|Audiences Across the Divide: game to film adaptation and the case of Resident Evil
This paper explores the responses of players of the video game series Resident Evil to its adaptation in film. Initial research of gamers on the internet movie database’s (Imdb) Resident Evil message board revealed significant disagreement. At the same time, however, the gamers seemed to have agreed on what they should be disagreeing about. The research uses discourse analysis to identify discourses which connect with wider discourses already established in the social world. But a new discourse may be emerging from the world of the gamer that is being brought to bear on film in the light of the game to film adaptation. It centres on experiential differences between games and films. Film makers, of course, have always relied heavily on adapted products. But this paper seeks to show how games and films offer very different experiences. Can game to film adaptations ever really cross this experiential divide? Indeed, should they seek to cross it at all?
video games, film adaptation, discourse, Resident Evil, ergodic pleasures
In January 2005 I finally watched the first film adaptation of the popular game franchise, Resident Evil. I was not sure what to expect, or what I should be expecting. The divide between watching a film and playing the game seemed like a void and I had no idea how to cross it. After viewing I still had no idea and turned to the Imdb Resident Evil message board to see what others had made of it. And I found similar confusion, but also significant disagreement. I also found, however, that the respondents seemed to have agreed on what they should be disagreeing about. I found this fascinating and so this research project was born.
This paper is concerned with how those who had played Resident Evil – from here described as gamers – and who had written about the film had responded to it. However, to provide a fuller analysis, it seemed necessary to contextualise what they were saying with the film maker’s intentions and within the context of the Resident Evil franchise. As a consequence, this paper asks: how did gamers respond to the adaptation of Resident Evil in film? In addressing this question, the paper raises further questions: how far did the film’s makers seek to adapt elements of the game and did the film maker’s adaptations meet the expectations of the gamers? What does it mean to post on the Imdb Resident Evil message board? What discourses can be identified in the gamers’ writing and how do they connect with the wider social world?
The paper is presented in five parts. Part one seeks to understand the similarities and differences between games and films. Part two introduces the reader to the Resident Evil universe and acknowledges, importantly, that this universe is also a highly successful franchise and a valuable intellectual property. Part three outlines the methodology used and situates the work within the critical frames of discourse analysis. Part four presents the findings of the research. Part five discusses the findings in relation to the discourses identified. A concluding section draws together some of the key arguments and ideas, raises what I hope are some interesting questions for scholars and issues a plea for further work in this area.
Part One Films and Games: drawing (and crossing) the line
I am a fan/player of the Resident Evil games and I have an interest in the emergent field of games studies and the distinctions between disciplines. While a growing body of work on gamers and the pleasures and practices of game play can be evidenced (see, for example Wright, Boria and Breidenbach (2002), Schott and Burns (2004) and Taylor (2006)), little work to date has been done on gamers’ responses to game to film adaptations. This is the focus of this study. It is not my intention to appropriate games into film studies. I acknowledge the line between the two disciplines. But it is my duty to cross it. More than ever audiences are engaging with multiple media forms on a daily basis, and as a film studies scholar I want to understand where audience experiences of film intersect with other media forms. The following section ‘crosses the line’ between films and games unapologetically.
A review of the literature reveals a number of suggested similarities between games and films. The similarities identified include the use of genre, structure, narrative, character types, camera-work and editing. Such studies suggest that these elements in games tend to be drawn from cinematic expression. Thus for Rehak (2003), videogames ‘remediate’ cinema: ‘…they demonstrate the propensity of emerging media forms to pattern themselves on the characteristic behaviours and tendencies of their predecessors’ (2003: 104).
Videogames often draw on existing genres and use the codes and conventions associated with specific genres. In their introduction to Screenplay – Cinema/Videogames/Interfaces, King and Krzywinska (2002) argue that there are clear generic parallels in terms of the kinds of games produced. Drawing on Poole (2000) they suggest that certain genres are more appropriate for use in the game world. They state:
The appeal of such environments is partly their cinematic association but also, as Poole (2000) suggests, the more prosaic fact that stylised landscapes, such as those of tech-noir, science fiction and horror, lend themselves to the limited and particular representational capacities of games (2002: 11).
