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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Monday, September 1, 2014

It Can't Be For Nothing: Why Video Game Movies Fail, and How "The Last of Us" Can Succeed

You sit at your usual booth, wondering where your book-headed friend is. Normally he’s here by now, and though you don’t so much converse as he rants, you can’t help but find him entertaining, even when you disagree. Sometimes you even learn.

You look around the bar to see if you can see him, and when you don’t, you turn back around to sit more comfortably... only to have your eyes meet the irritated, bespectacled gaze of a heavy-set man who hasn’t had a haircut in way too damn long. Your breathing hitches for a brief second. You remember this man. He just would not shut up about Cowboy Bebop.

“Oh, hello,” you say, trying your best to be friendly. “Can I buy you a bevera—“

“SHUT YER PIE HOLE I’VE GOT THINGS TO TALK ABOUT”

So, you’ve heard that they’re doing a movie of The Last of Us now, right? That’s great! I’m excited. It’s rumored Bruce “Jesus Christ” Campbell is attached, and I believe dude will dig down deep and bring some serious pathos to the character of Joel. And Naughty Dog made the damn game, and they’re involved, and they’re not going to let their baby fail.

Here’s the thing that’s bothering me: Unless they’re absolutely willing to murder every single one of their darlings, like the novelists say, their movie is going to go the way of Tomb Raider and Mortal Kombat Annihilation and Resident Evil: Thesaurus Word for “Bad” and Max Payne. Most of us are going to hate it because it took a game with a great plot and made a movie that’s mostly unwatchable.

And I know you’re wondering why I’m so sure of this. And I will tell you.

And in order to do this I will need to talk about the plot and the ending of The Last of Us, so SPOILER ALERTS ARE IN EFFECT. So get the hell out of this bar, right now, and play through The Last of Us and come back so we can talk about it.

**********

Welcome back! I am so glad you did that thing I just told you to do.

So wasn’t that game awesome!? Cinematic in all the best ways and emotional and great characters and holy hell, it’s going to be hard to make a good movie out of that.

I can see you mouthing the words wondering what I’m on about, but it kind of gets to why video game adaptations... and cross-media adaptations in general... have historically tended towards the awful. See, various media engages us in different ways, and how we engage with games is very, very different from how we engage with other art forms.

Think about how you relate the events of a movie or a comic or a novel. It’s third person. “So then Captain America kicks Batroc in the head!” “And Indiana gets on his feet and kicks that Nazi in the head!” “And then Shane gets into a bar fight and kicks a guy in the head!”*

*This actually happens in the novel. And I hope someone out there appreciates me bringing up Shane, of all things.

Now consider how you relate what happened in a game you played. “So I’m surrounded by zombies but I manage to spam the dodge maneuver until I get to the door, just inside the time limit!” “So then I score a crit that one-shots the mind flayer the round before he TPKs the party!” “That’s when I land on Dave’s Boardwalk with a full hotel built, and so I knocked the board over and went to bed!”

See, none of the hypothetical tellers of those tales is referring to their characters in game, even though individually they’re playing the roles of Jill Valentine, Llewellyn Ironblade the Elf Fighter, and a boot. And this is where most video game adaptations stumble: huge chunks, if not the entirety, of the art and story and designs are created that way to serve the gameplay. And that gameplay is the thing: you providing action and making decisions gives you the illusion of control, and more than that, involvement. It’s a much, much different storytelling mechanism than the mechanisms of other media.

You can get as wrapped up in a book or a comic or movie as you can a video game, but it’s a much different process to get there.

This is a big portion of why Silent Hill, the movie, was so much less scary than Silent Hill, the game. Despite using a number of the scariest monsters in the whole series and inventing monsters even more screwed up than that (re: Colin the Janitor), those couldn’t actually get as terrifying as running from low-polygon-count dogs across a chain-link floor with poor texture work. Rose Da Silva is probably a better fleshed-out character than Harry Mason, but we care more about what’s happening to him because on some level it’s happening to us. The low-polygon-count dogs are chasing us. Interactivity can bridge gaps when storytelling fails to cross them.

