This episode’s featured image is taken from Unsplash. It was created by Denise Jans, and the original can be found here
Squidge and I recently watched the latest
at the time of writing
live action Resident Evil movie - Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City. I’ll be writing about my thoughts on that movie in the next few days, but I wanted to write about the reaction to the movie that video game fans have had, and the reactions that video game fans seem to have for movies based on video game properties.
but I really wanted to explore the reaction to video game movies, and why video game fans are almost always disappointed by the movie versions of their favourite titles. I’ve mulled over the movie for a few days and looked into some of the reaction of fans, and wanted to bring my thoughts together.
I really don’t want to have to keep typing “Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City”. There’s a great blog post by Scott Hanselman where he talks about the idea that we only have so many key strokes in each of us.
his advice for when you’re asked a common question is to write a blog post, then link people to it. This will save you time in the long run, and it gives other folks a place to go for finding that information organically
And because of that, when I need to refer to the name of the movie, I’ll shorten it to “Resident Evil” - because this piece is providing all the context you need in order to know that I’m not talking about the games.
Because you are here, I’m going to assume that you have either already seen the movie, or are happy with spoilers for it.
Good luck everyone.
Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City
The run up to the release of the film had a lot of varied reaction from Resident Evil fans on the Internet. I saw discussions on things like:
These don’t look like the characters I know
Why isn’t Jill wearing should pads and a beret?
I really hope that they retell the story of the first game
In other corners of the Internet there were discussions which were, quite simply, thinly veiled racism and bigotry. I’m not going to talk about those. I’m actually not going to talk about the film itself very much, either - except to use it as an example for my exploration. I want to discuss the reaction that us gamers have to video game movies.
The first thing that I want to talk about is that a video game movie isn’t a video game. That may seem rather obvious at first, but let’s talk about that for a second.
Video games are inherently interactive. Regardless of the style or genre, you are taking control of the main character (or characters), allowing the scenario to play out, and you are allowed to make decisions on what to do, based on the game designer’s parameters.
"scenario" here is different to the story. Here, I’m referring to the setting and game mechanics
Think about the average first-person shooter: Most of the time you are running from room to room, mowing down enemies with an increasing over-the-top collection of weapons, all the while acting like a bullet sponge. You may have some story elements between stages, parts of stages, or after entire sections of the game; but the core mechanic is still the same:
Run into room
Mow down enemies
Look for next room
You can use the same kind of reductionist thinking for all of the other game types, styles, genres, and tropes. And I’m intentionally being factitious here, in that I want to boil an FPS down to it’s most basic ingredients.
Add to that you have the idea that the player character is meant to be an avatar for the player. The player takes control of the character’s decision making process: if the player wants to end the life of a non-player character, and the game permits it, then so be it; the player will have to deal with the digital consequences of their actions.
Because of this, the player characters are usually presented with little to no backstory or characterisations. Think about Mario, Sonic, the main character from Fable, Gordon Freeman, Doom-guy, and Cloud Strife, for example. These characters are initially presented as 2D empty shells; some games will allow the world and scenario will fill in the gaps, but most of the characters have the barest of characterisations, so that you - the player - can apply your own experiences or thoughts of how the character should react to the situation that they find themselves in.
Because of that, the characters in a video game are inherently more interactive than the characters in a movie. You are literally making the decisions for the video game character, whereas the movie characters have their own internal conflicts and reasons for doing things. Movies can be interactive (in a one-sided manner) of course; anyone who has ever attended a showing of cult classics like The Room or The Rocky Horror Picture Show will know what I mean. But this doesn’t make them video games, as this is an experience which happens to you but you have no direct control on the outcome.
Because movies aren’t as interactive as video games, the way that they tell the stories will never be the same. As such, the way that the stories are written, performed, directed, captured, and presented to you will never be the same.
Roger Ebert, when reviewing the Scooby-Doo movie said that he had never seen the TV show that it was based on. In fact, he starts his review by pointing out that he had never watched the TV show that the movie was based on.
And you might ask yourself something like: if he hasn’t seen the TV show that it’s based on, then how could he possibly review it? Well, Ebert has an answer to that:
If [people who haven’t seen the TV show] can’t walk into the movie cold and understand it and get something out of it, then the movie has failed except as an in-joke
He’s absolutely right, and brings up a point that a lot of video game fans miss when they go to see a video game movie: You are only part of the target audience.
Sure, the marketing might be aimed directly at you, but the content of the movie may not have been made specifically for you. The movie was made for the average movie goer; and because of that, the creators behind the movie need to hit certain beats within the storytelling process, which they have come to expect in almost any movie, in order to keep them engaged.
Whilst video games have steadily become more mainstream than they were during the fifth generation of video game consoles, and whilst the video game industry is huge the majority of movie-going audiences may not be video game players, or have even played the video game source material.
But how big is that industry? Well, one report from 2020 has the global video game industry generating revenue of around $179 billion in global revenue in sales of both hardware and software. And that was in the middle of both the pandemic, and a global chip shortage.
Another quote from the Ebert review of Scooby-Doo highlights the fact that the majority of viewers wont have any experience with the source material:
I realize every TV cartoon show has a cadre of fans who grew up with it, have seen every episode many times and are alert to the nuances of the movie adaptation. But those people, however numerous they are, might perhaps find themselves going to a movie with people like myself–people who found, even at a very young age, that the world was filled with entertainment choices more stimulating than "Scooby-Doo".
