VISHNU K. THAMPI'S
Video games to movies: from classics to catastrophes
We’re all familiar with the magical world of Harry Potter. The books captivated us, and the movies brought that magic to life. Jurassic Park is solely responsible for everyone's childhood dinosaur-craze phase even to this day, with VFX sequences and stellar performances allowing for a seamless transformation from page to stage. On the other hand, though, when we think of the Super Mario Bros movie, we find ourselves recollecting a visual acid trip with lackluster direction, kooky interdimensional hijinks, and bobblehead villains. Books have successfully made the leap from text to screen, so what’s stopping their video game counterparts from doing the same?
Plot wasn’t an absolute necessity in the early ages of video gaming. The game mechanics and overall enjoyment of a player were usually more important. In a game as popular as Super Mario Bros., the plot was exceedingly simplistic - kill monsters and save the princess. It was enough for the game to offer a sense of progression or urgency, and simultaneously never try to be complex or intricate with its approach. If a movie was to be made based on this loose plot, one would either have to:
a) build on the already present minimalistic story beats or
b) do a complete overhaul of the present storyline and focus on incorporating the characters into a blockbuster setting.
Super Mario Bros. did neither. The production company was so fixated on getting A-list actors, that they completely forgot about the most common phrase in all realms of creative media - “story is king”. The initial script showed potential. The initial directors had potential. But the production company wanted even more, and in their greed, they lost all the attributes that might’ve given the film a chance to flourish. The script was watered down until it became a messy mix of science fiction and drama. Characters went from being charming and witty to being one-note and irksome.
Super Mario Bros. was the first video game movie to see the light of day and it somehow managed to curse its successors. Soon after the movie failed to appeal to critics and audiences, Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter were also released, attempting to right what its predecessor had done wrong. Unsurprisingly, both of these movies also flunked. The movies were clunky and none of the studios were willing to put in the effort to refine their final product. Characters continued to lack depth, CGI continued to be terrible, and the writing was practically non-existent. The only reason these films were being produced was to earn a quick buck and that they did in spades. Critics panned, audiences grumbled, but studios managed to walk away with heaping wads of cash. Most of the budget was used for marketing and this tactic seemed to work, at least for a while. Viewers were invested initially, but slowly crept away from this genre of movies as they realized that nothing promising or worthwhile would ever come out of it. This was a wake up call. People working on these films realized that effort and story were of absolute importance. In 2019, we finally got a glimpse of just how critically and financially successful these movies could be by doing the bare minimum. Sonic The Hedgehog (known initially as nightmare sonic) and Detective Pikachu surpassed the expectations of audiences and critics alike. Passionate teams with a love of filmmaking allowed video games to (somewhat) successfully make the transition from console to theatre.
The quality of these movies might’ve gotten better, but they’re still far from perfection. We can only hope studios don't get complacent and continue to use this rugged formula for future adaptations of video games. With a slightly stronger push storytelling through movies can be allowed to adapt to include their gaming counterparts. Now all we can do is wait and watch.
A Brief History of Open World Games
A black screen. A small group of four pixels bouncing endlessly from one side to the other, two vertical pillars of white guiding its movement. Plain, boring, and absurdly simple: Atari’s Pong, the first video game to ever exist.
The next step was to add more motion to these static pixels. Simple A.I. was generated and colour was brought into the mix so that games like Centipede, Pac-Man, and Donkey Kong could take their first steps. Slowly, other elements, like pleasant backgrounds, chippy 8-bit music, and pixelated platforms were mashed into a cartridge, granting characters the ability to run, jump, and duck their way through meticulously crafted levels. It allowed these worlds to grow a little bigger, but only in one dimension. The levels were fun to traverse through, but the path each player took would be almost identical, invisible walls keeping them from exploring the entirety of these foreign realms.
SEGA broke these initial boundaries by simply allowing the players to look at the world from an aerial view (in the game Jet Rocket). This allowed for maximum movement in a 2D space and players could now freely zip along the sky, making rubble of the ground they saw beneath them. Nintendo decided to take it one step further and created the Legend of Zelda. Mimicking the top down view, they created a space where the player could plunder, adventure, and explore. This eliminated the monotony of side scrolling games, bringing joy and excitement to the average gamer.
This was also around the time when companies started experimenting with 3D. Just a year before the release of Zelda, Atari came out with Mercenary. This game allowed players to finally experience a truly open world, but the blocky graphics and stunted gameplay made this game forgettable as better contenders took the spotlight.
3D graphics became the new staple of video games within a few years of their inception. Popular titles like the aforementioned Zelda, Mario, and Sonic were quick to jump on incorporating these practices. With the release of games like Wolfenstein and Doom, first person shooters were slowly beginning to make their blockbuster debut. As the years progressed and technology continuously advanced, graphics, gameplay, and story only continued to improve. Within a few decades we were able to create realistic, Earthbound worlds for players to explore. Titles like GTA V and Skyrim reflected just how intricate and dauntingly huge a virtual world can be. There was just one last hurdle to cross, and that was personalization.
