Thursday, 5 November 2009

Tetris: The Movie

Whether or not you consider yourself to be a video game enthusiast, you're probably aware that films that are adapted from video games aren't very good. Video game adaptations of films have a more chequered and occasionally successful history, but that's another post altogether.

First, let's briefly separate adaptations of existing video games from films about fictional video games. Films such as Tron and War Games. Video games are conceptually interesting because you have control characters, so they open up questions about autonomy and reality. Although many valiant efforts prove risible - such as eXistenZ, whose questions about the nature of reality are rather lost amongst footage of Jude Law inserting a glistening "pod" into Jennifer Jason Leigh's "bio-port" - the potential is there, and everybody knows that Tron is a modern classic.

Adaptations of video games that actually exist are generally doomed from conception because plots in video games only ever exist as an excuse for action. Halo might be cinematic, but its setting only exists as a backdrop for killing stuff.

Even the greatest game narratives, so often the preserve of adventure games, are manipulated to put the player's participation at the centre. The Longest Journey has a terrific narrative, excellent voice acting and wonderful characters, but the story is structured to facilitate the puzzle-based gameplay which lies at its heart. Although it may be the story that keeps us playing, we wouldn't care what happened to April unless we'd formed a relationship with her by controlling her every move for 8 hours.

Take away the gameplay, and you take away any impact that the plot might have had. Heart of Darkness is pretty wholesome fare about a boy who builds his own spaceship in order to retrieve his dog from another galaxy. When I first played it, it was too hard for me so I went online (oh, the shame!) to find a cheat that would enable me to see all the cinematic cut scenes in order without having to play through the game. They made sense all right, and the animation was no less charming, but it all fell a bit flat because the story was meant to unfold slowly after hours of struggle. It's not so much that game plots are insubstantial - Metal Gear Solid 4 boasts 9 hours' worth of non-interactive cut scenes - but that they are designed to have a player at the centre.

It is for this reason that we do games a disservice by trying to turn them into films. Video game characters, however well-realised, are shells to be inhabited by players. They are characters who, in a trully great game, we can become. Although we may become incensed by poor casting of our favourite novels, when we feel actor misinterprets a beloved character, it's different because characters in books have a certain autonomy that video game heroes do not. We may question their motives, but their actions are (for the most part, critical theory buffs) firmly set in print.

The joy of a game, even a primative one, is that the character becomes the player's avatar. Even if their reflection of the player is simply a matter of whether they appear skillful or inept, their characterisation is dependent on who embodies them, and therein lies their allure.

This established, it's still worth briefly exploring what tends to happen when existing video games are adapted into films. Let's take the 2001 film incarnation of Tomb Raider franchise. Now, I have many personal difficulties with this film, but they're all to do with childhood disillusionment and seeing Chris "Rimmer" Barrie in a vest and things tend to get broken when I discuss them, so I will be as detached as possible with my analysis of this film.

Basically, it wasn't a workable movie notion because in the games Lara Croft is a reclusive sociopath who lives with her doddery butler, a man with chronic wind who seems to have no qualms about keeping her growing collection of weapons of mass destriction dust-free. As thanks, Lara (controlled by the player) can lock him in the fridge. Both these people are clearly mental and the fewer questions you ask about why the international authorities allow them to keep living in Croft manor with a load of supernatual WMDs the better.

A film adaptation therefore had two choices. It could either have a) tried to rationally explain Lara's behaviour, why she was still allowed a passport, and what might happen when the UN catches up with her or b) it could have dispensed with the character altogether and clumsily re-invent her as a hip-hop loving Daddy's girl who wanders around naked in front of the butler.

We all know which in direction Paramount Pictures decided to go, but the truth is that it doesn't matter because neither would have worked. The Tomb Raider games owe their success not to how good Lara looks in her shorts - certainly not in the first few games at least, she may as well have been made out of Duplo - but to the relationship the player forms with her. Tomb Raider games are vast and lonely, with hours passing between encounters with other human beings, so the player and Lara are alone in Tomb Raider's vast and complex worlds.

It's one of the few games where almost every action corresponds with an individual button on the controller, so your relationship with the character's body and the player's fingers is unusually symbiotic. And not in a rude way. Watching someone else, (i.e. Angelina Jolie) have all the fun is a bit frustrating, no matter how good she actually does look in her shorts.

