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Movies Based on Videogames Suck. Do They Have To?

A troubled history of cinematic adaptations, by the numbers.

At this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, waking up in the middle of the night to get in line to watch a 60-second trailer three hours before the rest of the world is considered rational behavior. It’s not a new phenomenon, but it’s true: Geeks love to love stuff, and they want to see it everywhere.

That goes for comic books, videogames and movies — Comic-Con stopped focusing only on comics years ago — and also for movies about comic books or videogames. But in the world of Hollywood adaptations, comics have consistently outperformed games.

Poorly received adaptations like 1993’s “Super Mario Bros.,” 2001’s “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and 2008’s “Postal” are the norm in the gaming world, but they haven’t deterred studios from continuing to try, with buzz in the air at Comic-Con about “Warcraft,” “The Last of Us” and “Uncharted.”

So it’s worth asking: Why do so many game movies suck?

(Below, a timeline of the history of game movies, and their awful reviews.)

This being Comic-Con, I decided to contrast game adaptations with superhero comic adaptations. In both categories, I focused on films that saw a wide theatrical release* in the United States and pulled data from IMDb (where users can rate movies they’ve seen) and Rotten Tomatoes (which aggregates the reviews of professional critics).

The trend in the numbers is clear: Game movies tend to fall towards the middle with average moviegoers, and sink to the bottom among critics. Superhero movies, meanwhile, have had some turbulent ups and downs over the years but on average poll higher with both.

The 31 videogame movies released since “Super Mario Bros.” scored an average of 4.97 out of 10 on IMDb and earned positive reviews from only 18 percent of critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Meanwhile, the 76 superhero-comic movies released since 1966’s “Batman” notched an average of 6.3 out of 10 on IMDb and won the applause of 54 percent of critics.

According to IMDb users, the best videogame movie to date was “Need for Speed,” released earlier this year, and the worst was “House of the Dead,” released in 2003. Although critics agreed that “House of the Dead” was awful (4 percent of reviews were positive), the 2001 movie “Alone in the Dark” — also created by “House of the Dead” director Uwe Boll — scored a 1 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and 1994’s “Double Dragon” earned a rare 0 percent.

So, what did the critics like? Nothing. As the chart below shows, no game movie has ever scored above the 50 percent positive threshold on Rotten Tomatoes. In sharp contrast, more than half of superhero movies have — and most of those even exceeded 75 percent, earning RT’s “fresh” rating (highlighted in green).

One might chalk this gap up to bad luck with directors. Boll is so hated by videogame fans online that an online petition asking him to stop making movies garnered 355,000 signatures. Boll gamely replied he wouldn’t quit until it reached a million.

But part of the reason might be a bit more complex: Comics and games need totally different things to be entertaining, and gameplay is just not as easy of a fit for the silver screen.

Games are built around characters, yes, but the actual act of playing a game comes down to “mechanics” like running and jumping, punching and kicking, or strafing and shooting. In a movie, these things all might happen, but they’re considered part of the action rather than the story.

Consider Insomniac Games’ upcoming “Sunset Overdrive,” one of the games on prominent display at Comic-Con. Its cartoony and self-referential logic means that skating on a telephone wire while tossing vinyl records at energy drink-guzzling monsters is a basic — and, for the best chances of survival, mandatory — part of progressing through a level.

“If someone comes up to me and asks me to explain the logic of this thing, I’m going to punch them in the neck,” Insomniac creative director Marcus Smith said in a Comic-Con panel Thursday. For his team, he said, “fun trumps realism.”

That’s not to say comic book movies are realistic, of course. But it’s simpler to show, and easier to believe, a character outrunning an explosion than one simultaneously holding eight weapons while flawlessly skating on the edge of a roof.

Plus, comics and movies are both generally linear, with things happening in a certain order at a predetermined pace. Although levels and missions still segregate major sections of a game, a key component in many modern titles is the ability to roam freely in an open world and explore a game at one’s own pace. Everything still originates with a creative person up the chain, but outside of cinematic cutscenes, order and pacing are as at risk as logic.

There are a handful of well-regarded films about games. 2010’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and 2012’s “Wreck-It-Ralph” are fun stories packed with references to games of the past. An upcoming Adam Sandler vehicle “Pixels” will try to pull off the same trick (good luck with that one). And as Buzzfeed’s Joseph Bernstein recently wrote, the new documentary “Boyhood” gets games “totally right.”

But we’re still missing a direct game adaptation for the big screen that can live up to its celebrated origins. Maybe “Warcraft,” “The Last of Us” or “Uncharted” will be the one.

*This is not the end-all be-all of media based on games, of course, but it makes the comparison easier and speaks to a franchise’s ability to reach non-gamer fans. On Thursday at Comic-Con, Microsoft took the wraps off of a new digitally distributed series, Halo: Nightfall, the successor to a previous digital series, Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn. The new series will be accessible through this November’s re-released Halo games on Xbox One and available to stream on Windows 8.1 devices.

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