The horror genre has been particularly successful in the cross-over from novel, to screen to console. Krzywinska (2002) points to several features of the horror genre that have enabled it to cross successfully into the game world. She states:
The horror genre has made the transition to videogames for a number of reasons. Horror offers death as spectacle and actively promises transgression; it has the power to promote physical sensation, and the genre appeals to the youth market that is central to the games industry (2002: 207).
In addition and by way of extension of this last point, genre provides a long-established short hand to the kinds of experiences one hopes to gain from a specific genre product. It is hardly surprising that the ready-made associations of genre should be exploited by the games industry. If there are ready-made audience expectations then there is a ready-made market.
For Perron (2005) horror games and films provide similar pleasures and experiences to audiences which might at least partially explain why horror films and games lend themselves so well to adaptation. Perron argues: ‘What horror video games — labelled survival or not — actually offer is similar to what the mainstream contemporary horror cinema proffers. To refer to the well-known expression of Isabel Pinedo, it’s a ‘bounded experience of fear’ (1996: 25 and 2004: 106 in Perron 2005).
Lindley (2002) suggests that structurally films and games are similar in that they tend to have a three part structure: beginning, middle and end. However, as Lindley (2002: 206, in King and Krzywinska (2002: 25)) notes, the middle or second act is hugely extended as this is the site of the ‘core game play’. It is also worth noting that in many instances, the gamer may also have to wait for any resolution since mastery of the controls and the game may require several attempts to complete.
In narrative terms, Eskelinen (2001: 16) sees narrative as subordinate in games. Eskelinen takes film and literary theorists to task for focussing on the dramatic and narrative elements of games in their discussions. He argues that the gaming situation operates in a completely different way and identifies its component parts as: ‘…the manipulation or the configuration of temporal, spatial, causal and functional relations and properties in different registers (2001: 1).
While narrative may at times be subordinate in games and the game-play situation quite different to the spectatorial one, the narrative frameworks derived from generic conventions are central in understanding the appeal of such games franchises as Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, and Silent Hill. As King and Krzywinska argue:
Resonances such as those derived from narrative frameworks – from cinema or other sources, from particular films, genres or broader cultural archetypes can play into the game context, and this is likely to be one of the appeals of games (2002: 25).
After all, could one conceive of Resident Evil and Silent Hill in the same way without George A Romero’s zombie horror films, or Lara Croft without Indiana Jones? Cultural referents that are shared by the intended audience are as important in the framing and realisation of games as they are to any other media form.
Another significant link to film can be found in what are termed ‘cut scenes’. Cut scenes are short film sequences that ‘cut in’ to the game play. If a cut scene is running there can be no interaction with the avatar. Some cut scenes can be over-ridden with a press of a button, but not all. This can be a source of frustration for the game-player who continually fails a challenge set up by a cut scene and is doomed to view the cut scene repeatedly until they acquire the skills necessary to progress (see also Perron 2005: ibid).
Howells (2002) explains the uses of the cut scene in video games succinctly. He states:
The intro movie introduces the characters and scenario (the game world) and establishes the game’s fundamental conflict, while subsequent cut scenes continue causal lines, introduce new plot elements, show character interaction and continually delineate explicit goals. Once the goals have been stated, the player moves to an action sequence… (2002: 113).
According to King and Krzywinska, cut scenes: ‘...frequently employ the same expository devices as cinema, using a combination of long shots, mid shots and close ups to provide orientation for the player…’(2002: 12). These scenes are used, then, to set up the story in the beginning, to provide information to players at various intervals throughout the game and also provide rewards for progress made. They interrupt the flow of game-play and render the player and the avatar inactive as the scene plays out.
Point-of-view is used in largely the same way in survival horror games as are used in film. As King and Krzywinska state: ‘Predetermined framing of this kind acts like that of a film, to some extent, directing the attention of the player and creating visual diversity through shifts of perspective, although at the expense of player freedom’ (2002: 13).
Hand also notes this appropriation of cinematic point of view in the Resident Evil games. He notes:
Aside from the first-person shooter point of view in Resident Evil: survivor, the games incorporate distinctly cinematic points of view, which construct fixed mise en scene shots. These take on a montage effect when the player moves the avatar through the environment… (2004: 128).
