Three Reasons Most Video Game Movies Don't Work, and One Why I Hope a Metal Gear Solid Movie Will

Film adaptations of popular games are almost as inevitable as game adaptations of films—and often, just as terrible.

Early this morning, we learned that Konami once again have plans to take Metal Gear Solid to the silver screen. The film seems to be in the very early planning stages, so it's too soon to say whether it seems to be shaping up well or not. One thing is certain, though: it certainly has its work cut out for it.

Movie adaptations of games have a Sisyphean task to begin with, and the lore and legend of the Metal Gear Solid series is, well, an absolute beast. Metal Gear Solid 4 came with a downloadable encyclopedia of characters, connections, and histories that, even after a careful reading, mostly didn't make sense. The series is notorious for containing hours of expository cut-scenes as is—essentially, it has several films' worth of material mingled in with its more interactive sections.

The biggest issue, in most video game adaptations to films, is that the creators tend to think literally. And there are three huge obstacles with directly, rather than spiritually, adapting a game for Hollywood.

  • Duration. Even a short game, one that falls in the 8-10 hour range, is 4-5 times the length of an average movie. The games and game series that tend to have the most beloved stories also tend to tell them over the course of many, many hours. Even the fastest player will spend sixty hours to complete the Mass Effect series; could you possibly tell as much story in two hours of film?
  • Participation. The way a player engages with a player character fills in a great deal of the player's assumptions about a game's world and story. When we, the player, make certain kinds of choices on behalf of our protagonists, we tend to consider them to be the sum of those choices. Thus, the way I play The Walking Dead, Lee is a good man who cares about Clementine and the secrets of his past are irrelevant to his future. The way someone else might play, though, Lee is a jerk who can't wait to dump this stupid kid and will do whatever he has to—or wants to—to arrange things his way. A film is fixed: a lead character on screen will behave how the script-writer and director say he must, which can be dissonant to the story the player thought she knew.
  • Purpose. Some games are about their story. Others are about broader themes, like betrayal, power, or greed. But many games are, in a profound sense, about their mechanics. It's true that screen time doesn't have to be spent on jumping, or guns, or map exploration, or leveling-up—but without these ties to player engagement, many games lose their identity, and become just another boring story, badly told.

And yet, all hope is not lost. Just as a game can better succeed by supplementing, rather than supplanting, its cinematic source material, so too can a film choose to explore an aspect of a game's world in a new, illuminating way.

Roughly a million hours of the story of FOXHOUND, and all that came before and after, won't fit into a coherent movie. (It wouldn't even fit into a coherent trilogy.) But the broader themes—betrayal, secrecy, stealth, lies, love, duty, honor, jealousy—most certainly could. The Metal Gear Solid series touches on everything from free will to genetic engineering to nuclear disarmament to the strength of the human soul.

A movie can't make Snake's rather bizarre family tree feel meaningful, in just two hours. But it can tell a story of war, and of maybe-enemies looking for truth. It certainly can't make the fate of Liquid Snake's right arm make any sense, but it could tell a tale of two brothers facing off for what each thinks is the greater good.

Movie adaptations of games, like movie adaptations of books, tell the best stories when they strive to be good films, rather than just good adaptations. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban succeeded as a movie in a way that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone did not, because the former was a film told in the language of cinema, and the latter was too faithful a retelling of a novel that most viewers had already read.

For a Metal Gear Solid movie to work, its creative team will have to reach into the soul of what makes the game series tick, and draw a new and well-told story from it. Retelling the tale of Shadow Moses—or any other game mission—won't work. But with a story world so deep and complicated, surely there is a tale to tell that will.