Adaptable – Why Video Game Adaptations Fail

I love adaptations, let me say that straight away. Even the bad ones, for me, reveal something about the original work that I may have missed or at the very least you see big, shiny robots fight other big, shiny robots. Despite my love, there have been no video game to film adaptations that could be described as great. Why do other adaptations work? Comics have been particularly fertile ground recently, but books, plays and even poems have been turned into successful and interesting films. Why not video games? Games themselves are more cinematic than ever so you’d think its easy to make a good movie based on a video game, right?

The Problem of Interpretation

The Joel Schumacher Batman films were not true sequels to the Tim Burton Batman Films or adaptations of the contemporary comics, they were trying to emulate the anarchic, over-the-top pantomime of the 60’s television show.1 Their failure to meet the canon established by Burton or Miller and the increasingly grim and gritty comic writers that followed in their wake, was part of the reason the first film was not critically well received and why they were ignored when Batman was re-booted to great success in 2005.

Once you release a movie, comic, book or any other work, you don’t get to make a statement explaining why you made the choices you made or to justify the tone and content of your work. Or if you do, its something that the watcher needs to search for or actively pursue; if you’re lucky a viewer might read your blog or listen to the DVD commentary, but this is normally too little or too late to change the initial feeling that has embedded itself in the viewer. This is, of course, true for every type of movie, comic, etc, but is especially damaging for adaptations as they are usually emotive subjects that have preconceived notions already attached.

Fans of Lord of the Rings range from those that have read the books to those that have read all the books, written fanfiction and attend conventions honouring Tom Bombadil. Each person will have a different notion of what’s important in the work, how people look, what they sound like and how they feel about certain passages. Changing those passages, even if the changes make sense to you, will make people angry and lead to them disliking the entire adaptation because they can’t get over that one bad scene. My brother hates the moment in The Return of the King when Sam abandons Frodo, because it doesn’t happen in the book, and no amount of hand-waving about the power of the ring is going to persuade him that that moment is true because his Sam didn’t abandon Frodo.

You could avoid the problem by removing as much of the story element as possible and building a film around a generic premise. Stripped down to the bare essentials the Super Mario Bros game is about two plumber brothers who rescue a Princess from King Koopa. The film, despite its flaws, remains true to this. But, because no-one playing the games had ever experienced what occured in the film the gamers cried foul and the film failed spectacularly to reach their core audience. After the initial flurry of excitement for a film adaptation had died down it died a quiet death at the box office.

The Problem of Multiplicity

If you think its difficult to adapt a single story into a coherent movie imagine the problems inherent in adapting an experience that also allows for each playthrough to be a different experience. Games have been dabbling with multiple endings for a while now, but this is only a symptom of a greater freedom that gaming allows.

Take Baldur’s Gate 2. You create a character who you call Naroth, he’s an elf ranger who also happens to be a child of Bhaal, the god of murder. He interacts with a huge number of NPC’s, some of whom join his party, become friends and even lovers, and a story is crafted from the dialogue and action choices the player makes. At some point he defeats Irenicus, excellently portrayed by David Warner, and the game ends. At the same time, someone else plays the same game, except she creates a human mage called Melody, who happens to be a child of Bhaal, the god of murder. She meets some of the same NPC’s and a different set join her for the adventure, and a story is crafted from the dialogue and action choices the player makes. Eventually she defeats Irenicus and the game ends. Both have played the same game, but neither would agree on the story, except in broad terms. Other players would certainly have different views so that there is no way that you could agree on a canon version of events. Even if you did dictate what was canon, you could hardly enforce it.2

While this is a bigger problem for role-playing games in particular it is still an issue for any game which has diverging gameplay. Take any beat-em-up as an example, players choose different characters dependent on their own pecadillos and each offers a different story. This is probably why Tekken never makes sense to me, as I’m a Hwoarang fan. It doesn’t matter when you’re playing a game, but usually a film crystallises all of the possible diverging narratives into a single story. Am I suggesting that Rashomon would be a good model for the next Tekken Film? It would certainly be interesting to watch and it worked for Jet Li’s martial arts epic Hero.

The Problem of Focus

Even given these two problems, surely a movie adaptation of Bioshock would be great? It has a strong story, it’s heavily scripted and you’ve got a fully realised world that has a strong visual identity to work with. In essence there is very little you have to make up to bring Rapture to the screen. I still think there is an issue which will cause the Bioshock film to disappoint, even if it looks and feels like the game.

