Bob Chipman, writer for the Escapist, believes that Scott Pilgrim is a Game changer for the industry. Not because of its merit or money, but because it uses video game tropes to inject new life into tired narrative cliches. The example he uses is how a 1up becomes the modern retelling of an age old narrative rebirth cycle that started in narrative form with jesus himself.
And I believe that not only is he right, but that this is part of a much bigger trend.
The Search for The Magic Formula
To paraphrase Inception, an idea is the most persistent virus in the world. Ideas began every movie that any of us have seen, and ideas (even in this faschist remake obsessed movie culture we live in) will ultimate reign supreme, not popularity or box office. Annie Hall, a movie that began many ideas like breaking the 4th wall, didn’t make much money. Sure it won an Oscar, but are movies taking notes from A Beautiful Mind? No.
Here’s what I think is going on long term.
When it comes to movies, the people with the money are trying (and have been trying) to make videogames the new comic books for a long time. What I mean by that is they are optioning video game properties in wait for that opportune time when videogames become truly mainstream in cinema. And when they do, every single game worth knowing about will be made into a movie. This is obvious.
But they haven’t hit that point yet. Why? Because the people making the movies (not just the creative people) are trying to find that magic formula. You can argue that the formula hasn’t been found for comic book movies either, but based on the sheer amount of resources devoted to finding that magic formula, comic books have become the number one industry in Hollywood. But this can’t go on forever, can it? What I mean is that the fever pitch of comic book movie making can’t possible sustain itself. So what’s next?
An idea, a true game changer, only needs to find the right person to realize it. It doesn’t matter where that idea comes from. Hollywood understands this. One only need look back to the bidding war over El Mariachi for evidence of that.
But right now they are looking for the magic formula. They seem to think it’s talent + money + adaption of creative work in a different medium = good (a.k.a profitable) movie. Hey, it worked for the Dark Knight right? (I’ll concede Superman Returns on this one. Luck plays a huge factor in moviemaking.) Hell it even worked for a theme park ride! So obviously, it’ll work just fine for adapting a video game property. Like say, Prince of Persia? That can’t lose. Talent behind Harry Potter ($$$) + established property (aka creatively ripped off from mythology) + more $$$ = “eh.”
Why is it so, “eh?”
The problem is that comic books/novels/theme park rides and movies have linearity and lack of interaction in common. This is huge. Adapting one to the other is sometimes as easy as cut and paste. Videogames on the other hand, while looking similar (similar enough to attract the $$) are a completely different beast that eats this whole easy formula alive.
And generally people enjoy each medium, but no one equates them. Ebert claims that games are not art. While that’s up for debate, the more cinematic a game gets the more boring (or skippable) it generally gets. And the more game-like a movie gets the more ludicrous it becomes. If you haven’t yet, watch the 1st person action scene in Doom.
Let’s take an example: Final Fantasy the Spirits Within. This was an absolute sure bet. A game that sold millions coming to your theatre for you to watch in all its “photorealistic” glory. Yet in translation they ditched everything that was remarkable about the game and replaced the plot with an Aliens ripoff. This made neither a good movie or game-like experience, and ended up pissing off both audiences. The Square Hollywood division promptly folded and now lives vicariously through the insane amount of cutscenes in FF13.
Here’s the real problem – in adapting video games, movies in the past have lost the very magic that made them so beloved in the first place. Yahtzee made that point. Really videogame narratives have always been totally incomprehensible or forgettable knockoffs of movies, so obviously adapting the narrative of a video game is a dead end.
The Missing Part of the Formula is in Scott Pilgrim
What Bob Chipman pointed out and Scott Pilgrim does right is it adapts the style and tropes of a video game to tell a compelling story, and it’s not even a video game adaption. Why is Avatar the highest grossing film of all time? It’s not hard to see how videogame are conceptually linked to that movie. Videogames have embedded themselves so deeply in culture that the time is ripe for a golden age of video game movies.
It’s only a matter of time before this kernel of an idea gets in the right hands of a director on a hot game property with money behind them. And I for one, can’t wait. And not just because I’m sick of comic book movies.