It feels like never a year goes by in which video game movies seem like a bad idea to Hollywood executives — much to many fans' delight and equally their chagrin.
On February 18, Ubisoft hosted a Talking Dead-style stream with Twitch.tv to show off its new Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands companion 30-minute live-action film War Within the Cartel. The film follows a US agent deep undercover in the game's Santa Blanca cartel, his cover slowly being blown. It's tense, emotional, and a clever introduction to the main antagonists of Wildlands' central narrative. We see the cartel's cruelty in live action, complete with a sobbing rebel forced to gun down her brother before herself being executed.
The stream took a wide-angle view of the game, discussed specific inspirations, featured well-known #Twitch streamers and personalities, and host Wil Wheaton asked the game developers about shooting chickens. But the focus was firmly on the half-hour short film. You can watch it now on Amazon.
After the live-stream event, I caught up with The Walking Dead editor Avi Youabian, who directed of War Within the Cartel, and Sam Strachman, narrative director on Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands.
A Good Game-To-Film Adaptation Isn't A Straight Translation
Historically, film adaptations of games are bad. Notoriously bad. Even special effects spectacles like Warcraft are clunky representations of lore-rich experiences that the #Warcraft fans adore. It can be frustrating to see beloved games that we've poured hundreds of hours into crammed into a two-hour mediocre summer release.
Youabian was eager to talk about why he thought feature-length adaptations are widely panned and why there's a better way:
"Audiences who have played a game might turn against a movie because they feel like they're being sold the same thing. Like, they're being asked to shell out $15 or $20 for the same thing, and they may resent it because they've already played that story. We already did that arc. I think that turns people off.
"Prequels and parallel narratives work really well for film adaptations, where you're meeting characters that live in the universe — maybe you met them in the game.
"But if it feels like a clone or a misrepresentation, then the hardcore fans are already sharpening their claws. People get very defensive."
Youabian says that one reason these feature film adaptations face resistance is the fact they don't give audiences something new. If the film's story is already the central gameplay experience, then the differences between film and game are magnified:
"Live action [adaptations] might do more damage than good. If you're shown live-action footage and then go to game footage of the same thing, that takes you out of it. I think if you're going to tell one story, you should stay in one medium. Otherwise, you start to see the seams in the storytelling."
However, he does make a clear case for those parallel stories and prequel or lore-focused narratives that exist within the larger game universe. Those, Youabian insists, are ripe for multimedia storytelling. If the video game leaves gaps, or is forced to steamroll past an interesting but nonessential storyline, that's a great opportunity for something, like a film or a comic, to take up the torch and explore.
War Within the Cartel succeeds because it doesn't try to translate the gameplay experience to film, but rather opts to create a film that exists tangential to the gameplay experience. This isn't a film version of the entire Ghost Recon: Wildlands game. We don't, for example, even see the Ghosts until the last 20 seconds of the short film. Instead, the film introduces the main antagonists and explores the brief storyline that exists in the 30 minutes before the start of the game. And that's it. It's really an extended live-action cinematic intro.
It's All About Creating New Entry Points To The Universe
The most successful story adaptations of games simply haven't been feature-length films, and the trend is becoming noticeable.
The Halo web series Forward Unto Dawn and the much-lauded Sleeping Dogs trailer offer great uses of live action. The Overwatch and World of Warcraft animated shorts and comics also offer multimedia experiences that fill in lore gaps. The best short films and comics exist to expand the borders of the games they explore.
Ghost Recon: Wildlands' Strachman took particular delight in the flexibility that short films offer:
"Our approach is interesting. It's 30 minutes, it's not an hour or two hours. If you want to watch it and engage, you get to learn something extra. But if you don't want to watch it, you're not missing anything and you can just go play the game as normal. You don't need the movie to understand the game, it's just another entry point."
The Idea Of Creating Entry Points Was A Recurring Theme
If people are already interested in the game, they're likely going to buy it. Short films, multiplayer experiences, comics, talk show streams and the like offer alternate opportunities to get audiences invested in a game world.
These are all different types of entry points to the same game and each may have its own appeal, reflected Strachman:
"It's great to have many different ways to get into the universe. But I definitely do think that, especially on the internet, shorter content is just better. And I do feel like it used to be, 'If it's based on a video game, it's terrible,' but I think we're starting to realize — with streaming, Netflix, Hulu, web series — there are just so many different ways to go about storytelling."
Plus, shorter-length films force directors to abandon attempts to translate an entire game's story. Instead, successful film adaptations are the ones about those specific, bite-sized moments that exist off screen but within the game world.
Lore, history, villains and side characters all make great topics for these tangential entry points, said Youabian.
"In a bite-sized companion film, short, or whatever else, you get to explore one character or moment. You get more invested and I think people find that more interesting.
"They're willing to give up 30 minutes of their time to learn more about that character. And then even if they don't like it, then that's fine because they can carry on playing the game without feeling like this other film experience intruded on the game narrative.
After so many botched video game movies that tried to tell the same story twice, the idea of exploring game universes in new ways is appealing. Recently, we've seen a few games recognize the power of creating a web of multimedia content. I expect developers and publishers to start taking notes from experiments like Wildlands' 30-minute live-action prequel, Destiny's Grimoire, and Overwatch's comics.
Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands releases March 7 on PS4, Xbox One, and Windows PC.
Avi Youabian is on Twitter at @Digitalcutter.