Quick, name this video game: a number of highly proficient and deadly martial artists descend on a remote, mysterious and dangerous location. Ostensibly there to compete in a tournament, the living lethal weapons each have their own secret agenda. Yet most of them end up coming together to defeat a megalomaniac crime lord, destroying his henchmen one at a time while rescuing his hostages from captivity in the process.
Am I describing “Mortal Kombat”? Perhaps “Double Dragon,” “Final Fight” or even “Bad Dudes vs. DragonNinja”?
It’s a trick question, of course, because I’m not describing a video game at all: that synopsis is for the 1973 Bruce Lee-starring classic, Enter the Dragon. Yet it’s no coincidence that the film’s plot is so close to the premise and structure of several iconic video games. As the industry began to grow during the late 1970s and exploded during the ‘80s, developers quickly ran out of the most obvious concepts to base a game on, such as sports and warfare. It was only natural that they would turn to films for inspiration, and since obtaining official licenses for movie properties was pricey, many game creators decided to emulate the movies they loved rather than adapt them officially. As a result, a large number of video games began to resemble movies, leading to the catch-22 of the “video game movie” which still plagues Hollywood: a subgenre that taunts filmmakers and audiences alike with the way the films almost-but-not-quite attempt to survive on the big screen.
The relationship between movies and video games has always been close-knit, and one could argue that video games would have turned out entirely different were it not for cinematic tropes and conventions. Bruce Lee’s films act almost as an ur-text for an entire subset of video games: not only the premise and structure of Enter the Dragon (which was itself influenced by the James Bond films of the ‘60s), but even the title of Lee’s debut, The Big Boss (1971), provided both a shape for future video games as well as gaming nomenclature itself, with most enemies at the end of game levels being dubbed “bosses.” In the wake of 1977’s Star Wars, mainstream cinema during the ‘80s delved further and further into genre, providing fantasies that became perfect fodder for video game developers to reference and riff on. Just about every major style of video game—side scrolling action beat ‘em up, spaceship battle sim, adventure platformer, first-person shooter, and so on—has a cinematic antecedent, to the point where the majority of video games made can trace their roots to a popular movie genre.
Perhaps that’s part of why the first wave of video game movies made such outrageous efforts to graft other genres and elements onto adaptations of games that already had cinematic analogues. To be fair, the first one out of the gate, 1993’s Super Mario Bros., was adapting a game that virtually had no story, let alone a cinematic equivalent. Sure, the 1985 game had a thin narrative structure that goes back to the roots of drama—save the princess—but it was stuffed with disparate elements and characters not meant to hang together narratively. So it’s no surprise that the Mario Bros. movie is a messy stew of a film, a C.S. Lewis-style alternate dimension/magic realm premise with notes of dystopian cyberpunk and comic-strip pulp. Derided by both critics and fans upon release, the film still stands alone as arguably the most original video game movie made to date, if only by default.
Double Dragon and Street Fighter (both 1994) have less of an excuse for their own hodgepodge messiness—after all, both games were deliberately emulating action and kung-fu films of the ‘70s and ‘80s, so it wouldn’t have been a stretch to simply make another type of those movies, slap a title on and call it a day. Yet Hollywood was still generally operating under the notion that a cinematic adaptation needed to be its own beast, and wasn’t worried about the Comic-Con audience generating negative feedback. So, Double Dragon, a game about two brothers punching and kicking their way through bad guys to save a girl, became a movie about two brothers punching and kicking their way through a future dystopian Los Angeles (redubbed “New Angeles”) that acted like a mash-up of The Warriors (1979) and Escape From New York (1981).
Street Fighter, based on a game about fighters in a tournament, took a “ripped from the headlines” approach, having its multicultural characters swept up in a Bond-esque action-movie narrative as members of a United Nations-type peacekeeping force attempting to stop a coup by a Saddam Hussein-esque dictator. By the time 1995’s Mortal Kombat came around, some invented elements added to video game source material would occur on occasion, but that film—again, adapted from a game about a fighting tournament—took a lateral approach and was about a fighting tournament. Video game movies then began to follow suit: Wing Commander (1999) was about space dogfighting, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) was about a treasure hunting woman, Resident Evil (2002) was about a zombie outbreak, and so on.
As Hollywood continued cranking out video game films, they generally ceased to invent new styles or narrative ideas, choosing instead to make copies of the genres and subgenres of films that the games themselves had been based on. Even the odd entry that seemed to be a bold choice was really nothing new: 2005’s Doom made a big marketing push of being presented in the “first person,” as the game had been, but Robert Montgomery had beaten it to the punch about six decades prior with 1947’s Lady in the Lake. At the same time, video game technology increased rapidly to the point where the “cutscenes”—the game term for non-interactive scenes included solely for narrative and exposition—started to not only more smoothly integrate into the gameplay graphics themselves, but frequently resemble feature films. Where video game acting roles used to be the province of jobbing voice actors and/or B-list live action performers, games started snapping up more A-list talent. The influx of actors into the game world meant advancements in performance capture tech, allowing games like “Uncharted,” “The Last of Us” and “Mass Effect 2” to earn accolades for their performances as much as their gameplay.
Which brings us to the current stalemate between video games and cinematic adaptations of video games, the two mediums now close enough in form, feeling and structure that most adaptations feel like a moot point. For instance, 2008’s “Dead Space” is a game that brilliantly evokes the feeling of playing through a version of 1979’s Alien, so much so that if a film were to be made from it, that film would become yet another cinematic rip-off of that late-‘70s classic (and plenty of those already exist). “Uncharted,” a game series that blatantly seeks to translate the Indiana Jones movies to gaming consoles, has just been adapted into a feature film that releases this month. While I have yet to see the film, judging by the trailers and clips it seems like a fairly rote recapitulation of tropes and concepts that were better done by Steven Spielberg in the four Indy movies.
Unlike the comic book movie, where a disparity between mediums will always exist, video game movies and video games have merged to the point where most video games already are movies, in effect. This is why, despite their flaws, the first wave of video game movies had the right idea in attempting to find new narrative and genre elements to combine with video game material that already had ties to cinema. Otherwise, video game movies at their best can only be a copy of a copy, a feedback loop of adaptation that dilutes rather than expands. There is some hope for the subgenre: the 2018 Tomb Raider film took the Lara Croft character away from being merely a female Indiana Jones clone, and 2021’s Werewolves Within adapted a game that didn’t have a rabid fanbase, allowing the movie to (delightfully) be its own thing. If filmmakers can’t make creative choices like those films and if fans can’t get over their obsessive need for adaptations to be slavishly devoted to the source material, then it might soon be game over for the video game movie.