Film and Video Games: What’s The Disconnect?

If you’re a gamer, you’re probably just as cynical as I am when you hear about the next video game based movie on the horizon. It almost seems a rule of thumb that films adapted from video games are guaranteed to disappoint. Even successful franchises like the Resident Evil series, which is now working on its sixth installment, aren’t exactly considered film gold. Yet, this doesn’t seem to slow Hollywood down as over thirty new titles are rumored to be currently in the works. So what is it about video games and film that seem so incompatible?

Structure of Video Games vs. Film, Literature and Theater

One thing that film has in common with literature and theater is that the story structure is relatively the same. All three often follow a Freytag’s Pyramid structure. Certainly this is not the always case, all three mediums play with this structure and break rules from time to time, but for the most part, this structure of storytelling is present in the vast majority of books, plays and films we consume day to day. This makes adapting a novel or play to the silver screen easier, as you pretty much already have a blueprint to get from point A to B. The rest is simply editing out what you don’t want or adding your own artistic voice to original material.
Video games, on the other hand, particularly older ones, don’t follow this style of storytelling. In early games like Pacman, very little was explained in terms of backstory. Officially, all that’s really known about Pacman is he’s really hungry guy with no appendages, being chased by angry undead. It’s essentially what would happen if you dropped Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life into the zombie apocalypse. There are some comical cutscenes for the player to watch, but they don’t really reveal anything new to the player in terms of story. Furthermore, Pacman has no end, so what your left with is really just a situation with characters.

Later, games like Donkey Kong would begin to establish more of a narrative. The moment you play the first level it’s apparent that a giant ape with unlimited barrels and fireballs for friends has kidnapped your girlfriend. Unlike Pacman, Donkey Kong has an ending where our hero tears down the very structure of the level, causing the great ape to crack his head open. He is reunited with his girlfriend and the two look lovingly at one another while Donkey Kong exhibits the first signs of severe, irreversible brain damage.

Today’s games posses far more plot and story structure than their predecessors. Games like Farcry and The Last of Us, deal with complicated issues like revenge and the human condition. Many of their cutscenes take a page from cinema, allowing characters to express their feelings and motivations even though the player is actively controlling them.

Control Issues 

Despite the amount of progress video games have made in the storytelling department, for the most part video games are still fundamentally goal based, requiring the player to perform a set of menial tasks to drive the story forward. Even games like Gone Home, which toe the line between film and gaming, require the player to actively search for clues to tell the narrative. This affects the structure of the story in that the player decides how they want to progress. Gamers familiar with the Grand Theft Auto series are familiar with this, as it’s not uncommon to devote 20+ hours to side missions before moving on to the main storyline. Simply put, if story structure in film, literature and theater is meant to be a rollercoaster ride, video games put you in the seat of a formula one car.

Zoom, Zoom... Photo by  Julien Reboulet / CC 2.0

Zoom, Zoom…
Photo by Julien Reboulet / CC 2.0

This poses a problem when trying to adapt a game to the screen. Since the transfer from video game to film requires the viewer lose control of the character, how can you stay faithful to original source material that relies on player/character interaction to tell the story?

The Loss in Translation

People look forward to film adaptations of literature and theater because we tend to gain something from the transfer. Theater requires a certain level of distance between the viewer and the actors. Camera tricks such as close ups and point of view shots bring audience members closer, giving them an almost god-like view of the action. In literature, we give up the use of imagination, but film puts the senses of sight and sound into play that can’t fully be expressed through the written word.

Video games, particularly modern ones, interact with most of our senses, but other than maybe getting to see our favorite movie stars portray the roles, we really lose a lot when we give up the control to the actor. The desire for control is probably best illustrated by the much hated “Noisy audience member”. You know, the person who insists on directing the clueless camp counselor not to enter that cabin because we all know Jason is lurking in the shadows with a machete. Although irritating, it perfectly illustrates people’s desire for control.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that it’s impossible to make a good movie based off a video game. Still, I do believe filmmakers should attempt to make the story their own and not try and recreate certain moments from games that don’t translate well. Putting a POV shot in the Doom movie isn’t going to trick anyone into thinking they’re reliving the game any more than putting pictures in a Harry Potter novel will make someone think they’re reading in IMAX. Choices like this only serve as mindless fan service. I can only hope that cinematically inspired games like Uncharted can provide suitable enough story content to rely on, where games like Super Mario Brothers couldn’t.

“One Man’s Trash”: The Best Character Driven Short Film Hidden Within a Popular TV Series

Fans of Tiny Furniture, rejoice! Lena Dunham has announced she is directing a new film. I would love to go into the details and tell you that she’s the perfect director to bring Catherine, Called Birdy to the big screen. Alas, I’ve never read that book, so I have absolutely no idea if this is a good fit for her, but while we’re on the topic of Dunham, let’s talk about her most popular contribution to audiences, Girls. More specifically, let’s talk about one particular (and unnecessarily controversial) episode of Girls, “One Man’s Trash”.

From the people I’ve asked about it, Girls appears to be the kind of show you either love or hate. I would argue that due to it’s popularity, clearly more people love it than hate it, but those that I’ve talked to that dislike the show tend to feel the characters are self-centered and entitled. I actually agree with this, but what I’ve always found hypocritical is that people who dislike Girls’ characters for espousing these traits seem to speak endearingly about the characters in Seinfeld or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia for possessing the same qualities.

Remember when George's fiance dies and the cast is devastated?  Neither do I.

Remember when George’s fiance dies and the cast is devastated? Neither do I.

With my two cents out of the way, I’d like to try and focus on the particular episode of “One Man’s Trash” without getting into the controversy mentioned earlier, but rather analyze the show as a standalone piece of the series which structure acts as a guideline for creating a well-made, character driven short.