Ebert is saying here that not everyone who goes to see the Resident Evil movie will be Resident Evil fans. As such, the team behind the movie had to make it as approachable as possible to an audience member who has almost no experience of the games.
What does this mean for Resident Evil?
Well, some of the people who will watch this movie will have never played the games. This means that the story will have to be told to them in a way which makes sense for movie goers. For example, most of the background information provided to the player in the first game is done so via diary entries which they player must read. You can’t do that in a movie, because people will get bored.
And some of the things which require us (as players of the games) to make inferences and connections of our own, will need to be put across to the viewer in a way which best fits the tropes involved in movie narratives. Exposition (characters talking through past events, not shown in the movie) and it’s opposite: Show Don’t Tell, character defining moments, the often dreaded narration and on-screen text are all examples of ways to do this.
no diary entries that we read, re-read, and re-re-read at our own pace
no leaps of logic due to the characters simply knowing what each of the other characters know; they explicitly need to be told what is going on, and new information
literally showing the viewer who the antagonist is and their reasons for doing what they are doing, rather than letting the player piece it together in their own time
attempting to ground the story in the pop-cultural rules which apply to the movie genre
hiring actors based on their ability to bring the written version of the character to life rather than whether the look like their video game counterparts
This isn’t an exhaustive list, and the same points apply for movies which are based on TV shows, books, radio plays, and other forms of storytelling
how many times have you said, "but the folktale is better"?
Because of these points, and the fact that the creative team behind a movie have the goal of telling their story, a video game movie will inherently deviate from the source material.
You also have to remember that with a movie, you have a maximum of around 180 minutes to tell the entire story. This includes introducing every character; showing your big, expensive action scenes; having the exposition and narrative play out; and tidying it up in a big, neat, bow before the credits roll
or before the end of the mid-credits "bonus" scene
Story-based video games can run from anywhere between 45 minutes and 3,090 minutes - this is the length of time required to beat The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (at the time of writing)
3,090 minutes is 51 and a half hours. That’s 17 times longer than the 180 minute maximum for a movie. Admittedly, most of this time will be spent wandering around playing the missions. That being said, users of the Game: The Movie subreddit
these folks attempt to cut together all of the story elements of a video game into as clear of a movie narrative that they can
routinely create “full movie” cuts of The Witcher 3, with the shortest that I could find being 905 minutes (or 13 hours and 5 minutes) long. You’ll agree that some stuff has to be left on the cutting room floor, because almost no one is going to watch a 13 hour long movie in a commercial setting.
This is the same thing that happens to books when a movie version is made: the story is boiled down to the most base elements, and parts are put back in until the creators reach the maximum running time, then they stop.
And because a commercial movie has to conform to the three-act story structure, you can’t leave the story partially told at the end of the movie. You can certainly leave a wider, overarching story untold
the first Star Wars trilogy does this really well
but the story of the actual film you are watching has to come to an end before the movie does.
Nods and Easter Eggs
As with my points on the source material (above), it’s also important to point out that any references or Easter Eggs to the deep lore of the source material have to be presented in a way that casual viewers (those who have never accessed the source material) aren’t lost when they see them.
The last thing that you want to do is alienate part of your audience by essentially saying
if you haven’t seen/heard/played/whatevered the source material, this next bit will be lost on you.
Worse still if they have to have accessed the entire source material and all of the canon for it.
Some viewers may take that as an invitation to explore the source material… if there isn’t a huge amount of it, that is. But doing that takes them out of the moment that they are experiencing. And movies are all about experiencing the moment and letting the story wash over you.
In the case of Resident Evil, when:
Claire is given a set of keys which have heads on them that match the suits of a deck of cards
Or when Jill says, “it’s a Jill Sandwich now”
Or when there is a sign in the background which advertises First-Aid sprays
Or when there is a seemingly unrelated conversation about whether characters would prefer to be eaten by a snake or a great white shark
the viewer isn’t taken out of the situation that they are in and forced to think about what a Jill Sandwich is, or why the keys have certain head designs, or why there is a weird conversation about snakes and sharks.
The casual viewer can just chalk these things up to:
The quirkiness of the universe
Strange dialogue the characters exchange
Miss it completely
Take it as generic “buddy copy dialogue”
I’ve attempted to match each Easter Egg from the movie with a possible casual reaction here
The viewer can then simply move on from it.
The nods and Easter Eggs are there for the fans of the source material and act as a nod and a wink to them. A sort of, “I know that you know,” for them.
Admittedly, what I’m going to say applies to the vocal minority but:
As a community of video gamers, we need to chill just a little bit.
As I write this, the trailer for the Halo TV series has just dropped, and I’m seeing a mixture of reactions, most of which echo how people responded to the Resident Evil trailers. Some are saying that it looks amazing and that they can’t wait to see it, and others are complaining that some of the characters don’t look exactly like their source counterparts.
one extremely vocal twitter user (with a LARGE following) even called for boycotting the show because one of the CGI characters was the wrong colour
We need to sit back and realise that these adaptations of the properties we are invested in aren’t just made for us. They’re made for Joe or Jane Bloggs. They’re made for your Uncle or Aunt who is disinterested in video games
the ones who, when you were younger, might have bought you the wrong game for the wrong system, because they literally had no clue
They’re made for people who don’t have the time, funds, or ability to play games.
These movies are made to entertain people, and to provide them with a 90-120 minute long escape from reality. Not as a one-to-one recreation of the thing we love.
Just ask anyone who has seen a beloved book series turned into a movie.