List #1: A Ranking of Videogame Movies

A while back I had a gig producing content for a social network that later took an unfortunate turn. Before all of this stuff disappears, I’m going to repost as much of that writing as I can.

We begin with a kind of stupid entry, dealing with videogames adapted into feature films. The idea is that people would vote these items up and down, producing a sort of ranked list. As it turns out, I drew up this list at about the same time as the list feature stopped to work and the site ceased to promote it — so not a single person voted. Oh well! Here it is in semi-alphabetical order.

Adapting a game to cinema is never an easy task. Videogames and film are different kinds of art, that serve to explore different things in different ways. Videogames are all about banging your head against the rules of the environment to get a sense of how a world works. Film is all about telling a story using a stream of imagery over time. In film, there is no way to actively explore rules and in videogames a story generally exists at best to lend context to what the player is doing.

So, most game-to-film adaptations stink. It is up to you, dear readers, to vote up the best of the bunch and to vote down the worst. Some of these are probably worth seeing! We’ll find out which, presently.

Alone in the Dark

This series has had a bad time of it lately. The first three games were groundbreaking; Shinji Mikami substantially cloned the games in creating his Resident Evil series. Then the properties started to shift hands. Whenever a new up-and-coming studio wants to try a few cool techniques, they seem to buy into the Alone in the Dark license. The results are always interesting on an experimental level but somewhere between horrible and disappointing when it comes to actual game design. The concept has also strayed pretty far from the original games. Our friend Uwe Boll seized on the property for cheap, as people tend to, and spat this out. He managed to nab Christian Slater as Edward Carnby. This was before Boll’s reputation became public knowledge.

Bloodrayne

The second of many Uwe Boll films to clutter this list. Uwe Boll is a strange character; a charlatan who deliberately makes the quickest, worst movies possible so that he can cash in on Germany’s national film funding and various forms of insurance. It’s like he saw Mel Brooks’ The Producers as a set of step-by-step instructions.

The Bloodrayne games were exploitative trash following in the wake of Tomb Raider; they only really existed to cash in on the existing development climate. So, hey. Uwe Boll comes up to you with a small wad of cash, you take it. Result: another Uwe Boll movie.

DOA: Dead or Alive

The games started off as hacks of Virtua Fighter that added ridiculous breast physics and somewhat more visceral back-and-forth combat. They later developed into a consciously exploitative and yet still technically respectable series that can just about get away with its T&A action on the basis of its solid game design. Aside from the boobs there’s still little reason to play the games over any other first-tier 3D fighter, but whatever.

What I wonder is why so, so many game movies are based on games from such inappropriate genres. How many fighting games do we have on this list? Granted, the DOA characters do have convoluted backgrounds — but really, is there a story here?

Doom

Andrzej Bartkowiak was cinematographer on plenty of respectable films, from Falling Down to Speed to U.S. Marshals. As a director… hmm.

Well, it’s got Eomer from Lord of the Rings in it. And Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Later, the same dude would go on to direct Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. Some career he’s building up, here.

Double Dragon

Man, remember when these games were big? Technos took the gaming world by storm, first by creating the first versus fighter (Karate Champ), then by creating the first side-scrolling brawler (Renegade), then by refining the latter model into a two-player masterpiece full of advanced moves, interactive and varied terrain, weapons that you can pick up and carry, distinctive enemies, and some of the rockingest theme music ever. The story was simple: Billy Lee’s girlfriend gets kidnapped by street punks, so he and his brother Jimmy set out to rescue her with their fists. The movie… it’s something about a magical medallion that gives a couple of middle-class kids the power to beat up mutants. Not sure where this came from.

Far Cry

I didn’t even know that this movie existed. The games are technically very advanced and ambitious first-person shooters that mostly take place in natural environments and have very stiff, stilted-feeling design. Uwe Boll apparently leapt in and grabbed the film rights before the game was even released. Joke’s on him; the series has actually become pretty successful. But conversely, Joke’s on Crytek and Ubisoft, because — well, Uwe Boll.

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

This movie nearly bankrupted Square, and put founder and FF series director Hironobu Sakaguchi in the doghouse, leading the way to his departure from Square soon thereafter.

