Monday, May 27, 2024

Can Assassin’s Creed Change the Image of Video Game Movies?

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Mortal Kombat was a big deal when it released in 1995. The arcade game was a cultural phenomenon and it was one of the first video game movies to be released. Millions walked into theaters expecting something awesome. Most of us walked away satisfied. Despite the terrible acting and plot, the movie gave fans what they wanted; an hour-and-a-half of our favorite video game characters beating each other up in a setting and story that was close enough. Mortal Kombat did what it needed to for its fanbase.

Those kids, myself included, also figured Mortal Kombat to be the first awkward, promising step forward for movies based on the video games we love. How naïve that optimism looks now. Here we are, 21 years later, and Mortal Kombat has a case as the best video game movie.

With the release of Assassin’s Creed next week, now seemed a good time to revisit just why that is the case, and what mistakes Assassin’s Creed needed to avoid in order to become a needed breakthrough for video game movies, rather than the latest in a long line of disappointments. Mistakes which the trailers only provide mixed feelings about.

street fighter assassin's creed article

WHY did you pick that franchise?

The biggest mistake made seems to be the habit of picking franchises totally unsuited to become a quality movie. I love Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. I love Resident Evil. None have a story anywhere close to movie quality. Whatever Silent Hill is capable of from a storytelling standpoint, the games rely too much on atmosphere and gameplay. So why in the world do movie studios keep taking franchises with the most basic premises and trying to make movies out of them?

Well, they can’t be entirely too blame for one reason; the relative youth of the video game industry. That’s why fans felt so much promise about Mortal Kombat, because they took the most basic premise and at least made something appealing to fans out of it. Video games did not truly begin to take cinematic turns until Metal Gear Solid burst on the scene. Sure, some games had good stories, but the cinematic potential was basically nonexistent. The stories only worked in video game format, dependent on player interaction. However great I believe Final Fantasy VI to be, no way could it translate to the big screen. Finding a video game with a movie quality potential was tough.

At a certain point that excuse began to weaken. Specifically, around the time Resident Evil and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider released in theaters.

I’ve written before about my love for Resident Evil. Do not mistake that love as misguided believe in the movie it can make. Whatever its effectiveness as a video game, Resident Evil is too cheesy to make a good movie, and still a product of the way video games had once been, not the direction they had begun to take by the early 2000s. The plot is stupidly convoluted, the dialogue cheesy, the characters mostly flat. It relies on clichés well-worn out by zombie movies. Why was it picked? Because it was a pop culture hit. They could make money off of it. Like it or not, that’s the main concern for any movie studio, not whether the movie will be good or not. They’ll pump out a thousand cheap, bad movies if they make money before they’ll risk a lesser known franchise with more potential.

tomb raider assassin's creed articleThat formula was clear with Tomb Raider. Pick a popular franchise (Lara Croft was a Playstation mascot at this point), hire a big star, pump
out a crappy movie, and watch the dollars roll in. It doesn’t matter that the Tomb Raider franchise had basically zero chance of being a good movie. What plot existed only served to move Lara Croft from one locale to explore to another. Lara herself was known for sex appeal, not character.

Still, these movies did come out in a time when truly cinematic video games were young. So they deserve something of a pass as well. That excuse stopped working soon after Resident Evil and Tomb Raider. At that point cinematic franchises popped up everywhere, as technology provided greater storytelling standards for the entire video game industry. Stories improved. The cutscenes delivering them improved. The characters fleshed out. Every year seemed to provide a new step forward for cinematic quality in video games.

Yet movie studios kept making movies of the franchises unable to keep up with those standards. Instead of Metal Gear Solid, we got Dead or Alive. Instead of Halo, we get Doom. No God of War for you! Take Bloodrayne instead!

Why did this happen? Because of the same reason the right franchises have continued to fail over time; lack of respect.

max payne assassin's creed article
Seriously, WHY?

You did WHAT with this movie?

This ultimately proves the biggest problem with video game movies. Plainly, video games still have a reputation as a childish hobby with dumb audiences, so putting anything that looks like the video game on screen will be enough. Cheap directors and crappy scripts are thrown at the project. This is obvious in just how many video game adaptations Paul WS Anderson and Uwe Boll have directed. Resident Evil would have been hard enough to make happen if treated fairly. But when you make Nemesis into a robot, it’s kind of hard to imagine anyone involved in bringing the movie past the script stage cared at all about the games. Even if Sienna Guillory put in real work to mimic Jill Valentine’s mannerisms.