To varying degrees, this reasoning applies to the adaptations of most adventure games to date, especially Resident Evil, which although not a strict adaptation of the game, still managed to remove all the menace from the original. Another important point as regards game characters is that you are responsible for their survival, which means that survival horror games such as Resident Evil are loaded with suspense. You really are scared in a dark hallway because something might jump out of a cupboard and rip your head off. Nothing is going to rip Milla Jovovich's head off in the film because a sequel would be too lucrative. The only thing that made the game fun is thus removed from the film.

A rather worrying trend that deserves a mention is the misguided urge of film-makers to turn games like Street Fighter and Dead or Alive into films. These games are "beat 'em ups", which means they represent a terrific genre which entails taking control of one silly-looking character and hitting another silly-looking character enough times that they fall over.

Video game lore states that each silly-looking character must have a back-story, a motive for wanting all the other silly-looking characters to fall over. The purpose of the back story is not to add depth or pathos to the proceedings, but so that matches are interspersed with a video that lasts just long enough for players to take a couple of gulps of beer. It should not be confused with a plot, and it should not be come within 2 miles of any cinema. Or Kylie Minogue.

"Surely!" you cry, "surely there must be some video games adaptations worth watching!"

Well it depends what you're looking for. Personally, I have a deep affection for Andrzej Bartkowiak's Doom, because it has real respect for its source material whilst still managing to be great fun. This is more difficult than it sounds. After all, Silent Hill has respect for its source material, but it is a joyless and plodding affair.

There are a couple of things in Doom's favour. Firstly, whereas Silent Hill is about dead children, Doom is a) full of lines like "I'm a forensic archaeologist John, I go where the work is" and b) has Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson" in it. But that's not what elevates Doom above the ranks of most video game adaptations. Silent Hill adapts a series of games beloved for their complex plots and thorough characterizations. Doom adapts a series of games beloved for their gore.

For the uninitiated, Doom (1993) was a landmark three-dimensional* first-person shooter. This means that the main character is represented by nothing more than a gun in the centre of the screen, pointed towards hoards of gruesome mutants (zombies, hellspawn, whatever).

That's, erm, it.

The absence of any protagonist in the game means that the Bartkowiack is able to invent a joyously silly scenario perfectly tailored towards Saturday night filmgoers. Featuring space marines and a whimsical bloodbourne chromosome (eh?) which is able to decide whether to turn the host into either a superhuman or a monster, Doom succeeds in being an enjoyable film as well as an affectionate homage to its source material. Because there was no protagonist or plot in the original Doom**, the film adaptation was free to play with concept alone.

This freedom meant that the film was able to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of either enraging fans with inaccuracies or confusing the uninitiated with obscure references and an incoherent plot. It's solidly entertaining throughout, there are some brilliant set pieces (mainly the first-person shooter sequence) and some gleefully gory deaths.

This is not to say that it is a perfect film. It's not as good as Independence Day, for example. But it illustrates an important point about game adaptations and the difficulty of adapting games with established characters and plots. Therefore, I could quite happily pass on the upcoming Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Tekken in favour of a film adaptation that Hollywood has bafflingly overlooked.

I am speaking, of course, of Tetris, Alexey Pajitnov's famous falling block puzzle game. Devoid of characters and plot, it features nothing more than ominously descending geometric shapes, a Russian ambiance and catchy theme music. The possibilities for adaptation are endless. Suggestions on a postcard.

Or comment box.

*if you want to be geeky about it, it's not technically 3D, but I'm not sure it matters in this context.
**I'm not sure Private Generic in Doom 3 does, or was ever meant to be a character in the same way as our good friends Lara and Mario.


  1. I do not feel sufficiently knowledgeable about video game adaptations, but this article has enlightened me. I just want to say what a brilliant and funny article - please publish this so I can point at it gleefully and say to the boyf 'see! see!', which of course I can do on screen but waving a magazine about makes more noise and thus is more demonstrative. So, so true about Croft.
    Tetris screenplay would be an interesting read... much suspense... ha. Well rendered :)

  2. Thanks Erin. Surely your recent travels have afforded you a unique insight into the world of "Tetris"?