I’ve Been Pwned By a Video Game Movie For the Last Time

By  · Published on June 10th, 2016

There’s no sense in this noob trying to get it anymore.

When it comes to modern gaming, I’m a total noob. I make no effort to hide this fact, because I don’t like or care about video games anymore. I grew up with them as much as any kid of my generation, starting with Pong and even really enjoying such early arcade and home console games as Pac-Man, Pitfall!, Spy Hunter, Dig Dug, Breakout, Tetris, Frogger, Marble Madness, Rampage, and my personal favorite – mostly because I could actually last a while, Time Pilot. We had Atari, Nintendo, and Sega consoles at home, as well as a stand up, coin-op Tron machine. But for some reason, shortly after the release of Sega Genesis and a few turns on Altered Beasts and Sonic the Hedgehog, I grew bored with (and too cheap for) them and gave up.

This summer apparently then marks my 25th anniversary of quitting gaming almost for good, minus brief experiences here and there – just to see what the hype is all about – with the multiplayer hit GoldenEye 007, the anarchistic pleasure Grand Theft Auto, and the mobile app phenomenon Angry Birds. Plus random plays at an arcade-themed bar or gamer friend’s house, the latter usually reminding me of how little I like to play and even less like to watch others play. But in all this time I’ve managed to avoid any knowledge not to mention experience with anything titled Halo, Call of Duty, Madden, Sims, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, Final Fantasy, Tekken, Half-Life, Silent Hill, Metal Gear Solid, Myst, Minecraft, StarCraft, or Warcraft.

Some of those titles in my ignorance pile have been turned into movies, of course. The last on the list is the latest, and like many video game adaptations it’s garnering mostly negative reviews. I’ve seen it, and I do not like it very much, but I’m not here to offer criticism of the movie – you can read Rob Hunter’s review for FSR for that. Rather my issue is that, good or bad, it doesn’t really embrace or cater to noobs like myself. Fans of the game appear to be more accepting of the movie overall, and that’s fascinating because a lot of video game movies are bad and also unfaithful to the source material and are therefore disliked by critics, mainstream moviegoers, and the players all equally. This one will be far more divisive.

As is often the case with video game movies, the stuff I find most intriguing is anything where the filmmakers attempted – unbeknownst to me – to replicate game play or game narrative structure for the big screen. Intriguing due to a combination of curiosity and confusion. With the Warcraft movie, it was initially frustrating for a noob like me to try to figure out the character point of view. I questioned whether I was supposed to root for the orc we’re introduced to first or the human warrior we meet and are focused more on later. Eventually I realized the movie purposefully splits the perspective between the two. After the movie, I learned further it’s relevant to the game, in which you can play as an invading orc or a world-defending human.

The concepts of duality and giving people (here the audience) someone else’s POV are things we’ve seen before in the work of director Duncan Jones, so I could certainly appreciate that. The stuff done with language in the movie, while not totally consistent, is pretty cool, too, and comes off as Jones’s doing. Unfortunately, I don’t think he manages to make a Warcraft movie that’s as much for his own fans as for the game’s fans, not to mention for anyone that falls outside both circles. Plenty of people will go into the movie knowing who all the characters are and what the basic scenario is. And those of us who go in blind without any familiarity with the source are left struggling to keep up. I guess we’re the ones playing a game now?

The 10 Worst Video Game Movies in History

One of the things keeping video game movies down, I think, is that every one of them is first and foremost looked at as a video game movie. That’s not the same with adaptations of most other mediums, not really even of comic books. Very rarely does a movie based on a video game look appealing as just a movie. I keep thinking about the upcoming Assassin’s Creed, the trailer for which makes it out to be the most confounding tentpole ever. But enough people, myself not included, are aware of its source material and are excited to see it because of that. Video games are very popular, more so globally than movies in fact. So it makes sense that a movie based on a video game can lean on built-in familiarity and fandom.

Gaming may be the only culture where movies and other adapted works can do that, cater solely to the fans and be successful if deemed acceptable by that demo. The Angry Birds Movie would have made very little sense to me if I hadn’t played the game a few times. Ratchet and Clank mostly lost me because I had not played that one before. Looking back through the history of video game movies, there are very few that looked appealing on their own, and there’s only one I’ve ever fully embraced and continue to enjoy: Resident Evil, which works as a kind of pulpy serial sci-fi horror adventure that truly wants to be a cinema spectacle, not just a cash-in on a brand popular in and more fit for another medium.

My modern video game illiteracy has rarely been an issue for me, but the larger that gaming culture gets, the more worried I should be. I was recently pwned on Twitter for not knowing who James Rolfe, aka Angry Video Game Nerd (of the site and YouTube handle Cinemassacre), is despite his apparent enormous Internet fame. I also recently was assigned to watch a new film I’d never heard of called Pure Pwnage: Teh Movie, which it turns out is based on a long-running web and TV franchise beloved enough that the feature-length version’s crowdfunding goal on Indiegogo was met in only 24 hours. There’s not a lot of enjoyment to be had with the film for noobs, but that doesn’t matter since it was a hit on its own terms before it was even made.

The problem extends for me to my own turf, as well. As a documentary critic, it can be an issue that films about gaming and games continue to be on the rise. I have no trouble with a doc like The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters that follows a contest involving an old title. It’s not just because I’m familiar with Donkey Kong, but it’s also a simple enough game that I wouldn’t need to be to enjoy the film. But then State of Play, about pro gamers in South Korea, is a challenge because it features so much StarCraft game play on screen during the competition sequences and seems to expect the viewer to tell if the player is doing well or not. Unfortunately, I can not, and so those sequences are not as dramatically effective for me.

Warcraft’s Orcs, The Lord of the Rings, and Non-Human Storytelling

One way I can stop being pwned by movies like Warcraft – those I wrongly assume will satisfy moviegoers like myself who aren’t at least somewhat familiar with the games – is to educate myself. That doesn’t necessarily mean I have to start buying and playing the most popular titles but surely keep tabs on them and learn about them. Or I can just stop trusting that they might have something of value for someone like me and ignore them. The latter option sounds better to me, but some day movies like Warcraft are going to be viewed as sure bets regardless of quality due to their global appeal to the millions of gamers out there. Then I’m going to be out of a job or just really bad at it. We’ll see how long I can get away with not getting it.

Related Topics:

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.