When Warcraft, the simply-titled movie adaptation of the original Warcraft game, was announced, fans were cautiously optimistic. Gaming movies have struggled since enterprising creatives and Hollywood execs first tried to combine the two mediums, but the backing of Blizzard, a studio known for its character and storytelling prowess, made many hope that Warcraft would be the movie to change things. Moviegoers eagerly waited for release, bought their tickets, sat down in theaters, and…were immensely disappointed. Warcraft currently holds a critics’ score of 28% on Rotten Tomatoes, though the audience score is a more respectable 76%. While some fans may have enjoyed the movie, the intrigue and drama of Blizzard’s Warcraft universe were lost on most casual viewers, much to the detriment of the movie’s performance. Warcraft brought in a significant amount of money, but it was a critical flop.
The video game industry is bigger than ever, with an estimated worth of $131 billion worldwide in 2020. It makes sense that Hollywood executives and production companies want in on the action – there’s a lot of money to be made from gamers and fans. The biggest new AAA game releases every year are looking and acting more and more like huge movie releases in that they have wide-ranging appeal and huge production budgets. Hollywood has become interested in these big new releases, and in collaboration with studios and large IP, many a production company has tried to make a video game movie. (While movies about video games have been around for a while – The Wizard came out in 1989 – movies that take place within games’ universes are generally more recent affairs.) Movies have been made out of Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, and Warcraft, as seen above.
Were any of them critical successes? Well…not quite. To put it kindly, the response to most gaming movies has been mixed. In fact, no gaming movie has done particularly well with critics or fans. Why do these movies always seem to be bad, and how could a studio and game dev go about making a gaming movie that’s actually good? Let’s take a look.
The easiest answer to the question “Why are gaming movies always bad?” is that video games and movies are two completely different mediums. Movies are a passive experience: you watch a story that someone else has written, directed, and shot. In contrast, games are an active medium: even within linear titles, the player is ultimately the one in control and is the person (or orc, or robot, or Pokémon) who plays an active role in the story’s development. People are witnesses to the events of movies, but they are participants in the events of games. Players love games like World of Warcraft and Resident Evil because they can participate in them. There are plenty of adventure and horror movies out there, but you can’t interact with them directly like you can in games.
When games are adapted into movies, they lose their interactivity. This means that people who play a video game and people who watch a movie that was adapted from one experience the narrative in completely different ways. As the key appeal of many games is the ability to interact with or explore a unique environment and make choices within that space, video game movies that pull heavily from their source material will always feel as though they are missing something from the original experience. In essence, the player has been removed from the story. Removing the this perspective sometimes also removes a fundamental character from the movie’s narrative.
This can be seen particularly well in cases like World of Warcraft and the Warcraft movie: in WoW, the player is playing as a character of their own creation. (Yes, the movie was based on Warcraft 1, but really we’re talking about an entire universe.) Players are able to choose who they want to be and how they interact with the world. In Warcraft, the perspective is set and the characters are detached from the viewer, making the experience fundamentally different. While fans may enjoy seeing familiar NPCs and characters on the big screen, it’s a very different enjoyment than the kind that comes from playing as those characters or being able to interact with them in unique ways.
Who is the target audience?
Another major issue with most gaming movies is that Hollywood has no idea who they’re making these for. Most movies get made because they’re similar to existing popular movies or genres, they have a relationship to an already successful franchise or prequel, or the production studio has done extensive market research and believes that the movie would be successful. In the case of video game movies, a successful game franchise seems as though it would be an easy choice for a movie adaptation. While production studios and developers want to make sure longtime franchise fans are satisfied with the movie, studios also want to reach the widest audience possible in order to make as much money as possible. This means that gaming movies often land in an uncomfortable middle ground: there aren’t enough Easter eggs, character sightings, and references to the original game to satisfy hardcore fans, but at the same time, the movies are too difficult for casual movie fans or watchers to understand. This makes it difficult for either group to justify a high ticket price.
