The kind of video game movie that works

Two recent posts to this blog have talked about video games and movies. One asked why movies based on video games are always bad. Another talked about plans for an Inception game and expressed skepticism about whether it would work as a game. Both movies that adapt video games and especially video games that are based on movies have their problems, at least where quality is concerned (though I would argue that there are examples of both that work–I’ll get to those at the end of this post). Another kind of video game movie that works better is those that aren’t adaptations but feature games as an important part of the story being told.

I’ve been planning to post about video games and movies for a while, so I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I keep coming back to movies like Tron or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World as being the best approach to video game movies. These movies are about games (or in the case of Scott Pilgrim, informed by games), but they’re not based on games. When I first decided to post about movies and video games, I asked some friends about their favorites. I also did a search to see what the Internet would bring me. My own choices, my friends’, and this column at the Escapist all pretty much agreed that in addition to Tron and Scott Pilgrim, you can’t talk about video game movies of this type without talking about The Wizard, WarGames, The Last Starfighter, and eXistenZ. I’m going to talk about Tron, WarGames, eXistenZ and Scott Pilgrim in this post, because those are the ones I have watched a million times know best (after the cut. Long post is long. Also, if you’re the TL;DR type, skip to the end for the part about a class poll). Feel free to leave comments about the others.

1. Tron

I have to start with Tron because I own three Tron t-shirts (seriously). It’s a nerd touchstone, especially for people of my generation. In it, a game designer gets pulled into a world inside of a computer and has to play video games gladiator style. It was a box office flop, but it remains influential, especially for its distinctive visual style. Tron‘s influence can be seen in things like the cartoon ReBoot, which also features a world inside of a computer network. Tron: Legacy, a sequel, came out last year, almost 30 years after the original release.  Here’s the trailer for the original. Note the arcade:

2. WarGames

Another 80s nerd touchstone movie we need to talk about is WarGames. Originally released the year after Tron, WarGames is one of many movies from the 80s where Matthew Broderick hacks into a high school computer to change his grades. It’s also a movie where a character thinks he’s playing a simulation, but the simulation turns out to be real (sound familiar?). Here’s the trailer:

3. eXistenZ

The next movie is from the 90s. eXistenZ is about a focus group testing an immersive virtual reality multiplayer game. The lines get blurred throughout the gameplay to the point where the players aren’t sure what’s real and what’s the game. It actually came out the same year as The Matrix and The 13th Floor (1999 was a big year for movies about simulations). Of the three, it’s the one to talk about when talking about games, as video games are explicitly a part of the story. Fair warning: it’s a Cronenberg movie (if you’ve seen a Cronenberg movie, then you know of what I speak). It has a truly great ending that I won’t spoil here. Here’s the trailer:

4. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Finally, one of my favorite game movies is Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Based on a six-volume comic series by Bryan Lee O’Malley and directed by Edgar Wright of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz fame, it’s the work of people my age(ish) who grew up with video games from 8-bit on. And it shows. There are nods to games throughout both the comics and the movie. The whole structure of both, in fact, revolves around fighting games. To make a very long story short, the Scott Pilgrim of the title has to fight his girlfriend Ramona’s Seven Evil Exes (this is a metaphor about relationships and baggage and stuff like that). Basically, Scott sees his life as if it were a game (he’s not the most mature person in the world, though that changes–and that’s the point). Here’s one of the trailers:

And those are some movies about games that aren’t based on games. Can you think of others? I’m betting there have to be some anime films that fit this bill, for example.

For the record, I have enjoyed some movies that are based on games. The Resident Evil movies come to mind. I fully acknowledge that they aren’t the height of the film making craft, but they’re fun. But then, I also never played Resident Evil as a game.

I do think there are some video games based on films that work. The Tron arcade game was a classic and incorporated the games that were depicted in the movie. Tron 2.0, which was a PC game, also got great reviews (that said, I’ve watched my brother play Tron: Evolution–the Tron: Legacy game–and it has all of the clunky fail that we’ve come to expect from a rushed tie-in). The Scott Pilgrim tie-in game is a great homage to the games of my teen years (basically, it looks like a Sega Genesis game but runs on the power of current consoles). And one area of games-based-on-movies that deserves its own post is the idea of games as part of transmedia storytelling (transmedia is term I believe coined and definitely made famous by Henry Jenkins that refers to worldbuilding and storytelling across different media formats). An example would be the Riddick games, which got better reviews than the movies that take place in the same universe.

So what are your favorite video game movies (of any kind–adapted from, about)? What are ones that you don’t like but that we should still talk about for the sake of being thorough? Let’s collect a list of movies, from the Digimon movies (the first of which, believe it or not, I’m pretty sure I own a copy of) to Doom (which I really don’t have a copy of). And what are your favorite games based on movies? Once we get some lists going, we’ll put up polls & vote for the class favorites.

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lauren M
    Mar 13, 2011 @ 16:20:50

    I like your ideas about game based movies. You also had me thinking about games based off of movies. The one movie that I like that was made from a game was Tomb Raider. It wasn’t cheesy and the storyline was great!


  2. Craig Belpedio
    Mar 13, 2011 @ 23:55:02

    I LOVE Tron (and Tron: Legacy), WarGames and Scott Pilgrim. SP was actually one of my favorite movies of last year because it feels like a video game in movie form; everything from the XP Scott gains to his “pee bar” to the swords he pulls out of his chest make it feel like I’m watching a game and I LOVE IT.

    Can we have an in-class screening of one of these movies? 🙂


  3. Matthew Van Parys
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 19:39:43

    Staying with the topic of video games and movies. I have heard rumors that they were going to produce a movie based on “Bioshock” (my favorite game ever). I felt like the story line for the game was destined to be a movie, I played through several times just to make sure I found all elements of the story. Can anyone confirm or deny the rumor I have been hearing.


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