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Unready Player One: Why Movies and Video Games Don’t Mix by Daniel Carlson

There’s a concept in video game theory called “ludonarrative dissonance.” At its core, it’s about the interaction between a game’s themes (what it wants you to feel) and its mechanics (what it wants you to do), as well as any conflicts that might result when those two things intersect. An example of this would be a game that promotes themes of individuality and freedom while locking the player into a single, uncontrollable plot-line that doesn’t let them choose how the story will unfold. Or, say, a war-themed, combat-heavy game that purports to discuss the value of life while simultaneously tasking you with slaughtering hundreds of digital representatives of a foreign enemy.

The concept isn’t a law or anything, and millennia of tabletop games have proven that superficially contradictory ideas like competition and collegiality can peacefully co-exist, but it’s a helpful way to get the ball rolling when thinking about games as discrete pieces of entertainment media. What’s the goal of the game? What do you have to do when you’re playing it? On a broader level, how does it make you feel? Why do you keep playing it?

And, for the purposes of today’s discussion: Why do so many people keep trying to make movies out of video games, despite decades of evidence that this is a very, very bad idea?

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Many movies—maybe even most of them—aren’t original. They’re adapted from other media. Books, stage plays, short stories, magazine articles, songs, older movies, foreign movies, television shows, you name it: Hollywood does not care. If you think the idea will sell tickets, then provenance is not an issue. Of the most popular American movies ever made (adjusted for inflation), seven of the top ten, and 15 of the top 20, are based on stories that started somewhere else.

It makes sense, then, that Hollywood would want to mine video games for film ideas. It’s easy now to forget that video games were initially dismissed as a fad, and that the industry was almost wiped out in a crash in 1983. By 1990, though, just five years after the Nintendo Entertainment System was released in North America, 30% of U.S. households had an NES; by comparison, all home computers combined had only penetrated 23% of the market by then. It’s been pretty much non-stop ever since. In 2016, while the North American box office grossed $11.3 billion, the U.S. video game industry brought in $30.4 billion. You’d have to be crazy to not want a piece of that.

As a result, since the early 1990s, movies based on games have shown up every year or two. Early adaptations were based on games that had achieved almost total pop-cultural saturation—Super Mario Bros. (1993), Street Fighter (1994), Mortal Kombat (1995)—while more recent entries have been inspired by titles that some viewers might not even recognize as games, like 2014’s Need for Speed or 2016’s Assassin’s Creed. Yet despite that variance, pretty much all movies based on games generate the same reaction: audiences ignore them, critics don’t like them, and studios almost always lose money. For every little windfall, like Mortal Kombat grossing $70 million domestically (and another $51 million overseas) on a $20 million budget, there are at least a dozen adaptations that struggle to make their money back, either barely breaking even or flat-out failing.

This is where the dissonance comes into play: a tension between what the industry wants (money) and how it acts (makes movies that don’t earn money). A conflict between how something can succeed in one medium (games) while dying in another (film). A tantalizing but apparently unsolvable proposition to turn one kind of visual entertainment into another. People do it all the time with books, or stories, or really anything they can get their hands on. Why should games be any different—and harder?

There are three reasons, and they’re all about the same thing: us.

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Start with the written word. A novel (or short story, or novella; you get the idea) is rooted in psychology. The reader is taken as deep into the characters’ conscious and subconscious feelings as the author wants to take them. Thousands upon thousands of words in a given book don’t have anything to do with “what’s happening,” but are instead just about the emotions, history, and family drama that got us to this point. That psychology then flows outward to trigger action.

Movies, which survive on action, need that psychological background to explain character motivation, so a good adaptation of a book will find a way to condense and explain that psychology through images, acts, and dialogue. Their formats are different, but their goals are the same: to start from a place of character and build outward to see how that character confronts the world.

(Even here, things start to get potentially dicey. In a book, it feels totally natural to move from inner monologue to dialogue to physical action in the space of a paragraph, but because a film needs an image or sound to communicate, the poetic emotional reflections of a novel are often turned into clumsy exposition for the screen. When we talk about a book as “unfilmable,” we’re saying that it relies so much on the invisible emotional connections created by its authors psychological exploration of the characters that there’s no easy to way to transform those moments into concrete, physical actions in the real world.)

Games, though, start with action. As the player, you are immediately in control. Super Mario Bros. doesn’t explain a single thing; it just shoves you into the game world and lets you figure out what’s happening. Even modern games like Grand Theft Auto V, which are built on complicated narrative systems of nested choices that the player can make over the course of dozens of hours, only give you a few seconds of animated storytelling before handing over the reigns. Information about the story is parceled out over time, but it’s done in tandem with action that you are asked to execute. In short: there’s a lot less build-up. There’s nowhere to go because you’re already there, experiencing and creating the action. A film’s story is designed to pull you along and explain the motivations of its characters in a way that you can understand, but a game wants you to insert yourself into the story and determine your own justifications for its existence.

