Life is Strange and Where Video Game Movies Are Going Wrong

A Life is Strange TV series is hella redundant, and it represents the fatal flaw in this latest wave of video game adaptations.

Video game movies suck.  I’ll give you a second to collect yourselves after that earth-shattering revelation, but it is the truth.  Most are just plain awful – Wing Commander, the Hitman films, Tekken.  Some are terrible but super entertaining in their terribleness – Need for Speed, D.O.A.: Dead or Alive, the first Street Fighter.  Even the best ones – the first Silent Hill, Ratchet & Clank, the first Mortal Kombat (although I have yet to watch it so take the next phrase with a grain of salt in relation to it) – are still just average films.  Seeming slam-dunks like Tomb Raider and Prince of Persia ended up being total catastrophic failures, and the sole commercially successful series spent the vast majority of its existence being so tenuously related to the game franchise it spawned from that the games themselves seemed to actively steer for a time in the direction of aping their own goddamn movie series (Resident Evil).

Hollywood, however, so terrified of placing bets on any original ideas anymore – cos it’s easier to explain away bombs to investors when you get to use phrases like “brand recognition” and “demographic charts” as if that’s all there is to filmmaking – keeps going back to the video game well, hoping to finally hit pay dirt in a desperate attempt kickstart a franchise, literally any franchise, with a built-in audience, no matter how small.  In more recent times, though, the prevailing notion is that everyone involved is actually trying their hardest to take things seriously by actively picking works that in theory make good sense as movies and working closely with those responsible for the game to create faithful adaptations.  2016 has already seen films based on Warcraft, Ratchet & Clank, and Angry Birds, with an Assassin’s Creed film due at year’s end, films based on Sonic the Hedgehog and the rebooted Tomb Raider are far along in development, and now, as announced on Wednesday, Legendary Pictures have picked up the rights to make a “digital series” out of episodic adventure game Life is Strange.

Everything’s gravy, then, right?  Life is Strange is basically an indie movie mashed up with a CW soap-opera as is.  There are no gameplay mechanics that are difficult to adapt into a non-interactive medium or that can’t be cut or altered without drastically changing the experience.  And the focus is so heavily on the writing, character interactions, and feel with next-to-no giant setpieces (with the one that the game does feature ending up blowing their budget anyway) in an episodic format, so it appears to be a perfectly natural fit for a TV series.  It makes a hell of a lot more sense for adaptation to a non-interactive medium than Postal did, so what’s the problem?  It’s as theoretically perfect for television as The Last of Us is for film (despite that one now being stuck in the same development hell that claimed Uncharted).

Setting aside the fact that we already have a Last of Us film – the adaptation of The Girl with All the Gifts, in cinemas late September – this latest wave of video game movie adaptations are actually missing the point just as much as almost every other prior attempt at making these things fly.  In the case of Life is Strange, the interactivity is a deceptively vital part of why that game works.  That might sound ridiculously obvious, but the interaction between the player and the game world is vital for its power.  You have to surrender yourself to the world, you have to invest a part of you in the world, and for doing so you are rewarded with the dreamy, melancholy, nostalgic feel that is so crucial to the game.  Sure, you have to do that in non-interactive media too, but games require more; more active participation, especially adventure games in the vein of Life is Strange.

Although, yes, your choices ultimately mean about as much as to the overall direction of the plot as voting Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leader, they still carry weight by virtue of making the player perform them.  There’s one scene in Episode 4 – that I won’t even allude to due to spoilers, y’all should play Life is Strange – where, after making a choice, I had to actually pause the game for a good 10 minutes whilst I silently sobbed and composed myself because of what had happened.  More importantly, because I had chosen what had happened and put parts of myself into making that choice, the outcome hurt even more as, no matter how negligible it may it actually have been, I had participated.  That’s what video games can do that other forms of media can’t.  It’s what allows objectively mediocre, cliché-filled, or unoriginal writing to rise above its objective quality, because of the player’s active participation, the illusion that they too have immediate stakes in this tale, that they learn the same lessons of choice and consequence and playing God as Max Caulfield does.

“But, Callum,” you pipe up, “You’re forgetting about the ubiquity of Let’s Plays.  A large audience experiences games like Life is Strange without even ever personally touching the disc and they still derive enjoyment from the game.  Therefore, the interactivity is not as vital an aspect as you claim it to be.”  Whilst that’s a valid argument, you must remember that most people don’t watch Let’s Plays for the games.  They watch Let’s Plays for the personalities playing those games and for how they react to the games that they are playing.  It’s often less about the game featured and more about the person delivering the game’s content to the viewer (this is basically why I’ve personally never gotten the appeal of Let’s Plays).  But I’ll grant you the point, there is a large gaming audience today who already experience some video games sans interactivity.

But this leads onto my other point, which expands to cover the whole of this recent renaissance in video game movie attempts in general.  Taking away the interactivity, Life is Strange is basically just The Butterfly Effect crossed with every single Very Special Episode of Degrassi ever made and a sprinkle of Sundance dust.  Now, that’s not meant to be a damning burn against the game – it’s one of my favourite video game experiences ever, and you all should really go and play it – but it is true, as is the fact that many stretches (especially in the early-going) make it very obvious that this has been written by 30 year-old French Men.  Because it’s a video game, though, the unoriginality in storytelling and the occasionally dodgy writing aren’t huge problems, as experiencing this kind of story in video game form is fresh and unlike little else being attempted in the medium right now.  For video games, Life is Strange is bold and unique.  For other mediums?

