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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Level Up: Why Horror Titles Make for the Best Video Game Adaptations

Video game adaptations: one of cinema’s most hated-on subgenres. Whenever another beloved controllable franchise is announced for moviegoing treatment, eyes roll. Critics quiver. Visions of Mark Wahlberg as Max Payne or Uwe Boll’s crimes against both gamersphere credibility and audience standards montage a hard-fast argument for such scoffs.

Fantastical play-alongs turned theatrical try-hards have long become the butt of many online jokes, and while titles such as Detective Pikachu and both Sonic the Hedgehog films disprove “cursed” trends, I’d argue that not all video game adaptations are created equal.

Horror video game adaptations maketh the best video game adaptations, and that’s by an Arklay country mile.

“But Matt…House of the Dead?”

Holster your light pistols and lower your torches. No subgenre is free of a few spoiled Yoshi eggs. Yes, Alone in the Dark should have been left alone, in the dark. House of the Dead uses the cheesiest “Game Over” death screens in a misguided homage. Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil franchise overstayed its welcome (by a final chapter). This is not a blanket championing by any means. Life is full of the Boll’ed and the beautiful. In this case, “beautiful” classifies video game adaptations that succeed in honoring playable structures while connecting with theatrically released horror’s core strengths.

When adapting a video game, filmmakers have a choice. They can abandon existing binary blueprints, or attempt to recreate walkthroughs and platformer architecture. In mainstream cinema, the former is often opted. Take Assassins Creed or Prince of Persia, movies that generally adapt cut-scenes over in-game content. Compare that to, say, the best entry in Anderson’s expansive Resident Evil franchise — Resident Evil: Apocalypse — and experiential watching equates so magnificently into sequences that’re just missing a controller in our hands.

‘Resident Evil: Apocalypse’

In Apocalypse, the T-Virus’ spread throughout “The Hive” escapes above ground. So does Alice (Milla Jovavich), and so does Matt (Eric Mabius) — except as Project Nemesis. Director Alexander Witt utilizes Nemesis as the “Pursuer” we know, a lumbering demi-god mutation built bigger than Game Of Thrones’ “The Mountain.” After the Raven’s Gate bridge is closed and Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory) starts lurking around what’s left of an infected Raccoon City, it’s like we’re right back wandering the animated designs of Capcom’s jump-a-second universe. While Umbrella agents encounter streewalking zombie herds who chew through tactical operatives and civilians, familiar faces usher us back to the survival horror that kept us awake every night. I felt the same chilling silence as I maneuvered characters through empty hallways, thunder clapping in the background, the lights kept on in my recreation room because hell naw — no way I’m facing doomsday peril under concealing darkness.

In the same breath, Apocalypse understands the anti-gravitational physics that can benefit from video game creativity. Is it “realistic” when Alice drives her motorcycle through a parish’s stained-glass window, toppling a Licker, only to fling the vehicle like a projectile she explodes with her bullets? Nah. Does logic prevail when Nemesis blasts a rocket down a construction site’s trash chute only for Alice to overturn a plastic waste bin that saves her life? Nope, but it sure looks cool! Witt’s directorial sensibilities don’t overuse these outlandish action-horror interjections, which is his sequel’s saving grace — but scientific chaos reigns. One minute high-octane zombie thrills are punched into superfun overdrive, the next journalist Terri Morales (Sandrine Holt) is devoured on-camera by undead schoolchildren or Agent Nicholai (Zack Ward) “meets” Satan’s puppies aka Cerberus hounds. A balance between amusement-park entertainment and freakish “haunted house” riffage. Simpler times, horrifying results.

Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann have made the transition for Naughty Dog’s fungal outbreak phenomenon The Last of Us look rather easy for HBO. It’s a critical darling, scores just as high with audiences, and recreates recognizable game levels without the fear that comes along with creative storytelling tweaks. It’s already renewed for a second season after only two episodes, which conveys the confidence even studios have in Joel and Ellie’s apocalyptic adventures. Gamers have logged countless hours exploring now silent American cities overrun by overgrown foliage and deadly Clickers, and the show stays faithful to wades through flooded lobby waters where corpses float, or the survival instincts that keep Joel alive — this isn’t the action-onslaught we’ve faced in Left 4 Dead.

The Last of Us is being rewarded because it nestles into the sweet spot of video game adaptations where canon is important, but storytelling intentions remain king. An immediate example is the Cordyceps mutation, which is no longer the same airborne threat — tendrils and direct contact are required. Mazin and Druckmann avoid the challenge of gas masks muffling Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey’s lines with one simple tweak that might not mirror Naughty Dog’s ideas, but this is the show’s universe. What works in gameplay doesn’t necessarily fit into the mechanics of film or television. The more we trust creators — the collaboration between adaptation team and game developers goes a long way — the better final products will become.

