The acquisition of Weta Digital, the special effects company co-founded by Peter Jackson by a video game engine company, Unity, should not be a surprise given what video games and mainstream Hollywood films and TV shows want to achieve. Their end goals follow a similar path, that is to tell compelling stories and to immerse the audience into another universe or another life. Many films today rely on computer generated visual effects, either to save money or to film what looks like the impossible, something that modern video games have achieved for some time now.
The rationale for the acquisition was deftly summed up by Unity’s CEO, John Riccitiello “by combining the power of Unity and Weta Digital, the tools and technology that built characters and scenes from the world’s most iconic films such as Avatar, The Lord of the Rings and Wonder Women, will enable an entirely new generation of creators to build, transform, and distribute stunning real-time 3D content”. Simply put, a reciprocal relationship between video games and movies has developed. Video games will utilise the technology of film, and movies will utilise the technology of video games. If ever two industries in the technology field experience convergence, than video games and film is it.
For some time now video games have applied cinematic methods to move a story’s narrative along. Games have intro-films, QTE (quick-time events) and cinematics during gameplay, which all add to the storytelling. Although some gamers may find such instruments of design to be frustrating, because they can break the flow of gameplay and can often take-away control of a video game entirely, they are often employed as an effective way to facilitate a new chapter in a game or showcase a new gameplay mechanic.
David Cage is a perfect example of the synergy between video game and cinema. Cage’s video games’ Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls and Detroit: Become Human are essentially films within the framework of a video game. The boundaries between the two mediums have been chipped away in the last two decades. It would not be a stretch in the imagination to say that many films today employ design elements commonly found in video games. For example, many of the action sequences in the Marvel and DC films have the stylistic semblance of video games.
When it came to the direct marriage of video game and cinema, the history has been chequered. Family films such as Detective Pikachu and Sonic The Hedgehog have seen huge successes both at the box office and with critics alike. Except maybe for Tomb Raider, productions which were based on more mature video titles such as Doom, World of Warcraft, Assassin’s Creed and Max Payne have somewhat missed the mark. This is because those films jointly failed to satisfy gamers, who knew and understood the IP, and cinema audiences who did not. History has shown that video game IPs cannot translate into successful (box office) films unless careful attention is paid on why these games became eminent in the first place. Story is one thing, but immersion is just as important. Gamers gravitate to characters, no matter how ridiculous, so long as the character is true to the game-world. Consequently, films and TV shows based on video game properties need to treat their source material with the same degree of gravity that is afforded by the game producer and publisher.
The good news is that the forthcoming TV shows Halo and The Last of Us looks like they have taken the source material with a high level of seriousness, but time will tell. At the time of writing this article the new Uncharted film, with Tom Holland, has released with mixed reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, but attend a respectable 69% on IMDB. Hopefully this attention to detail will pay off when The Rock will start in a film based on the Call of Duty franchise expected next year.
Why so many video game properties are being made into TV shows or films?
The reasons are multi-faceted but can be primarily summarised with the following:
The video game industry is now so big it cannot be ignored. Today video games make more money than film and music combined. Consequently, Hollywood could not afford to ignore it especially given that many of these IPs come with a ready-made audience. This was evident with The Witcher TV show on Netflix or the 2016 film The Angry Birds Movie which grossed more than $350 million.
Technology. The Unreal 5 engine and Unity video game engines are making it possible to seamlessly merge video game assets into photorealistic film.
Synergies. It’s no secret than mainstream cinema going is facing a possible existential crisis. The film industry is facing a seismic shift on how content is being consumed. Irrespective of the Covid pandemic (which closed cinemas for weeks on end) many people today were already watching media content on their phones and tablets. Streaming has also changed the landscape of TV viewing in a paradigm shift that was unimaginable twenty years ago. All these gadgets can be used to play video games. Both media companies and video game publishers know they are competing for eye-ball time, so what better way to get this than from content that can satisfy both TV viewing and video game playing camps? For example, Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and Minecraft: Story Mode are TV shows with Quick-Time Events usually found in video games. The future could possibly see films released on Blu Rays with “choose your own endings”.
Expanding brands. Many video game publishers are looking to expand their brands into other media forms. Books, comics and merchandise based on video games are common. The extension into film and TV is the logical next step as production values continue to fall.
FOMO (fear of missing out) but this time from the content makers. The recent flurry of announcements for film and TV shows based on video game IPs is fuelling its own demand. For example, Death Stranding’s developer Kojima Productions announced it will launch a new division dedicated to music, TV, and film. Publishers who understand that their IP could have strong cross-media appeal are looking to break into film so as not to be left out. When one major publisher announces its game will get the TV or film treatment, the pressure on other publishers to follow suite is palpable.
Diversification. Revenue that is derived from many sources is one of the best ways to offset losses or sudden change in an industry. What better way to generate extra revenue from video game IPs than from TV and film media?
To sum up, it can be argued that Unity’s acquisition of Weta Digital is the inevitable extension that video games and film are two sides of the same coin. They both want to achieve the same thing, that is to tell compelling stories and to entertain people. We should expect the relationship between the two will just get closer, possibly up to when a singularity is achieved between these two forms of entertainment products, and video games and film media will become one.
If you like to see this possible future, in December 2021 Epic released a demo called The Matrix Awakens: An Unreal Engine 5 Experience. You can see a video of the gameplay here.