Movies based on games are terrible on the whole, and passable at best. This is a fact that few can dispute. Sure, a few have their merits (a couple of the Resident Evil movies are watchable, Tomb Raider did some things right, Prince of Persia is a mostly fun ride), but considering the huge wealth of incredibly rich source material, there have been an insane amount of utter failures.
Anyone think Assassin’s Creed will change this trend? Seriously now, I want that film to be great as much as anyone, but can it really be the masterpiece videogames movies need it to be? Because it has to be good enough to erase the torrid history of horrendous game adaptations that have largely come about as the result of Hollywood’s insidious tendency to view the properties on which they are based as relatively cheap way to capture a built-in fan base.
As a result of this strategy, budgets for these movies have tended to be on the low side…along with the degree of talent involved. People are going to go see these showers-of-shit anyway, so why spend any money trying to actually make the thing half-decent? We see constant evidence of this with the drip-feed of news about the numerous long-gestating movie adaptations in the works. Uncharted and Gears of War — both huge properties — have constant issues regarding budgetary disagreements. Ken Levine, creative director for Irrational Games, famously pulled the plug on the Bioshock movie adaptation after the attached director departed as a result of the studio slicing the budget in half.
The recent Warcraft movie bucked this trend by commanding an astronomical budget and a fair amount of reputed talent both in front of and behind the camera. It went on to be the most successful videogame adaptation of all time. An absolute ton of people went to see it, especially in China, a fact which belies the critical mauling it experienced (it’s currently sitting on a Metascore of 32).
But even with its popularity, Warcraft barely scraped back its mammoth budget for the studio (when you take into account marketing, and other concerns). What will have originally seemed like a fairly safe bet considering the worldwide popularity of World of Warcraft, now must look like an unnecessary gamble. Is it likely that this kind of budget will be spent again on a videogame property in the near future? All signs point to no.
Also, Warcraft’s director, Duncan Jones, is (or at least was prior to that film’s release) considered a maverick talent within the film industry. Whether or not Jones ended up with the film he started out to make (and isn’t there always some story of a troubled production when a vaunted director releases a turkey?) the perceived failure of Warcraft will surely discourage this type of director to become involved with a videogame franchise in future.
Like I said, videogame properties are for the most part developed as a means to acquire that already invested fan base — their stories aren’t really a consideration. World of Warcraft is an MMORPG, a vast fantasy realm where millions of people forge their own destinies daily, by questing, crafting, and just generally pushing their level up. Although the game has an overarching story, it is far from the main consideration for the millions of people playing.
So when the game license being developed is thin on story, studios are forced to impose a film-type narrative onto a property where it doesn’t necessarily fit. Super Mario Bros. is a prime example of this.
The Mario games have little in the way of story. Famously, Mario lore was at one point written by the people that produced the manual that came in the box. The Mario games are, and always have been, about gameplay. So when the time came to produce a film to fit the blockbuster mold, the Mario property was distorted wildly. The resulting…thing…that got made made barely resembles the property on which it is based. Or anything remotely watchable, for that matter.
That’s not exactly the only thing that makes is terrible, you understand, but it is the thing that makes it fail to connect with the loyal gaming audience the filmmakers were so desperate to court.
More than two decades on from Super Mario Bros. and we still don’t seem to be free of the dark-days of videogame adaptations. How utterly depressing.
And then a Firewatch movie is announced, and my faith is, at least in part, restored.
Because Firewatch, is, first and foremost, a story. It is a game where narrative comes first — a solid core of rich narrative with the gameplay built around it. And because this narrative is so effective, it needs very little in the way of revision, just a decent script and a few tweaks to make it silver-screen friendly. I expect the game’s developers Campo Santo are to be heavily involved in the production, so the property itself should be sensitively handled. The small cast and limited scope of the story should allow for a tiny budget in filmmaking terms, and the strong visual aesthetic lends itself to an indie-minded production that could make an real impact the type of discerning movie-going public who are not necessarily familiar with Firewatch as a gaming license. This may be absolutely key to gaining the credibility a videogame-based film needs to gain positive buzz.
So, without getting too carried away, with Firewatch, we may have the best chance yet at a genuinely good game-based film. And the way I see it, the more narrative-focused games that are released and find an audience within the gaming community, the more chance that at least one will finally hit that mark. It’s surely only a matter of time.
Firewatch’s production proceeds at speed — with precious little input from Campo Santo. The resulting movie is entirely unrecognisable from the game on which it is based, aside from a few references that come across as sad attempts at fan-service. The dreary, dull, obviously-Vancouver-area forest location does nothing to capture the powerful aesthetic of the game’s setting, and the studio’s choice of installing that first-time director who was really desperate to make a slasher-horror movie seems, in hindsight, like a poor one.