Let me be clear; I understand the impossibility of bringing 99% of video game stories to the big screen. You can’t put the vast majority of what makes a video game popular into a script. Even hugely cinematic franchises like Metal Gear Solid rely on conventions only possible through video games. There’s a great difficulty in the jump from video game to movie which even comic books don’t have to overcome.

You know what doesn’t help, though? When you treat video games movies with zero respect for the source. Then you add end up with movies that fail for the same reasons lots of adaptations do.

For example, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time has the makings of a successful movie. A big name star in Jake Gyllenhal, Ben Kingsley, and Alfred Molina. A successful director in Mike Newell. The movie looked good. What did it do with the potential of its source material, though? A video game based on the deepening relationship between the Prince and a noble daughter while cooperating to escape the haunting remains of a ravaged palace, with a heavy emphasis on the Prince’s guilt for unleashing said destruction and the exploration of the meaning of time and death, is used to make just another shallow action movie. None of what actually makes the game memorable was included. The haunting backdrop, the guilt of the Prince’s mistake, the fascinating development between him and Farah, the exploration of time and death, you see little to none of it.

prince of persia assassin's creed article
This game made you care for these two.

Or take Max Payne as another example. Now Max Payne would always be a difficult translation from one medium to another. After all it’s a shooter with a goofy noir backdrop. However, the elements of a good action movie do exist, even if they are cliché. A man whose wife and daughter were murdered by junkies, a stint undercover, a revenge spree after the only agent who knows he is undercover gets murdered, a corporation who targeted his family because of information his wife found. Max himself is cheesy as hell, but with a little finesse you can turn that cheesiness into a memorably tortured anti-hero suffering a variety of mental disorders. Or you could buy fully into the cheesiness and give us some weird deconstruction of the noir genre.

Instead the Max Payne movie included confusing shadowy demons, drastic changes to the story for the worse, and the same general illogical plot holes plaguing all bad movies.

Why does this happen over and over again? Because movie studios don’t respect the potential of video games as movie-quality stories, so they end up with mangled abominations of changes with a few things kept in for “faithfulness.” They have no idea what is actually worth adapting from the video game, and they don’t care. In their eyes we’re immature nerds with low standards who will pay for anything. And to their credit, the modest success keeping movie franchises like Resident Evil alive proves them at least partially right.

They also seem to think the same of the people who labor to create these games.

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WHO exactly was involved?

Anyone who has seen enough video game movies knows how little the actual creators of these games end up involved in them. To continue with the Max Payne example, Remedy sold the film rights before the first game ever released, and such was their only involvement in the creation of the movie. This is most commonly how these things go, even outside of video games. George Martin may have considerable involvement in Game of Thrones, but little power, supposedly stating before that if HBO wanted aliens to invade he couldn’t stop them.

On the other hand, you have cases like Street Fighter where Capcom was heavily involved to the point of destroying what chance may have existed for a good movie. The reason for keeping game studios away from production seems obvious here, as most have no idea how to make a successful movie. They’re game developers telling, at best, relatively basic stories which must serve to compliment gameplay above all else. Developers don’t know the intricacies of the movie industry. They don’t know how to tell a good story. Some may show knowledge of effective film technique, but have zero experience with human beings in a 2-3 hour film.

This conflict over control leaves most film adaptations of games stuck in development hell. A Metal Gear Solid movie can’t get made because the game and film studios are at an impasse. With others talent constantly drops in and out. Scripts can’t be decided on. Projects are pulled due to fears over quality. Budgets increase and increase until the studio has to dump some awful movie out to try and recuperate their money.

This impasse leaves video game movies in a hellish place where any immediate future looks bleak. The bad history of these adaptations leaves developers reluctant to sell or greenlight film projects. Movie studios certainly won’t give up control to inexperienced developers. The chances of this changing anytime soon is slim to none. So fans end up with adaptations stuck in a weird place between visual continuity and thematic dichotomy that disappoints everyone. Even worse, they make good money and bad directors like Paul WS Anderson keep control for making a modest profit worth funding future films.

There should be a middle ground. You can’t faithfully adapt a game without some involvement by the people who created it. Clearly the game studios don’t have experience or ability to make these films without ceding considerable control. Nothing will change until this middle ground is reached and both sides respect and cooperate with each other. Thankfully, there is reason to believe that day is near.

assassin's creed

HOW can Assassin’s Creed break the streak?

