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Activision considering blasphemy: Turning video games into films

Rumour has it that Activision, publisher of the Call of Duty franchise – which hired Kevin Spacey for Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare later this year and previously enrolled Sam Worthington as a voice actor for Call of Duty: Black Ops – is looking at launching its own in-house TV and movie production studio.

Video games have been knocking Hollywood’s door for over a decade now, but that hasn’t stopped the powers at be doing their level best to make games more film-like.

Many games have succeeded, creating characters and franchises more fleshed-out, more engaging, and more profitable than their box-office counterparts. Actors have been crossing the divide for years, with the full motion video era of the 1990s featuring John Rhys-Davies, Christopher Walken, Malcolm McDowell, Tim Curry and Mark Hamill.

As games have become more sophisticated, it’s understandable that more and more would make their debut as movies.

Still, it’s an odd choice for Activision, a publisher that has a more comprehensive history publishing first-person shooters (they even turned the Battleship movie into an FPS) than story-centric games. Their most lucrative franchises are Call of Duty, which is about as Hollywood as gaming gets, and Skylanders, a platformer for kids that combines the in-game avatar with NFC tags on collectible models to create a stable source of manufacturing revenue.

But there’s a difference between a game that makes sense as a movie and those which are actually made.

The film adaptations of Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter were designed more to appeal through the live-action fists and fireballs of Liu Kang and Ryu than believable plots, decent acting or anything else that makes a watchable film.

To be fair, Mortal Kombat was watchable in a cheesy, B-grade way. It might be more known for its fatalities and Shaolin monks, but there was enough material in Earthrealm and Outworld for three movies, the quality of which shrunk drastically with each release. But that first film is still entertaining, so much so that NetherRealm Studios, makers of the 2011 Mortal Kombat reboot, actually channeled the spirit and structure of the movie to create the most entertaining story mode ever released in any fighting game.

But it’s never been a wise bet to expect Hollywood to choose the best film-like plots from the world of video gaming. How else can the Super Mario Bros or Hitman 47 movies be explained, abominations that stunk worse than any sewer pipe or body-filled dumpster in their respective games? The Dead or Alive tragedy was equally abhorrent, perhaps best described as two hours of glorified eye-candy for studio executives and perverts.

Resident Evil’s plot never made any sense, but that certainly didn’t stop the developers, with over 20 releases on every platform imaginable since 1996. It’s been lucrative at the box office too, with five films so far based on Capcom’s tales of surviving zombies, bad writing, and the Umbrella Corporation. Michael Bay’s explosions have been more critically acclaimed, but Resident Evil: Afterlife raked in just over US$296 million alone.

But no one has trashed the reputation of video games as films quite so much as Uwe Boll, a German director perhaps best described as a sentient corpse channeling the spirit of Ed Wood. Under his direction, his film recreations of Alone in the Dark, BloodRayne, House of the Dead, and In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale have managed to offend every man, woman and child who saw them.

They’re not even laughably bad – they’re just soul-destroyingly awful. Time ranked three of Uwe Boll’s efforts in the top 10 worst video game movies of all time, an astonishing decision considering Alone in the Dark has some of the most tragic scenes ever directed. Just watch.

Not all translations are that unspeakably awful, however. Angelina Jolie’s turn as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider was an unabashed success in the United States, grossing $US131 million locally and $US274 million worldwide. The availability of Jon Voight didn’t hurt either, although the over-reliance on CGI killed the audience’s enthusiasm so much that Tomb Raider’s more competent box-office sequel, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, only raised $US156 million globally.

Even the Silent Hill series, the second iteration of which is still considered one of the best proponents in horror in gaming, received the Hollywood treatment, albeit to mixed reviews. Considering how patchy the history of video games as films is though, especially in a world with directors like Uwe Boll, mixed is about as good as an Oscar nomination. The almost $100 million return at the box office, from a $50 million budget, didn’t hurt either.

And while the plot certainly wasn’t anything to get excited about, the film adaptation of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time – based on the remake by Ubisoft Montreal, not Jordan Mechner’s earlier version in 1989 – was a cracking success. It’s the most successful film based on a video game franchise to date, grossing just over $US336 million worldwide.

So you don’t need a cracking story to make money, although having one might make the experience more tolerable. It certainly raises hopes for the upcoming Warcraft and Uncharted movies, due out in 2016, along with the silver screen debut of Angry Birds.

How Ubisoft fares with Hollywood will be found out next year when the film adaption of Assassin’s Creed hits, while a new Resident Evil is due out next month.

If Hollywood doesn’t work though, there’s always the option of a web series. It worked for Mortal Kombat, after all.

About the author

Alex Walker is a freelance journalist writing for ABC Technology & Games, and games.on.net. You can follow him on Twitter @thedippaeffect.

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