(MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS) I almost never write game reviews here and rarely write film reviews but I’ve seen so many directors struggle to transform video game stories into films and I wanted to talk about the hugely popular game franchise Assassin’s Creed.
You may or may not have played Assassin’s Creed. You may not be a gamer at all but I wanted to share the experience of playing this game for the first time and where many director’s go wrong in making film versions of games.
The first time I played I didn’t know what was happening. It was Assassins’s Creed 2 that I played first and my character, Desmond was escaping from being held hostage n some sort of futuristic, white facility and was directed to go into a machine called the Animus. When he did, he turned into another person, Ezio, a young Italian man. I followed Ezio’s story from being a baby, his development and romances and met characters who gave me quests. The story had two main points of view: Desmond, and Ezio (through Desmond in the Animus). The only character who seemed to care much about Desmond initially was Lucy (voiced by Kristen Bell), a blonde scientist/tech person who monitored his time in the Animus.
There were certain things in this game that marked it out as ground-breaking to me right away.
1. The Mystery
Playing this game for the first time, the player has to learn what is happening and how the past is connected to Desmond’s current situation. You learn the history of the Templars and the Assassins gradually and about their ongoing war with each other. Essentially, the Templars want to control everything and the Assassins want to help the common good.
2. The Settings/History
In the earliest of these games from being in a strange sci-fi/lab environment to being in Ancient Syria and Italy, both places that I’d never visited and knew little about. The attention to detail in these games were always staggering and fun and you could explore the whole map which felt large and expansive.
In many Assassin’s Creed games historical figures appear, adapted to the story of course. Leonardo Da Vinci, The Borgias, Alexander Graham Bell. Settings such as Italy, Ancient Syria, America (during the American Revolution), Paris and London are explored and scaled by your character. In Assassin’s Creed III and IV (Black flag) you even pirate a ship and have naval battles. In early games this is through Desmond as Altair, Ezio and Connor (Ratonhnhaké:ton). In later games this changes to Aveline, Shay Cormac, Arno, and the Frye Twins (Evie and Jacob) with no Desmond or real clear focal character bringing you into the Animus with them.
There are even historical facts kept in the games’ databases for players to read about landmarks, historical events and notable historic figures. This game has taught me more history than any other game I’ve ever played.
3. The gameplay
The enigmas, the history and the unique settings were integral to success but the gameplay was also extremely fun. The game uses parkour/free-running so that you scale, climb, jump, sometimes even zip-line from building to building. You can climb to the very top of Landmarks like Big Ben, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore and the Colosseum. Some titles had horses, gondolas, canoes, pirate ships and the latest one had carriages you could hijack and race. The key here was immersion. Players felt immersed in the world. Gameplay often required stealth, patience and concentration rather than button-bashing but the fighting system were very good, with varying weapons and abilities, a favourite of mine being the sleeping and berzerk darts. Swords, guns, darts, rope tools, the variety made for intelligent options in fighting and stealth play was always the aim. You had to be aware of the characters around you and some titles has options to use the crowd to blend or escape and to employ people to distract or fight enemies for you carried out your objectives.
4. The Symbolism – The Eagle
The name Altair means Flying Eagle and the Eagle is the most prevalent symbol in the game. Eagle vision is a way of picking up hidden clues and puzzles. An Eagle point is where you sit on a landmark or high ledge (which an eagle flies away from), scan the horizon (which opens up details on your map) and then jump from a great height into a bale of hay unharmed. You may not find it realistic but that moment when the scenery spins slowly and you see the whole area around you from high above the world is one of my favourite moments and no other game has that moment in it for me. This moment is called a Leap of Faith.
The other symbols used are often religious, mythical symbols, such as the Apple of Eden and Juno, Jupitor and Minerva (Entities of the First Civilisation, an early technologically advanced humanoid species).
These symbols are tied into the overall storyline of the initial game and are key to creating the overall feel and tone for the player.
The Struggle to Turn Games into Films
The reason that I laid all this out before even talking about the film is because I wanted to explain what sort of unique experience many people got from playing this game, when it was at its height. When fans of the franchise hear about a film release they hope it captures the heart of the game and are often overjoyed at the prospect but there are several primary reasons that the film versions of extremely popular games don’t live up to expectations. Here’s where I think filmmakers usually get it wrong:
1. Action, Action, Action
Many video games are action games, this is true but some of the most successful games have been so successful because they were immersive and gamers felt like they were experiencing the world/story on a deeper level. When a game is reduced to its plot summary, the plots often sound simple or lacking because the medium relies on the gamers experience to tell the story as a participator and a watcher simultaneously. In a film, you are just a watcher and lose important experiences/emotions that you would experience in the game version. It’s similar to when trying to change novels into films, there is a depth available in novels that is hard to translate to films, inner thoughts and feelings in literature cannot always translate easily to the big screen. One film that found an interesting way to overcome this was Doom.
