It appears that the Metal Gear movie project is alive again. After years of it lying dormant, series creator Hideo Kojima announced last week that he was in talks with a new creative team and that this time their campaign would finally result in something. It’s difficult to know what to expect though, given that there hasn’t yet been a critically successful transition from game to film. In fact, most video game movies are positively bad. Too many of them are poorly written, poorly directed, and poorly acted—they are, quite transparently I think, quick cash-grabs as studios try to glom onto the popularity of the best-selling franchises of the day. Years ago it was Tomb Raider; in the future it may very well be Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed. There’s no reason to expect the Metal Gear project to turn out differently.
Why focus on movies as the ideal medium for video games to transition to? Why do studios cling to that ideal, given that experiment has been a resounding failure, both critically and financially (discounting the Resident Evil pictures, which have been a hit at the box office)? And whatever happened to television as a potential suitor? Certainly on the face of it, games would seem to correlate better with TV. For instance, both are about the same in duration—the average cable series is twelve episodes long and runs for twelve hours; the average video game might last for around eight or nine hours. Video games are segmented like television is—one has levels, the other has episodes. A game like Bioshock might have seven or eight chapters, each about an hour long. The comparison is by no means one-to-one, for television is mostly exposition and video games are almost entirely gameplay (solving puzzles, shooting enemies, and the like), but the similarity in length means that both execute their narrative arcs in about the same time period.
In fact, the two aren’t all that incompatible. What I find most interesting is that games invest heavily on building up the world and the environments at the heart of their story. The likes of Grand Theft Auto, Silent Hill, and the aforementioned Bioshock all have distinct settings that evolve over the course of the eight-hour experience (or slightly longer in the case of Grand Theft Auto). This is largely true of television also—the storytelling in Mad Men is contingent on the world the characters inhabit, and the city of Baltimore was practically a character in The Wire—but it is not so true of film. Setting is not a big concern in Saving Private Ryan, Heat, or North by Northwest, to pick three titles at random. The television format demands a defined setting that characters can grow in and interact with, something entirely consistent with some of the stronger video game narratives. This is not to suggest that the short duration of the film medium is why most video games falter when making the transition to the big screen—there is a more pressing reason for that failure that we’ll address shortly—but it seems to me that, simply by nature, the incremental chapter-to-chapter build that most games follow correlates strongly with television.
The central difficultly in transposing games to other mediums, one supposes, is that that most video game stories are bad; specifically, they might contain good fundamental ideas, but they break down at the scriptwriting phase, or, alternatively, they are just bad to begin with. Historically, storytelling in video games has always had a low ceiling, simply because the real focus has always been the gameplay. In fact, it’s common practice that games are written by the design team, not by professional writers. This is particularly unfortunate, because the medium isn’t lacking for ideas, and there are plenty of intelligent game designers out there—they just aren’t writers by trade. My favorite example of ‘good idea, bad execution’ is Silent Hill 2: a video game with the makings for a terrific story—perhaps one of the medium’s best to this day—but with horrible accompanying dialogue, and with even worse voice acting and direction.
In the hands of trained writers, there are more than enough games ripe for adaptation. It simply becomes a matter of which might have the most appeal to the average non-gamer audience. If we were to propose an ideal, completely hypothetical candidate, I’d suggest to you that Red Dead Redemption should be adapted into a twelve-episode HBO miniseries. The non-recurring series is a format that HBO has had great success with, John Adams and Band of Brothers being their most praised works. And Red Dead Redemption, a Western where the protagonist, ex-outlaw John Marston, is coerced by the government into finding and killing his former cohorts, would seem to fit perfectly into that mold. It has the characters, it has the depth, and it has the world; it needs to be edited somewhat—the game features a tangential act where the player travels to Mexico for no real reason—but aside from superficial changes, the game is as good an aspirant as any for that HBO-style short series.
There are other considerations that haven’t been addressed. One must consider the project’s budget, of course, and television series with high production values are by no means inexpensive, though they likely cost less than a feature film would. (A season of Mad Men runs about $25 million.) By in large, movies enjoy a greater marketing push and more tangible results (i.e. ticket sales) than television does, so an extended and costly series based on a video game might be a hard sell for executives. I’ve tried to restrict this to a thought experiment that doesn’t expressly deal with these practical issues, primarily because it seems to me that television should, at least in theory, be just as viable a medium for video games to transition into—actually more viable, as I contend. There are many examples we could draw upon. Here’s another, simply because it happens to parallel favorably with television: Mass Effect is, for all intents and purposes, a science-fiction soap opera set in space. Its plodding narrative would fit much better in a long format than it would into a two-hour feature. Yet, if we are ever to see a Mass Effect adaptation, it would surely be in theaters and not on our TV sets. Video game adaptations matter more to video game fans than they do to the average viewer. If the Metal Gear film flops, the outcry will be greatest from its rabid fan-base, whereas the general public will simply write it off as another cheap action flick. But both groups will be satisfied if the result is a legitimately good product. Given that video game movies have performed so poorly, it seems to me that we should start considering other options.