Why are movies based on games so terrible?

Throwaway story

In fairness to the rest of the industry, Tomb Raider had a relatively easy conversion process. The original game was little more than an interactive Indiana Jones with a female lead, and if you can't sell Angelina Jolie bouncing round with twin-pistols blazing, there's not much hope.

True, the much weaker sequel underperformed, but largely because by that point everyone was sick to death of Lara, and even the hardcore fans were still licking their wounds after The Angel of Darkness. None of this changes that the films that followed typically felt as embarrassed by what they were doing as their audiences felt after paying to see them.

The average movie took the game's title, the character's names and as little else as possible. Doom no longer featured the legions of Hell, but some pseudo-science nonsense about chromosomes turning people into mutated killers.

Alone in the Dark featured its protagonist mostly in well-lit environments, backed up by marines.

Probably the most bizarre, not filmed by a certain German we'll get to in just a moment, is Hitman. In the original games, Agent 47 is a genetically engineered killer with a barcode on the back of his bald head, working freelance for a group called The Agency.

When the trailers came out for his cinema debut, they proudly announced that instead, he was a weapon bred by the Church to rid the world of evil. Both plots are hurriedly dropped before the end of the opening credits, which supposedly show 47's training, but are mostly just footage from the TV show Dark Angel with Ave Maria played over the top.

The join is particularly obvious in one scene in which a classroom of 'Hitmen' in training are shown with their barcode tattoos on their necks, not the backs of their heads. The only thing more noticeable than what gets left out of the movies is what gets left in.

For some reason, the creators will happily throw out everything that made a franchise popular, but then panic about the audience's reaction over something insanely trivial. Costume, for instance.

Street Fighter may have turned Ryu and Ken from world-class martial artists into incompetent con artists so that the all-American Guile could be the hero of the story, but at least it thought up a way to get them into their iconic outfits, and make Kylie Minogue do Cammy's bum-waving victory pose!

Conversion problems

The more seriously a movie appears to take the source, the more problematic the shoehorned game elements become. Characters don't need to scream things like "Game Over!" to remind us what we're watching, any more than Voldemort should stop in the middle of a speech in one of the Harry Potter movies to wink at the camera and whisper "Page 231" or "Oooh, papercut!"

Hitman is one of the most problematic examples, simply because the game elements are so screamingly incompatible with everything the film wants us to believe. Don't get us wrong, the story is dumb enough on its own. Incredibly dumb.

It's a movie where Interpol agents actually think they have jurisdiction over local police forces, whose plot revolves around 47 going on the run from a baddie who wants to silence the 'only' witness to the most public assassination since Dallas.

However, despite all this, it wants to be taken seriously. It wants some emotional resonance. It wants to be, if not believable, to offer the all-important suspension of disbelief. But there's a catch. Films and games play on different expectations, especially when it comes to breaks from reality, and the broader strokes that developers use to build and reinforce things like character identity and our immersion into the world.

Even the best games still feel like fully artificial constructs, which makes it easier for the magic Rule of Cool to paper over the cracks. In a film, everything from costume to weapon choice can quickly look dumb when we see it from a different perspective, and the more realistic the setting, the more jarring it is.

Hitman's already hysterical line: "He works for a group known only as The Organisation, so secret no-one knows it exists…" utterly implodes when you notice that all 47's kit is branded with said Organisation's logo.

Likewise, while we're used to characters having limited wardrobes in games, there's no excuse for the film 47 fleeing after his cover is blown by his own agency, only to pop into a shop and buy himself a brand new suit and bright red tie, just like the ones he wears every day of his working life.

Raging boll

We've put this off long enough. Most movies based on PC games come from one man, and you know who we mean. The most notable thing about German director Uwe Boll is that somehow, he's able to keep making movies. People let him put his sticky paws on their licenses, presumably for a quick buck they wouldn't otherwise have gotten, and without exception, they're awful.

The full line-up so far consists House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, Bloodrayne, Bloodrayne 2, In The Name Of The King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, and Postal. The next, and currently last on the slate, is Far Cry.

For financial reasons, this is likely the last of them for now, with Boll currently raising money for one of his original movies. Two films he expressed an interest in that we were thankfully spared were World of Warcraft (Blizzard famously responded with "We will not sell the movie rights, not to you, especially not to you") and Metal Gear Solid, where Kojima himself went on the record to say: "It's impossible that we'd ever do a movie with him."

Terrible as his game films are, they've done well for their investors. The early ones were boosted by a German tax break that let him field a decent budget, and there's no doubting his knack of getting surprisingly major names involved.

Just consider this: Bloodrayne has Ben Kingsley as the villain. We'll repeat that. Uwe Boll got Gandhi to play the vampire king in his schlocky horror film. That deserves some respect, ideally served up in the form of a one-way ticket to, say, Mars.

It's also worth pointing out that the man does deserve some modicum of sympathy, with most of the people lining up to castigate him for his movies never actually having seen any of them. Phrases like "Worst Director Ever" are thrown around like cynical wedding confetti, and at that, we have to disagree.

We've seen all of his videogame movies, and while they're bad, they're not that bad. Yes, Boll is the man who thought that the song '7 Seconds' made the ideal background music for Alone in the Dark's sex scene, while, apparently, oblivious to the schoolboy sniggering over the hero's performance, and the fact that it's a song about racism.

Even so, compare his work to most of the late night sci-fi movies, B-movie directors like Coleman Francis, or the truly agonising Whatever Movie films shoved down our throats by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, and it's painfully clear: Boll isn't even close to the bottom of the barrel. It just happens to be a very deep barrel, that's all.

What really jumps out about Boll's game movies has nothing to do with any specific part of production, such as, say, bland scripts or bizarre cinematography – although both are definitely troubled.

Dungeon Siege goes out of the window in the first minute, when without any sense of irony, the villain and the female lead he's manipulating are shown lying on top of a bed sharing the following unfortunate dialogue: "I knew you'd come." "I told you I would." Instead, the real challenge is trying to work out how he got from the game, to the movie he ended up making.

Take the Bloodrayne movie. You'd never get a 'good' movie out of a large breasted vampire chick in leathers slurping her way through a whole battalion of Nazi necks, but you could get a fun, shamelessly trashy flick out of it. Boll decided to make a moody, sloth-paced period piece instead.

The direct-to-DVD sequel? A western. Seriously. In which Billy the Kid is a vampire, Rayne is useless, and time loses all meaning until the credits. Bet you can't wait.

The future imperfect

If there's one good thing about videogame movies' legendary awfulness, it's that the bigger companies are finally starting to be slightly cannier about the games they convert. The Prince of Persia movie, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, is a proper Hollywood production, while Bioshock is being headed by Gore Verbinski – hopefully the one who directed the fantastic Pirates of the Caribbean movie, rather than its two horrific sequels.

Blizzard's plans for a liveaction World of Warcraft have gone quiet, but we're confident that if it ever happens, it'll be something to see.

Overall, things finally seem to be improving. If just one of these high profile movies can blow away the box office, just maybe videogame movies will start getting the care and respect they so badly deserve. If not, just let us know when the Tetris movie comes out. We have high hopes for that one.


First published in PC Format Issue 226