The movie adaptation of Watchmen uses the comic as a panel for shot reference and is true to the source material in almost every respect, with the obvious exception of the ending. It’s been hailed as the most successful of the adaptations of Alan Moore’s work to the big screen because of this. However, it is still inferior to the original. I don’t say this because I think that comics are a better form of art than movies, there are plenty of comic book adaptations of films that prove that point for me, but there are certain things that a comic book can do that films cannot. Issue 5 ‘Fearful Symmetry’ is constructed in such a way that the layout and colouring of each page is mirrored, the first page with the last page, second with second to last and so on, culminating in a mirrored splash page at the centre of the issue. Even if the film wished to emulate this in the film, which they don’t attempt, it wouldn’t work as you can’t compare frames of film while sitting in the cinema, it has a relentless pace of 24 frames per second that doesn’t allow for reflection. The film tries to be faithful to the subject matter but because it doesn’t have the same capabilities of the comics medium it ends up being a good-looking copy of the action of the comic without much of the depth of the original.

Bioshock is interesting because it gives you the illusion of control. The moment that Andrew Ryan reveals that you are not in control could not be re-created in a movie. it is true that it could be re-created in a practical sense, but the viewer of the movie would not have the same sensation as the player of the game, how could he? In the game you are the protagonist, you’ve just been told that everything that you have done has been at the behest of a criminally insane monster, you are responsible for the deaths of potentially hundreds of people in a plane crash and you are nothing more than a tool. In a film the protagonist will be told that everything he has done has been at the behest of a criminally insane monster, he is responsible for the deaths of potentially hundreds of people in a plane crash and that he is nothing more than a tool. In the game you are the centre of attention, in the film you are a passive observer. Depending on the quality of the actor, script and direction it is possible that this scene will be marrow-chillingly effective, but it can’t possibly recreate the same emotional resonance.

The Only Neat Thing To Do

One option, and what Irrational Games is doing with Bioshock Infinite, is ignore the story from the first game completely. It is not possible to recreate the story and resonance of a game in a satisfying way for the screen. What you can do is take the themes, setting and concepts and use as much or as little as you like to make a great story. Going back to Batman, the core ideas that Christopher Nolan took from the Batman mythos were few and stripped down to the bare essentials: there is a extremely rich man with revenge issues who dresses up as a bat and fights crime. Names are kept, but the characters like Alfred or The Joker are changed enough to make the story work or make the film better. What they’ve done is ignore the story elements almost completely and are concentrating on the strongest elements of character, those which a large majority of people ascribe to Batman, and little else. No-one would’ve cared if Bane was a bumbling idiot or a super-genius in Batman & Robin if the movie was good.

Some video game adaptations have already attempted to sidestep the ‘game’ story. The Resident Evil series of films takes parts of the story from the games and has created an alternate universe where similar things happen but everything revolves around Milla Jovovich’s character, Alice. Now, by no stretch of the imagination are these films great, but they are the best of the current crop of game adaptations.3 Even in this case though, Alice is a player substitute, but because the games don’t have an Alice character, its less noticeable that she is having the fun that players normally have when running around Raccoon City shooting zombies.

The danger is, the more you remove, the more the first problem raises it’s head. As a film-maker, you have to make a choice. Do you want the film to be faithful or be good? I would argue that a game adaptation can’t be both. I would love to be proved wrong.

1 Whether they succeeded in that endeavour is debatable.
2 Which means the failure of the D&D movie is even harder to bear. The most interesting things about D&D are the various campaign settings and to make up a new, inconsistent, wafer-thin and frankly boring version of Forgotten Realms in the week it seemed the scriptwriters had to write the film when you already have a Forgotten Realms type setting called Forgotten Realms with twenty years of development, backstory, history and character on the shelf is head-scratchingly dumb.
3 The Resident Evil games are essentially adaptations of zombie movies so perhaps it’s easier to do it in reverse.

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Winner!

Inevitably at the end of the year, a slew of gaming articles proclaim that a console has been the greatest of the year. According to Metacritic, the PS3 had the best games this year, with an average metacritic rating of 70.4%. The XBox360 could only manage a paltry 66.7%, so if you bought the entire reviewed PS3 and Xbox360 catalogue of 2008 you’d have exactly 3.7% more fun with the PS3 titles.

That does mean you’d have bought and played to completion 363 games, which is beyond the means of most people, so the comparison is practically meaningless. Looking deeper into the mountain of data from Metacritic, it is possible to see some interesting titbits. The results might surprise you.