To sum up the similarities between films and games generally discussed in the literature, it is possible to determine similarities in the use of genre and generic conventions, particularly in relation to narrative frameworks like those of the horror genre. Videogames have also adapted other formal features of classical Hollywood cinema, including concentration on a single protagonist, camera angles, editing and point of view. That said, in my view, the differences far out-number these similarities but would the gamers’ responses articulate this?
Eskelinen (2001) might well berate film theorists for their insistence on ‘reading’ games from the standpoint of their narrative and dramatic elements, but as already stated, the success of many games, including Resident Evil, is in part due to the resonances they carry over and remediate from cinema. But he is right to stress the significant differences between games and films.
The temporal and spatial relations in film and games constitute major differences. For Krzywinska (2002) videogames are dependent on a sense of the traversal of space, even as the player sits with the joypad. The whole game world is there to be explored and is indeed a prerequisite for progress to be made.
In films, space and time are organised around narrative. But in most games, due to the extended mid section of game play, narrative is subordinated to action. Thus the strong tethering of progress to narrative action in films is not found in games. Although as Krzywinska points out, the goal of the player is to achieve a near-seamless session of game-play that is more film-like in its continuity (2002: 215).
The traversal of space privileges curiosity. The essential curiosity of game-play is worked into the game structure and narrative. Curiosity is the driving force of games and is rewarded with progress. But Krzywinska notes how in films, curiosity is often punished (2002: 217).
Aarseth (1997) explains why the difference between games and films is so important for the spectator. He states: ‘A key difference between games and films…is that games ‘raise the stakes of interpretation to those of intervention’ (1997: 4 in King and Krzywinska 2002: 23).
But interactivity alone is not the crucial conception in this formulation. It is the interactivity of the player through the figure of the avatar that holds the key here and gives credence to their claims (see also Carr 2001). As Rehak (2003) observes, here is the impossibility of cinema that Metz described: ‘…everything may come to be projected, there is one thing and one thing only that is never reflected in it: the spectator’s own body’ (Metz 1982: 45 in Rehak 2003: 103).
While the avatar does not exactly reflect the player-spectator’s own body, the player-spectator accepts that she is making the avatar move. The psychological and emotional attachments to the figure of the avatar in games are felt by the game-player. It is the player’s interactions directly with the game through the figure of the avatar that alters what it means to spectate and participate. As Rehak states: ‘The video game avatar, presented as a human player’s double, merges spectatorship and participation in ways that fundamentally transform both activities’ (2003: 103).
For Rehak, one such transformation occurs in the effects of suture. He argues: ‘The disavowal necessary to game play is like the ‘yes that is what I see’ of successful cinematic suture, but goes further: it is ‘yes, that is what I do’(2003: 121). Suture is the effect that draws and anchors the spectator to the action. Suture creates the ‘me-shaped-hole’ in films and games (Huber 2004: 1). In games, suture operates in a different way to films. As Huber states:
It is not only the gaze of the actor or the camera, or the patterns of anxiety in the filmic plane that create the positions in reception, but also the goals and interactive regime of the game, even the joystick’s tactile feedback, the direct address and call-to-action of the game (Huber 2004: 2).
Other theorists have sought to understand the nature of the game/player relationship and have found them to be different to those relationships between users of other media forms. For Juul (2001), the reader/story, player/game relations are different. Juul argues that: ‘…the player inhabits a twilight zone where he/she is both an empirical subject outside the game and undertakes a role inside the game’ (2001: 17 in King and Krzywinska 2002: 23). Film does not reject the spectator but a video game can reject the game player as it is possible to fail the game and never reach a resolution. The avatar can ‘die’ and be re-started until the specific skills required to ‘stay alive’ have been learnt by the game player. And in this sense, it is clear that different skills are required to traverse the game world and succeed in it (King and Krzywinska 2002: 23).
For some theorists, games are seen to be asking something different of their users. Games require different ‘work’ from players than the work of cinematic spectatorship. Aarseth (1997) usefully describes work of this kind as ergodic. The term, appropriated from the world of physics, is derived from the Greek words for work (ergon) and path (hodos) (Aarseth 1997: 1). I suggest that this is a useful way of conceiving of the differences between game play and cinematic spectatorship since it places emphasis on the work the player must perform to progress in the game. This idea of a work path also connects to Krzywinska’s observations on the unique spatial and temporal features of games.