Those are two separate and equally valid ways to make and consume entertainment, but they don’t cross-pollinate. A movie based on a game has to invent all manner of backstory and motivations, so much so that you wind up with something so fundamentally different from the source material that it’s hard to remember why you made it in the first place. (Again, I present Super Mario Bros.) The use and structure of a game’s narrative is worlds apart from a book, or a movie. There’s no overlap, and forcing one just makes things worse.

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Crucially, too, movies based on games misunderstand one of the key appeals of the medium: the ability to interact with and manipulate the environment. As the player, you decide how to move through the game’s world. Do you want to spend an hour just walking from one end of the map to the other? Knock yourself out.

That interactive, three-dimensional space becomes something you can mentally reference throughout the game, and even recall after you’re done playing. The spatial reasoning you’re doing while playing games doesn’t just improve your cognition or memory, but actually renders for you a space that you can revisit in your mind’s eye.

Here’s an experiment: Think about your childhood home, or your first office job, or the street where you live. Close your eyes and picture that place. Now imagine your perspective moving through that space, turning from side to side, taking in everything. Even though that place exists in the real world, and a game’s digital environment doesn’t, there’s no difference between the experience of visualizing your navigation through them.

You can probably see the problem here. Movies, for all their spectacle, are flat. You see only and always what the frame is showing you. You have to make sense of the film’s world by processing the shots and building your own mental map, only without the benefit of being able to do so at your own pace. This is why good directing, especially in action films, does everything it can to create a clear, understandable geography of the scene. If you know where the characters are in relation to each other, you’ll be able to follow the story. But if you can’t make sense of it, it will all start to blur together. Films and games are both visual media, but their presentation of those visuals, and the ways you can interact with them, are so completely separate that they’re almost using different languages. A game’s three-dimensional space is rendered flat on-screen, turning from something special into something predictable.

For instance, the open-world adventure games in the Assassin’s Creed series are all built around the idea of giving the player as much control as possible to achieve an objective. You can run up walls, leap from roof to roof, hide in crowds, send others to do your dirty work, and more. The concepts that drove the games proved so popular that they showed up in others, and “playing an Assassin’s Creed game” now means something very specific, mechanically and structurally. The 2016 film version, though, was a lifeless dud that didn’t fare well with critics or audiences and that squandered the reunion of Macbeth star Michael Fassbender and director Justin Kurzel. It was a generic blockbuster designed to look like everything else at the multiplex. There’s no sense of purpose, wonder, or power in the final product. It doesn’t—can’t—have anything that made the source special, and it doesn’t do anything to stand out in its new medium, either. It doesn’t belong anywhere.

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Maybe the biggest obstacle, though, is the dissonance at the center of it all: Games are about control. Movies are about surrender.

In games, you hold the controller (or sit at the keyboard) and dictate the action. You navigate the space. You make the decisions that trigger the events that lead to winning or losing. It’s a personal experience built on direct engagement with the medium. If you stop playing, the game doesn’t continue. It can’t. At the movies (or at home), you sit back, focused on the screen. You don’t control the speed of the story, or the plot decisions, or who says what. You are watching the movie to be told a story, to be wrapped up in a narrative controlled by someone else. Your engagement is based on attention, not decision-making.

There are even different degrees of involvement you can have with them, as anyone who’s ever idly checked Facebook on their phone while “watching a movie” can tell you. Some games aim for a different kind of engagement, though, built solely on repetitive feedback loops instead of complicated or lengthy narratives. When it debuted on smartphones at the end of 2009, Angry Birds was an instant success because it was a focused, incredibly compelling game experience that was ideal for killing time. The Angry Birds Movie, though, released in 2016, was a generic cartoon that was only made as a way to capitalize on the existing brand recognition of the mobile game series. The movie misunderstood what we liked about the game in the first place. We didn’t want a story. We just wanted something fun to do for a few minutes.

Ultimately, we want different things from each medium. The only similarity between the two is that they’re leisure experiences, but the fact that they’re both so often presented on home TV screens has persuaded many stubborn writers, producers, and directors over the years that they’re related. It’s not that one is inherently better or worse than the other; it’s that they occupy different spheres. We go to them for different reasons and different experiences. We don’t like movies based on games because, deep down, they don’t even feel like movies. They’re ungainly, bastardized things that try to please two masters and only disappoint them. Even the words that define the audiences bear this out: you can be a player or a viewer, but not both.