The simplest comparison to make would be to look at the top games of each system, simply by looking at the metacritic data, and then find the average score for those games. I’ve not filtered these results at all, and this should be easily replicable by taking the top 20 scores from each system and getting mean averages from the top 10 and top 20 games respectively.

Top Games by System

The Wii lags behind by a few percentage points and the PS3 and XBox360 are neck and neck. The results indicate that the PS3 edges the XBox360 in the top 10 comparisons but that is reversed in the top 20. Two points need to be made here. Firstly, the difference is so small, 0.1% and 0.4% that it’s really not enough to be able to make a compelling case for dominance. Secondly, the lists are populated by the same names, in the Top 20 PS3 and XBox360 games; there are 11 multiplatform titles, such as GRID, Fallout 3 and Soulcalibur 4.

So, do we need to look at exclusives? Certainly that’s the trend, as more and more sites try to differentiate between the systems. There is a logic to this, but the methodology seems to be quite sloppy, in that sites will choose which titles are classed as exclusive and which are included in the analysis.

The following graphs are based on the scores of the top exclusive titles for each system. The only qualifier for this list is if they are platform exclusive, be they full-price or download titles. By my reckoning a good game is a good game and it matters little if one costs less than the other.

Top Exclusive Games by System

The difference is even less pronounced in this case. The Wii is slightly less impressive in the Top 10, but when we extend the list to 20, there is only a minor difference between the three consoles. This graph seems counter intuitive, as the PS3 had the two highest scoring exclusives of the year in LittleBigPlanet (95) and MGS4 (94), but after this there next highest score was Resistance 2 (87). Compare this with the Xbox360 which had three 90+ games, Gears of War 2, Braid and Geometry Wars 2 and three games just under, Fable 2, Portal: Still Alive and Rez HD. Suffice to say, if you bought any of the systems, if you were hungry for exclusive content, you would have been well served by all three.

As an aside, if you included PC games in this comparison it would be the best of all the systems, with a top 10 score of 87.3% and a top 20 score of 85.4%. It is also favourably placed in the comparison of top games, so the PC gaming industry is dead; long live the PC gaming industry!

It seems the exclusive angle is a dead end. A direct comparison between the systems should do the trick, surely? It was difficult to find a list of games that were released on all three systems that didn’t extend way down into the depths of mediocrity, so I’ve split this section in two. First of all, the by now familiar tri-system breakdown.

Top Cross-Platform Games by System

This list is made up of Cross-Platform titles such as Guitar Hero World Tour, Call of Duty: World at War and Pro Evolution Soccer. Scores range from pretty good, Guitar Hero scored about 85, to pretty average, The Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon, with about 60.

Again there is little difference between the three systems. You could argue that the XBox360 has an advantage overall, but it is such a minor advantage, 1.0% and 1.6%, that you could hardly call it convincing. However, there are extreme differences between individual games. Pro Evolution Soccer 08 is clearly better on the Wii, with a 7% advantage over the next best version. Conversely, it has the worst version of Tomb Raider: Underworld, with a measly score of 68 compared to 76 for the PS3/XBox360 versions. Indeed the biggest variations are between the Wii versions and everything else. If there is any conclusion from this data it is that the Wii is clearly better at certain games than it’s more graphically muscular cousins, almost certainly because the play experience has been tailored to suit the Wii’s unique control mechanisms. Where this hasn’t been done, or has been done badly, the console suffers. Overall, if you were to buy one console and stick with it, you wouldn’t see an overall advantage or disadvantage if you bought a range of cross-platform games.

So, is there a difference between the PS3 and XBox360? They are clearly similar systems, utilising roughly analogous control methods with minor graphical differences. Using a slightly different list of games, because there are more games that are on just PS3 and XBox360 than all three consoles, we see the following:

Top PS3/XBox360 Titles by System

To appreciate these results, the full list of games and scores is below:

Far from sorting the wheat from the chaff, this is a stunning example of how close the two systems are. Of the twenty scores, 10 are exactly the same, five are one point away, four are two points different and one, the largest difference, is a meagre three points. The average difference is only 0.3% in the top 10 and 0.1% in the top 20.

