In 1981, TRON transported us to the world inside of a videogame… and it was a little boring, since the videogames were from 1981. Abstract concepts were brought to “life” using state-of-the-art special effects, but despite the best efforts of Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner and David Warner it was a stodgy film. Videogames and indeed computers in general weren’t familiar to audiences, nor did the well-intentioned filmmakers properly understand the audience’s relationships to their in-game avatars. Properly dramatizing abstract concepts during their genesis was nearly impossible, and TRON did about as well as could be expected.
These days, movie adaptations of videogames are common but universally reviled. Even the “best” videogame movies are, to use the parlance, “weak sauce.” When Mortal Kombat is considered a cinematic highlight, it’s definitely time to rethink your approach to the genre. It’s likable but hopelessly dorky, and the then-lauded action sequences pale in comparison to martial arts movies today. (Actually they paled in comparison to martial arts movies in the 1970’s, but I digress.) Resident Evil and Silent Hill both came close to understanding their source material but eventually they both checked their brains at the door in favor of unnecessary fan service and juvenile plotting.
So where exactly are the good videogame movies? They’re everywhere, if you know where to look. They’re just not based on videogames. With TRON Legacy in theaters this weekend, Dan Fields and I (William Bibbiani!) thought this would be a good time to explain why the best videogame movies – so far – aren’t based on a specific videogame. These are movies that capture the distinctive feeling of playing a great videogame or expertly dramatize concepts unique to that medium, something the directors of actual videogame movies rarely seem to grasp.
Fan favorites WarGames and The Last Starfighter (great movies both) deserve an honorable mention, but those are films “about” videogames. These films are videogames. Many of them are action movies, but that’s to be expected: videogames are about “doing” things, not “watching” things. So running, jumping, climbing trees, shooting Nazis while you’re up there…? That’s all part of the game.
Goonies (dir. Richard Donner, 1985)
Richard Donner’s iconic kids flick Goonies is beloved and badass but not based on a videogame. It sure feels like it. The plot is standard 1980’s family movie fare: A group of kids are being evicted by an evil faceless corporation and set out on a grand adventure to save their town by following a treasure map to a legendary pirate treasure which just happens to be within convenient driving distance. The young cast is one of the most distinctive and lively ever assembled over the course of the 1980’s, and that’s saying something. Sean Astin, Corey Feldman, Martha Plimpton, Ke Huy Quan and Josh Brolin are just some of the memorable performers giving uncanny life to a ludicrous plot.
Goonies is a neat little action-adventure movie that feels like it was based on a neat little action-adventure game, the kind that you played on your Mom’s computer back in the late-80’s (through mid-90’s, before the near-death of the genre) that found your likable protagonist in a series of bizarre situations, puzzles and death traps that could only be solved through clever use of items you’ve acquired in your inventory. That weird skull-shaped rock has very specific functions like revealing which rock formation hides the entrance to One-Eyed Willie’s underground cove; pure adventure game logic (like that rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle from The Secret of Monkey Island). The only way to lower the drawbridge is to look at the map and realize it contains musical notes, and the only way not to die is to play them perfectly. Goonies could practically have been designed by Ron Gilbert.
Add in sparkling writing (the thing videogames used to have instead of gorgeous graphics) and appropriately bumbling villains always one step behind our protagonists and you’ve got one of the best movies ever based on an adventure game. It just wasn’t, is all.
Aliens (dir. James Cameron, 1986)
You’d be hard-pressed to find a first-person shooter that doesn’t owe its existence to Aliens. If you’ve ever played as a space marine the metaphor is obvious, but really almost any first- (or third-) person power masculine power fantasy is steeped in the tropes that Aliens almost singlehandedly turned into clichés. The first proper level in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare uses whole swaths of dialogue from this sci-fi action classic, partly as an ironic pop culture reference but mostly out of love. Aliens is arguably the very best videogame movie, and has certainly had an indelible impact on many of the medium’s most popular genres.