The Last of Us Season 2

“The Last of Us”

That mantra is paramount in Episode 3 of The Last of Us, which tells the sweetest romance between Bill and Frank — who both die. This isn’t a surprise for Frank (Murray Bartlett), who’s more of a memory for Bill in the game, an alluded-to lover. But offing Bill, especially after casting Nick Offerman? Mazin and Druckmann serve what’s best for their television show, and that’s a heartwarming, then gut-wrenching — rather dramatically Shakespearean — exploration of the love that blossoms between Bill and Frank. Bill’s function in the game is that of a scrapper and mechanic who can get Joel back on the road, where in the show, his story is given immensely more meaning as a sincere beacon of hope hidden behind the overwhelming decimation of humanity. Game Bill keeps Joel and Ellie’s mission moving as a good NPC does, where Show Bill humanizes an inhumane scenario. Both serve their tasks well, but it’s Mazin and Druckmann’s faith in their writers — not bound to Naughty Dog’s blueprints — that makes The Last of Us Episode 3 an easy contender for episode of the year.

Now, let’s venture back into the world of gaming.

The Resident Evil franchise, also known as Biohazard in Japan, is constructed with cinematic appeal engrained in its toxic DNA. Creators Shinji Mikami and Tokuro Fujiwara imagined an outbreak, and in the case of Resident Evil, Mikami serves as director on the Capcom project. Gameplay favors third-person exploration with pre-rendered backgrounds, as camera angles opt for obscure, limiting perspectives unseen in typically top-down or center-framed titles. Later sequels handle as action-forward entries, much like Anderson’s franchise, but stylized horror video games seem inherently built brick-by-brick to be fluid across mediums. Hardly about button-mashing or duplication of AI thugs, more about sustaining dreadful storytelling and conjuring fear within players.

Step back years prior, and the blurred intersection between horror cinema and video games runs a richer coexistence. In 1989, Japan’s Sweet Home was developed as a package movie/video game with both mediums in mind. Game director Tokuro Fujiwara spent the film’s shoot working closely with writer and director Kiyoshi Kurosawa on plot development, set design, the works. Survival is the root of both projects, and cooperation further highlights how interactive media can reflect the same qualities of non-participant cinematic consumption or vice versa. A unique case, no doubt — but telling in its circumstantial planning.

Asian genre cinephile Ted Geoghegan knows better than I do:


Perhaps the above is most important, conceptually. Survival horror already has all the makings of a cinematic experience waiting for real-life adaptations. Resident Evil, Silent Hill, The Evil Within, Fatal Frame — these are all games hinged on mythos, backstory, and narrative strengths that play into the horror at hand. That’s not to say other game genres fail in this regard. Take Assassin’s Creed. Cutscenes within Abstergo Industries tell of a kidnapped bartender, “Animus” machine, and virtual genetic memory realms — but the gameplay? Mindlessly repetitive stealth “assassinating” that stabs and parries itself in circles. Thus begs the golden question for adaptation: how does one honor Assassin’s Creed’s in-game “action” whilst adhering to the film’s far superior sci-fi inventiveness?

A puzzler such as Resident Evil is already divided into acts, propelled by quests or objectives that advance plotted tracks. Character survival hinges on these mortal experiences that cost lives, where death means the hardest of restarts, unlike respawn-ready titles such as Call Of Duty or Halo. These traits and harrowing interactions align with the structure, composition and workings that filmmakers outline in screenplay drafts. When you analyze hours of gameplay as Alta├»r Ibn-La’Ahad — Third Crusade assassin at large — reused stalk-and-hide missions present the challenge of mindless benchmark conquests. Silent Hill, alternatively, hands adaptors a roadmap that’s already charted multiple courses in advance. Advantage, horror storytelling.

This is where non-horror video game adaptations become lost in overthinking or meddling. How can a studio make Lara Croft into something more than another Indiana Jones template (same for Uncharted)? Better yet, how is any filmmaker supposed to succeed in cinematically adapting an Italian-American plumber’s ingestion of mushrooms to grow triple in size while murdering turtle creatures sent by a fire-breathing dragon thingy who’s captured some stock fair maiden? With freedom comes responsibility, and oftentimes video game adaptations fall victim to a practice of spitting out title-recognition in hopes that fan bases will blindly reward resulting outputs. I’m not saying the same isn’t true in horror adaptations, but I am saying horror has a far better track record with films like DreadOut, Detention, Resident Evil(s), Silent Hill, Doom, and Mortal Kombat.