To allow each player's experience to be unique, the world would have to be randomly generated, and companies were soon able to crack this code too. This concept of randomly generating worlds was first used in a 1984 game called Elite. It used procedural generation to randomly create a solar system for a player to fly around in. All they had to do was take this concept and implement it on a much bigger scale. Games like Spore, No Man's Sky, and Spelunky utilized this concept to allow people to have a different experience each time they load a world. One title, however, managed to trump all others and skyrocket to popularity, and that game is Minecraft. Combining search, hunt, mining, and crafting, Minecraft was able to create an environment of endless possibilities, greatly widening its player base.
For us practitioners of procrastination, there exists a certain joy in blankly staring at an infinite ocean of pixelated water or admiring a virtual sunset. Seeing an endless field awaiting exploration is enough to bring a smile to one's face. Life often seems to whizz along fascinatingly quickly, so moments like these, although fabricated, allow one to escape from their surroundings for a small amount of time. These worlds allow us to move away from our struggles and routine lives and rekindle that childlike feeling of fascination and wonder. With the advancement of technology, this wonderful genre of gaming will only continue to improve and impress.
Storytelling in Video Games
“We all float down here.” This one line is enough to remind you of the atrocities committed by the grotesque sewer-clown Pennywise, lurking in the shadows with his polished red balloon. Somehow, this vicious character makes you think about all that you fear. Upon hearing the quote “life is like a box of chocolates”, you find yourself recollecting the timid and uncomplicated demeanour of the beloved Forrest Gump - who as a character is so simple, but his optimistic view of the world is enough to leave an impact on yours. Two clicks and a choir of voices erupts with harmonic intensity. Suddenly you are pushed into a realm of war and brutality, the familiar suit of master chief glistening under the sun of an alien world. All three of these media are effective in communicating a story, but there's something that makes a video game so distinct in its approach. So whip out your best controllers, it's time to uncover the secrets of this wonderful world of entertainment. Welcome to…
Storytelling in video games.
While reading a book you construct the scene in your imagination; while watching a movie you are shown a visual representation of the location; but while playing a game, not only are you presented with the location, you are also gifted with the ability to explore the same. Level design and environmental storytelling are concepts that are only possible in the realm of video games. Notes, voice messages, books, and item descriptions are all familiar methods in which a game chooses to unveil its story. However, most games tend to get creative with how they reveal information to the player.
Let’s use the game ‘Portal’ as an example. You start in a laboratory with a sentient robotic voice guiding you through puzzles and dangerous rooms. As you progress, you’re presented with conflicting information. Writings on the walls of secluded corners hint at the insanity of this A.I., and as a player you can either interpret this information as truth or the scribblings of a madman. As one progresses even further, a creeping sense of isolation slowly starts to build up. Sterile white rooms with glass decks for observation are present in every chamber, yet you don't find any people bustling about in these spaces. These are the puzzle pieces that form the adventure. The game gives full control to the player when it comes to interpreting and theorizing about the story.
Every medium of storytelling has some form of conflict involved. Video games turn conflict into action for a player to enjoy. The endless roster of characters inhabiting their worlds are controlled by the player. No longer do you watch from the sidelines, now you're the one responsible for administering that final blow. Complete involvement in the actions and decisions made by a character allows for more amusement, almost bridging the gap between reality and fiction, and allowing the illusion of a ‘real world’ to remain unbroken. Miscalculations made by the player act as opportunities for learning, allowing them to improve their skill and abilities for later instances in the game. For as long as one's fingers rest on the control buttons, the character and the player are one being.
This idea is best emphasized by the immensely popular role playing game ‘Undertale’. Every decision you make in this game is remembered by its friendly cast of characters, and if you choose to be ill-mannered, the cast is more than happy to switch to a more sinister tone. Will you go down the peaceful route and enjoy the nuances of this digital world or will you pick up a knife and choose to wreak havoc? Would you want a story to embody shades of gray or would you prefer a black and white approach?
At the end of the day, each medium has its own method of telling a story, with its own set of pros and cons. To ensure effective storytelling in a video game, a lot of requirements need to be met - the graphics need to be of adequate quality to make the world all the more believable and breathtaking to look at; the gameplay should be fun, engaging, and varied to keep a player on the edge of their seat at all times; the voice work and animation should breathe life into the characters on screen. There are a lot of technical elements that need to be kept under check too, like framerate, rendering, servers, and much, much more.
The process of game design is a very tedious and time consuming project that requires every element to be of utmost perfection. But when all those pieces click into place, the result is an experience like no other.