5 Reasons You Never See a Good Video Game Movie
Updated: May 26, 2019
Sonic the Hedgehog recently blew up across the sweatier parts of the internet when images from an upcoming movie adaptation got people riled up. Apparently, fans were worried that Sonic looked weird, and that this was an ill portent of a movie that would forever tarnish the game. To anyone who worries thusly, I offer this reassurance:
Firstly, it would be impossible to tarnish Sonic the Hedgehog more than it already has been.
Secondly, the movie will almost assuredly be bad.
Game movies are simply not a good idea, and it's not necessarily because the games are bad or because the filmmakers aren't trying hard enough. The problem is that what makes a game good is the opposite of what makes a movie good. The appeal of a game fights the movie media tooth and nail, and it's difficult to preserve this appeal in such a radically different form. Consider the following examples:
1. Boring Protagonists
Movies benefit from protagonists with strong personalities, a unique voice, and complex but well-defined motivation. In a video game, a generic and downright uninteresting protagonist isn't just okay, it's pretty much a requirement.
If you need proof of this fact, just look at all of the iconic video game icons who are essentially non-verbal. Mario, Kirby, Pikachu... They tried to give Samus a few lines in "The Other M", and everybody cringed. They tried to build a personality for Link back when they thought that a Legend of Zelda cartoon show was a good idea, and everybody vomited. Even when a game's protagonist is given a voice and a personality, it's generally either a stock Sonic-the-Hedgehog-style personality with mild snark, a vague "doing good things is the right thing to do" morality, and the unambitious variety of "I play by my own rules" independence that lacks enough commitment to be objectionable, or a personality constructed by the marginally-distinctive options presented to you in a game with a "morality" system.
The difference between game protagonists and every other kind of protagonist is that you have to play the game, and not just observe it. A game hero's role is to be an outfit that you put on to walk around a fake world in, while a movie hero is an entity separate from yourself that needs to challenge you, develop for you, and surprise you. If you're challenged or surprised by a game's hero, the precept that you're controlling this character crumbles and the game becomes less of a game for you.
If you don't know what a MacGuffin is, answer this question: Which one of the Harry Potter books is the weakest? If you're like many people, you probably said The Deathly Hallows. And why not? Most of the series focuses on fun characters learning about magic, grappling with weird creatures, and unraveling intricate mysteries that delve into the tragic backstory of our hero and a horrible evil that threatens to plunge the world back into darkness. By contrast, the last book focuses on walking around England trying to complete a collection of things. What are these things? It doesn't really matter what they are; all that matters is that they need to find all of them, because they've been designated as important, and they can't finish the story until the collection is complete. In short, they're MacGuffins, and they're one of the worst plot devices you can use.
Not so when it comes to video games. When you're actually the one collecting MacGuffins, it's fun. Try playing Ocarina of Time without opening the pause menu and saying, "Yay! Look at all the stuff I got!" It doesn't matter if the spiritual stones or medallions or magical crystals or whatever you're collecting doesn't have a practical function, because they're essentially trophies marking your progress through the game. And looking through a trophy case that you filled is more satisfying than watching movie characters fill a trophy case. In many ways, you might as well be watching a progress bar that tells you how close you are to the end of the movie.
3. Formulaic Plots
A great movie should challenge the audience with weird twists, complex moral dilemmas, and transformative new takes that they've never seen before. Video games should stick to plots that are simple, familiar, and even downright cliche.
I'm going to use Ocarina of Time as an example again, because it's a great example. What's the plot of this game? Bad guy wants to take over the world, because he's bad. Good guy is going to save the world, because destiny said so. Link is just some guy who was trying to sleep when he was woken up with a "Hey, you're a hero! Now go hero it up!" We don't want to know what's motivating the bad guy, because we just want something evil to beat up. We don't want to know what's motivating the good guy, because we are the good guy, and our motivation is to win the game. We're going to go into temples, fight monsters, save a princess, and beat the bad guy, all without questioning why any of it is happening. Because it's fun. And any time the game spends trying to explain to us why it's important is only taking up valuable play-time.
4. Nonsense Designs
Let's talk more about Sonic the Hedgehog.
Sure, the movie's character design looks pretty goofy. Apparently they're scrambling to "fix" it as best they can, and the best of luck to them. Most fans are probably hoping that they come up with something truer to the source material, and herein lies the problem:
Sonic the Hedgehog is fundamentally a goofy-looking character.
Just look at him: His hands are too big for him to cross his arms. His feet are so big and his legs so close together that he can't walk right. He looks virtually nothing like a hedgehog. Essentially, he's a humanized animal character that is informed neither by his need to look like an animal nor his need to function in a way relatable to humans.
This kind of character works in a strictly protagonist-centered reality. When kids first turned on their old Sega machines to guide Sonic through a world of floating rings and Chaos Emeralds and environments specially built to race through as fast as possible, the idea that this blue mutant was a turbo-charged hedgehog made as much sense as anything else. It was all just scenery to add personality for a simple game, just like any other nonsense world that the game designers of yesteryear were dreaming up for us.
But when you take these characters and try to put them into what is apparently Earth, with at least most of the ramifications thereof, the character needs to make sense.
5. Sequels and Reboots
It's obviously not impossible for a movie to have a good sequel, but it's definitely easier for a game to pull one off without angering people. Take a look at Mario, the Legend of Zelda, Resident Evil, Final Fantasy; each one of these has dozens of titles, many of which have fairly uniform plots and play styles. While most long-running movie franchises suffer in popularity as they go along, it's not common for the most popular game to be the first of its franchise.
The difference here is that games are activities; while movie-makers are challenged with bringing something new to the franchise with every sequel they produce, people have been willing and eager to play the same game over and over again since the first caveman managed to invent something that could bounce. Is Resident Evil 2 pretty much just more of Resident Evil? Great! It's like playing a game of baseball against a new opponent, and with marginally better graphics.