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Metal Gear Solid and the gaming cinema curse

The history of game-to-movie adaptations is littered with corpses. Why are so many promising projects abandoned, and why do so many survivors just plain suck? Brenna Hillier investigates.

The most successful adaptations are those who pay the least heed to the “real” canon of the licenses they exploit. If you want to wring a pretty penny out of a gaming property you need to shuck off most of the trappings of established narrative and personalities and focus instead on a few core takeaways.

Hideo Kojima made an announcement yesterday which shook the industry - unfortunately, some of it was shaking with laughter. Metal Gear Solid, still one of the most cinematic games ever created and certainly the release which kickstarted a more film-like approach to gaming, is going to be made into a movie.

Or is it? Although the project was announced with fanfare - plenty more than the usual Variety Magazine blip - it's still clearly in the early stages. Columbia Pictures has signed on, and Avi Arad's enthusiastic, but when the producer took the stage to chat with Kojima it became apparent that no director, writer or talent is on board yet.

The MGS movie's embryonic, and game-to-film projects have a habit of quietly dying (or disastrously hitting roadblocks) before they ever enter production. In an interesting coincidence, Arad's last high profile gaming production was to be based on Capcom's Lost Planet, with a script written by David Hayter - the voice of Solid Snake. It never got off the ground.

This is a familiar story. Although the vast majority of licensed movie deals never go anywhere, the phenomenon is particularly egregious with games. Even a very brief survey of announcements of the last few years reveals a startling number of failed attempts to bring games to the big screen. With a bit of desultory digging I turned up 33 unreleased projects - the vast majority of which have ran aground, or, in some cases, quietly sunk without a trace.

That's not to say the same fate awaits Metal Gear Solid. As many have pointed out, a movie is almost redundant; the narrative is already consciously cinematic. With a troop of colourful characters just begging to be brought to life and plenty of excuses for special effects blow outs, it's not going to take a heck of a stretch to put together a decent treatment. Just don't hold your breath. Kojima's announcement has reignited my interest in a number of interrelated questions about Hollywood's troubled relationship with gaming properties. Why are games, an increasingly mass market entertainment medium, apparently so difficult to adapt to film? Why do movies based on games have such a bad reputation? Why do we even want or need movies based on games? Who are they for?

That the latter two questions are so difficult to answer goes some way towards explaining the first two. Nobody seems entirely sure which audience is being targeted with a game-to-film adaptation. If a film faithfully reproduces a game it's going to be of little value to franchise fans, but it's going to alienate them if it departs from established canon. If it's not targeted at the fans at all, why attach a gaming property, something that still carries a stigma despite gaming's growing social acceptability as an entertainment medium?

Back to the drawing board
Interestingly, the most successful adaptations are those which pay the least heed to the "real" canon of the licenses they draw on. The Resident Evil films are among the highest-grossing video game movies; while critics find little to admire in the spectacle-heavy adventures of Milla Jovovich's specially created character, Alice, each of the film ranks in the top ten earners of game adaptations, making most of their box office earnings outside the US. Silent Hill, which notably hails from the same production team and is soon to spawn a sequel, did less well internationally but is in the top ten for US domestic earnings. These movies tend to be rubbished by fans of Capcom's horror efforts, because they throw out established plots and characters in favour of new interpretations. They remain informed by particular themes, motifs and icons of the games, but make no effort at fitting in with the rules of the universe inside your console.

Two other top ten entries, Tomb Raider and its less successful sequel The Cradle of Life, took a similar approach. Lara Croft, never a steady characterisation even over the course of just one of her multitudinous releases, was reinvented for the films. The adventures she undertook and the characters she encountered were likewise far removed from anything the games established. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time has the highest worldwide gross of any video game adaptation to date, and, again, it played fast and loose with the characters and story of its parent IP; don't even get me started on what they did to Tahmina.

These examples suggest that if you want to wring a pretty penny out of a gaming property you need to shuck off most of the trappings of established narrative and personalities and focus instead on a few core takeaways. This is understandable: a lot of what makes a game so compelling fails to translate to less interactive media. Our most-praised epics (Mass Effect, for example) are divided into short, episodic arcs suitable to a play session, which add up to an overall narrative too long for a standard film. Our most iconic heroes (Master Chief, the early Lara Croft, Gordon Freeman) are deliberately empty, every-man types we can all individually adopt as we play - but with little to recommend them as protagonists for 90 minutes of passive observation. Turning games into films means dropping a lot of what makes them special to their fans.

Why license?
Hollywood, like the games industry, is increasingly focused on smaller numbers of bigger hits, and is building towards a reliance on series and franchises, à la the recent success of Marvel. Launching a new property on a Hollywood budget presents the same kind of investor-unfriendly risk as launching a new gaming IP, so it's understandable that a studio would consider adapting an established, successful gaming brand.

Maybe that's what David O Russell planned to do with his generously loose interpretation of Uncharted; tack the name onto an exploitable genre - heist films - while maintaining the lip service of a few core ideas.

Given what we've discussed about the success of easily mutable properties and their potential advantage to a Hollywood project, it's easy to guess what kind of games are going to be most attractive when shopping around producers and studios. You want something with immediately understandable film themes - Resident Evil's corporations and monsters, Tomb Raider's globe-trotting gunplay. You want characters flexible enough to mould into an audience-relatable protagonist. You want a story which fits nicely into a typical 90 minute arc.

Otherwise, you want a licensee happy to see you throw all this out and start again under your brand name, and games companies are less and less happy with that kind of arrangement, as they become increasingly aware of how cheap licensing waters down a brand with the potential for transmedia. Sony scuttled Uncharted when it started heading south; Epic and Irrational have both demurred when their properties, Gears of War and BioShock respectively, didn't inspire agreeable treatments; Ubisoft has locked down Assassin's Creed; Blizzard is guarding World of Warcraft so closely that, devastatingly, Sam Raimi gave up and wandered off to do Oz.

Where Hideo Kojima is all enthusiasm, other licensees have learned to be wary in their quest to take franchises mainstream. It's difficult to translate the magic of games to films in way that captures the mass market and pleases core fans; it's hard to avoid cheapening a property in the process; and it's hard to sell movie-goers, gamers and investors alike on adaptations after years of Uwe Boll's deliberate, tax-evading flops. It's no wonder gaming properties so rarely make the jump with significant success.

Avi Arad says games are the new comic books, and in a year or two we'll all be heading into cinemas to watch Metal Gear Solid and its ilk the same way we did The Avengers, Iron Man and Captain America. We're hedging our bets.

Thanks to freelance game and film critic James O'Connor for acting as a sounding board during the construction of this piece.

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