Let’s look at some of the iconic videogame elements introduced, codified or beautifully realized in Aliens: overzealous macho space marines (or rather, as my brother constantly corrects me, “colonial” marines) versus a blindly aggressive alien menace that outnumbers them hundreds to one. Their first interaction with the species is what we in the videogame community call a “supposed to lose” fight, in which the impressive abilities and firepower of the protagonists proves fruitless against the aggressors, and in which the seemingly minor characters are left without backup or experienced officers to fall back on, generating anxiety. There’s the obligatory driving sequence in which the vehicle apparently handles like an elephant on downers. The enemy comes in multiple varieties: human-sized soldier (aliens), diminutive nuisance (facehuggers) and enormous boss monster (the queen). The protagonists strafe down dark but familiar high-tech hallways and are occasionally forced to defend a specific position rather than take an aggressive stance in an effort to increase tension.
But those are just the little details. Let’s not forget that Aliens, for all of its specific videogame elements, is an excellent movie. James Cameron takes all of the character archetypes and pulse-pounding situations that have now become synonymous with “bad videogame writing” and works wonders with them, and not just because he did them first. Not a single cast member is saddled with clichéd dialogue and trite personality traits (Hudson and Vasquez almost prove this wrong, but watch the movie again and I think you’ll find them a little more complicated than most people remember). It’s got heady themes stemming from the loss of children and, topical-topical (at the time anyway) the Vietnam War. It’s an excellent videogame movie. It’s a shame so many of the games based on in it are kind of crap.
Come to think of it, Ridley Scott’s original Alien is a fairly excellent example of survival horror, but Dan Field’s got that genre covered in his segment of The Weekly Listicle so let’s move on.
Run Lola Run (dir. Tom Tykwer, 1998)
Whereas Goonies and Aliens are both stellar examples of how to adapt a videogame into a movie (through reverse-engineering at any rate), Run Lola Run is a curious example of a movie adapting a concept unique to videogames in a cinematic medium.
For those unfamiliar with the film… Shame on you. But in the interest of diplomacy here’s what you need to know. Tom Tykwer (who’d go on to direct the vastly underrated thriller The International) directed this independent German film starring Franke Potente (The Bourne Identity) and Moritz Bleibtrau (Munich). Potente plays Lola, a very redheaded woman whose boyfriend Manni (Bleibtrau) accidentally mislaid 100,000 deutschmarks belonging to a German gangster. If he doesn’t have the money in twenty minutes, he’s dead. He’s across town, so Lola has to run like the wind. Can she find a way to make 100,000 deutschmarks and save her boyfriend’s life in less than half an hour? The twist: She fails, and one of them dies. So what happens next?
She tries again. Her actions lead to an unsatisfying narrative outcome so the film resets back to a key event, allowing her to make different decisions based on her new knowledge of the events that follow. It’s a far out concept… unless you’ve ever played a videogame. You see, videogames often take advantage of what is called a “checkpoint” system. Games are very long, you see, so when you die they usually don’t force you to play again from the beginning. At key points during gameplay, usually before something terribly dramatic, the protagonist reaches a spot where they will simply “respawn” if they die. Lola’s respawn point is the moment before she sprints out the door to save her boyfriend’s life. It doesn’t get much more dramatic than that.
Combine this trippy concept with Lola’s Canabalt-esque constant state of acceleration down urban cityscapes (it’s not a perfect simile but I like it) and Run Lola Run becomes a curious example of adapting a videogame concept over a videogame plot. It speaks to the uniqueness of both Run Lola Run and videogame storytelling as a whole that hardly any director since has touched upon this conceit since… unless actual time travel is involved at least.
Black Hawk Down (dir. Ridley Scott, 2001)
If you’ve never played any of the Call of Duty games, all you… Wow, really? Never? Huh. Okay… All you have to do is watch Black Hawk Down, one of Ridley Scott’s very best films. The surface elements are all in place: marines sporting top of the line weaponry running down exotic streets and picking off hostile enemies with vaguely sympathetic motivations? Check. Squad mechanics? Well, that’s really more of a Rainbow Six kind of thing but I’ll let it slide… Check. A sizable cast of recognizable character actors whose names you just can’t place? Double-check.
