Why video game movies are almost always disappointing

I love Tomb Raider. I love BioShock. I love Assassin's Creed. The Tomb Raider movie is a blight on my young memory, I'm ecstatic that a BioShock film was never made, and it is my vain hope that someone will stop Michael Fassbender and his AC flick before it's too late. All that might lead you to believe that I hate video game movies in general, and think they should be cast into the deepest pits of entertainment hell alongside daytime reality shows and straight-to-DVD Disney movies. It's not that they're always bad, or could never engage an audience. They just can't live up to the experience of the originals, because the games' best features are muted, compromised, or entirely lost when the leap between mediums is made.

One hurdle that every video game film has to immediately jump is the reality of Hollywood politics, which can sneak up on a production in unexpected (and often unfortunate) ways. Most fans would rightly expect a BioShock movie to be rated R for Rapture, a sentiment shared by Ken Levine and potential director Gore Verbinski. Unfortunately, recreating the game's underwater world would require a ton of expensive animation, a feature most often associated with family films. As a result, no studio was willing to support the production unless it was scaled back to a lucrative PG-13 rating.

Given that BioShock revolves around gang warfare, drug abuse and child murder, trying to adjust its content to meet PG-13 standards (putting it in the company of Forrest Gump and Pirates of the Caribbean) would have stripped it of it's most basic elements--what makes BioShock BioShock. Levine and Verbinski walked away from the project as a result, but not all developers do the same. That's how you get soul-drained titles like Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, which trade all the positive qualities of their source material for a checklist of action cliches stained with butter-flavored topping.

Even adaptations that don't sell their souls to the MPAA can have more subtle issues that leave fans wrinkling their noses. For example, the original Silent Hill stars dedicated father Harry Mason who combats unimaginable horrors to rescue his daughter. However, he was changed to a woman in the Silent Hill movie because the director thought he "was almost never acting like a man." Given that Harry's most notable characteristics are his concern for others and his devotion to his daughter, this change puts forward the nasty suggestion that no real man would ever care about someone, an idea utterly in conflict with the original game (and most of its sequels). While not every fan will necessarily notice or care about a change like that, those who identified with Harry and don't like the idea that only women can give a damn about stuff will probably see their satisfaction with the film nosedive.

But say a video game film gets past all that. Say it stays loyal to the source material and basically does everything you could hope for. You might still wind up being disappointed, because some of the most pivotal parts of the original experience are driven by how you interact with the game. How much do WarCraft or Assassin's Creed movies have to explore their settings before they match up to the open worlds of the games? Can they ever? A Valve movie may be able to tuck in a few easter eggs for the eagle-eyed to spot, but will that feel as good as finding them out of nowhere for yourself? If these interactive elements are the reason you enjoy your favorite games so much, isn't a version of the story without them going to feel lacking?

Even with games that put story front and center this can be a problem, because our level of personal involvement is still much greater in a game than a film. If you watch Lee Everett struggle to make the best choices he can in Walking Dead: The Movie, you may empathize with him, but you're not going to feel the same weight as when you have to make the choice yourself. A BioShock Infinite movie may perfectly capture Booker's anxiety over protecting Elizabeth, but does it feel the same as the blind panic of knowing she's in trouble and you're the only one who can help her? (Oh and you better move fast like NOW NOW NOW OH GOD RUN.) Even The Last of Us, which has a movie of its own in the works, is going to feel very different when it's not YOU benefiting from Ellie's help or trying to protect Joel when he's on the verge of death.

By now this probably sounds like a finger-wagging condemnation of all video games movies ever, but that's not really what I mean. Yes, video game adaptations are almost always disappointing for myriad reasons, if you go into them expecting the same experience you got with the original games. Replicating how you personally felt during your playthrough of Prince of Persia is going to be nearly impossible for a film to pull off, but you might enjoy it on its own merits. Plus, awful films like Double Dragon are perfect fuel for bad movie nights, and when you have such lowered expectations, you tend to avoid disappointment altogether. Like fireworks and certain kinds of fast food, these movies probably won't hurt you if you know what you're dealing with.

What I want is for players to walk into The Uncharted Movie, Angry Birds, and Mortal Kombat 2: Electric Boogaloo in a few years' time with some perspective. Chances are that some movies are going to make changes you don't like, or contradict canon, or even be outright offensive. Maybe all the Colossi in the Shadow of Colossus movie will be voiced by Adam Sandler, or the Creepers will be purple in the Minecraft movie, or Sly Cooper will inexplicably be played by a capybara. You are, of course, welcome to rant and rave about any of these things to your heart's content. But if you go in knowing that the chances of Just Cause: Scorpion Rising being exactly like your first Just Cause playthrough are pretty slim, you might be able to enjoy the film for what it is, instead of hating it for what it isn't.

Video games and their film adaptations are separated by a gulf of interactive experience and internal biases. While knowing that won't change how gracefully they make it across, it can change how much you enjoy them. And really, that's what counts.

… Though it also might help to get a video game movie that breaks 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. You know. Just a little.