It’s something of a truism that movies based on video games are, well, terrible. Really, truly, unabashedly terrible. I’m still trying to get my money back for having sat through Wing Commander (USA, 1999), even though it was a matinee. And I went on a free pass.
The attempt to transfer the experience of playing a game, interacting as an active participant, to the decidedly passive experience of watching a film, fails, without fail, time and time again (cf. Uwe Boll). Not to assign value to the various modes of culture consumption—film, at its best, offers a transcendent experience and forces active mental participation, while the mere fact of interactivity in video games does not guarantee a worthwhile, active thinking experience—but the basic expectations one brings to playing games differ from those one brings to watching a film.
Choices, options, paths are, of course, constrained by the game as readily as a director positions actors in a scene, but the illusion of choice, of agency, remains, and this sense of being in control appeals to the gamer—and it’s this sense that doesn’t translate across genres.
Video game films fail most often because they attempt to portray figures from the games that the gamers themselves control. If the long delayed Halo film ever comes to fruition, it will fail, because what the screen Master Chief does is not necessarily what I would have done; his thoughts, given voice on the screen, as he mows through the Covenant forces, were not my thoughts as I did the same in the game.
But they finally did it. I finally saw not just a good video game movie, but the best video game movie ever.
What is it? The Damned United (UK, 2009). But, you protest, that’s not a video game movie! Isn’t, it, though?