But this is ground already covered by Aliens. What makes Black Hawk Down not just a great videogame movie but also a distinctive videogame movie is its pervasive sense of immediacy. With the exception of the occasional “cutscene” or “cinematic,” all first-person shooters emphasize moment-to-moment action over plotting, and so does Black Hawk Down. What matters to the protagonists of what I consider to be Ridley Scott’s greatest film (yes really, shut up) isn’t “why” they’re in Somalia being shot at by an entire city full of hostiles, it’s “that” they’re being shot at. As Eric Bana states at the end of the film, “…it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.”
One day the history books might read differently, and maybe the politicians and pundits have different theories, but to the pawns out in the war zone – read: every character in Black Hawk Down, or “you” in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare – all that matters is survival. Maybe that’s why it’s so jarring and silly when the Modern Warfare series tries to explain what’s going on in a larger context: the larger context is, by definition, stupid. I mean sure, the entire plot of Modern Warfare 2 is stupid, but whatever the motivations for going to war, it always boils down to men and women killing each other for no good reason. Black Hawk Down illustrates that beautifully, unlike most videogames. But like many of the best videogames, it manages to be completely frakking badass in the process.
District B13 (dir. Pierre Morel, 2004)
Videogames didn’t begin with the platformer – a game genre that emphasizes constantly moving forward while overcoming physical obstacles, usually via jumping – but for many fans it might as well have. Early videogame classics like Super Mario Bros. and the original Prince of Persia all featured thinly motivated protagonists leaping on top of things to get to other things, and usually to save “the girl.” With rare exception these kinds of games tend to be simple affairs, from a story perspective at least. Pierre Morel’s breathtaking French action extravaganza District B13 certainly meets all those requirements.
District B13 (and it’s amusing but less-inspired sequel District B13: Ultimatum) take place in the near future, when entire neighborhoods in France are walled off from the outside world for public safety reasons. Crime thrives in these “districts,” but there are still good people living there. One of them is Leito, played by David Belle, one of the founders of parkour. Parkour, also known as “freerunning,” is the art of constantly moving forward while overcoming physical obstacles, usually via jumping. It mostly takes the form of running through, under and over things that most people would carefully tiptoe around. Leito uses these skills in an awe-inspiring stunt sequence after he steals and destroys a veritable ton of drugs belonging to a powerful crimelord, who then kidnaps Leito’s sister. Let’s watch, shall we?
There’s more to the plot of District B13, but the film has a charming lack of interest in such trivialities. The villain steals a nuclear bomb, so the good guy (Belle) has to team up with the other good guy (Live Free Or Die Hard’s Cyril Raffaelli) to stop the villain from blowing up France, and naturally save the girl while they’re at it. To District B13’s credit the damsel in distress is no shrinking violet, played with screaming zeal by model and former “adult” actress Dany Verissimo. Like most early platformers, the plot is merely an excuse for the heroes to run and jump and slide to the big finale. Like many of the better contemporary platformers like Assassin’s Creed and Mirror’s Edge (I said “better” platformers, not necessarily the “best”), the action itself is strikingly complicated but seemingly effortless. (Of course many of those newer platformers are clearly inspired by parkour, which was popularized by District B13, but let’s not fall into that black hole, hmm?)
The joy of constant forward momentum without any hesitation, of conquering the uneven terrain of urban cityscapes like they were empty fields of grass, of blindly leaping from tall rooftops confident that before you hit the ground you’ll “figure something out”: that’s what District B13 is about. That’s what great platformers are (often) about. And it’s that perfectly captured adrenaline rush that makes District B13 not a great movie, per se, but a supreme videogame movie.
