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Why are video game movies so awful?

To mark the release of the Prince of Persia movie, film ranking site Rotten Tomatoes has posted a feature listing practically every movie based on a video game that ever made it into theaters.

Curiously, all 29 entries were rotten, none of them even reached 50% popularity. Mathematically, that's astounding. Think about it this way: Say we conservatively estimate that only 1 in 5 movies on the site are fresh. If we picked 29 movies from the site purely at random, there would be about a 1 in 646 chance that every one of them would be rotten.

So why are video game movies routinely bad? I have a few general ideas, such as:

  • Too few video game fans are also exceptional film makers. Paul Anderson and Uwe Boll seem to be the only film makers with enough passion for the medium to try and adapt more than one.
  • The video game medium may not be mature enough yet. Compare with say, 'Super hero' comic books. The Superman story was born from the great depression, yet it wasn't until the late 70s that a well received film adaption was made.
  • For reasons I can't understand, film makers tinker with the parts of the story that the game developers got right. Compare the game and film of Max Payne. The game started with the tragic inciting incident that defined who the character was and why he did what he did. The film moved that scene almost to the very end and changed it to a flashback, making it hard to sympathise with a character who acted like a jerk but appeared to have no good reason for doing so.
  • The lowest common denominator. Films are made based on popular games with virtually zero story (eg Super Mario Bros) because of financial interest. Yet perhaps the lack of a deep story is why these games are popular across a broad range of demographics.

But I think the crux of the problem is that most video games have a lack of an interesting protagonist.

You can't tell a good story without good characters. Quentin Tarantino movies are great, but the bulk of the story is really interesting characters just talking to each other. Take a bunch of bland characters and try to make a story by putting them in explosive situations, and you get the Star Wars prequels.

The reason why I think video game protagonists are generally uninteresting is a lack of flaws. It's a common story format to have the character pay for his flaws at the end of the second act, but redeem himself by the end of the third act (Recent examples include Iron Man 2, Quantum of Solace, Avatar, anything with Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler). Perhaps it is cliche, but the structure works well. Wing Commander 2 also has this story format, but you have no control over what the protagonist does between missions anyway.

The protagonists of most games are Mary-Sue types with no character flaws (In this context, I define 'flaw' as something that the character has to change about themself to be happy). The demon-crushing space marine, the ass-kicking physicist, the pointy-eared adventurer, the overweight Italian-American plumber, the voluptuous archaeologist and so on. It is dramatic when the hero of a story mends his corrupt ways. But how exactly do you make a player change his behavior in a game for the purpose of drama?

An unflawed protagonist allows us to project our egos into a game but they are too perfect to build drama or relate to them as a character in a story. I believe this conflict of interest is the primary hurdle a decent video game adaption needs to overcome.