With that out of the way let me now disclose this post is full of SPOILERS!!!!! Those not familiar with the episode, take some time to watch it. /HBO On Demand/Girls/Season2/Episode5/Watch… Ok, back? Commencing post.

The wonderful thing about this episode is that it can really be viewed separate from the rest of the series. So for all of you that said, “screw it.” and continued reading because you figured you had to get caught up on the whole series before viewing “One Man’s Trash” worry not, you don’t. From the get go “One Man’s Trash” introduces its characters well enough that you’ll have a good idea what’s going on. Ray and Hanna begin, outside of the coffee shop they work at, by discussing whether Hanna has been the first to coin the word “Sexit” (as in you leave an event to go have sex). A quick Google search from Ray dashes Hanna’s hopes of adding to the American lexicon as Urban Dictionary describes it as having to make a quick exit after sex.

Much like Pulp Fiction, “One Man’s Trash” introduces our characters in a non-expositional way, letting us get familiar with the characters by hearing them converse and get a feel for their dispositions. The fact that Hanna and Ray are writing up the menu on a chalkboard in front of a coffee shop gives us enough information that we can infer they work there. Giving information about characters without using exposition is one of the hardest parts of the writing process in my opinion. It seems natural that we would inform the audience about the histories of our characters through dialogue, but unfortunately expositional dialogue is boring. Anyone who’s ever been on that particular type of bad date, where the person across from you relies on telling you every little thing about themselves rather than being engaging, can attest to this.

From there we are introduced to Joshua, played by the one and only Patrick Wilson, or as I like to call him, the Everyman’s Everyman Everymen wish to be. Joshua has noticed that trash from the coffee shop has been mysteriously been found in his designated receptacle. As the title suggests, its female cast primarily drives Girls, but Joshua acts as a participant in Hanna’s self-discovery in this particular episode as we will explore. His entrance is a nice transition. We know that his entrance, as mundane as it may seem, will lead to something more.

Just an Average Joe, doing Average Joe stuff!

Just an Average Joe, doing Average Joe stuff!

That something is the fact that Hanna is the one sneaking trash into Joshua’s trashcan. She could have easily let it go, sneaking off into a corner when Joshua confronts Ray and cease to continue trashbombing Joshua’s residence, letting the whole thing just blow over. Instead Hanna makes the extra effort to go directly to Joshua’s Brooklyn brownstone and fess up to the act. Such an aggressive move reveals that there must be some hidden motive to Hanna’s going the extra mile as Joshua is clearly so curious by Hanna’s arrival that he lets her right into his place.

When Hanna and Joshua begin to make out, before even asking each other’s names, we begin to see the episode entering the rising action. Anyone familiar with Freytag’s Pyramid knows this point of storytelling. It is the moment where we the audience know that the actions being presented before will lead to greater conflicts. Sure, it’s possible that Hanna and Joshua could just bang it out, leaving Hanna with the perfect opportunity to “Sexit”, but it’s probably more likely that this action will have its consequences or reveal more about our characters motivations. This is yet another need within a character driven model. The conflicts that arise must often be a choosing of the characters and not something directly derived from the plot.

As Hanna and Joshua continue their two-day tryst with one another, much is revealed about the two of them. We find that the two could not be more different. Beyond age discrepancies, Joshua is a doctor as where Hanna is now recently unemployed. Joshua is recently separated from his wife, Hanna has a hard time keeping a boyfriend. Yet despite their differences, the two seem to need each other, at least for this moment, as the prospect of Hanna leaving compels Joshua to get on his knees and beg her to stay.

This all comes to a head when Hanna begins to truly open up to Joshua about her problems. Despite Joshua lending her his ear, it’s clear he just can’t relate and it becomes apparent that this short romance is beginning to lose its luster. Going back to Freytag’s Pyramid, this is the climax, or the point of no return. What’s said has been said and through Joshua’s reaction we can see that the two of them probably won’t be able to keep the magic going for much longer. With this reveal the mystery is gone. It’s clear to Joshua that Hanna is not just some alluring, carefree nymph, but a person with very real problems, some he may end up having to deal with.

As Hanna wakes up the next morning, Joshua is gone, back to the responsibilities his life demands of him. The fantasy is over and it’s back to reality. As Hanna takes out the trash one last time, her stride has a confident bounce to it, one that suggests that during these last two days she’s taken something very important away. What that is we don’t really know, but we do know that Joshua and Hanna needed something from one another, even if only briefly, and that has changed them for the better.

"Character Arcs", the type that won't give you coronary disease.

“Character Arcs”, the type that won’t give you coronary disease.

This is a particularly good example of how a good, character driven story should come to an end. When dealing with these types of stories, it’s important to show that the conclusion comes from a change or revelation within the character and not by simply solving some event presented through the plot. For example a film like The Wrestler is probably the best example of this. His relationship with his daughter, his wooing of Cassidy are all driven by his journey to come to terms his past as “The Ram”. In these select plot points, he could either succeed or fail just as long as we the audience witness the end result of his soul searching, expressed when he decides to give the crowd what they want and perform his signature move despite the harm it will most likely cause him.

For those of you interested in creating more character driven stories, I believe “One Man’s Trash” as well as Dunham’s Tiny Furniture serve as good examples to those looking to understand the type of structure these films require. Say what you will about Lena Dunham and Girls, even if you don’t like her characters or writing in general, there’s no arguing that the cast primarily drives her stories. Unlike shows like Entourage, which repeatedly place the same set of characters in various situations, Dunham’s stories are a result of characters trying to find their way through life and the situations that arise from that journey.