A Fistful Of Dollars (dir. Sergio Leone, 1964)
Eager beavers may interrupt right here and call my attention to Rockstar’s Red Dead games. Of course these are modeled on the spirit and the conventions of the Spaghetti westerns, and particularly those which made Clint Eastwood a star. I might add that they are fantastic. Red Dead Revolver allows a certain amount of free roaming, along with flexible upgrades and level selection. Nonetheless, it follows a linear story, without any substantial option for changing the ultimate outcome of the game. Red Dead Redemption explores an extremely open system of gameplay, in which decisions – whether practical or ethical – and chance can strongly affect the playing experience. The focus is less on simply collecting high bounties, but on a greater sense of interaction with the environment. It seems that all the complications of being a Western hero (or antihero) are in place here.
Consider, however, the focus of A Fistful Of Dollars for a moment. A stranger rides into town, and sees immediately that some wrongs need to be put right. He becomes a mercenary to both of the major local criminal factions, neither of whom realize that his strategy is to pit them against one another until they effectively destroy themselves. Only then can he ride away into the sunset with all their money. The subtle distinction of mercenary and bounty hunter is the element just out of reach of even the superb Red Dead games. A better model for A Fistful Of Dollars: The Game is Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, in which players systematically take down the dictatorial regime of North Korea. In order to earn valuable information about how to do so, players must interact alternately with the Chinese, Russian, South Korean, and Allied Western forces camped around the Korean DMZ. The object is to carry out successive missions on behalf of one against the others, preferably in secret. If one faction gets mad and stops feeding you information, it will cost you to earn their trust back. You can play this game virtually any way you want, with a huge selection of weapons, vehicles and terrain at your disposal.
The replay value is immense. It is tremendously addictive, and though you can succeed by blowing up everything in your path, the more satisfying challenge is to try carrying out all your missions undercover, sneaking across mountains and through rubble to take your captives alive. Of course, all the duels and shootouts belong in there too. But remember how much escaping and double-crossing Eastwood did in the movie? Bringing this intricate series of challenges to a virtual Fistful Of Dollars world would definitely constitute the final word in video gunslinging.
Enter The Dragon (dir. Robert Clouse, 1973)
Every competitive fighting game ever developed owes a debt of honor to movies like Enter The Dragon. Those more knowledgeable than I are free to toss around the myriad martial arts movies that might better stand as examples, but why not go with the grandfather of all ass-kicking icons? Bruce Lee’s most famous film is one of those great beat-em-ups that one can sit and watch any time late night TV should choose to bestow it.
This film has one great fight after another, and is woven through with a deliciously sordid plot. Need to bust up a drug and prostitution ring on a remote island, under the pretext of an international fighting competition? Who else would you call but Mr. Lee?
From the thin but appropriately bizarre storyline, to the outlandish variety of characters, to the fascinating set design (remember the “house of mirrors” climax?), Enter The Dragon just plain deserves to be made into a game of its own. By drawing on and expanding various elements at work here, game designers have brought us everything from Soul Calibur to Mortal Kombat to that titan of our collective nostalgia, Street Fighter II.
Forget about its increasingly complex successors, children of the 1980s. Merely reflect on how many hours you spent with Street Fighter II at home, at slumber parties, at Fuddrucker’s… if they can make The Godfather into a video game – something human civilization never expected – they can definitely manage Enter The Dragon.
JFK (dir. Oliver Stone, 1991)
Bear with me here. We are not talking about book-depository sniper action. We are talking about JFK, Oliver Stone’s epic, star-packed ride through conspiracy theories and black-suit menace, centered around the efforts of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) to get to the bottom of President Kennedy’s assassination. There are many questions asked, many threats made, many mysterious tip-offs that lead to deeper levels of mysterious… well, mystery. What better basis for a long-form, open-world, graphic adventure game? This is one of those games where you have to take notes, gather vast amounts of information, assemble clues, and above all cover your tracks. If you fail to operate in secrecy, the suits will get you. Or at least cut off your information sources.
