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."