Why Video Games Based on Movies Usually Suck

This article was originally published on Site of the Gaming Dead, a now-defunct video game blog, on November 28, 2009. I have attempted to recreate it here, complete with images (when possible).

I was reading through a lecture for an online class of mine when I read a very interesting line: “the track record for video games derived from movie franchises typically don’t fare very well, and that’s because movies are a linear experience, whereas video games are an interactive experience.” My professor’s got a point. Movies have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Video games can be from different characters’ viewpoints, and you can often skip sections or miss scenes. Most games also have multiple endings, with two or three being a common number and 104 being the highest number of endings for a single game that I know of.

Another quote: “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” That usually applies to sports more than video games, but, applied to this whole tie-in concept, it says something about why most video games are awesome in the first place: it’s about the journey. Winning is great if you’re playing Pong or a similarly basic game, where the gameplay revolves around surviving to the highest level and demonstrating your button-mashing or joystick-tapping expertise, but for almost all other games, the idea is to have fun, whether that means you die 25 times or you zoom through the levels faster than a speeding bullet.

It’s equally difficult to change a popular video game franchise into a successful movie. Take Doom. It’s quite possibly one of my favorite games ever, and so when I heard that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson would be starring in a feature film adaptation of it, I got excited. But the end result, while action-packed and as predictable as such a movie could be, wasn’t that great. Instead of getting the same (or a better) kick out of the movie as I did the game, I thought the movie didn’t come close enough.

Check out some similar examples of suckitude:

Title Source Material Adaptation’s Level of Suck
Super Mario Bros. Video game franchise 5
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within Video game franchise 4
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider Video game franchise 3
Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children Video game 2
BloodRayne Video game franchise 4
Spiderman Movie 1
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial Movie 5
Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark Movie 5
Back to the Future Movie 4
Iron Man Movie 3

On a level of 1 to 5, where “1″ is “awesome and super-fun to play” and 5 is “I could have made a better adaptation than this in my garage while sleepwalking,” the vast majority of super-sucky games are often those video games based off of awesome movies. On the flip side, movies based off of video games can and do suck on occasion, but just how bad is dependent on player opinion; in my research for this article, I discovered at least a handful of people that really liked the Tomb Raider movies or Advent Children, for example.

There appears to be an occasional inverse relationship between how good the source material is and how awesome the adaptation will be. If a video game is incredible, the movie based on that game will probably suck. If it was originally an awesome movie, the video game will probably be a bore (or worse, too damn difficult, as was the complaint of many players of the Iron Man video game). I say “occasional” because it’s not always true: the Spiderman movie game, for example, is supposed to be just as fun as the web-slinging movie (but how a game could be comparable to a movie with Bruce Campbell cameos is beyond me).

Adapting a video game with multiple possible scenarios is hard because screenwriters have to pick an overarching plot so the movie has a clear beginning, middle, and end. This might mean inadvertently taking out the best part of the game because screenwriters don’t usually devote hours to playing the game before they churn out a script. When you start with a movie script and then turn it into a video game, there’s added pressure coming from the studio to release both at the same time. Plus, there’s no way of knowing what the public will like the best about the movie until it’s out, so how can you incorporate those elements into the game?


I know I’ve watched movies before and thought to myself, ‘This would make an awesome theme park ride!’ But it’s a lot harder to translate the events of a movie into those of a game, especially if a scene can’t translate to anything more than an FMV in the game. Making the events of a movie playable, and therefore changeable by a player means that they might be disappointed by not being able to match up to the movie, or by different choices resulting in the same events.

People continue to maintain the belief that if a movie is awesome, then a video game based on it can only be awesomer, since it can expand the events of the movie, include all those “cuts” and edits in side-quests, and fully explore all the characters that got shafted for screen time in the film. The downfall of any given movie tie-in product, video games especially, occurs when the delicate balance between movie relationship and playability is shattered. If a video game based on a movie has no apparent connection to the events of the movie, why would a gamer even pick it up?

Unfortunately, this trend shows no sign of stopping; new video game-based movies and movies-based-on-video games are popping up all the time, most of them landing in Best Buy’s blue $9.99 bargain bins like Street Fighter: Legend of Chun-Li. The good news? Apparently, gamers in high places are getting behind some potential blockbusters, like Sam Raimi’s Warcraft movie, out in 2011. As long as the blood elves don’t all resemble Sephiroth, I’ll watch it and be a happy camper.