It's no secret that practically every video game adapted into a major motion picture has both suffered critically and finically. Why is that? Well every VG film is different and suffers it's own set of problems but it all boils down to a few things: pacing, tone, nostalgia blindness, and lastly the game itself. I kind of want to address each aspect and talk about why you need a perfect balance of all of these in order to have a "successful" video game film (depends how you define successful; Warcraft was received poorly critically, and had box office troubles domestically but was saved by China with record-setting numbers).
Pacing is one of the most important aspects in any story. Your story can be amazing, but if the pacing is off, it can come across as either a hot mess, or a slow, unsatisfying burn. You kind of have to play to the strengths of the story and what you are trying to convey overall. A good rule of thumb is if you think the movie didn't feel as long as it actually was, it's being paced right. That doesn't mean that if a movie feels long that it's dragging, it's only a simple thought to follow by. So when writers and directors are presented with the story of a video game, they're trying to figure out a way to fit that whole story into a 2 hour movie. A good video game will take on average around 10 or so hours to complete. Can you see the problem? A video game's story is fleshed out and paced to fit the bill of a 10 hour or so game. It needs to proportionally feel like a movie in terms of build up and pay off. So some games where almost all of it's 10+ hours are vital to the story will have trouble squeezing into a 2 hour film. You can take out bits, but they may be crucial to the depth the game adds. So if the game is long and a lot of it's info is crucial, maybe it's not right for films. That's why games like Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy (not counting Advent Children [don't worry if you don't know what that is, it sucks]), though brimming with a rich story, haven't been attempted to make into a live action feature, because there is just too much to work with. It would be overwhelming to have all the relevant info packed in, and criminal to dumb it down in order to make it work. There's a reason why a lot of fighting games have been turned into movies: little to no back story, puddle deep characters, and easy to replicate ascetics. My solution to this is consider tweaking the video game story in favor of the film. Don't have it be a 1 to 1 adaptation of the story, the expectation is set too high. Instead go the route of the new Assassin's Creed film, where significant changes have been made to the story everyone know's but is still recognizable to the fans. The jury is still out whether or not the film is good, but I'm optimistic with the amount of effort they've been putting into it.
Tone is another one of those things that filmmakers can get so easily caught up in. They want to make their film deep, character driven, and bleak even. But these are movies based on video games. They fall under a category of escapism. No one wants to go into a Call of Duty movie and be reminded of the horrors and consequences of modern warfare on society. They want to see cool, absurd gun violence with battles and things like that. You can have those undertones, but they shouldn't be explicitly stated to the audience. Have them come to that conclusion on their own by observing the world. You can still have fun in a movie while getting a dark point or tone across (Shaun of the Dead). Speaking of Edgar Wright, I personally believe he's made the best video game movie ever and it's not even based off of a game. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World should be the poster child for every cartoony adaptation film. It doesn't just use dialogue to forward it's comedy, it also uses the camera and it's world to it's advantage. Just watch this scene and you'll know what I mean.
Notice how the scene feels dynamic, there's hardly any moment where the camera is still. It's being used to give life to an otherwise mundane scene. Then there's all the little quirks, the words visualizing the sounds, playing with the magnets, the overlay phone conversation. Even a major plot point of the seven evil ex's are portrayed in a way we would assume this world to portray them in. Little things like this can add so much to a movie. I can think of so many films based off of games that could have benefitted greatly from this. Many consider the first Mortal Kombat film the best video game movie because of how over the top it was. It knew the strengths of the game and capitalized on it by having plenty of gore and violence that still is crazy to this day. Now the film doesn't offer much else than that, but for that reason alone it is considered a cult classic amongst the video game and film world. I understand darker games can't pull this off as easily, but as I will talk about more later, play to the strengths of the gameplay and world.
Nostalgia blindness is where things get tricky. Directors and studio heads think that by picking a video game IP that is beloved amongst the general community, that it'll automatically do well. Well the 1993 Super Mario Bros. Movie is just undeniable proof that that''s just not the case. Mario is one of, if not the most celebrated video game license ever. If his name alone can't save a movie there's clearly a problem. Now yes there is the argument that it came out when Mario wasn't even at his peak in popularity, but it just shows that it just wasn't meant to be made into a film. This movie does contradict my argument of changing the lore to fit a film, but the changes they made I'd argue are more absurd than the actual game itself. I mean look at this. This is supposed to be a Goomba. Like what actually.
Another point that goes along with the Nostalgia aspect: good gameplay ≠ good film. Many games are successful not for their story, but for how they play. In fact, a majority of gamers like to play their games devoid of the stories. They'll go straight to the multiplayer if the game offers it. When I think of video games that would make great films, only a hand full come to mind (Uncharted, Bioshock, Halo, Maybe Zelda) because their story alone carries the game. And what many studios fail to realize is that other games with great stories and settings are already based off of movies. Resident Evil is Dawn of the Dead, Tomb Raider is Indiana Jones, Need for Speed is Fast and Furious. It's fun to play movies. It's less fun to watch movies based off of games based off of movies. The important thing here is strategic choice. You can't just pick any game and make it into a movie (I mean you can try). There was a news story just released saying that a new movie based off of the puzzle game Tetris has a story that's too big so they're making it into a trilogy. The Hobbit was barely a trilogy, and that has a stupid amount of more content than a game about lining up blocks in a strategic line. Let's see how this one turns out.
The last point is something I brought up earlier and I feel like ties this whole long discussion up is to play to the strengths of the video game. If you are going to pick a game that seems unconventional for a movie, what does it succeed in as a game? There's a reason you picked it, and there's a reason it's popular. As far as I'm concerned, this is where the majority of the creative efforts should be placed into. Resident Evil was successful as a game early on for it's survival horror game play. This means that the player is placed in a horror setting with very little to find around to survive. Conservation of ammo is crucial and you have to make split second decisions as zombies come out of no where. This in turn creates a level of tension and suspense that indie game developers are trying to milk into the ground with their Slender Man/Five Nights at Freddy's clones. People get a rush off of being the underdog in a video game. So the movie should be more along the lines of Alien, and less action packed, semi-low stakes that it is today. It's not so night and day as I'm making it out to be, but honestly it really is a neglected aspect of these movies that I think can really increase the quality of them.
So that's it in a nutshell! Obviously this isn't a manifesto that has the cure to all VG film woes, but I think by having a collection of the main aspects of what needs to be done right can really help enhance why these movies fail all the time. Another big reason is that film makers aren't game designers and game designers aren't filmmakers. They both trust that each of them is doing their duty properly to ensure the movie is top quality when both don't know the mistakes in their each others flaws. And I mean of course there is a chunk of movies solely made to cash a check with zero regard for the finished product. It's a very complex world, but I hope one day that there can be a list of films based off of games that are considered good! Only time will tell, but from the success of Warcraft and the looks of Assassin's Creed, there seems to be a good upward trend happening here. If you were unfamiliar with most of the games, don't worry, the movies they're based off of are not very good for the most part. I would recommend playing the game instead. Thank you for reading, I hope to get some more of these out soon!