Stone’s version of the JFK story involves a wild, convoluted, and truly frightening set of circumstances surrounding the president’s death. There are bizarre characters aplenty (recall Tommy Lee Jones and Joe Pesci as Clay Shaw and David Ferrie, respectively), as well as some classic cloak and dagger (Donald Sutherland as the mysterious liaison to the boys upstairs). Meanwhile, you’ve got all of Washington, D.C. and perhaps other parts of the nation to explore. Take as your model the popular mystery adventure game adapted (loosely) from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
For the truly old-school, there could even be a limited release of an all-text version.
You walk into the COURT ROOM. Exit to the SOUTH is blocked by a BAILIFF. You see EARL WARREN giving you the evil eye. A MYSTERIOUS MAN sits in the back, his HAT pulled low. There is a ZAPRUDER FILM on the EVIDENCE TABLE.
**command not recognized: “get film”
>>roll zapruder film
**ZAPRUDER FILM must first be loaded into PROJECTOR.
If this game takes off, it might open the door for the long-awaited All The President’s Men: WoodStein’s Revenge. On second thought, I wouldn’t rush that game into production.
Phantasm (dir. Don Coscarelli, 1979)
Here’s an offbeat entry for the wildly popular category of survival horror. Phantasm is a strange, scary film series about a funeral home that is not the tranquil resting place it seems. Local youths discover that the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) who runs the places is robbing graves for his own horrible and bewildering purposes.
There is a lot of creeping around corners in marble hallways and dark woods. At every turn there may be a hideous surprise. These include nasty dwarfs, flying spheres that drill out your brain, severed appendages that turn into rampaging insects, as well as the fearsome Tall Man himself. In addition to running, dirtbiking, and shooting large guns, players would have to do a lot of quick push-button dodging, one of the favorite action devices of Resident Evil 4.
“The funeral is about to begin… sir!” — The Tall Man
Weird 1970s atmosphere abounds. A cheesy psychedelic soundtrack is a no-brainer. The sickly, washed-out tones of the film would look great as an endless darkened series of corridors and graveyards. It would provide a fascinating contrast to the sleek, almost futuristic design of Resident Evil or the highly stylized “diseased” look of Silent Hill.
Phantasm: The Game also has the world’s best built-in tagline, taken directly from the film.
“You play a good game, boy… but the game is finished. Now you die.”
Battle Royale (dir. Kinji Fukasaku, 2000)
– Mr. Bungle –
Why some ambitious designer has not snatched this up is an absolute mystery. Properly developed, Battle Royale could be the coolest video game ever. As in forever. The film concerns a sinister government-sponsored contest in which an entire class of students is set loose on a deserted island, each armed with various tools and weapons. The game is over when only one of them is left alive. The story (adapted from Koushun Takami’s pulpy book) is a deft satire of what a horrifying experience adolescence can be.
The rules of the contest fit right into a video game. Not only are the children expected to be resourceful and stealthy enough to hunt one another down, but not everyone is armed the same. Nor are they created equal in any physical or emotional sense. When the overweight class nerd (armed with a shotgun) faces the jock who always picked on him (stuck holding a boomerang), an interesting reversal of the social order cannot be far behind. In addition, certain areas of the island become off limits as time passes. The contestants are herded into a smaller and smaller playing area so that they do not simply run off to hide indefinitely. Keeping track of the class roster and the safe zones is exercise enough. Add to that the ways that hunger, exhaustion, and injury can affect one’s ability to move and function effectively. It seems like an overwhelming amount of survival management, but it is not so different from the basic game mechanics of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.
Konami or Capcom could knock this game out of the park, though in a pinch Rockstar could use it to apologize for that fiasco they called Manhunt 2. Any takers?
In Battle Royale: The Game, as in Metal Gear, stealth and improvisation are the two keys to success. Brute force is of secondary importance at best. One must acquire resources – food, new weapons, information – in the wilderness, and without attracting unnecessary attention. If you start the game with a boomerang or pair of scissors, you would do well to go after someone with a gun, before the passage of time forces you into close quarters combat with an axe. A completely random character generation, including both equipment and physical stats, would quite literally make it a new game every time. Even so, the possibilities of strategy seem limitless, at least in the beginning. How you survive, and how long, is up to you.