The Medium Is The Message

When the official trailer for the film version of Silent Hill first appeared, various online gaming forums clamoured to do what they have always done, and nitpick the hell out of it. The change in gender of the main character from male to female was accused of being a forced studio decision. Monsters were being used out of the original context of their meaning. Some even expressed a strong disappointment over what they believed to be an outrageous oversight: They were using a different siren noise than they did in the game.

Whether or not you think these arguments are valid isn't important. The real issue is that many seem determined, even obsessed, with having their favourite game adapted for the big screen, and to have it as loyal to the source as possible. The obvious question here is if they really want that close of an interpretation, why not just play the game again?

While that may just seem like an acrimonious statement to make, there is actually more truth to it than you might think.

Many gamers carry with them a deep hatred towards the theatrical monstrosities such as Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter, and the entire oeuvre of Uwe Boll. They long for the day that they can see what they feel is a great video game movie. There is a common belief that Hollywood needs to make a successful movie based on an acclaimed franchise for games to be taken seriously, to be acknowledged as art. But not only is this never likely to be the case, it actually has the potential of being detrimental to such a cause. In fact, just the idea of making a cinematic treatment of Silent Hill should incite the same amount of bewilderment and ridicule as if one was talking about Pac-Man, Myst, or Gunstar Heroes.

Remember the last time you saw a movie based on a novel that you absolutely loved? Chances are that despite your expectations you followed the usual cliché. When someone asked you about it, you merely shrugged your shoulders and stated "It was okay, but it was better as a book. You should read that instead." Maybe you had a problem with one of the actors, or how they interpreted one of the pivotal plot points. Most of all, the movie probably failed to match the unique personal perspective that could only exist by reading the book. Likewise, a novelization of Citizen Kane could never hope to duplicate the experience gained from watching it in its original incarnation.

It boils down to this: What makes an artistic medium truly unique is that it cannot be adapted to another medium without losing what made it so special in the first place.

This isn't to say that they can't share specific attributes. Naturally there is a lot to be learned between two storytelling methods that employ moving pictures. Nor am I arguing that an adaptation of a game should never be made. Just don't expect it to provide the same experience, because it can't, and don't expect the audience to change their opinion of video games, because they won't. Most importantly, just realize that video games and movies are completely separate identities.

This should have been abundantly clear to most of us and in the games industry after the fallout from the introduction of full motion video sequences that took place in the mid-nineties. The acting ranged from mediocre to horrible. The dialogue was just as dull and corny. The technology was so weak at the time that you would be squinting at a postage stamp of grainy video. In many cases, the "interactive" part of the "interactive movie" would amount to little more than occasionally moving the joystick left or right.

Even though some titles like Bad Mojo and Spycraft harnessed this technology in creative ways, it was never essential to the overall experience. Besides, the vast majority became jokes so long running that the punch line is still being recited today as developers continue to proclaim that their games will be more cinematic. While things have improved, many of the same problems remain, and as ever increasing budgets go towards longer and more visually impressive cutscenes, the number of people rolling their eyes and hitting the ESC key seems to be increasing with them. The lesson here is obvious, and it is one of futility. The more game makers try to force the storytelling concepts of film into a game, the more the audience is reminded that film will always handle these concepts so much better.

While this criticism has been acknowledged within the gaming community before, there is little discussion of how the reverse might also be true. People talk about how games have also had their own superior storytelling techniques in their own right. They point out titles like Grim Fandango, Deux Ex and Planescape:Torment to show that video games can be just as intelligent and creative as any other medium. And yet if we stop and think about what exactly makes them so, it's the fact that they can't be repeated by other mediums without losing much of what makes them special in the process.

The whole point of video games is that your actions dictate how the story plays out. There is a popular argument that the main characters of these games are stale and two-dimensional, that they lack development the way they do in film. But as I've already stated, comparisons like that are fundamentally flawed. You don't need to relate to the feelings the character has, because you are the one having them. You don't need to understand his or her motivations, because you are the one making all the choices. Of course they are two-dimensional. They are meant to be that way because you are supplying that third dimension. From the most complex RPG to the most simplistic beat-em-up, we are automatically given a reason to care about the protagonist's survival because we are the one controlling their every move.

When playing through System Shock 2, did you wish that the whole story was reduced to two hours, taking one particular path? Would KOTOR have been better if all those tough moral decisions were automatically made for you? What would be a more thrilling situation, walking through a crowd as Agent 47 trying not to draw attention, or passively watching someone else do it?

Instead of complaining over the seeming lack of depth in games compared to movies, television, or books, we should be praising them for providing their own unique kind of depth that cannot be matched anywhere else. We should be excited when a few levels of Half-Life: Episode One provides more emotional highs and lows than the latest Oscar-nominated schlock fest. We should be awed when Resident Evil 4 makes us reach for the light switch faster than a Stephen King novel. We should be ecstatic that Elite Beat Agents can make us more misty-eyed during a rendition of a classic power ballad than any radio DJ could ever hope to.

We should stop being embarrassed for appreciating a video game for what it is, and stop trying to turn it into something it isn't. And several years from now, when a random person asks if we've seen the new Halo film, we can just shrug and say "It was okay, but it was better as a game. You should play that instead."

