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Gameplay vs. Screenplay: How NOT to Adapt a Video Game

By Shaun Leonard · June 26, 2017

A videogame can engage you in a story as deeply as a film, perhaps even more so. For hundreds (yes, hundreds) of hours, you can play the valiant wizard, the brave soldier, or a Grand Auto Thief. Their story is yours, and frequently you have the ability to change and shape it. Success or failure depends on your wit and skill, and the stakes can be anything from saving the world to simple survival. Games come in numerous genres and successful franchises can entertain millions worldwide. Remind you of anything?

Movies and videogames are alike in some straightforward ways, and vastly different in others. When it comes to writing, they share a very important similarity: a character (or group of characters) will or must accomplish X, or else Y. Given this shared basic outline, why do movie adaptations of these videogames so often fail?

For the purposes of this article, the adaptation we’ll be using as a textbook example of a bad videogame movie will be Assassin’s Creed. This is because of how beloved the Assassin’s Creed videogames are, and because of how terrible the movie is. Let’s take a look at why.

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Assassin’s Creed: Gameplay vs. Screenplay

The lore of Assassin’s Creed is dense and complicated. For those not in the know, an ancient group of Assassins are in combat against a group known as the Templars, and a machine is being used to let people relive the experiences of their ancestors so that secrets can be discovered to help shift the balance of power. This backstory is mostly beside the point, because the main focus is how quietly and awesomely you can hunt down and kill people.

The clue is in the name. You play some guy with a bunch of cool ancestors, and the games tend to focus on your particular ancestor’s life and adventures, as they become an assassin and are drawn into this generational war. The recent Michael Fassbender movie instead focused on “some guy”, as he has a bunch of things explained to him and gets to watch his ancestor off a couple of people. Honestly, not even that many. It’s embarrassing. Total n00b.

The “Assassin’s Creed” series of video games is famous for its dense, pseudo-historical lore, and stealth action gameplay.

The point is that to write an engaging videogame movie, you need to understand why people enjoy that particular videogame in the first place. The key lies in finding a way to involve those elements in the adaptation. The temptation here is to pander to the audience and reference the lore of the games. This can be fun, but at the end of the day, if the story isn’t driven by an interesting goal with unified action, the film won’t work. In a videogame, we watch cutscenes and go through repetitive sequences to beat challenges, or in the hopes that we’ll find new tools or ways to play. In a movie, having a main character that ambles around aimlessly for an hour while he gets told backstory is boring. Having Marion Cotillard randomly mentioning a special move from Assassin’s Creed lore isn’t going to change that.

“The point is that to write an engaging videogame movie, you need to understand why people enjoy that particular videogame in the first place.”

Lore is fun for insiders, but interesting characters are fun for everyone. Chances are, the best games have popular characters for a reason. Figure out what’s engaging or enjoyable about them, and try and reproduce that on screen. For any aspect of adaptation, there will be a push and pull between staying faithful to source material and trying to make something new, that adds to the world or to the emotional discovery of the story.

Focusing too much on the lore of the videogame can lead to an overstuffed adaptation that alienates audience members who aren’t as familiar with the game, while simultaneously leaving no room for character development. Take for example, the random assassins that hang out in the background waiting for the big fight scene in Assassin’s Creed. They are a waste of time with regards to plot development and meaningful relationships, and yet still seem more active than our main character.

These issues crop up with most videogame adaptations. Either the focus will be on capturing the action of the game, and the plot will be simplistic or completely absent, or the main focus will be on translating the plot into screenplay, leaving the story lifeless, boring, and overly complicated. This can explain most of why videogame movies are so routinely panned by critics and fans alike. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that films and videogames are two different mediums trying to do different things, making the idea of an adaptation problematic from the outset.

“To adapt a story from one medium to another requires an understanding of both mediums; their strengths and their limitations.”

Film theorist and critic AndBezin believed that we must stress the peculiarities of any given medium. We must treat a film as a film, and make it with full knowledge of what a film can do that other media can’t. To adapt a story from one medium to another requires an understanding of both mediums; their strengths and their limitations. Unfortunately, this challenge can result in films that don’t understand the strengths of either. Films where fight scenes are somehow boring, and the characters goals become less clear the more they explain them. Films where Michael Fassbender has no idea what he’s doing.

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