The Last of Them? On Video Game Movies.
In recent months our hopes of a good video game movie have been revived, cautiously, by the announcement of The Last of Us movie. The script, written by the writer and director of the game, Neil Druckman seems to be ticking the right boxes so far. The announcement alone has been met with positive responses, and has crept out of the usual channels of video game news sites and found a place in the real, adult media, albeit with a pinch of cynicism.
Writing for The Guardian, Stuart Heritage posted an article listing five famous video game film flops in an article titled, The Last of Us: could it be the first great video game movie?. Admittedly, Heritage is indifferent, apathetic almost to the point of which you have to question as to why the piece was written at all. This is no slight on the article; it was refreshing to see that a clip from 1993’s Super Mario Brothers could still affect me in such a way twenty-one years down the line. Dennis Hopper’s King Koopa alone is almost as unsettling as the entirety of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Seeing this peanut wrapped tight in a trench coat made me question the decision of whoever thought that this imagining of Super Mario was what audiences wanted. Though after a while, I had an epiphany of sorts. What if, (and this is a big what if) that the problem with 1993’s Super Mario Brothers wasn’t the writers, or the directors. What if the issue was the act of transferring an experience which we love from one form of experience to another?
Granted, this issue has been tackled by every novel or play adapted to the silver screen, but you could argue that neither a play or a novel alone share the same degree of intimacy as the act of playing a video game. In the same way which I see Crime and Punishment as a humorously misanthropic novel, my Mother, for example finds it a harrowing and depressing read. The act of engaging with any text means that we take a set of ideas proposed within a text which are constructed, in this case within language, and are then deconstructed by ourselves through the act of engagement. Then these ideas are reconstructed within our own frames of reference, determined by the context which we allow our interpretation to be facilitated by. Taken by this definition, 1993’s Super Mario Brothers is simply the contextualised realisation of the metaphysics of a 2d platforming classic, as seen by the film’s writers and directors.
Facetiousness aside, there is an issue here. Adaptations of video games are terrible because of the limits faced by cinema. Using The Last of Us as an example, we can see the issues that face the movie before it is released. What, for me at least, made The Last of Us so special, and so close to me, was the ability to provide an emotionally investing story within an immersive environment. Words like immersive and emotional are clichés within the rhetoric of video game criticism, but are not used lightly here. Over the course of fourteen hours I became Joel. Within the first half an hour, his – my daughter was killed. We had already lost someone once, and neither of us were going to let it happen again. After delivering Ellie to the Fireflies towards the end of the game, I shared Joel’s sentiments exactly. They were going to kill her for the greater good, in hope of finding a way to become immune to the cordyceps. I wasn’t going to let that happen. We killed a man who might have been the last living surgeon, and what for? Hope of more time with Ellie. I would have done it over and over again, if it meant that would be the case.
This worked so well in virtue of the time and intimacy afforded to me by the mode of experience. Druckman had given me fourteen hours to allow me to make that choice without acting in regards to moral duty. Could a movie achieve this in 10% of the time which the game afforded me? Is there enough space in a movie to build a world, and develop character arcs which are as substantial as those seen within The Last of Us?
This is a failure of cinema as a form. In recent years we have seen the resurgence of the great TV series in Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and more recently True Detective. The latter being an eight-episode miniseries which is essentially an episodic eight-hour feature film. When a modern audience seeks a fully realised narrative-driven experience, there are dozens of experiences, which are more substantial, and much more rewarding than film. After the fourty-five hours which I have spent with Game of Thrones so far, I can honestly say that I feel more emotionally attached to them than I do with the characters of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings trilogy combined. By comparing TV shows to films we are only really considering the benefits of longer frames of time to develop characters, and not a level of intimacy which film cannot afford us, as TV shows suffer from the same issue.
To suggest that video games provide us with a more intimate level of engagement with a narrative or set of philosophical ideals than film is not entirely ridiculous. At the same time, I’m not suggesting that Call of Duty speaks more of the horrors of war than Apocalypse Now, although Spec Ops: The Line comes close. I’m suggesting that, like the novel before it – video games can exist independently of any other medium and their texts should be enjoyed in virtue of the context of their objectified medium. As wonderful as it may be to see Nicholas Cage and Chloë Grace Moretz beating on clickers for a couple of hours, I’d rather it be Me and Ellie.
Heritage, S. The Last Of Us: could it be the first great video game movie? in The Guardian Online.