The Resident Evil gamer utilises many skills in game play. As Rouse (2001) suggests:
…films present a consistent media experience for the audience. Games, on the other hand, still mix media in seemingly unnatural ways, forcing users who may just want to play a game to have to read a bit of a book, watch a movie, and then only actually get to play (2001: 223-4 in King and Krzywinska 2002: 24).
In the Resident Evil games maps, books, and diaries must be read and the information must be processed by the game player and then acted upon. Cut scenes must be watched for orientation and progress. These activities are interspersed throughout the game play, which itself requires the gaining of experience with and control, of the joypad. The Resident Evil game player is a highly active and interactive player. Thus, this study sets out to explore the pleasures a film adaptation of the game might offer to gamers already familiar with the Resident Evil universe.
This part of the paper has sought to underline some of the key similarities and differences between games and films identified in literature drawn from games studies and films studies. As noted earlier, the film-makers also sought to play with the differences and similarities between the game and film versions of Resident Evil and the game-like aspects were picked up on by a number of critics. But how did gamers respond to the adaptation? Can issues relating to the differences between game-play and film viewing be found in the gamers’ responses? In broader terms, this paper seeks to contribute to an understanding of how contemporary users of media products negotiate their inter-medial experiences.
Part Two ‘Welcome to the World of Survival Horror’
Having explored the perceived similarities and differences between games and films the paper turns its attention to the world of Resident Evil. I begin this section by first placing the franchise in context. I then outline the world of the games, emphasising the elements of the game that were considered to be ground-breaking and that offered gamers something new and different in 1996. I then go on to explore the making of the film and discuss the ways in which Anderson and his crew sought to ‘bring the game to life’.
2.1 Resident Evil: The Franchise
The Japanese games manufacturer Capcom released the first Resident Evil game in 1996. Since that time the corporation has turned it into a $600 million dollar worldwide franchise (Lai 22 August 2001). The first game received critical praise for its atmospheric presentation of a new genre that became known as ‘survival horror’ although it was criticised in some quarters for its perceived violent and gory game-play. Since the original game launch, the franchise has extended the repertoire to six games with a seventh and eighth game currently in production. The franchise includes novellas, comic books, films, action figures and other merchandise like t-shirts, mugs and mouse-mats.
According to ign.com, many of the games have exceeded a million copies in sales. They state:
Combined sales of the original Resident Evil and the Director’s Cut for PlayStation 1 total almost 2 million units in the US alone. The follow-up, Resident Evil 2, sold 1.7 million copies in America. Even Resident Evil 3: Nemesis sold more than 1 million copies on the system….by this point the PlayStation’s installed base had skyrocketed to massive numbers and the franchise had a nearly-unequalled audience of adult players (IGN 16 January 2004).
More recent figures quoted on Totalvideogames.com are taken from Capcom’s own financial report. According to Leyton (2006) the Resident Evil games franchise has sold 30 million units. This marks something of a swell in profits from the franchise which was seemingly flagging in the wake of newer games. But Resident Evil 4 alone sold 3 million units. The two films, Resident Evil (2002) and Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) have grossed over $200 million dollars at the box office worldwide (Capcom 1March 2007). The series is to be completed by the release of the final episode in the trilogy, Resident Evil – Extinction scheduled for September 2007.
2.2 Resident Evil: The Game
The Resident Evil franchise began with the game, Resident Evil produced by Capcom in 1996 played on the Playstation platform. It was originally released in Japan as Biohazard. The game was designed by Shinji Mikami who was inspired by the Japanese game Sweet Home (1989) developed by Famicom and produced by Capcom (Gamespot UK accessed 20 September 2007). The game achieved significant critical acclaim for its atmospheric game-world and was played by a high proportion of adult gamers in spite of its 15 rating. Rather than the by then standard first person shooter game, Resident Evil achieved a cinematic sensibility through its use of a third person perspective where characters were seen from fixed angle perspectives. This cinematic sensibility is carried through in the graphical representation and well-worn tropes of zombie horror films. Indeed, it is often claimed by critics and fans alike that the Resident Evil universe was inspired by George A Romero’s Zombie trilogy, Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985).