This article shows that the differences between the consoles are smaller than you might expect. Even given the differences between the Wii’s scores for some games, overall the consoles are remarkably similar in their scores for exclusives and cross-platform titles. To proclaim that any platform is better than another based on the quality of their games is erroneous. Clearly, all platforms have had a number of very good quality games, notably Grand Theft Auto 4, LittleBigPlanet, Gears of War 2 and Super Smash Bros Brawl. You might consider the following:

The Wii looks to be the most volatile console; it’s scores for cross-platform games tend to be quite different to the average score. This doesn’t mean that it’s any worse, as the average shows, it’s just has different strengths. If a game has been optimised for the unique control system, the Wii tends to do well. Equally, if the game is a straight port, because of the graphical capabilities of the Wii, it will compare unfavourably with the other two consoles.

The differences between the PS3 and XBox360 are even less pronounced. Their scores for Exclusives and Cross-Platform titles are virtually identical. Looking at the individual scores of the cross-platform titles that were released for the systems we see that they are also remarkably close. The claim that any of the systems are better than the other seems to be mistaken at best and malicious at worst.

Why use Metacritic?

Metacritic aggregates data, which means that it takes a large number of reviews from the Internet and compresses them into a very simple score out of 100. This means that you can be fairly certain that the scores you’re getting represent a large cross section of the opinion for each game. This compares to a single site comparison, which uses only data from it’s own website. Any bias towards a system found in an individual site is reduced by Metacritic due to the sheer number of reviews it looks at.

While Metacritic isn’t perfect, the way I’m using the data means that any errors that have crept into the scoring system will affect all systems and all results equally.

Bioshock

‘I Chose Rapture!’

Bioshock descends into darkness from the very beginning, both literally and figuratively; the crash that deposits you in the middle of the ocean is just the start of the visceral horrors that you face in the deep.

The world of Rapture is at once familiar and bizarre. A mixture of 30’s and 40’s propaganda litters the bloody streets of the claustrophobic tubes and bathyspheres that connect the gardens, hospitals and arcades, but it’s not Capitalism or Communism that rules in Rapture, it’s Ryanism.

Andrew Ryan is a grotesque figure that is revealed throughout the course of the game to be a despotic, visionary recluse. While he built Rapture, and plays a large part in the game, he is obviously not in total control, as there are a number of fiefdoms within the city. The killing of Frank Fontaine, Ryan’s nemesis and head of the criminal underclass, two years ago, that should have cemented his power, led to a full-blown civil war.

Initially your only contact is with Atlas, the leader of the resistance that has risen up against Ryan over the last two years. Atlas’s family has been trapped in a different part of the underwater city and he asks you for help in reuniting him with them. Very quickly you realise that Rapture has gone badly wrong.

Genetically modified humans, called splicers are everywhere. While nominally under the control of Ryan, these crazies have been driven mad by their lust for ADAM, the source of Plasmid power, and have managed to kill most of the normal inhabitants of Rapture. They prey on the Little Sisters, the only beings capable of harvesting ADAM from the dead. Luckily for the Little Sisters, they are protected by Big Daddys, the deadly, diving suit wearing behemoths that have become the game’s iconic figures.

The central choice in the game of Bioshock is how you choose to deal with Little Sisters. If you rescue them you can gain a small amount of ADAM, if you kill them you can take it all. Either way you have to kill the powerful Big Daddys who act as mindless guardians, unaware of your intentions. Perhaps most horrifying, if you do attempt to kill the Big Daddys, the Little Sisters will goad and shout at her guardian to kill you. And they usually do.

Communication in Rapture is done in a number of different ways, but most of the time you’ll be picking up transmissions from your radio and finding audio diaries that are scattered around the city. It is very rare that you hear someone that isn’t using a mechanical device to talk to you, with the exception of Splicers and Little Sisters. This makes every interaction seem either very cold and distant or violently charged. When you actually meet a person face to face the moments are so much more powerful, mostly due to the change in timbre, the heightened reality and the addition of visual cues.

The game does have flaws, although they are really quite minor. It is easy. You will die a lot, but because you are resurrected in nearby Vita-Chambers, you can continue without losing your progress within the game and without resorting to an out of date save. I actually quite like this, as it doesn’t take you out of Rapture. The more time you spend living in the game world, not navigating save game files, the better, as you aren’t constantly shifting from real- to game-world and back. Bioshock is immersive and to be reminded that you are playing a game would destroy some of its power.