See, as great as Final Fantasy VII was in many other respects, the thing that everyone talked about at the time was its pre-rendered CG cutscenes. For the next game, Sakaguchi decided to play to the crowd and made the cutscenes practically the whole point. From there, the logical next step was to just remove the game part completely. Thus, we have this weirdly neutered film. In place of the wacky fantasy of the original games, we have a clumsy and frankly boring sci-fi story calculated to appeal to American mainstream audiences — a goal undermined by the uncanny valley of mostly-realistic CG actors.

Hitman

Basically these are action games with minor adventure and large third-person shooter components. You play as a hitman who largely has to find his weapons in the field, often through offing people along the way. So there’s a strategic element and a stealth element, and they have that free-form sandbox thing that was so popular in the early noughts. The movie… well, Roger Ebert liked it: “Hitman stands right on the threshold between video games and art. On the wrong side of the threshold, but still, give it credit.”

House of the Dead

House of the Dead is based on Sega WOW’s arcade shooting gallery series, and features a cameo from Sega of America’s then-president. By all accounts it is one of the more confusing things devoted to film, explained by the involvement of Uwe Boll. By the time the movie was released (to universal scorn), he had moved on.

In the Name of the King

Have you ever played Dungeon Siege? It’s a generic hack-and-slash RPG based closely on the BioWare/Black Isle design popularized by games like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. Generic enough and unlikely enough to make perfect Uwe Boll fodder. Yes, this movie is somehow an adaptation of the game. By all accounts it comes off like a pathetic Lord of the Rings clone — which puts it on a level with most fantasy fiction of the last 50 years or so.

The King of Fighters

Of all the fighting games that you could turn into a movie, The King of Fighters perhaps makes the most sense. KOF is basically a serial martial arts drama that has been going on since 1994, with yearly updates up through KOF2003 and then occasional chapters in the years since. The series features dozens upon dozens of characters, each with complex backgrounds and intertwined stories. The games themselves trace all manner of alliance, betrayal, and epic goings-on. You could create a long-running Smallville-type TV series out of this material with little effort. And yet this movie borrows only loosely from the games, then makes little sense of its own. Who is this supposed to appeal to? Why bother?

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider

The title says it all; by this point the game series had become a joke, and all that anyone remembered about it was its protagonist — who always looked uncannily like Angelina Jolie, so hey. There were two movies with Jolie, and as of early 2011 the series is now being “rebooted”. As with Silent Hill and Resident Evil, at least this movie more or less works cinematically, as a Mummy-level Indiana Jones knock-off.

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life

Supposed to be a little better than the first movie. Roger Ebert actually got a kick out of this one.

Max Payne

Marky Mark stars as Remedy’s satirically gritty New York sourpuss. In the game, Max is an ex-cop seeking revenge while under tremendous physical and emotional pain — pain that leads him to hallucinations and that he tries to, well, remedy with medication. In the movie, he’s being chased by literal demons and monsters.

Okay.

The dude who directed the movie, John Moore, was also behind the 2006 remake of The Omen. The people who made the game, in a long tradition, have aired their grievances and distanced themselves from his work.

Mortal Kombat

The game is ridiculous trash, that cashed in on the success of Street Fighter by filling its sprite banks with bad photographs of bad actors posing badly. Its lasting impact on the industry is mostly the establishment of the ESRB rating board, the concept of finishing moves in fighting games and elsewhere, and an endless string of hidden characters such as Akuma/Gouki in the later Street Fighter games.

The movie realizes that the game is ridiculous, and builds on all the most memorably ridiculous parts to construct a joyously stupid yet technically proficient martial arts movie. In some ways, the movie gets across the spirit of the game better than the game ever did.

Postal

As with Ewe Boll’s other films, the Postal license must have come cheap. The movie came out in 2007; the original game — which also was exploitative trash masquerading as satire — was released a decade earlier. A sequel was released in 2003, that tried to cash in on the Grand Theft Auto/sandbox design mania, but by 2007 the games had pretty much faded from everyone’s thoughts. With good reason. All the better makings for a deliberate flop.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Donnie Darko plays an Arab in this adaptation of a remake of a remake of Jordan Mechner’s 1989 classic tale of bloody deaths, leaps of faith, and little brothers in pajamas. As with the Tomb Raider movies, it’s sort of trying to be the Brendan Fraser remake of The Mummy.