There are some good reasons for optimism about Assassin’s Creed. Director Justin Kurzel is relatively new and promising, so he has both the talent and motivation to see the movie succeed rather than capitalize off a cash grab. Michael Fassbender is a very proven actor with a history of excellence playing an iconic geek role. The duo worked together on the well-praised Macbeth in 2015, so we know they can make something good. To quote the consensus review on Rotten Tomatoes:

“Faithful to the source material without sacrificing its own cinematic flair, Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth rises on the strength of a mesmerizing Michael Fassbender performance to join the upper echelon of big-screen Shakespeare adaptations.”

Apply that to an Assassin’s Creed movie and we have easily the best video game movie ever made.

The trailers are weird, but visually on point. The look seems faithful. Every important element of the games appears included. Fassbender has talked about the involvement of Ubisoft and his respect and interest in the source. At the same time no one appears hamstrung by it to the point of not being able to make the movie they want. Good reason exists to believe in Assassin’s Creed. It might be exactly the compromise I mentioned before; respect for the right parts of the source and the skill of a good director who will change what needs to be changed for the medium.

And thankfully Assassin’s Creed most certainly qualifies as a franchise capable of the transition. The central conflict of Templars vs. Assassins is familiar and easy to grasp. The sci-fi elements of the Animus allowing someone to relive the life of an ancestor is incredibly cool. Deep themes about freedom, control, peace, and the nature of man provide something fleshy for a talented scriptwriter to dig into. The expansive lore is more than capable of housing a separate film-length story not bound to the characters of the games. And how much potential does the alt-history exposed through the Animus have? A movie can easily tell a better story in this universe than any of the games ever did.

Will the movie take advantage of all of this? I want to believe. I am hopeful. In no way can I be certain. After all, a successful adaptation by Assassin’s Creed would be the first ever.

As promising as things look, the trailers also provide reason for skepticism. Every action-heavy scene makes me worry they focused too much on that over good storytelling. The weird changes bring back bad memories of crappy changes dooming other movies. Portraying the Templars as pure evil in the final trailer reminds me of the similar, unfortunate mistake made in the game series which robbed the Templars of all their intrigue. It makes me worry Assassin’s Creed will have lame villains which doom the movie.

Pessimistic, I know. It’s hard not to be when there has still yet to be a truly good video game movie. Even worse, old fans know well the pattern that dooms all these movies, and can see some of those potential signs with Assassin’s Creed. At the same time we see reasons for hope. And right now I much prefer hope.

mass effect assassin's creed article
Please, someone, this can be so good.

WHERE do video game movies head from here?

I also have high hopes for the future of video game movies in general, and for one big reason missing up until now; the cultural change in the perception of video games. Comic book movies fought this same battle. Video games and comics have both fought the stigma of childish hobbies to leave behind. The depth of the stories told get dismissed entirely. The strength of the characters denied and the messages ignored. Movies created for such childish hobbies needed nothing more than flashing lights to keep the stupid kids entertained.

Not until new generations of filmmakers created a cultural change in the perception of comics did we get Christopher Nolan’s Batman and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The same will happen for video games one day. With every generation the number of artists influenced by video games exists. At least some of these will look at the sad state of the sub-genre and feel determined to change things. Maybe 5-10 years from now. Maybe Assassin’s Creed will be the spark. But it will happen.

Another reason for optimism is the change in video games themselves. Long gone are the days of Mario hopping along drug-influenced levels with minimal story. Heck, long gone are the days where you traverse a mansion listening to cheesy dialogue in Resident Evil games. Every year, every console generation sees the creation of new series that blow previous standards away. Rich universes such as Assassin’s Creed and Mass Effect provide potential for countless stories to put on the big screen. Rich characters come to life with rich stories for them to exist within.

One day, someone will figure out the right way to do it. When that happens, the floodgates will open. You think the MCU is impressive? Or those Marvel Netflix shows? Just wait until you see what kind of quality film and television video games can give people. Wait until someone finds a way to translate something like Bioshock or The Last of Us. Wait until someone replicates the genius of Metal Gear Solid. Eagerly anticipate a breathtaking adaptation of something like Dark Souls.

The wait has been long and difficult. Whether it ends this year or in five years, I know it will end. We will get good video game movies to break open the floodgates. Hopefully Assassin’s Creed is the one to do it.

Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox, Disney, Paramount, Universal, Ubisoft, and Bioware

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