Doom (for you non-gamers out there) is a first-person shooter game where you basically turn around corners and move through rooms and corridors and shoot stuff. It’s full of crazy action, violence and baddies to obliterate. The film actually was an interesting story with great acting from Karl Urban (as always) and one action sequence was shot entirely in first-person. This was reminiscent of the game and it looked to the viewer as it they were moving through the scene and were playing the game. This really captured the heart of the action-filled experience of the game and so marked the movie out.
Assassin’s Creed was mystery-driven and story-driven. The game intrigued players and drew them into deeper layers of narrative. The film, while still enjoyable as an action movie, doesn’t seem to capture that effect of drawing you into a deeper world. Too much focus is on the action and not enough on the experience. The mood and symbolism of the game seem to be missing too.
Video game culture used to be seen as something of a subculture but not any more. It’s a large, booming ,popular hobby, with an eSports league and real money and sponsors. Gaming is now a big business. Years ago, gaming films were cult films and while many captured the heart of the games such as with Mortal Kombat, they were dismissed by the mainstream for their quality standards. Films such as Super Mario Bros and Street Fighter get criticised heavily as cheesy but I liked them, despite that, because they were fun and my favourite games were being given time on the big screen. They weren’t taking themselves too seriously. Now it’s a serious business but unfortunately that creates other problems…
3. Multi-Media Franchise
Big software companies want to keep their franchises going and to move them across to other media to allow for more chances for income. Unfortunately video game films seem to be more like every other film out there now and have lost a lot of the originality and heart of the old 90’s cult ones. I can’t blame companies for wanting to make mainstream films but they often lack the heart of the games they portray and since it’s often the gamers who are most eagerly awaiting these film portrayals of their favourites, they are the most likely to be disappointed. Often the actors are great in these films. I’m a huge fan of Michael Fassbender and Assassin’s Creed even has Jeremy Irons in it too. But where is the experience and the intrigue of the game? Where are all the elements of the game it is portraying? The iconic Assassin’s Creed outfit is completely white but in the film we don’t see anything resembling that outfit even once. Why is the Animus a big robot hand now holding him in the air and not a flat machine the character lies back on or an Animus chair?
4. Staying True to the Film vs. Being Original
Despite my above criticisms, I don’t envy film directors who make video game movies. They can’t seem to win. If they stick exactly to the game, they’re called unoriginal. If they don’t stick with the original, people (like me) wonder why someone would stray so much from what they are adapting and lose all the key elements. But I think that most of this comes from a major issue in transcribing from video games to the film medium:
5. Cultural Perceptions of Video Games
I often wonder if some of these directors of video game movies have ever played the original video game they are adapting from. Video games, historically were perceived as for the youth and as a part of youth culture and so are often accused of being childish or silly. Actually a large proportion of games are.now for ages 18+ and are a lot more complicated than the arcade games and 8-bit/16-bit games I remember (Sonic the Hedgehog was my favourite). Most of them were one-dimensional and with limited movement. Most of my childhood was with platform games that moved mainly from the left to right side of the screen (called side-scrollers) and only used two buttons: jump and fight/shoot. Much of these were about timing,
anticipating and remembering sequences.
Think Mario Bros.
Movement in games is 360 degrees now. You can move in any direction in most games and by far the most difficult adaptation older gamers make, when first playing modern games, is getting used the new camera movement. The first time I played Call of Duty, which is a first-person shooter, danger attacked from every angle. I could barely control the camera and kept dying repeatedly. These change in controls and gameplay cameras are probably what puts many older gamers off at first but when you get used to it, the movement begins to feel natural again.
So what’s this got to do with film adaptions? Well it’s about perception. Younger gamers have grown up with richer games that have more varied camera perspectives and deeper narrative devices. The don’t share the classic view of video games as childish and not serious. Many of them take it very seriously and expect the filmmakers to understand these experiences. If the people making these films do not attempt to understand the modern gaming experience they will not understand how to convey it in film. The Doom director seemed to understand the gamer’s perspective but many directors seem not to at all.
So how can these films appeal to both gamers and non-gamers?
They need to be done in same way as when you transform any story to another media, using good characterisation good storytelling, plenty of immersion and by keeping the core symbolism and elements of the game. I haven’t mentioned the music, but the early games had some excellent soundtracks that could translate well into film versions. Recognition of the gaming experience needs to be integrated with the storytelling elements. So for Assassin’s Creed:
Keep the Sci-fi elements.
Keep the Eagle symbolism.
Keep the Leaps of Faith
Keep the Hidden mysteries.
Keep the Quality.
Treat it seriously but understand the culture that it comes from.
Only by understanding the game culture will you understand the full context of Assassin’s Creed. If you aren’t a gamer and are wary of newer video games, try them anyway! There are rich narratives out there in the gaming industry and incredible worlds being built within them.