Resident Evil

Pure trash, plus Milla Jovovich. Still, it basically works as a movie — and worked well enough to span at least four sequels. It’s probably a good idea to focus on Jovovich’s original character rather than the game’s original protagonists.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse

The second RE movie, which introduces Jill Valentine and is largely based on the third game. Worth mentioning that writer Paul W.S. Anderson, aside from writing and producing all the films in this series, also directed the first and fourth RE films plus the first Mortal Kombat film; and produced DOA: Dead or Alive. The dude’s almost like a higher-rent Uwe Boll. Oh, he’s also married to Milla Jovovich; they met on the set of the first movie. So this is also a family franchise.

The movie was received much less well than the first one — which itself received mixed reviews at best.

Resident Evil: Extinction

Third movie in the series. Milla Jovovich continues in the lead role. Here the story branches away from the game series completely. Although we meet several familiar characters from Capcom’s games, the plot and setting are all new. If game game is influenced by anything, it’s probably Code Veronica, what with the addition of Claire and Wesker, and a few setpieces from the game.

Although critically panned, this one earned the studio a hell of a lot of money.

Resident Evil: Afterlife

Fourth movie in the series; now it’s in 3D and IMAX. Based loosely on RE5 — including the introduction, finally, of Chris Redfield. Again with the critical derision contrasted with box office success. Apparently it’s the “most successful production in Canadian feature film history.” It’s unclear if that’s in dollars or professional satisfaction.

Silent Hill

A pretty decent adaptation of a less than totally obvious game, clearly produced by people who loved them some Konami. The film is more or less an adaptation of the first game, with elements of the second, and most of the context removed. If Pyramid Head is the projection of James Sunderland’s subconscious violence toward women, why is he in the movie? Although Silent Hill has always had a sort of feminine quality to it, there’s a reason why the first game is about a hapless, and obviously kind of broke, single father rather than a happily married upper middle-class mother. Regardless, the movie works on its own terms up until the last fifteen minutes or so. Not sure what they were trying to accomplish there.

Street Fighter

The movie that killed Raul Julia. Why does it focus on Guile, when the game is all about Ryu and Ken? Because Guile is an American, and the film was made for Universal. So if Guile is American, why is he played by Jean-Claude Van Damme? Well…

Super Mario Bros.

Less an adaptation; more an acid trip experienced against a backdrop of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle films. There may be some kind of surreal brilliance in this tale of subterranean fungus and human-shaped dragons, if you take it strictly on its own logic and merits. As a representation of Miyamoto’s game, though, it’s more like that weird 1980s cover art that was often more disturbing than the actual game content.

Tekken

Another fighting game — albeit another one with deep, convoluted backstories for all its characters. Why adapt this instead of, say, Shenmue?

The guy behind the Tekken games, Katsuhiro Harada, wonders the same thing. “That Hollywood movie is terrible. We were not able to supervise that movie; it was a cruel contract. I’m not interested in that movie.”

Wing Commander

I’m not all that up on the Origin System games; from what I gather, they were huge because they were basically Star Wars games in all but name during that long period when Lucasarts avoided milking its film licenses and instead focused on games like Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island. The movie is a genial if somewhat generic sci-fi flick with that guy from Hackers. It’s totally watchable, if somewhat unrelated to the source material.

Crowded Field, Modest Diversity Slowly Implodes Industry

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published in, I believe, the August issue of Play Magazine, split into a few blurbs across a two-page spread. I thought it rather worked in that format.

While everyone is freaking out about the economy, some trends are older and more reliable. Over the last decade, as the game industry has become big business and budgets have skyrocketed, yet everyone has continued to produce more less the same material, more and more groups and individuals have had to compromise. Continue reading “Crowded Field, Modest Diversity Slowly Implodes Industry”

Five That Didn’t Fall

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Part nine of my ongoing culture column for Next Generation. After the popularity of my earlier article, I pitched a companion piece about companies that had lived past their remit, yet technically were still with us. On publication we lost the framing conceit and the article was split into five pieces, each spun as a simple bottled history. In turn, some of those were picked up by BusinessWeek Online. Here’s the whole thing, in context.