Mechanically, Bioshock is not amazing and adds nothing to the FPS genre in terms of technical innovation. Plasmids, additional psychic powers you can develop, are nice but not amazing, the weapons are fairly standard and level design can be sometimes confusing. There is also no multiplayer aspect. It is unfair to concentrate on these and call the game average or even flawed, as the game is not about technical brilliance, unlike, say, Halo 3; its all about great storytelling. It’s like saying that Great Expectations is a terrible book because it doesn’t have a chapter on Dinosaurs or the option to read it from the perspective of Herbert Pocket.

The triumph of Bioshock is that it plays with traditional conceits of computer games in general, toying with the ideas of fate and free will. Atlas asks ‘would you kindly’ do such and such a task, but there is no option within the game not to do it. Instead of ignoring the weaknesses of computer games and the usual linear gameplay options or meaningless dialogue box choices, Bioshock confronts this issue and convincingly deals with it. The stand out scene is the first meeting you have with Andrew Ryan, as it not only shows you why you’ve been doing what you’ve done, it also gives you a truly compelling reason to continue. Rather than fall into the trap of loading the first chapters with exposition and cut-scenes to entice the player in, 2K Games have worked on the whole game and polished Bioshock until it shines with a bloody, crimson sheen.

Other considerations

  • The achievements are fun and range from ridiculously easy (Toaster in The Tub) to insanely difficult (Historian or Tonic Collector)
  • Great soundtrack – A combination of in-game snippets of 40’s/50’s records and by turns beautiful and disturbing orchestration
  • Hacking, Tonics, Plasmids, and Research all extend the life of the game

Fable

I don’t like Zelda.

I sometimes feel like I’m the only one.

Having been brought up on an Amiga 500, my first experience of the franchise was the N64’s Ocarina Of Time. While it was enjoyable to begin with, the constant dungeon crawling and repetitive gameplay left me cold. Not being the quickest fox in the chicken coop, I tried The Wind Waker. Again, it was fun, to begin with, but it felt exactly the same as Ocarina Of Time, except it was even longer and the sailing sections added years to my life.

What does this have to do with Fable? Well, it feels like the best parts of Zelda. There are cosmetic differences, obviously, but the bones of the game, the combat system, the fantasy setting, and the oversized-boss fights make it feel like a uniquely British version of the Zelda franchise. There is one thing that Lionhead got right in its version, however. They made it short enough that the player can’t get bored of the genre.

There are, of course, other things to get excited about within Fable. It has the Lionhead visual and audio style that has been evolving since Black & White. The look is dominated by oversized objects, be they feet, hands or weapons, and the sound by the cream of British voiceover actors. There is a musical theme written by Danny Elfman, but it hardly makes an appearance outside the opening cutscene and the credit sequence.

You start the game as a young boy and are thrust into the world of Fable after a brief tutorial. Your family is murdered in front of you and you’re taken into the care of the Heroes Guild. The guild is an apolitical organisation that is purely mercenary. If you have the money, no matter the cause, you can buy the services of the guild. This does raise the question as to the nature of the guild and whether or not it is really a heroic endeavour.

Even if you decide to be a saviour or a scourge, the game’s storyline leads you into conflict with the mysterious hero Jack-Of-Blades. He is seeking the Sword of Aeons for typical vllianous purposes up to and including the destruction of the world. His mistake, it seems, is to have used the players family as means to this end. Like an east-end gangster, the hero gets all tetchy when Jack decides to mess with ‘da family’.

Fable’s mechanics are an interesting failure. In particular, the passage of time flows differently for the player and every other being in the game. While the player’s age is dependent on the amount of experience he has the rest of the world is in some sort of suspended animation. Children remain children and old folk don’t die even when the player looks like a octogenarian hobo.

There seems to be no reason for some of the armour choices to exist, unless the player is a slave to fashion, as a mage can cast spells in plate mail and the light armours don’t boost your magical ability or increase your skill with the blade. Of course, aesthetically, its better if your rogue is wearing appropriate gear, but from a gameplay standpoint you end up severely hampering your ability to progress.

Despite these flaws, and the bugs that make it ridiculously easy, the game is enjoyable. The character and level designs are varied, distinct and avoid being overly familiar and repetitive. The twists in the story are easy to spot but not offensively so and this makes the game seem like an old sofa, cosy, and familiar.

So, bringing it back to Zelda, Fable is an easier, shorter, more English, quirkier and less pretentious game. Is it better? Probably not, but despite this, I like it more. It’s the little game that could.

Other considerations

  • Three different classes that can be mixed and matched at will
  • Multiple storylines based on Good/Evil choices
  • If you like Zelda, you’ll probably find this offensive