As the new years WD contest comes underway -- and as I did last year -- I began hashing out new ideas in my head, and also recycling some old ones, trying to find something I could get behind. Invariably, this means visiting many ideas I will probably never end up doing for one reason or another. One of those projects is probably one I would most like to do, an adaptation of the PC game Half-Life.
I made a play at this in 2005, and found that I had come a little late to the party. It was disappointing, sure, but it's not something to I can get hung up over. Chances are that the "right time" to approach them over the deal would have been before I had found any serious interest in writing, so it just wasn't meant to be. Given the propensity of game adaptations to fail, I'd like to think it was more of a loss for them than it has been for myself. Nine months after I made my move, and over eight years since the games original release, there has been no public movement seen in getting the film made. There isn't even a hint of preproduction on imdb.com. One wonders if a deal was ever actually made.
Whether people uninvolved with the writing industry care to accept it or not, game-to-movie adaptations are a cluster-fuck failure by default. Games just aren't structured like movies are, their non-linear format is what makes them fun and sets them apart, but it's a losing proposition. The problem is that games are virtual worlds created exclusively for you to explore, and while the majority of the real world may be practical, bland, and boring, rooms and buildings in games are filled with exciting things to play with, fix, or kill.
If the entire experience of a game were translated into film, it would be just about as long as the game itself would take to play, which is obviously an impossible precept. This means that as you have to do with a novel adaptation, you must cut cut cut. By the time you've cut out enough that you can fit it into a movie, the story no longer makes any sense, and you must start adding new things in to patch it back up. But now it's too long again, and you must start cutting things out all over again.
If you can survive this first stage while having something that still resembles the game, you must now address the games elements that don't belong in movies. In most games like Half-Life, you play the main character. You don't speak, because you are the player, and the main character doesn't speak because he is you. This is a huge problem that can only be addressed in one of two ways: you find a stellar actor that can carry 90% of a movie without talking, like Tom Hanks, and also an insanely talented director, or, invent a personality for the main character who now must carry the entire film by speaking.
This brings another problem into play, with no main character speaking in games, there is often little need for a speaking cast. While occasional interactions can be scripted within the game, as is done with Half-Life in order to pass information to the player, it's not nearly enough for a film. There must exist someone for the main character to speak to for more than a sentence or two every half hour. Without this, the main character will have to establish himself through action alone, and that's a very bad thing to have to deal with.
Continuing this line of thought, I come to think of a point in Half-Life where the player comes to an elevator, where several scientists are trapped. The elevator is unstable, damaged from explosions and other things that have happened during the game, and looks to fall any minute. As you, the player, approaches, it falls to the bottom of the shaft, and everyone inside perishes.
So what? Didn't know em anyways! And that's a problem, not just with video game adaptations either, but movies in general. Seeing people die, unless it's pretty gruesome or exceptionally well filmed, doesn't bring out an emotional response, because we know it's fake, we know it's just a movie. We don't know anything about the people; they were just random blank faces, so why should we care at all?
If this event, which doesn't advance the story at all, is to remain in the film, it must have meaning. The main character which we must now address has to have a reaction; we need to invent it, and this is how it goes.
When the game begins, the player is riding a single-car tram through a long excavated tunnel through orange rock, all underground. At times it's just sharp and random rock, almost natural looking and rough. Other times we can see through the surface to the bright day above us. Then we might look below and see flat concrete with large robots moving around toxic waste barrels, and scientists in lab coats milling about inside buildings built inside the rock and stone walls, giving the appearance of a vast underground complex somewhere in the desert.
There may have been a couple of other characters with us on this ride, I don't recall. If there were, they were simply sitting, reading newspapers, you couldn't interact with them. The tram comes to a stop at a station of sorts and you get off. It's a pretty neat ride, visually, it's really pretty for a game. It sets the mood wonderfully. But it's wasted. Here's what we're going to do for our adaptation to bring the elevator scene, and the tram ride together to give them both meaning, and create an emotional reaction for our main character, and the audience which we must now please at all times.
INT. TRAM CAR - DAY
GORDON FREEMAN, a man in his early 30's, sporting a goatee and glasses, is riding a single-car tram through a very large and long tunnel excavated from the rock under a desert. A few other riders, some in business attire, some in lab coats.
Across from Gordon, two men sitting next to each other are catching up. One is showing the other a picture.
RICK She's beautiful, what's her name?
TIM (holding picture) Karen.
We SEE THE PICTURE, it's a new-born baby girl.
RICK You named her after your wife?
A wadded up paper comes flying in from O.S. and pops Tim right in the side of the head.
GORDON There ought to be a law against saps like you.
Tim grabs the paper ball off the floor and flings it back at Gordon.
TIM You, buddy, aren't getting anywhere near her. She'll end up in one if your bizarre lab experiments.
GORDON (dodging the paper projectile) How else are we gonna figure out what planet you're from?
In this scene, we've established a few critical things early on. We know Tim has a new-born baby, which is going to make him inclined not to take risks later on, should we want him to. He's also human to us now. He's light spirited, proud of having a family, probably a real decent guy. He also doesn't exist in the game, but he just made our day. Our main character, Gordon, knows him now. Gordon knows he has a baby; there's a connection there. And it's not just important for the character to have that connection, in fact it's really not his at all, it's ours. It's for the audience, it's a suckers ploy. It is the very quickest and cheapest way we can make you care about him, because guess what: he's gonna die.
INT. HALLWAY - DAY
We HEAR ALARMS; a rotating red warning light from the ceiling is throwing light on the otherwise dark walls and floor, because the main lighting is out.
Gordon has just made his way into the hallway when he sees the elevator doors cracked open. We HEAR PEOPLE YELLING, and Gordon steps down the hallway slowly at first, then faster, and faster still until he's running.
He gets to the door, and sees four people inside. A person with his back turned toward us spins around, and we see it's TIM.
TIM Gordon, you have to get us out of here. The cable snapped just a minute ago and I think the emergency brakes are giving.
Just then we see from INSIDE the elevator car that it drops sharply, about three feet, then stops just as quickly.
Gordon tries to pry open the door with his red crowbar, but they are jammed. The elevator drops another foot.
GORDON They won't move.
Gordon stops and leans toward the small opening. Tim reaches through it and grabs his wrist.
TIM (CONT'D) My daughter.
TIM (sternly) My daughter. My wife.
TIM (CONT'D) Please.
Beat. And Gordon simply nods. Tim passes him the picture of his baby daughter. Just as Gordon grasps it, while Tim is still holding it, the elevators brakes give way. Tims arm disappears back through the elevator doors and we HEAR METAL SCREECHING.
Moments later, the impact comes. Gordon is blow back from the doors by the burst of displaced air, and the hallway is filled with dust.
FADE TO BLACK.
Now we have some real meaning to these events, something lacking from the game. And that's fine, you don't need nor really want that in a game, but it's a must in films. It was really easy to do, I wrote that on the fly, and it's decent. Not great, but decent. It really needs to be longer, though. Although we only knew one person in that elevator, in the film, we'd get to see their faces, and we now feel a real sense of loss because of what happened.
Despite the incredible number of problems with these kind of adaptations, it can still be done, if you really know what you're doing. It shouldn't be attempted under any other circumstances, because it's just so easy to get it wrong.
Although I think Resident Evil was a decent movie, it suffered from a few of the problems I presented above, and did nothing to solve them. One of these days, someone who knows what they are doing is going to get one of these assignments, and we're going to see what can really be done with one of these games as a true foundation. And it'll be really freakin cool, just wait and see.