A few weeks ago we published a list of five developers that made a difference, helped to shape the game industry, then, one way or another (usually at the hands of their parent companies), ceased to exist. One theme I touched on there, that I got called on by a few readers, is that although in practical terms all the listed companies were indeed defunct, several continued on in name (Atari, Sierra, and Origin), living a sort of strange afterlife as a brand detached from its body.

This was an deliberate choice; although Infogrames has been going around lately with a nametag saying “HELLO my name is Atari” – and hey, why not; it’s a good name – that doesn’t make Infogrames the historical Atari any more than the creep in the purple spandex with the bowling ball is the historical Jesus. (Not that I’m relating Infogrames to a fictional sex offender – though he is a pretty cool character.) The question arises, though – what about those companies which live on in both name and body, yet which we don’t really recognize anymore? You know who I’m talking about; the cool rebels you used to know in high school, who you see ten years later working a desk job, or in charge of a bank. You try to joke with them, and they don’t get a word you’re saying. You leave, feeling a mix of fear and relief that (as far as you know) you managed to come out of society with your personality intact.

The same thing happens in the videogame world – hey, videogames are people; all our sins are handed down. This article is a document of five great companies – that started off so well, ready to change the world – that… somehow we’ve lost, even as they trundle on through the successful afterlife of our corporate culture. And somehow that just makes us miss them all the more. Continue reading “Five That Didn’t Fall”

NextGen’s Top Ten Years In Gaming History

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published in some form by Next Generation. I was asked not to include 1999 or 2000, because the Dreamcast was perceived as a low mark in the industry rather than a high one. I was also asked to include the previous year, to suggest that we were in the middle of an upswing. So… that explains some of the selections.

In videogames, as in life, we tend to get things right about a third of the time. There’s one decent Sonic game for every two disasters; one out of every three consoles can be considered an unqualified success; the Game Boy remake of Mother 1 + 2 was released in one out of three major territories. With the same level of scientific accuracy, one can easily say that, out of the thirty years that videogames have acted as a consumer product, there are maybe ten really excellent milestones, spaced out by your 1984s and your 1994s – years maybe we were all better off doing something out-of-doors.

It kind of makes sense, intuitively: you’ve got the new-hardware years and the innovative-software years, spaced out by years of futzing around with the new hardware introduced a few months back, or copying that amazing new game that was released last summer. We grow enthusiastic, we get bored. Just as we’re about to write off videogames forever, we get slapped in the face with a Wii, or a Sega Genesis – and then the magic starts up all over again, allowing us to coast until the next checkpoint. Continue reading “NextGen’s Top Ten Years In Gaming History”

Tomb Raider: Legend

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Expanded from my weekly column at Next Generation, and posted on the game’s release date.

Something that people keep bringing up, yet probably don’t bring up enough, is that the first Tomb Raider was a damned good game. The last few levels were thrown-together and buggy; still, at the time it was Lara and Mario. Lara was your 3D update to Prince of Persia – all atmosphere and exploration. It had a snazzy, strong female lead, when that was unusual. (At the time, I had a friend who wouldn’t stop complaining that the character was female. He couldn’t understand why they’d made such a dumb move, since the rest of the game was so good. Go figure.) The game felt fresh and new, and – right or wrong – just a little more sophisticated than what Nintendo had to show.

Then, immediately, Core and Eidos started to listen to the fans. They listened to the media. Posters on the original Tomb Raider message boards kept complaining of a lack of thumping music. They kept asking for more human opponents to blast away, instead of these stupid animals of the first game. They wanted more and more outfits for Lara. And of course, there was the whole “nude code” business.

So a year later, there’s a sequel with the same engine – fair enough – with most of these concerns addressed. It was less interesting, less atmospheric, less intimate than the original game. Still, not too bad. Then a third game, and a fourth, and a fifth, with barely an update to the game engine – since, hey, who has the time for that with a yearly schedule – and less and less focus on what made the game so appealing to start with. The game became the Lara Croft franchise, and everything else became secondary to her new look, her new abilities, her new weapons – because these are the things that fans yammer about, so therefore this was the feedback that Eidos got. Continue reading “Tomb Raider: Legend”