Comments

Great, great, great. And also awesome.

Welcome!

Great conclusion.

I think I love you.

Fantastic debut! Great thesis; thought-provoking and makes me feel better about being a gamer.

I liked Silent Hill, until about 1 hour and 20 minutes in, when they finally threw up their hands and say, "OK, hang on, let's try to explain this..."

Congrats Kuddles! Great ending

Only one thing I have an issue with

The lesson here is obvious, and it is one of futility. The more game makers try to force the storytelling concepts of film into a game, the more the audience is reminded that film will always handle these concepts so much better.

This is not entirely true, as there's a handful of games out there that get cutscenes so very *right*. Take Interstate 76 for example. I've seen each of the cutscenes in that game probably a dozen times and they are still absolutely awsome. The trick really seems to be good voice acting and staying true to the direction and atmosphere of the game. Full Throttle's cutscenes were equally as good, so graphics aren't the all important factor.

H.P. Lovesauce wrote:

I think I love you.

So what am I so afraid of?

Great article! Hope to see many more

Loved the conclusion!

I must add, though, that despite how crazy it may seem, I absolutely loved the Super Mario Bros movie. It was so ridiculous it was great.

And as for movie adaptations, I must say that the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was adapted to a film more faithfully than any other work I've ever seen cross formats. Barely anything was left out, and the only (ONLY) complaint I actually had about the film was that Aslan didn't come across as great and terrible quite the way he did in the book.

Farscry wrote:

I must add, though, that despite how crazy it may seem, I absolutely loved the Super Mario Bros movie. It was so ridiculous it was great. :D

High Five on that one!

Agree with you 100% though kuddles, and congrats on winning. People should just take a movie for what it is, a game for how its played, and a book for how engrossing it is. I know people who didn't like the Lord of the Rings films because "the books were so much better dude!", and for that I pity them.

Excellent article, and I agree with you.

I think that we as gamers go into any of these movie situations expecting, as you infer, a close interpretation or even repeat of the original experience of the game. It just can't happen perfectly, though it can get close (the LOTR movies did recreate a lot of the magic of the books for me).

I feel that movie adaptations will have better luck extending an experience, rather than trying to recreate it. A movie plot held in the same world/realm, using familiar characters and themes could, and occurring parallel to, before or after the game's timeline could succeed and appease our need for more of what entertained us so much in the first place.

I'm specifically thinking of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, which I definitely enjoyed, both as a movie and as an extension of the game (though I admit, I can't properly review the movie without taking it in terms of the game). The movie did nothing that countered the memory and the experience of the game. It didn't matter who was in my party when fighting Sephiroth, or that I did or did not get the Knights of the Round summon. The game experience remained mine, the movie didn't change it. Instead it provided an opportunity to extend it, to see what my actions had caused.

Anyway, I should really be working right now, so I'll stop there.

Excellent article kuddles, I look forward to the next.

That's all fine and dandy, but I'd pay some serious money to go see a full length theatrical movie created by Blizzard's opening cinematic team.

MoonDragon wrote:

That's all fine and dandy, but I'd pay some serious money to go see a full length theatrical movie created by Blizzard's opening cinematic team.

Them and the people who do the Warhammer 40k dawn of war stuff.

Awesome article Kuddles, good mind candy. I'm torn when it cames to movies based on games. I'd like a true as possible translation, but depending on the game I know it most likely will not happen. Some games just lend themselves well to being a movie, and others take alot of work. I could see Halo or Splinter Cell being done pretty easy as movies, but a game like say Soul Calibur or Doom if taken to literal is just stupid. I'd almost rather just have them reinvision the game, and tell me a connected story than just try and recreate the game on the big screen.

LobsterMobster wrote:

I liked Silent Hill, until about 1 hour and 20 minutes in, when they finally threw up their hands and say, "OK, hang on, let's try to explain this..."

Same. And yet with all that exposition, Pyramid Head was the one piece that never felt even remotely explained. I still like the movie even though everyone else I saw it with hated it. I still have yet to play the games.

Great article! Welcome!

What Malkiel said.

Well written and Welcome!

I think the one thing that I noticed about the Silent Hill movie was the use of CGI instead of real (puppet, make-up) for the creatures.

Where IS the guy anyways?

Not showing up: that's a kuddlin'

Couple things:

  • Well done, kuddler.
  • I think the games best translated to movies would probably be those that are most linear. Besides that, I could see prequels being really awesome, for those games that could use more backstory.
  • It's been said that poetry is that which cannpt be translated. I'll argue that with you for as long as we have air or electrons to spit at each other, but I think that it holds for translating formats. What could be termed "poetic" in any format is probably the hardest part to carry over in translation.

Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

You've hit a Grand Slam on your first at-bat. How do you follow that up? It's like picking Tie Fighter as your first ever Classic Game of the Week.

I don't know why so many people dislike Super Mario Bros the Movie. I liked it. And this guy did, too.