Maybe that’s because video game adaptations like Rampage strive to ground extravagant material, where horror adaptations rely on conjuring demons, otherworldly behemoths, and fire-kissed unbelievables? Horror filmmakers are asked to recreate pandemic, punishing, spooky-as-a-motherfather universes programmed in code as livable, malicious settings where horror already thrives. Where Radha Mitchell and Laurie Holden walk around the West Virginian hellscape of Silent Hill, or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson leads space Marines against interstellar scientists now transformed into carnivorous miscreations. Horror video game adaptations benefit from capitalizing on game-world elements whereas, using Super Mario Brothers again, writers had to crack a side-scroller formula to make Mario’s “adventure” somehow relevant. Their approach ever the ponderous debacle.

Allow me to hone in on Doom, and why this critic can’t understand its 18% on Rotten Tomatoes.

While countless video game adaptations — within horror’s boundaries or outside – attempt to separate the “cinema” from “gaming,” 2005’s Doom does the reverse. Either blatantly, staging an entire first-person outpost blast-through from the eyes of Karl Urban’s grunt, or narratively, as soldiers execute missions on command. Andrzej Bartkowiak’s direction feels researched in FPS shooters, thrust into warfare that’s kept at a premium as development pokes fun at shooter tropes or keeps focus on hair-trigger attacks. Where something like Tomb Raider could be any generic archeological thrill ride, Doom is intrinsically Doom down to the very last cosmic abomination. It’s tethered to id Software’s iconic blood-spiller, so much so where scenes want you to think about playing Doom while watching Doom. Outside horror, video game adaptations seem to aim for the complete opposite.

I’ve saved Johannes Roberts’ Welcome to Raccoon City until now because it’s the antithesis of Anderson’s rollicking actioners and achieves exactly what Doom preaches. There’s a time and a place for most prior Resident Evil films — pew pew excitement — but Roberts recaptures the clear and present danger of playing Resident Evil. It’s spooky-forward, loaded with Easter eggs down to one-off journal entries, and tears from Capcom’s pages with almost one-to-one cutscene recreations. Roberts goes above and beyond to prove that adaptations wholly invested in staying honest to its source can feel like more than just cosplay remakes, and also answers the call for a worthy Resident Evil adaptation that advances like a playthrough speedrun.

‘Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City’

I do want to acknowledge the faults of video game horror’s past, from Fatal Frame to House Of The Dead. Uwe Boll goes as far to confusingly intercut House Of The Dead arcade clips into random graveyard shootouts, complicating already nonsense camerawork and highlight reels covering three-seconds prior. Mari Asato’s Japanese adaptation of the beloved survival-horror photography franchise Fatal Frame gives me a case of the snoozies as climaxes fail to register heartracing blips. There’s no such thing as surefire success, and you can point your finger at numerous classifiable titles that, alone, would not support my throughline argument.

Then again, outliers will always exist. Core competencies handled by different filmmakers will yield different results, certainly when the surrounding production exemplifies hackish creation from stage one.

Yet, still, I’d rather watch Resident Evil over Double Dragon. Doom over DOA: Dead or Alive. Sweet Home over Need for Speed. Not just because I’m a ride-or-die horror fan. In the grand scheme of video game adaptations, horror selections understand their target audience. Less concessions are made and source content is treated as a 1:1 representation of the recreation on screen. I’ve long argued the best video game movies aren’t based on video games — Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Hardcore Henry, Edge of Tomorrow and so on — but when stacking legacy adaptations against one another? Horror’s dominance is noticeable.

As we look towards a future where studios forever grasp for existing intellectual properties, I hope there’s a resurgence of horror video games hitting theatrical screens in “Friday Night Movie” form. Resurrect CarnEvil from cabinet junkyard obscurity and give the masses some rail-shooter inspired carnival-colorful screams. Take a bite out of “Jurassic Park: After Dark” with a Dino Crisis movie heavy on horror-nasty imagery. For heckin’ sake, where is my big-budget Dead Space movie that’s devoted to the film’s array of extraterrestrial monstrosities? Horror is a great unifier across all platforms, asking more from its players and viewers despite preconceptions of the simplest returns. Adapting horror video games is like giving yourself a head start, not to be wasted or underestimated. I just hope filmmakers understand what previous trailblazers correctly embrace, because extra lives are hard to come by in this easy-come, easier-go industry.

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on the now defunct website Haw Creek Horror, and has been updated with fresh analysis for Bloody Disgusting.

‘Dino Crisis’

The post Level Up: Why Horror Titles Make for the Best Video Game Adaptations appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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Got any friends who might like this scary horror stuff? GO AHEAD AND SHARE, SHARE!

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