And therein lies the problem with Hollywood’s attempts to make video game movies so far: the choices in source material, for the most part, are too obvious.  Tell me: what is gained by making a film based on Max Payne?  The joy of experiencing Max Payne is getting to play an affectionate parody of the noir genre meshed with a gritty action flick.  Take away the “play” part of Max Payne and what do you have?  Another gritty mid-budget action flick, and Hollywood was getting through those like Henry VIII did wives in the late 2000s.  Max Payne’s story and characters, though above-average for video games, aren’t exactly unique in the realm of storytelling; the game remains in such high regard because of how it plays, how it feels to play.  Take away the gameplay and you have a neo-noir with silly faux-supernatural elements, and that’s a film which writes itself so completely that the results can’t help but be generic.

A lot of “cinematic” video games that supposedly lend themselves easily to non-interactive translations are just interactive knock-offs of popular movies anyway, and their identities in the realm of video games are so total that you don’t get any leeway to avoid making a facsimile of a facsimile.  That Uncharted movie which is supposedly still on track for next year despite, y’know, there still not being a script yet?  It’s gonna be a bad Indiana Jones knock-off because the Uncharted games are Indiana Jones knock-offs.  The Dead Rising movie?  A bad George Romero knock-off because the Dead Rising games are bad George Romero knock-offs.  The Kane & Lynch movie that is obviously never getting made despite no official cancellation notice being put out?  A bad Michael Mann knock-off because the Kane & Lynch games are really bad Michael Mann knock-offs.

This is not to discredit these games totally – each of them tell different and more varied stories than those by-lines suggest thanks to their gameplay mechanics.  But it is to demonstrate that their plots are heavily inspired by the films they would obviously (or have been in Dead Rising’s case) be turned into if they made the leap to the non-interactive medium.  Look at the Ratchet & Clank movie from earlier this year.  Their aesthetic appeal way back when they first debuted was getting to play a CG animated film, right down to Captain Qwark effectively being the resultant offspring of Zapp Brannigan and The Tick, and that was a unique personality in the world of video games – and, given the state of the games industry today, arguably still is.  Turn it into a film and you get… a CG animated film.  That’s it.  I’d be hacky and make jokes about how it’s just all of the cutscenes of an instalment of the video game stitched together and stretched out to feature-length, except that that is literally what the film is, so it can’t have any fun trying to implement the mechanics and weaponry of Ratchet & Clank into the film either.

Whilst as for those games who aren’t heavily indebted to other films, the choices as to which ones are being made into films so far are so obvious and boring that it’s insulting.  Has anybody in the history of that franchise gone, “I want to experience all of the terrible, terrible, terrible mythos, storytelling, and future bullshit of Assassin’s Creed without actually being able to play Assassin’s Creed and, therefore, liven things up by personally stabbing dudes in the neck when I get bored?”  Gonna spoil it for you right now, the Five Nights at Freddy’s movie will be a PG-13 jump-scare factory cos that lore is nowhere near as strong as the series thinks it is and the whole unique appeal is that you’re the one at risk of being murdered, not a handsome Hollywood actor.  It will literally be any other horror movie.  And, sweet Christ, a Division movie?  Really, now?

Honestly, the way I feel that video game movies should go, if we’re gonna start being inundated with them, should be the Minecraft route.  Minecraft is a weird choice for a movie, because the game is basically part-survival sim and part-digital LEGO.  But that’s the beauty of it.  It doesn’t lend itself easily to the world of film, which means that everyone involved can try and figure out fun and interesting ways to transfer the thing to screen.  Thought and creativity has to be utilised here, everyone involved has to figure out the identity of the game, how to alter it to suit the medium of film, and how best to adapt the game’s mechanics into a non-interactive medium.  The canvas is large, it’s not hemmed in by coming pre-packaged as “Another Bloody Action Movie” or “Another Bloody Fighting Tournament Film.”

The Angry Birds Movie didn’t suck because the concept doesn’t immediately lend itself totally to a pre-packaged type of film (save for obviously being animated), it sucked because the film it chose to attach to the Angry Birds franchise was unimaginative and lazy and spectacularly godawful.  The Hitman movies didn’t suck just because the games don’t have much in the way of storytelling, they sucked because they were godawful action films that bore next-to-no relation to the thing they were ostensibly adaptations of.  Need for Speed didn’t suck because the idea of taking a racing game series and attaching a story to it is inherently flawed – which would be forgetting the game series’ own weird obsession with having actual narratives acted out by semi-respectable cult actors throughout the mid-2000s – it sucked because not one choir of angels sang for Little Pete’s vision!  And also because it was appallingly acted and so very, very dumb.

Look, it’s all well and good snapping up the rights to successful video games that make for immediately obvious film versions, but by doing so Hollywood is missing the point almost as much as it did when it first jumped on the bandwagon back in the 90s.  Where before they didn’t care in the sense that they’d just try and make any old crap out of Mario or Street Fighter, slap the respective names on the results and call it a day, now they don’t care in the sense that apparently no-one is going to make the effort to find interesting projects that don’t lose all of their appeal as soon as you strip out the interactivity.  A Mass Effect movie is just going to be a bad Star Trek movie and we’ve apparently already got enough of those to go around.  But a Zelda TV series?  That has the right combination of established identity and lore, a hole in the market that needs filling, mechanics that could be translated to the screen in an interesting way, and enough leeway to tweak the concept and world to suit a non-interactive medium without being generic.

I loved Life is Strange.  I loved experiencing it and it’s still stuck with me heavily 6 months on from having played it.  But I can already see how the show would look, a non-interactive version of the game, and Ratchet & Clank has proven that that’s not enough.  I fell in love with The Butterfly Effect: The Video Game largely because I was a participant, because I got to invest a large part of myself in the game world, and whilst taking away that interactivity may not strip the tale it told and the world it created of all of their merits, our world does not need a facsimile of a facsimile of The Butterfly Effect.  After all, I haven’t been 13 for a while.

Callie Petch cries sometimes walking around their old place.

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