Try as it might, Hollywood can’t sell interpretation.
In 2014, a South London development studio comprising two individuals released a mobile game that would propel them to stardom within the year. UsTwo Games unleashed the magnificent Monument Valley unto iOS and Android users to massive critical acclaim, earning it a widespread title as one of the best mobile games of 2014. Now, the charmingly introspective, dreamily abstract puzzler is being stretched beyond its limits to fit the big screen, paving the way for the doomed indie game movie.
Paramount Pictures and Weed Road have taken on the title with the hopes that, with director Patrick Osborne of Nimona stock, the Monument Valley name will become a franchise. Bastardisation is a strong word, but I do see clear reasons an indie game will never work as a movie. We’ve learned, in fact, that video game movies rarely work point blank, and the factors behind those crumbling box offices are amplified for indie games. Here’s why…
Monument Valley takes its players on a meditative journey around an ethereal world in the tip-toeing shoes of Princess Ida. From manipulating the game world around you to reach new heights and puzzles, to descrambling optical illusions to get to the truth of the universe you inhabit, the title is inherently peaceful, even introspective. With little story to dictate movements and direction, players are free to discover their own world.
This is fairly typical of many indie games’ approach. While there are of course exceptions, many indie games place more emphasis on the ludic drive behind their experiences – the mechanics, actions, goals, and rewards of the game – rather than the storyline. A number of indie game giants spring to mind: Minecraft, Super Meat Boy and Terraria, for example. That’s not to say the storylines aren’t there; mechanics just supercede them in terms of developer intention and player affinity.
A triple-A game adaptation will focus on the storyline of the game, because that’s the element of a video game that can be effectively transferred to the medium of film. While it’s often the storyline that people have issues with in regards to triple-A game adaptations, the reasons viewers have these issues generally come back to control and experience.
“What it comes down to is people always want games translated that have a solid story already. So things are acted out with voice acting or with lines… There are constant comparisons made between what happens in the game and what happens in the movie, and you’re inevitably going to upset certain people,” says Dan Gray, head of UsTwo Studios, to BBC Newsbeat. There’s truth to what Dan says, and the notion of separating what makes the game work and what the storyline needs to dictate is certainly one of merit. Gray is essentially reiterating a central flaw with video game adaptations – however, it seems that the team isn’t doing anything to counter such fears.
Instead, Hollywood production companies are concocting their own stories to pitch for the Monument Valley universe. Squeezing and shifting a narrative into a highly personal game world such as that of Monument Valley, and many other indie games, will always feel forced. There’s a simple reason for that: they’re ignoring what makes their game work. Personal interpretation, and internalisation of meditative movements and controls, are the lifeblood of the Monument Valley experience, and with them come a sense of ownership of agency. Not only are these elements the last features movies can confidently convey, but the sense of agency they produce inherently undercuts any viewing experience.
So when adapting a game that is primarily ludic, this idea of control and internal understanding is going to present a formidable challenge. It’s the change from active participant in the unfolding events to passive onlooker that sparks much distrust in Hollywood’s handling of video game content. Suddenly, the experience of ‘figuring it out for yourself’ is removed, and placed precariously in someone else’s hands. Viewers experience an estrangement from the game world, their own interpretation of the universe dashed in the face of a single director’s.
Plus, indie games are often more personal. Games tend to be smaller experiences tailored to evoke emotion or feeling in the player to convey a single indie developer’s message. Consider Flower, Braid, Thomas Was Alone, and Rain for example.
“The story of Monument Valley… is down to a player’s interpretation. If the film is something that captures the identity of the visuals and the feeling and the characters they can go wherever they want with that. It’s not defined by certain lines and conversations that took place in the game we’ve already made,” says Dan – but whether or not there’s defined narrative or atmospheric structure within the game, they exist within the player base. And when it’s an internal, personal experience, that definition is incredibly unique and incredibly powerful.
There’s a danger of turning Monument Valley into something it’s not. Its atmosphere, messaging, puzzle design, and progress mechanics all point to it as a concept to be moulded by the player in their own imagination. It will therefore never be what directors want it to be, and the same can be said of other indie games.
Video games rely on players to function. Much of their experience and narrative on offer revolves around the player themselves. When you remove that player, the experience crumbles. When you replace that player with a director or a set of actors, the whole illusion of the game world crumbles. This game world is different for every player, depending on how they first approached it, what they saw first, how much they explored, what they related to, where they spent most of their time, what mood they were in when they went there, what action took place. Forcing that complex organism of experience, memory, and emotion into one director’s understanding of the atmosphere while removing all agency in the meanwhile brings even triple-A game adaptations to their knees. Try it with a game built around this unique experience – where storyline is often replaced in the form of mechanics, ludic experiences, and goals that aim to offer a personal, introspective experience unique to each player – and you’ll quickly find indie game movies will barely stand.
If you’re interested in checking out some mobile games that are sticking to the smaller screens, check out our latest mobile stories!