The idea that video games can be effectively turned into films is one met with skepticism. With the list of game adaptations including such critical darlings as Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, Prince of Persia, and Silent Hill, it’s not surprising that people give the stink eye to any possibility of a videogame movie being any good.
Like any other adaptation, the differences in story structure (and the demands placed on the audience) make it difficult for the themes and emotional experiences to translate. Despite this, I think that there are tons of games that, placed in the right creative hands, could make a great cinematic experience. In Cutscenes to Silver Screens, I’ll be breaking down some of my favorite titles to see if there’s any adaptive potential to be mined. As always, I’d love to hear what you guys have to say, so feel free to comment or suggest games you think would be great on the silver screen. For now though, here we go!
Shadow of the Colossus
Writer: Guillermo Del Toro
- Wander – Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, Ruby Sparks, Looper)
Shadow of the Colossus seems like an odd pick right off the bat. A game where a good chunk of the plot consists of placid, silent exploration of a barren land doesn’t seem to exactly make for riveting cinema. The long stretches of quiet contemplation contrasted with the earth-shattering scale of the Colossi fights makes SotC look like a filmmaker’s nightmare. It also epitomizes one of the problems with adapting a game to the screen: the solitude of the main character. In absence of any supporting cast to interact with, pressure gets put on the writer to fabricate aspects of the story out of thin air in order to both provide some form of impetus for a character arc, as well as to make it fit better within the typical three-act structure of most screenplays.
Those who have seen Drive will know that Nick Winding Refn has a knack for capitalizing on onscreen silence to fill the auditory void with tension and emotion. Just because characters aren’t speaking doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t saying anything, and by making use of skillful visual storytelling, those undertones can be earth-shakingly profound. The same could be said for just about anything within the world that the camera places its lens upon, and if there’s any director I associate with breathtaking visual storytelling, it’s Guillermo Del Toro. In the original game, the minimal dialog there is gets largely used for exposition; to point the player in the direction where they might find their next foe. Del Toro has come under fire for the weakness of his scripts, or at least the ones written in English (understandably, not his first language). The scarcity of dialogue win SotC works to his strengths, as even making the movie in Spanish could actually benefit the overall quality of the film. Whether Wander speaks in the gibberish language of the original or Del Toro’s native tongue makes no difference here. Del Toro also has a great sense of pacing and maintaining thematic arcs in his scripts, and for a story where so much of it is subtext, that skill is indispensable.
Speaking of subtext; another challenge of SotC is the largely implicit nature of its story. The player is never explicitly told, “Hey, dude. These colossi never did anything to you, so by killing them, you’re kind of an asshole. Oh, also, you’re killing the world. So… thanks for that. Douche.” They’re given a series of increasingly direct hints to that fact, but regardless, Team Ico respected its audience enough to allow them to figure it out on their own. No Country for Old Men is a movie with a similar philosophy (whatever misgivings I have about the ending) and that’s why I think the Coen Bros would be a great selection to produce a SotC movie. Some mistakenly minimize the role of the producer, but having a good one can mean the difference between having or not having a significant degree of creative autonomy from meddling studio execs. Given the frequently offbeat and odd nature of their films, the Coens have a solid track record of maintaining their creative voice; again, another indispensable skill.
In trying to dispense with forced, expository dialogue, Wander could discover the legend of the Colossi in (for example) a short prologue before the main story begins. Strategic use of the prologue and a late title card could work well to convey a significant amount of information without eating up precious runtime. Placing this background at the beginning of the movie also gives a chance to show how #GIRLFRIEND_NAME died. Establishing significant enough audience empathy with Wander to justify his dogged determination to bring his lover back from the dead at any cost is essential , and if I’m honest, is an aspect I never felt was handled well in the game. In the game, the quest to revive #GIRLFRIEND_NAME comes off as a plot vehicle to get us to the point where we can stab giant monsters with a sword. The use of the prologue in this way also highlights another advantage to Refn and Del Toro’s visual skill: its economy. It takes a great deal less time to tell a story in images than in words. I’m the first to admit I have a bunch of problems with Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising, but its visual style is breathtaking. The rough hewn grays of its mountainous, Nordic terrain bears striking similarity to the landscape in SotC.
This returns us to the problem of isolation. Aside from the monks who eventually arrive to give Wander a stern talking-to, there aren’t any other people. At all. This is a sticking point, but not an impassable one. Agro, Wander’s noble steed, it also his sole, stalwart companion, and given a strong enough script, I genuinely believe that the relationship between the two could carry a movie. Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey in Moon pulled it off, as did Will Smith and his loyal pooch in I Am Legend. For those skeptical that one could characterize a horse with the same skill brought to the “boy and his dog” movie sub-genre, I’d like to remind you that one of 2013’s Oscar nominees was War Horse: a movie where the horse was an undoubtedly sympathetic, fully-developed main character.
A final point worth mentioning is the plot. Though the main impetus and progression is set out by the source material, the specifics of the movie’s progression need to be filled with more significance if they’re to make a compelling narrative of Wander’s dogmatic quest, and the growing dread with which the consequences of his actions begin to dawn upon him. Given the gigantic nature of the world, “discovery” and “exploration” seem like strong through-lines to build the movie around. The discovery of the implications that coming with slaying the Colossi, the discovery of the world itself, and the inner discovery of the man whom Wander is becoming via his actions. There is a ton of meaning to mine here (if there wasn’t, I doubt that SotC would have become such a timeless classic), but it takes a steady hand and a skillful eye to harness these titans into a moving cinematic experience.