Respect the Medium!

or, “Why Videogame Movies Suck.”


During my junior year of college, one of my professors assigned us a paper entitled “Respecting the Medium.”  The idea behind it was that every medium of communication has its own inherent strengths and weaknesses that should affect how messages are delivered.  For instance, TV is episodic by nature.  It is often split up by commercial breaks and has to conform to a very strict time limit.  Contrast this with cinema, which usually tells one complete, uninterrupted story.  The time limit for a movie is loosely defined at best, and it does not have to be structured to fit in commercial breaks.  While these are only structural differences, it exemplifies how two apparently similar media are actually very different, even in terms of layout.  If you are a creator of media, these simple differences prove the importance of being extremely aware of whatever medium you happen to be creating.  What works for one medium does not always work for the other.

If you look at my title, you know where I’m going with this.

Movies based on videogames have been around since videogames first became mainstream.  At first glance, you would think that it would work.  After all, even basic videogames have some semblance of a story.  Movies tell stories.  Some videogames are so creative or cinematic that you would think a movie based on that game would be a natural decision.  So why is it that anytime a movie based on a videogame is released, it tanks?  Even the recent Prince of Persia, which did decently at the box office, had mediocre reviews at best.  The answer is surprisingly simple – Videogames are not movies.  There is an inherent, fundamental difference between movies and videogames that, no matter how you look it, cannot be easily reconciled.

That element is interactivity.

You see, movie viewing is, by definition, a passive experience.  No matter how thought-provoking or “engaging” a movie is, you play no part in what happens on-screen.  You merely sit in a theater or on your couch watching the events unfold.  Like I said, a movie can be engaging and you can feel invested in the characters, but, ultimately, you don’t affect the actions onscreen.  Videogames, however, are exceptionally different.  In a videogame, you call the shots.  You are not a passive observer – you are an active participant.  You make decisions and change the outcome of the game.  Even if you only have two simple choices (such as “live” or “die”), you have power over the events within the game.  This interactivity radically affects everything within the videogame.  The environments will feel different from the environments in a movie (because you have to interact with them).  The action will feel different from the action in a movie (because you are performing the action).  In a sense, it can be easier to understand the feelings of the main character because you are the main character – not merely watching him or her onscreen.  In BioShock, I felt the fear as I rounded a corner in an abandoned hallway in Rapture because I, personally, would have to deal with any rogue Splicers.  In Metroid Prime, I felt the loneliness of searching a destroyed civilization that had long since disappeared because I was all there was.  In Arkham Asylum, I felt like the powerhouse Batman is when I took on a group of eight thugs singlehandedly and won because I had to do it myself.  Movies can be fun, they can be intense, they can even be frustrating, but they cannot provide this experience that defines gaming.

Of course, as time has gone on, videogames have adopted some elements from movies.  There is no doubt that games are far more cinematic now than they were back in the day when saving princesses from giant turtles was all there was.  But movies haven’t changed.  The pacing or even storytelling techniques can change, but you can’t make a movie interactive without taking away what makes it a movie.  It’s for this reason that Hollywood will struggle endlessly with capturing the heart of a videogame in movie form.

I’m not saying Hollywood can’t make a good movie based on a videogame.  Will they finally pull it off one day?  Who knows.  Recently, Hollywood announced that they were planning a movie based on Uncharted for the PlayStation 3.  Uncharted was a game very heavily focused on cinematic and character-driven storytelling.  Do they have a chance with this?  Maybe.  But, even if they tell a good story, they can’t provide the same feeling of accomplishment that the game does when I dive behind cover, pop out, and pull off a headshot on a pirate sending bullets flying in my direction.


~ by digitallysmitten on October 22, 2010.

3 Responses to “Respect the Medium!”

  1. but.. but.. what about max payne??

    (jk :P)

  2. You should also mention the opposite happening.. movies being turned into video games, albeit usually lame video games. Think spiderman, the hulk, etc.

  3. I like the Dr. Baker reference…

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