Video games have cameoed in movies and television to great effect in the past. Think of Wild Gunman in Back to the Future II, or fictional titles like the Mortal Kombat-aping Bonestorm in The Simpsons and Red Dwarf's virtual reality nightmare, Better Than Life. Before you head to the comments to tell me I "forgot" Scott and Knives acing Ninja Ninja Revolution, or David OReilly's potty mouthed NPC in Her, or Big's The Cavern of the Evil Wizard, I really haven't. I just don't have all day to draw you up a list of this stuff when there's dozens of such pieces online already.
Besides, that's not the point here. The point is that movies, and TV, explicitly based on video game franchises have not only been historically balls, but they're not showing any real signs of change for the better.
I recently watched Halo: Nightfall, the live-action, scene-setting preamble to the upcoming Halo 5: Guardians game for Xbox One. Split into five episodes for its initial digital release through Microsoft devices, Nightfall is available to stream on demand, DVD/Blu-ray and download as a single feature-length presentation from the 16th of March (in the UK, and internationally the day after).
'Halo: Nightfall' trailer
Its budget of ten million dollars means special effects don't suck, and the acting talent is impressive for a webseries – Mike Colter (The Good Wife, Men in Black 3) and Steven Waddington (The Imitation Game, Last of the Mohicans) are the action men of the title, while Londoner Christina Chong shows why, even in a minor role, she'll be a great asset to the new Star Wars movie, bringing heart to a part that otherwise only exists to guarantee cleavage. But Nightfall makes the crucial mistake of assuming too much of its audience, pandering to existing Halo fans over newcomers simply after some sci-fi action.
Within minutes the viewer is struck by terminology that even franchise followers might have to Google – I know I did, pausing the film to find out exactly what the cast was on about (the people-eating Lekgolo worms are woefully explained). The story's set up well, with extra-terrestrial aggressors deploying an air-carried virus that attacks human DNA, leading to some powerful scenes – but these foundations collapse into a generic last-man-standing adventure as a crew of space marines are marooned on an alien world that looks a lot like Iceland (because it is). They're against the clock and against each other – who will survive? More pertinently, who cares?
Mike Colter cares. As the actor portraying Jameson Locke, he's the central character in Nightfall's predictable plot, the hero who'll graduate from this origin story to a leading role in Guardians – Locke is who you'll step into the boots of in the absence of series stalwart Master Chief. Right now he's no super soldier, not yet a part of the Spartan program that made the protagonist of Halos one through four the baddies-slaying ultimate badass that he was. But because we know he will be the main man come Guardians, any Nightfall scenes depicting him in peril lose their gravitas. Obviously he's going to be okay – he's not going to die until we, the players, let him.
The South Carolina actor is endearingly straight up about what attracted him to the role of Locke. "I wanted to get into the sci-fi, action genre, and I felt that this was a great opportunity," he tells me, days after he's confirmed as Luke Cage in Marvel's forthcoming series for Netflix, A.K.A. Jessica Jones. "I wanted to get into the sci-fi world, and I'm all about trying something new, and taking risks. As the first person cast, what really attracted me to the project was the involvement of Scott Free, Ridley Scott's production company. I'd worked with David Zucker there before, for The Good Wife, and I know that anything with Ridley's name on it has a certain quality attached to it, a legitimacy, and I felt good about that."
But Colter isn't a gamer. He's not been hands-on with much Halo prior to picking up a paycheque for Nightfall – and the voice acting and motion capture he's contributed to Guardians. "I knew it was really popular," he says. "I'd heard was a great brand. You might not have played one of the games, but you know about it. It's like, even if you'd never heard a Michael Jackson song, crazy though that sounds, you still know who Michael Jackson was. Halo's sales are massive, and you see those figures and just think, 'wow'. But that's about as much as I knew about it. I approached it with a fresh frame of mind, knowing that I was creating a character from scratch. I didn't feel I needed to worry much about the prior Halo lore."
But isn't that a damning admission, really? As great as Colter's transparency on his Nightfall involvement is – I get the impression during our conversation that his middling profile (expect it to rise with the Luke Cage gig) ensures a no-bullshit attitude to interviews, a refreshing resistance to following a PR-supervised script – I can't help but feel that games will forever suffer in the translation from interactive medium to sit-back-and-relax passive consumption, through movies and television, while the talent involved doesn't respect the source material.
