Medium matters

Rachel Wood

Column by Rachel Wood, contributing writer

This Winter Break gave us a lot of hits on the big screen that you might have seen – ”Rogue One,” “La La Land,” “Hidden Figures”. One film, however, was one you probably (or at least should have) skipped.

“Assassin’s Creed” opened on Dec. 21, 2016, netting only $14 million on its release weekend. The film garnered extremely low reviews from critics and audiences alike, thereby adding to the pile of flopped video game adaptations. I haven’t had a chance yet to see the movie myself, so I’m not here to comment on the quality of this particular movie or the accuracy of the reviews. Instead, it brings up a bigger question – why do video game films always fail at the box office?

If you didn’t know already, these sorts of films are rarely successful; “Resident Evil,” “Mortal Kombat” and “Tomb Raider” are just a few examples of other victims. These types of films rarely break even with their budgets, let alone become popular with audiences. “Assassin’s Creed’s” $50 million domestic total – a mere third of the “Rogue One” opening weekend earnings – and an average rating of barely 2.5 stars give us an opportunity to look at possible causes for audience disappointment.

Franchise popularity doesn’t seem to be the problem. The “Assassin’s Creed” games sold more than 77 million copies within the first 6 years of sales, a sizeable sum in the video game industry. Therein lies the first issue, though; fans are attached to the story in its original medium, encouraging them to buy a new game when it’s released.

Now, changing the presentation of a narrative isn’t a problem across all media; many famous Hollywood films are adaptations of novels, after all. However, there is a commonality across film/literature that isn’t shared with video games – player interactivity. When you watch a TV show/movie or read a book, you don’t get to influence the story as it unfolds.

Player interactivity is key for a video game narrative. Many games, “Assassin’s Creed” included, are praised for their utilization of player input and the intense effects it can have on the outcome of the narrative. Unlike with novels, the choices and mistakes of the player can literally change the ending of the story, a trait that obviously cannot be transferred into a cinema.

Studios and producers need to start realizing that games are their own medium, not just a “playable movie.” Player choice, character customization and incredibly detailed storylines are just some of the reasons people choose to play video games. It’s unreasonable to think that a game like “Assassin’s Creed,” with its abundance of side quests and lore, can be condensed from a 15-18 hour single-player campaign into a 2.5 hour film.

Narrative is extremely important for both games and films, but a narrative based in player influence simply cannot be adapted into a nonreciprocal plotline. Maybe games with more straightforward plotlines would create a better starting point for screenwriters.

Perhaps studios are simply choosing the wrong video game stories to retell on the silver screen, but really, I wish they’d just stop trying to produce these adaptations altogether.