media, yet are routinely ignored in favour of a quick-and-dirty transliteration. In contrast to many other genres of videogame, it seems that those lucky enough to develop the-game-of-the-film simply don’t think about what they can do with the property.
Orson Welles once said that the only point to adaptation is to bring a new aspect of the original into focus. He might have been talking about films, but his comment is equally applicable to videogames. What film were the producers of Pirates of the Caribbean watching when they decided that the adventures of Jack Sparrow would be best conveyed via a series of platforms interspaced to frequently utilise the jump button? Indeed, the Pirates films provide us with a great example of adaptation, as of course they are the brilliant realisation of a theme-park ride gone to the cinema: charismatic actors, slapstick humour, expensive CGI and sprawling, baroque storylines. Converted to a game, Pirates somehow ends up being a D-grade platformer.
However, other recent adaptations haven’t been so careless. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is, suprisingly, a good example of how to think about videogame adaptation. Though in the end, many aspects of the game were poorly implemented, it still made an attempt to say something about the original work. If J.K. Rowling’s paper-and-ink fifth novel is about Harry’s journey through loss and maturity, and director David Yates’ celluloid version is about rebelling against corrupt and overly officious regimes, then the game firmly focuses on Harry’s relationship to his magical environment. Though in-game, it ends up being more Harry Potter, boy janitor than boy wizard, this is still an important point. The Potter games have always naturally leant towards focusing on atmosphere and location, but Phoenix is the first to fully embrace it. Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry is lovingly and painstakingly recreated, with almost every nook and cranny present and explorable. As with the prior games, it is a slightly-awkward blend of novel and film worlds, with many locations faithful to the visual look of the set designs alongside other, book-only areas. However, Hogwarts is once again rendered a place of mystery, and provides much of the game’s interest in itself. The player, as Harry, is encouraged to explore as much as possible, collecting and discovering to progress in the game.
This approach mirrors many of the themes running through Rowling’s work. Hogwarts is as imposing a presence in her novels as ‘the mansion’ of the Gothic romance: it is an ever-present site of mystery and secrecy, providing a safe-haven to orphan Harry that is gradually eroded as the books wear on. Hogwarts even provides a useful tool for Harry and co. at various points – most notably at this stage by offering up The Room of Requirements, an area where the students can train to defend themselves against the forces that threaten them. As Harry notes in the film, “It’s as though Hogwarts wants us to fight back.”
As is probably wearing quite thin on this blog by now, space is something that games do very well. Space, and feelings located in spaces are probably better emphasised through videogames than any other cultural form. When I think of what a Potter game could offer me, I think of exploring Rowling’s universe, not grappling with some over-complicated spell battle or potion mixing scheme. When making the Pirates game, someone should have realised that platforming actually has nothing to do with the films or the ride whatsoever. This cannot be overemphasised. Sure, platforming is fun (when done well, as is clearly not the case here), but the Pirates films capture our imagination for excitement, humour, adventure, and that good old anachronistic feeling that the high seas are depositories of exotic tales and lawlessness. I got more of all of these feelings from the 10-minute Fable II pirate sub-quest than I did the entire Pirates game.
If nothing else, adaptation is the great missed opportunity of the industry. With few exceptions, we’ve so far completely missed the mark. For instance, the concepts of ‘real’ and ‘fake’ are surely best explored in the videogame universe, where the borders between these two terms are often blended beyond recognition (as in Juul’s now-famous suggestion that videogames are both real and fake). Adapting a Phillip K. Dick novel in this sense seems obvious. Most of his corpus focused on the borders of reality and fantasy. Imagine a Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? game.* Replicants or not, they’d all still be Artificial Intelligence except for you as the only human-controlled character in the game. The borders of such a reality could be very interestingly toyed with in ways you simply couldn’t do in the novel or film. Or, let’s return to the Gothic fiction I mentioned earlier. It would take a brave studio to do it, but videogame adaptations of Jane Eyre or Rebecca could be fantastic. As long as they weren’t reduced to jumping the new Mrs. de Winter from platform to platform, of course.
My point is that most film-to-game adaptations are trying to fit the original into a context it should never be in. I agree with the questions raised at Noble Carrots that some thematic concerns might not be at all compatible with videogames, and perhaps in these circumstances it’s unfair to judge the developer as missing the point of the original work. But in many – if not most – cases, it seems like such an easy pratfall to avoid. The first question that should be asked when given the rights to a film is not, “How do we fit this film into an established genre?” but, “What aspect of the film is best emphasised by a videogame?”
I do wonder if we’ll ever get to that point. I’m not optimistic. If it’s any consolation, cinema, that century-old medium, still can’t get it right when going the other way around: a little Tomb Raider with Angelina, anyone? Or perhaps you might prefer DOA, or Super Mario Bros. with Bob Hoskins to whet your adaptation appetite. No?
* Yes, I know there have been a couple of Blade Runner games, but I think these become more of a response to the sheer architectural power of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece rather than the thematic concerns in the book.