Yet that in itself presents a pretty significant problem: most stories in video games are clichéd crap, and those that aren't – The Last of Us, for example – are leaning on identifiable influences from literature and cinema already. Naughty Dog's multi-award-winner is The Road with a really nasty case of athlete's foot, basically, and unlikely to shake up cinemas when it goes full circle to become a film. Multiplex-released movies based on Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Final Fantasy, Doom, Hitman, Max Payne, Super Mario Bros., Wing Commander, Silent Hill and so many more have been, be fair, unmitigated cack.
An Angry Birds film is scheduled for summer 2016, and one based on Assassin's Creed for the end of next year. Nobody can realistically expect either to pick up palpable critical praise, not when the highest grossing flick to take direct inspiration from a game, and one of the best received (these things being relative), is the dreary Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. But the money that movie made, $336m, is why studios remain willing to take a punt on gaming.
Then again, just sometimes, magic can happen. Disney's Wreck-It Ralph is a delight, featuring a raft of recognisable video game characters from the Sonic series to Tapper, and Scott Pilgrim vs The World bent gaming culture through graphic novel bedrock to deliver a high-energy escapade that curved more smiles than eyebrows. That neither of these films are direct adaptations of a particular video game series, though, says much about that routine's repugnant past and unsavoury future.
Wreck-It Ralph and Scott Pilgrim also tell us that when filmmakers deviate from staying faithful to established lore, the results can be attractive to both absolute beginners and the burrowed-deep hardcore. When Colter talks of Nightfall being an origin story, of how it can exist outside of the series' overarching narrative, it might well be that was the original plan. He says there were "quite a lot of changes" made to the script, which I can only imagine brought it closer to what "the fanboys who have their own visions of what a film based on their favourite game franchise should be like" were perceived as wanting. Compromises to complement a cult, of a kind.
In the end, Nightfall does little to sell Halo to the previously disinterested – it looks, sounds and smells like dozens of similar movies before it – and it doesn't function entirely satisfactorily as a self-contained experience, as from the very beginning we know who's making it out alive, even disregarding the heavy telegraphing of key dramatic beats. It's not so terrible that you want to smash up your Xbox, but a long way south of delivering the thrills that the Halo games provide. "I think the next time they go down this road (when Steven Spielberg brings his Halo to television later in 2015), they'll get better at the storytelling and reach out to new fans as well as the existing audience," Colter says. "I think it's important, even for a brand like Halo, to bring new fans on board."
It makes me wonder if it's with games like Minecraft and Tetris, both of which are being made into motion pictures (the former in the hands of The Lego Movie's producers, which bodes well), that we might make inroads into the relationship between controllers and projectors becoming more mutually beneficial. With no real existing story for either game, scriptwriters can have an absolute ball with the IPs and rattle out some genuinely innovative concepts. Halo is restricted by its massive backstory, so too Prince of Persia, Assassin's Creed and Uncharted, another Naughty Dog production taking the leap to the silver screen in 2016. Tetris, though? Coloured blocks of differing sizes and shapes might have come to life in Thomas Was Alone, but the old-school Russian varieties have been mute since day one. The potential is boundless.
"You're up against this concept that actually only exists in someone else's imagination, which is tough to try to match," says Colter of Nightfall's tricky approach to tackling the expectations of a passionate fan base. "A video game is spectacular, awe-inspiring, and it gives you an experience that you can't deliver in a movie unless you're spending hundreds of millions of dollars." That's true enough if you're just looking to "do" that game as a movie. But the best way forward for the film industry to approach gaming is to treat its blockbusters as building blocks to craft something unique to the cinematic medium, and not to crib directly from their cavalcade of plot-pushing set pieces.
We never needed six Resident Evil movies – just one that jumped us as memorably as those dogs crashing in through the windows in the first game, but on terms exclusive to cinema. No Halo fan needs Nightfall, but when the games inspire a spin-off that can exist even when shorn of its gaming influences? That'll be a production to reserve a seat for.