The Sandbox: Five Rules for Making a Decent Video Game Adaptation

The Sandbox: Five Rules for Making a Decent Video Game Adaptation (photo)

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For the past 20 years or so, Hollywood has seemed intent on proving that video games aren’t fit to be cinematic source material. How else to explain the dismal quality of the average game-to-film adaptation? But games and movies aren’t inherently incompatible, provided that directors use some common sense when heading down that treacherous adaptation path. Here’s my list of five guidelines that, if followed to the letter, should help future filmmakers succeed where so many before them have stumbled.

1. Costume changes are okay.

As with comics, video game heroes are often defined by their distinctive get-ups. And in certain instances — like Lara Croft’s snug spelunking short-shorts and T-shirt — those outfits are capable of making a relatively easy transition to the silver screen. But the rest of the time, keeping a little too close to a game character’s clothing makes it impossible to take the material seriously.

I mean, have you seen Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo sporting brightly colored, patch-decorated coveralls in 1993 “Super Mario Bros.”? Or Scott Wolf and Mark Dacascos wearing goofy, oversized blue and red martial-arts outfits in 1994’s “Double Dragon”? Or, worst of all, Jean-Claude Van Damme and his blue beret, spiky blond hair and green tank top in the abysmal “Street Fighter: The Movie,” also from 1994? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you probably assumed — the moment you laid eyes on those wretchedly dressed actors — that the films were jokes worth skipping. And you were right. Filmmakers would be better served mimicking Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” films (or Paul W.S. Anderson’s “Resident Evil” ones), which recognized that duplicating original garb would be ridiculous, and came up with new threads that stayed faithful to the spirit of the characters’ unique looks.

2. Go for stories, not gameplay gimmicks.

A game can thrive on the basis of a cool control technique, but if that’s all it has to offer, then it probably hasn’t got the depth necessary for a decent film. Take “Max Payne,” whose bullet-time effects provided a neat gameplay twist, but looked like a lame “Matrix” rip-off on screen, making the thinness of the title’s second-rate pulp-noir story all the more apprent. In the same way, while the first-person shooter POV is awfully gripping when you’re the one wielding a controller, that perspective doesn’t work on film, as “Doom” so painfully proved.

Even more fundamentally, games that place a premium on their interactive elements — like the challenges of complicated button-combo maneuvers — instead of story should be avoided like the plague when it comes to adaptations. This is most apparent when it comes to fighting games, which could give a hoot about plot but care deeply about hand-eye coordination. “Mortal Kombat” may have been a box office triumph when it opened in 1995, but if you can sit through the film — which also fails to adhere to the above Rule #1 — without regularly breaking into derisive laughter, you’re more tolerant of bad scripting than I.

3. The character’s the thing.

You need a compelling protagonist. This seems like a no-brainer, but as the history of game adaptations shows, it’s a detail that escapes many. Realism need not be at the forefront of this decision — the impossibly athletic and buxom Lara Croft, for all her fighting skills and sex appeal, is not what one would dub “true to life,” but does have an iconic look, at least a passing connection to a credible reality and some shred of relatable human emotion.

This means that side-scrolling heroes like Mario are out — unless you’re buying that, in any universe, Italian plumbers travel through sewers, fight shelled monsters and eat giant mushrooms during quests to save princesses. So too are 2D fighters, whose peripheral backstories are usually laughably one-dimensional. The films for both “Hitman” and “Max Payne” may fail to flesh out their titular tough guys in interesting ways, but at least they capture the characters’ individual styles. Better still are the “Resident Evil” films, which, recognizing the general blankness of the franchise’s various user proxies, created an original heroine in Milla Jovovich’s Alice, video game films’ reigning badass.

10232009_SilentHill.jpg4. Find directors who care.

Passion’s a difficult thing to fake, and gamers — a rabidly protective bunch when it comes to their favorite properties — can smell phony enthusiasm a mile away. It’s no coincidence that two of the past decade’s finest adaptations came from directors with personal, rooting interests in the material. Paul W.S. Anderson is an avowed gamer, and while the aforementioned “Mortal Kombat” is no career achievement, his B-movie “Resident Evil” series exudes respect for its console origins in tone, as well as in plot and character. The same holds true for “Silent Hill,” Christophe Gans’ underrated 2006 movie based on the Konami survival horror franchise, which remains, to my eye, the best game adaptation to date. Gans’ (and writer Roger Avary’s) intimate knowledge of “Silent Hill”‘s horrific creatures, fog-enshrouded netherworld setting and — most important of all — unhinged mood creeps into his unsettling film, which beautifully mimics the game’s look and story while exploring some uniquely cinematic scares. It’s the rare adaptation that actually understands its source material, to the point that when Gans takes small liberties with his tale’s universe, it comes off as natural and reverent rather than dim and misbegotten.

5. Avoid Uwe Boll.

If you’ve ever seen one of director-par-incompetence Boll’s game-inspired epic turds, from the nightmarishly awful “House of the Dead” to the hilariously inept “Alone in the Dark,” this final rule needs no further clarification. And if you haven’t, well, consider yourself fortunate.

The Sandbox, a column about the intersection of film and gaming, runs biweekly.

[Photo: “Silent Hill,” TriStar Pictures, 206]


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.