I’ve been on a bit of a TV and movie kick lately. Just yesterday I was surfing the tube when I came upon Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and decided to indulge. I had seen the movie once before and remember being a bit disappointed that it didn’t have the same mysterious nature as the game. The second viewing was better, as I was able to enjoy it as “just a movie” instead of having expectations of greatness because it came from a video game that I loved. But still, while an okay movie, I can’t help but think it could have been much, much better given its source.
See, I was a huge fan of the first Sands of Time game on the PS2, so I had high expectations for the movie – maybe too high. I didn’t want an acrobatic action movie that lacked in mystery, suspense and danger. I wanted the movie to relay the emotions experienced while the Prince was (mostly) alone, fighting his way through a time warped wasteland filled with zombie-like mutations of past friends and family. I wanted the Prince to use the dagger as an integral means to progress through his journey and not just as a plot device. I wanted more suspense, more desperation and more connection to the game than simply the sand, the dagger and the acrobatics.
As an action flick, it was okay. In fact, I’d say it was a step in the right direction for video game movies, because it wasn’t complete crap, but it didn’t match the magic of the game. I can’t help but wonder why. Why wouldn’t a game as awesome as Sands of Time make a good movie? Why didn’t Tomb Raider, Mario Brothers, Street Fighter or any number of other amazing games make good movies? Some box office success aside, those movies were critical failures in the eyes of most that watched them. Of all the video game movies I’ve ever seen, I enjoyed Doom and Sands of Time the most, but even the best video game movies are just average. Why?
While the Sands of Time game was highly praised for its innovative time manipulation mechanic, it’s smooth and fluid acrobatic combat and its platformer puzzles, not too many people praise its story or character development. That’s nothing new with video games, though, as they’re often designed to allow the player to create a sense of importance and personal story by controlling the character’s actions. Something like the following passage could be derived from only watching game play in the Sands of Time video game:
“And then the Prince made a daring leap from one broken ledge to another, but his step was off and he fell short, slamming into the side of the ledge and plummeting to his inevitable death before remembering the power he held in his hands. He pressed and held the button on the top of the dagger and was pulled back through his actions, through time, and stood once again at the edge of the ledge he had just leapt from. This time he was going to try a different means to pass the chasm.”
As I said, the narrative above wasn’t actually in the game as written word; it was in the game as player action. Most game narrative doesn’t need to be written, said, or given to guide the player in any way. The player creates the story. That experience is one of interactivity and video games excel at it. Movies, on the other hand, are passive media. Consumers need only sit and watch the movie to reap the entire benefit that it has to offer. Movies are designed to take a compelling narrative and give it visual flare (if done well), but a dramatic narrative is very structured and usually linear whereas the interactivity of a game is loose, and can be boring if the linearity is too apparent or forceful. Interactivity seems to be directly at odds with narrative, and game stories are designed differently for this reason.
To clarify, I’m not saying that games don’t have stories. I’m saying that movie narrative and game narrative are very different in design and implementation. I’ve played and enjoyed games with tremendous stories, like the Mass Effect series, but I’ve also played and thoroughly enjoyed games with little to no story. What I’ve never done is watched and enjoyed a movie that had little to no story. Movies need a well paced and crafted narrative structure. An entire movie could consist of a few characters trying to survive while trapped in the cellar of an abandoned house, and it could be a really good movie. A game would struggle to be fun in a setting like that – what would the player do in such a limited place? Having a setting that works well for a game and a movie is the first step in developing a good video game movie. Sands of Time had a great setting for a game, but not so much for a movie, which is why they changed the setting quite a bit – a mistake that never pleases the game’s hardcore fans.
Rather than punch out another thousand words in this post alone, I’ve decided to turn this subject into a series of posts. I haven’t been playing many games lately, so I’ve been lacking writing inspiration (hence the severe lack of posting on the blog), but I have been watching a ton of movies and TV. Since this is a gaming blog, I didn’t want to write specifically about movies, so a series about video game movies seemed to make the most sense. In the next couple of posts I’m going to examine and compare the narrative structure used in movies and video games and try to formulate reasoning as to what works and doesn’t work in a video game to movie crossover. Then I’ll apply that reasoning to write a post about video games that could make great movies, MMOs not excluded since this is an MMO blog, and how they’d have to be handled. I may even reverse the formula and find out what movies would make exceptional video games – something that happens far more often than the other way around.
Feel free to let me know if there’s any other topics pertaining to video game movies that you’d like to discuss and I’ll try to write a post about it. Did you like any video game movies and want a list of some of the best out there? Some people seem to believe that there will never be a top notch movie made from a video game. Are you of that mindset? Leave a comment and let me know. Thanks for reading.