Stylez wrote:

This is not entirely true, as there's a handful of games out there that get cutscenes so very *right*. Take Interstate 76 for example. I've seen each of the cutscenes in that game probably a dozen times and they are still absolutely awsome. The trick really seems to be good voice acting and staying true to the direction and atmosphere of the game. Full Throttle's cutscenes were equally as good, so graphics aren't the all important factor.

Oh, I have seen some enjoyable cutscenes in my time, don't get me wrong. I just think way too much focus is on them. I probably should have explained that better, but "forced" in that paragraph is the key word. I just find the vast majority are, at best, completely forgettable, and wish the time and budget went into a more fulfilling game experience. This is further exemplified in the fact that when games do capture the "cinematic quality" correctly, in terms of voice acting, storytelling, etc. (for example, Dreamfall) tend to suffer in the gameplay category because of it

Brizahd wrote:

Some games just lend themselves well to being a movie, and others take alot of work. I could see Halo or Splinter Cell being done pretty easy as movies, but a game like say Soul Calibur or Doom if taken to literal is just stupid. I'd almost rather just have them reinvision the game, and tell me a connected story than just try and recreate the game on the big screen.

True, and hopefully that is the point I was getting at. Even with Halo, I'm uncertain if it will work without pissing off fans. Namely, if you aren't controlling him, I don't see a general audience relate to a main character whose face you never see, and who possibly never talks.

Malkiel wrote:

I feel that movie adaptations will have better luck extending an experience, rather than trying to recreate it. A movie plot held in the same world/realm, using familiar characters and themes could, and occurring parallel to, before or after the game's timeline could succeed and appease our need for more of what entertained us so much in the first place.

Indeed. Movies themselves would need to work on their strengths. To use your example, I'm sure the LOTR movies wouldn't be as special if they included hours of hobbits sitting around in the shire reciting poetry and humming tunes. I think this is evident that when you think of books that are widely claimed to be "unfilmable" (The Orchid Thief, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tristram Shandy) managed to filmed by severely adapting them to work with the benefits and constraints of film.

dejanzie wrote:

Where IS the guy anyways?

Not showing up: that's a kuddlin'

Sorry, my current job at the moment does not allow me internet access while at work. Thus, I am heavily dissapointed with all of you. I expected a good heated discussion to come back to, not head nods. I'll fix that with my next article, "Why Gamers Are Emboldening Terrorists".

Sh*t, he's right. We are emboldening terrorists.

The Master Chief talks. Wasn't 2001 a movie loosely based on a short story before it was novelized?

Danjo Olivaw wrote:

Wasn't 2001 a movie loosely based on a short story before it was novelized?

Sweet son of a gun, I think you're right. It must be another book I remember Kubrick talking about.

The internet says they were made at the same time.

You want dissent? I don't even see how this sentence makes sense:

What makes an artistic medium truly unique is that it cannot be adapted to another medium without losing what made it so special in the first place.

I get the point anyway, but then don't think this has anything to do with the point of the article. It may be difficult, but stories can jump mediums successfully. Yes, they may lose something that the original medium allows, but with care they can gain something only the new medium could allow.

Danjo Olivaw wrote:

I get the point anyway, but then don't think this has anything to do with the point of the article. It may be difficult, but stories can jump mediums successfully. Yes, they may lose something that the original medium allows, but with care they can gain something only the new medium could allow.

YOU'RE QUESTIONING ME? I'M THE LESTER BANGS OF GAMES JOURNALISM SO SHUT UP!!

Anyways, I think it does match my point, albeit it could have been worded better. (You should have seen how muddled it was in my original draft.) My point was that you can't duplicate a game experience to a film or vice versa. Yes stories can jump successfully, and have, but that's only when, as you state yourself, they take into account the changes in the way the storytelling takes place.

Sh*t, he's right. We are emboldening terrorists.

/nods head

Hot avatar, mysterious name, Canadian... He's the complete package. And, he's a good writer. I look forward to reading more stuff.

I hold The Shawshank Redemption up as an example of a move that was just as good as a book. The key there was to take elements from the book and ignore them if they could not be duplicated in film and to create elements out of thin air that could not have been done in the book and use them to evoke a sense in the viewer that is identical to the sense evoked by the book. The scene with the opera played to the entire prison, the climax of the movie, never happened in the book. But, it evoked the same feelings as like events in the text of the book.

Danjo Olivaw wrote:

The Master Chief talks. Wasn't 2001 a movie loosely based on a short story before it was novelized?

The movie was based on a short story titled The Sentinel which only had a minor scene in the film. The expansion from print to film were masterful on Kubrick's part. The soundtrack alone chills me to this day. Space was never scarier than it was in 2001.

The book was actually based off the script of the film and published after the film's release.

While that may just seem like an acrimonious statement to make, there is actually more truth to it than you might think.

Somewhere, right now, Elysium is in a bathroom stall with a laptop and wireless access reading that sentence over and over again, furiously rubbing one out.

Well written, kuddles. Welcome.

ColdForged wrote:

Somewhere, right now, Elysium is in a bathroom stall with a laptop and wireless access reading that sentence over and over again, furiously rubbing one out.

Yeah, I needed that mental image. Thanks a lot.

Jerk.