I’m going to say something I think we’re all aware of—video game movies haven’t had their Marvel Cinematic Universe yet. We’ve yet to see a games franchise make a seamless jump between platforms that engages longtime fans and moviegoers alike.
Sure, there have been a couple acceptable ones, but nothing quite like the way Iron Man (2005) broke the then-extant rule of mediocre superhero movies by having people leave the theatre saying to themselves, “Wow, that was actually really good.”
The title of this article is a little misleading, since there are clearly a myriad of ways for movie adaptions of video games to go wrong: people who don’t understand cinema could be the ones calling the shots, those same people could have been given a top-heavy CGI budget, or the writing could just be irredeemably bad in the pursuit of hollow mass appeal.
While games are starting to draw from cinema to tell increasingly complex stories, movies are a passive medium and have less room to incorporate the audience participation that’s a gaming hallmark. I would even say that’s kind of the point of movies–to be emotionally engaging but also accessible physically. In the end, it’s a hard sell.
We understand that games and movies have different models for audience engagement, and attempts to branch or convert the two are often dogged by development woes or terrible adaptive choices. Both are legitimate in their own ways, but it’s also totally natural for companies to want to expand franchises outside of their current medium. Characters, stories, and themes are all things that should be able to transcend the formats they were originally launched on, but games without a singular, brand-defining character often have a tougher time making the transition than others.
Lara Croft is Tomb Raider, but most game franchises don’t have such a memorable single protagonist. A movie verion of, say, Call of Duty, or Fable, or Fallout would have to adapt an arcane roster of obscure characters to the big screen. That’s a daunting challenge, and the recent World of Warcraft cinematic adaptation Warcraft shows us how horribly south that can go.
For games like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, or Assassin’s Creed, the choice to focus on new movie-original characters does make some sense. However, there are deep pitfalls in this approach, and I argue that Assassin’s Creed is about to plummet right into one.
The thinking goes like this: game audiences won’t necessarily flock to a movie if they already know the story, and movie audiences won’t flock to a game-based movie for fear that it will have a steep learning curve or impenetrable lore.
So the movie focuses on an entirely new character instead–two, in fact. Michael Fassbender plays a brand-new modern-day character unfamiliar to franchise fans, who is reliving the life of an Assassin from the Spanish Inquisition…who is also a completely new character.
By using a character created specifically for the movie, Assassin’s Creed now has to pass two tests. Instead of being able to at least rely on an audience that already loves the story they’re adapting, filmmakers now have to convince longtime fans that the new movie belongs in the expansive mythos they love, and they will have to convince an entire audience of moviegoers that That Thing They Keep Hearing Their Gamer Friends Scream About is worth their time come fourth quarter 2016.
Likewise, you’ve given people who may see the movie without knowing anything about the rest of the series a new character, but you’re dropping them in the middle of the story instead of trying to tell it from the beginning. Chances are, they’ll still be left in the dark.
Ubisoft now has a situation where the movie adaptation of one of their cornerstone franchises has to jump through extra hoops to be successful, no matter how technically well-executed it is. While that challenge is inherent to every cross-medium adaptation, trying to reinvent the wheel on top of all that is never a good idea.
That being said—I want it to do well, because if it does well, it might get a sequel, and if there’s a sequel, I might get a chance to see characters I actually know and care about on the big screen. It’s a shame we couldn’t start there.