(I should point out that this is all by way of example. The Silent Hill flick had problems way above and beyond not being able to control the characters.)

And here’s the thing about The Last of Us: that game uses that sense of immersion granted by interactivity as well as anyone else ever has. Maybe better. Unlike the Half-Life series, it does have cutscenes, but Last of Us does give you control in some surprising areas that other games wouldn’t (controlling Sarah at the beginning of the game, where the fact you can look even as you’re stuck in the back of Joel’s car adds verisimilitude). It includes emotional high points nestled regular game play (the bit near the end where you slide from gameplay to cut scene to gameplay and watch the giraffes for as long as you want). And at the end of it, it will force you to do things you don’t necessarily want to do.

Think about that sequence at the end when you (there’s that dreaded second-person again) rescue Ellie. The only way to do so is to kill the doctors about to operate on her. Whether you want to is irrelevant, because that’s what Joel, the character wants. But this isn’t a cut scene. This is something you control.

This is you being forced into taking the actions that your character would take, morally repugnant as you may or may not find them (and it’s enough of a grey area, given the plot of the game, that finding them repugnant is completely possible).

So where does that leave us? The Last of Us is so moving and affecting and genuinely upsetting because its plot is built to take advantage of things that only video games really do, much in the same way Silent Hill was, or how Watchmen and The Sandman are built around comics and House of Leaves is built around prose and Avatar: The Last Airbender was built around TV.

Each of these properties were either hampered in their film adaptations or have yet to have film adaptations at all by the fact that the plots of these properties are very, very tied in to the mechanics of their media, and those that had adaptations, hilariously, failed to adapt. I quite liked that Watchmen flick, but even I have to admit that it was pretty underwhelming considering that it was based on one of the great comics of all time. Part of it was that the innovations the comic made had already been subsumed by art and culture by the time the movie was made, so the content was no longer as challenging. But I’d say the bigger part was that it was such a slavish recreation that it lifted things that took advantage of the comics medium whole-cloth into the film, ignoring the use of the mechanics of medium that made them effective to begin with. Chapter breaks, juxtapositions, pacing... these are mechanics that work a certain way particularly well in the comics medium and that the Watchmen comic took advantage of. Film has its own mechanics, but the Watchmen movie assumed that they would port over because they’re both visual. This led to a flick with weird pacing problems and sequences that fell flat even though they still dazzle in the comic to this day. (Keeper's Note: way back in the prehistory of this blog I argued that changing the mechanics of the ending of Watchmen was one of the best decisions the film makers made.)

So what can the creators of the film version of The Last of Us do to avoid an adaptation that seems to use all of the parts of the game but feels hollow or terribly flawed as a cinematic story?

... good question. That may not be answerable until it’s answered, if that makes any sense. The plot is long and circuitous and relies heavily on gameplay sections to get the characters from point A to point B, and the game’s story covers nearly a year divided into four nearly stand-alone chapters, something that kind of works against the usual flow of movies. It’s a small-scale story that takes place on a huge vista, and that’s the sort of thing movie producers loathe throwing money at (why throw so much money for location shoots and special effects if it’s not for spectacle?). It’s a story that absolutely does not let itself to traditional ways of cinematic storytelling.

The only way, then, that they’re going to live up to the promise of the video game is break new artistic ground with the movie, much as the game did for interactive storytelling.

I hope they can.

With that, the large man takes off his glasses, and wearily informs you that his name is Zomburai!, or Jon Grasseschi in IRL. He’s the author of the webcomic EverydayAbnormal (analyzed previously on this very blog!) and the nascent Dungeons & Dragons blog Mythic Histories. He says he likes long walks on the beach, sensitive women, and world domination. He has a Patreon, a Twitter, and a Facebooks.

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