Video Version of this Article
Everyone needs a coffee break sometimes, even Pac-Man. His eponymous video game evokes memories of technological infancy when graphics were pixelated, music was composed of tonal beeps, and there was no goal in mind except to break the high score.
There’s not much variety, but after certain rounds, the player is given an intermission, also known as a Coffee Break, where they no longer have control over Pac-Man. Instead, over a pure black background and a jaunty tune, Pac-Man runs on his own from the right side of the screen to the left as he attempts to outrun Blinky, the red ghost, who quickly gains on him with each step.
Video Game Movies
They both exit the screen left just as it seems like Blinky will catch up and kill Pac-Man. However, after a brief moment, Blinky reemerges, this time as a vulnerable blue ghost. Pac-Man, slightly larger than before, pursues Blinky back across the screen, intent on eating him. The tables have turned, and so was born the first cutscene in any video game.
The term “cutscene” was initially coined by Ron Gilbert of LucasArts during the development of the game Maniac Mansion. Intentional or not, it draws inspiration from the concept of cuts in film. In relation to video games, they’re narrative, non-interactive scenes that cut away from the gameplay, commonly used to advance the story of a game.
Since Pac-Man, cutscenes have evolved. Some franchises, like the Uncharted series, have mastered them to the point of being indistinguishable from cinema, but therein lies a point of contention by some critics, including Steven Spielberg, who believe that the reliance on cutscenes to tell a story is a shortcut due to an inability to tell the story through gameplay.
You would think that video games, which rely so heavily on film-style narrative conventions for their own storytelling, might fare well when adapted for the silver screen. And yet, only recently have video game movies garnered any sort of critical success.
In anticipation of the upcoming Uncharted film, my mind inevitably sifts through the buried memories of video game adaptations that failed to deliver. Why has Hollywood struggled for so long to bridge the gap between two of the most popular forms of media in the world?
Video Games Can’t Do Movies Either
To the credit of directors such as Paul W.S. Anderson, there have been highly influential video game adaptations that have not only had a lasting impression with fans but introduced the idea that video game movies could be commercially successful. His Resident Evil film franchise, starring his now-wife Milla Jovovich, has grossed $1.2 billion worldwide, and Simon West’s Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie, remains one of her most iconic roles, so much so that the identity of the character Lara Croft was indelibly linked with Jolie herself until both the games and films eventually rebooted in the 2010s, perhaps in part to escape this legacy.
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Nevertheless, as commercially successful as these films were, they received mixed-to-negative critical ratings, despite being considered the best that video game movies had to offer. Unfortunately, the difficulty of adapting from one medium to another goes both ways.
Do you remember Tim Burton’s Batman? A great film that revolutionized what comic book movies could be, its video game counterpart remains one of the most popular and memorable games for the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Unfortunately, almost every other movie-based game was disappointing to the point that children dreaded receiving them for Christmas, and the practice of adapting movies to video games, once common for blockbusters, is now almost entirely extinct. Did you ever want to experience the story of Terminator 2 on your original, colorless Game Boy? Neither did anyone else.
The single most famous example of a bad movie game is E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600, a game so bad that millions of unsold copies were secretly buried in a New Mexico landfill and only recently excavated. It sounds like a ludicrous urban legend, but it’s true. The game is often cited as a major contributing factor to the video game crash of 1983.
Many people postulate that the failure of these movie-to-video game adaptations is a matter of technological incapability. After all, how do you translate a big-budget Hollywood picture to a 2-dimensional pixelated image, with no capability for dialogue or realistic sound, and less than 1 megabyte of data to work with? It’s a reasonable theory, so how did the Batman game succeed?
Well, it succeeded by stripping any notion of cinematics. Aside from the moody title screen that introduces the key players, the game is 100% focused on being a tight, well-made platformer, and the levels don’t concern themselves with following the actual plot of the film.
I hope not to overreach by comparing this to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The film is known to diverge heavily from Stephen King’s original novel, yet it remains one of the most iconic horror films of all time. Why? Because it didn’t focus on the faithfulness of the adaptation, but on its own craftsmanship for the purposes of making compelling cinema.
Picking Your Battles Might be More Important Than Knowing How to Fight
How does this tie-in to a discussion about video game movies? I hoped to illustrate that one of the main problems of adaptations, regardless of which forms of media they’re being translated between, is the idea of faithfulness.
There are immediately so many problems when considering how to translate a video game to a movie that it seems like an entirely fruitless effort. For instance, while the longest of movies barely ever exceed 3 hours of running time, a video game is now considered short with only 20 hours of content. Open-world video games focus on allowing players to create their own narrative by exploring the environment, while movies are a strictly guided experience. The list goes on, and it’s a well-studied area of interest.
To try and figure out how to do it then, let’s examine one of the most successful video game movies ever made: Pokémon Detective Pikachu. Released in 2019, this is perhaps the first video game movie to not only attain success commercially but critically. Sure, it’s no Citizen Kane, but a Rotten Tomatoes score of 68% looks a lot better than some others.
I won’t talk about how the nature of Pokémon itself may have contributed to the success of this film, because that would just tie-in to a greater discussion of why Pokémon is the highest-grossing media franchise of all time. There’s obviously something innately appealing about the little monsters, but the movie wasn’t just a creative exercise utilizing the existing IP- it was explicitly based on a game of the same name.
It is worth exploring why The Pokémon Company, and by extension Nintendo, decided that this game was worth adapting above all others. There is a legitimate question here because Nintendo was too afraid to explore any Hollywood venture for nearly 30 years after the spectacular mess that was Super Mario Bros.
The answer lies in the game itself. In terms of gameplay, there isn’t much. It’s more like a point-and-click adventure, which derives its name from old PC games which were essentially interactive, text-based stories.
Maybe Detective Pikachu succeeded for exactly this reason. Adapting a video game sounds much less daunting if it’s basically just a guided narrative in its own right. Maybe the key to successfully adapting video games is to pick the most adaptable ones, or else abandoning the idea of trying to translate gameplay into cinema.
For this reason, I’m cautiously optimistic about the upcoming Uncharted film. The games have mastered cutscenes to the point where they’re seamlessly integrated into the gameplay, and the term “cutscene” itself seems like an outdated misnomer. The action and dialogue become a fight sequence, which becomes a chase sequence, which becomes another dialogue scene, with no interruption in between.
Not only that, but the games have the best voice-acting in the industry, with animation that has become naturalistic enough to fully complement the voicing talent. The editing and cinematography are also on par with a Hollywood production- but then, maybe there’s no point in adapting it at all.
By Daniel Choi
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Daniel Choi is a writer who’s currently pursuing a BA in Film & Television from New York University. With a background in amateur film production, Daniel is fascinated by how artists’ cultural backgrounds inform their work, subconsciously or not, and how that work is then perceived by different audiences across time and space. He joined Hollywood Insider to promote its mission statement of substantive entertainment journalism, and hopes to enrich readers’ understandings of cinema through insightful analysis.