If studios and developers want gaming movies to be more successful, they need to pick an audience and stick with it. Either target hardcore fans and make the movies chock-full of fun references and interesting developments on complicated lore, or aim for a casual audience and make the story more accessible for those who aren’t already fans of the franchise. You could argue that Marvel movies are also too in-jokey and have too many continuity requirements for the average fan to watch. The comic book industry was able to successfully pivot to the big screen mostly because Marvel knew what it was doing: MCU movies can be watched only for their action scenes and snappy dialogue and still be extremely enjoyable. Casual fans and moviegoers don’t have to worry about a larger, overarching plot or universe – but it’s there if they want to. Unlike games but like movies, comics are a passive medium, making the transition from page to big screen easier.
How could studios and developers make a good gaming movie?
Besides choosing and sticking with a potential audience, future gaming movies need to not make players feel as though the lack of interactivity makes the entire movie experience feel like it’s missing something – which is incredibly difficult, considering the nature of the source material. When considering interactivity, some game franchises are better suited to movies than others. Sorry indie games, but AAA titles win out here: many already have that action movie vibe and the bombastic settings that make movie adaptations easier, at least in these future early days of good game-to-movie adaptations.
To bolster these changes, gaming movies need what most other current movies need: good writing. Whether it’s the abundance of unnecessary sequels and reboots or a focus on visual effects over everything else, many movies suffer from poor writing, incomprehensible plots, and paper-thin characters. Game movies are no exception to this: a common complaint in critics’ reviews for gaming movies is that their plots are difficult to understand or utterly boring. Production studios and developers must make moviegoers and series fans care about these movies by making plots interesting without letting them get too convoluted and providing interesting character development. (Marvel is an example of complexity done right.) That’s all easier said than done, particularly when Hollywood is more interested in what’s worked previously rather than taking new risks with new IP and stories. Good writing, along with the amazing special effects that have become the norm, would go a long way in improving the general quality of blockbuster movies, including gaming movies.
This works well for games that have fairly linear narratives, but what about games like those made by legendary narrative studio Telltale? In games like The Wolf Among Us and Tales From The Borderlands, players can choose what to say or how to react to story beats, which results in narrative changes depending on their answers. How do you bring the enjoyment and suspense of such a game to movies, a passive medium? Netflix tried a more literal interpretation with Bandersnatch, but for studios that don’t want to start putting controllers in movie theaters, there are more traditional solutions. If a studio plans to adapt one branch of a nonlinear game, they have one task: pick the most interesting branch and include all the twists and turns that players have come to expect from their experiences with these games. Studios could even try holding focus groups and analyzing the narrative choices that players are most likely to make, then build the movie’s story on the most popular one.
Finally, studios should aim to tell new stories within established universes. No one wants to see the movie version of something they’ve already experienced in a game; that’s basically an extended cutscene, which a lot of players skip anyway. In games and franchises that are large enough to support an extended universe, there are plenty of opportunities for new characters, new stories, and new examinations of the original property. That’s not to say that there can’t be plenty of references and Easter eggs in the movie, particularly if it’s aimed at existing fans, but on the whole, an interesting new story might be enough to make more people flock to see the expansion of a game’s universe on the big screen.
How do you successfully tell a story from a participatory medium in a passive one? That’s the real stumbling block for today’s lackluster gaming movies. It’s hard to believe that there hasn’t been a very good video game movie yet. With all the misses in the past few decades, it’s easy to think that the two mediums just aren’t mean to work together, despite their obvious similarities. Even so, I think a good gaming movie is possible: gaming is a more popular and widespread hobby than ever, which means the audience for gaming movies is also the biggest it’s ever been. Continued substantial growth of the industry, and a greater degree of respect from other mediums, could come in part from better cooperation between video games and movies. Even with all the positives that such a thing would bring, it’s a shame that the headline for the first positive gaming movie review will probably say something along the lines of “Surprisingly Good”.