At the start of the game, the game player selects from two identities: the male Chris Redfield and female Jill Valentine. The game is set in the fictitious Racoon County in 1998 where a number of strange murders had taken place. The victims had been partially eaten. The Special Tactics and Rescue Squad (S.T.A.R.S) Bravo Team are sent in to investigate but they disappear. A second unit – Alpha Team – are sent to find out what has happened. The cut scenes see Alpha Squad (Chris, Jill, Barry and team leader Wesker) chased by attack dogs forcing them to seek refuge inside a creepy mansion. The Team splits up, agreeing to look for clues as to what has happened to Bravo Team. And this is where the game action begins. Gradually, through extended game-play, a dark and twisted tale of corporate conspiracy is woven as the mighty Umbrella Corp. are revealed to be involved in a series of sinister bio-weapons developments. Alpha Team members are exposed as double agents for Umbrella and Chris or Jill must face monsters and zombies, puzzles and challenges alone and with limited weaponry. This is the essence of ‘survival horror’. And what started as a mission of discovery ends in a frantic fight to escape the mansion and its many deadly secrets.
The Resident Evil series now includes Resident Evil 1996 on PlayStation, Resident Evil 2 1998 on PlayStation, Resident Evil 3: Nemesis 1999 on PlayStation, Resident Evil Code: Veronica 2000 on Dreamcast, Resident Evil Zero 2002 on GameCube and the hugely successful Resident Evil 4 on GameCube. Resident Evil 5 is already generating interest in spite of its unconfirmed release date of 2008.
2.3 Resident Evil: The Film
Inside a top secret research facility – known as the Hive - owned by the mysterious Umbrella Corporation a virus has escaped, killing the research staff and re-animating them. The Red Queen – a computer controlling the facility - shuts down the base to prevent the virus spreading beyond the confines of the laboratories and out into Racoon City. Umbrella Corp. sends in a crack team of soldiers to regain control. But upon their arrival, the team meet Alice, who is suffering from amnesia, an after-effect of the gas the computer released into the Hive as a control measure. As the story progresses, Alice’s memory slowly returns and she realises that she has played an important role in what has occurred in the Hive. The soldiers’ orders are to shut down the Red Queen. But she is not going to go without a fight. Alice survives but after managing to escape The Hive, she emerges into the city and realises that the worst has happened: the virus has escaped.
The first foray into cinematic adaptation of the franchise came with Resident Evil (2002) directed by Paul W Anderson. Anderson it seems was considered a safe pair of hands after George A Romero left the project. Paul W Anderson had already handled a game-to-film adaptation competently with Mortal Kombat (1995) and had achieved some critical acclaim for Event Horizon (1997). Anderson has long claimed to be a fan of the series and describes himself as a fanboy and his love of the games the reason for his agreeing to take on the project. In an online interview with Sci Fi Weekly he stated:
[And] I literally lost like two months of my life playing Resident Evil. I became totally addicted to it. And I played the first three games back to back. And by the time I kind of emerged from my house, completely unshaven and tired-looking after two months, I was like, we’ve got to make this into a movie. (Anderson cited in Lee 18 March 2002)
The director was acutely aware of the power of the fans and their expectations. This dictated his approach to the making of the film. Anderson stated: ‘… if you’re adapting a very popular game like this, what you have to realize is that there is an incredibly huge and committed fan base, and they know absolutely everything about the world of Resident Evil’ (ibid). For Anderson – as for the fans – Resident Evil is not so much a franchise as a fictional universe. Part of the challenge for Anderson was incorporating his film within the existing universe of Resident Evil. He states:
It’s a complicated universe. And as the writer/director, you have to be aware of that universe, because you have to deliver a movie that exists within that universe. If you break the rules of that universe, the fans won’t forgive you for it. And I think it’s one of the things that we really learned on Mortal Kombat. You have to deliver to the fans, first and foremost (ibid).
Given the pre-existence of this universe, Anderson’s approach was to make this first Resident Evil film a prequel. The action takes place a month before the first game and seeks to provide a history for the franchise. The problem for Anderson was to satisfy fans by incorporating enough from the game world but providing something fresh for fans and non-gamer film audiences. In this respect, the film has come under intense criticism for its deviation from the parameters of the orginary game. However, Anderson defended his decision by explaining that the film seeks to also bridge a gap between the film and the first and second games. As Anderson argues:
…it totally feeds into the game in that those characters are moving through locations and situations that are very familiar to the game’s players. And the movie kind of eventually segues straight into ... [and] actually meets the world of the video games at the end of the movie (ibid).
So, if Anderson deviated from the original game in terms of narrative and character, what elements of the game’s universe did Anderson seek to retain? What, for Anderson were the essential components that were required to make this part of the universe? For the director, weapons, monsters and game sets were important. Anderson states:
Although the characters are new, per se, they’re very much archetypes from the game. We kept the signature creatures, absolutely. I talked to a lot of fans before I started on the script and also on the movie. It became obvious that some of the creatures, like the zombie dogs, were like everyone’s favourite. You can’t make Resident Evil without the zombie dogs. And you can’t make Resident Evil without the Licker. So you find like everyone’s favourite creatures from the games are in the movie. (ibid)
Anderson also sought to bring the sets from the game to life by building replicas: ‘... you’ll recognize pieces of hardware and sets from the game. We rebuilt some of the sets from the game. Like in Resident Evil 2, there’s a big train. We built that train’ (ibid). In addition, Anderson ensured that plot elements from the games were included in the film and various characters from the games were referenced. As Anderson states: ‘There are story points and references to characters. It really operates within the world of the video game’ (ibid). The film departed from the game world in a bid to bring what Anderson described as ‘added value’ for fans. For example, while having favourite monsters from the game world in the film, the director added a new monster. He states:
But it also has one special one that we’ve designed just for the movie. Because the idea is, for the games’ players, it’s like added value. You see things in the movie that you don’t see in the games. You know, you see reflection of the games, but you also see something bigger and better. ..(ibid).
In addition to these game-like features, the film also sought to emulate the investigative mode of the game. This is done through the use of labyrinths. As set designer, Richard Bridgland explained: ‘When you play the game you never know what is going to be around that corridor’ (Bridgland 2002). One of the stars, Michelle Rodriguez reiterates this. Her take on the narrative flow of the film mirrors that of the game. She says: ‘You have to solve things at every turn you take’ (Rodriguez 2002). Bridgland makes clear the intentions of the film makers in tackling the adaptation. He states:
We wanted to create something new, people want to see something new. You know, they’ve played the games, they want to go to a different place now. It’s almost like doing a live action version of a new version of the game’ (Bridgland 2002).
For producer Bernd Eichinger, some scenes in the film are ‘very close to shots in the game’ (Eichinger 2002), although Capcom executive and head of production, Yoshiki Okamoto sees the relationship between the game and the film in a different way. For Okamoto the cinematic elements of the game make it an exciting possibility for adaptation into film. He states: ‘We’ve been told that the game contains movie elements and we hoped that the game would become a movie as soon as possible’ (Okamoto 2002). The camerawork has been interpreted by critics as resembling some of the angles in the game. Heilman (2002) for example, states in his review of the film:
Sometimes, [Anderson] uses a long shot, usually from above, that shows protagonist and audience surrogate Milla Jovovich walking across the screen, and the impression it leaves deliberately recalls the exploration sequences of a videogame. The audience will probably be reaching for their control pad during these scenes since the camera angles and shot durations, as well as the placement of scare scenes, have been ripped directly from the Resident Evil game. This feeling that the film more closely resembles an interactive game than a non-interactive film (Heilman 09.04.02 MovieMartyr.com).
Indeed, this was a deliberate strategy in the adaptation. As Bridgland states: ‘The spaces and the angles are designed to be very disorientating and that was one of the big things we wanted to take from the game’ (Bridgland 2002).
But how did the games’ players respond to this prequel and its game-like features? Were the game-like features enough to overcome any sense of loss or lack of interactivity, or did they, as Heiland suggests, respond to the film as an interactive game rather than a non-interactive film? And if the latter is the case, what would such a response look like? This paper seeks to explore if there was a palpable sense of a divide between game and film. The following section outlines the methodology utilised in the research.