Video games have not had the best track record in transitioning to film. An opening you have no doubt heard in countless op-eds and think-pieces, but that makes this fact no less true. It’s no secret that no “video game movie” has produced a truly great film. At worst, they are poorly-made cheese fests that betray their source material (Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter) and at best they are simply subpar genre exercises (Tomb Raider, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time). Some films have found success in visually incorporating video game imagery: WarGames, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Wreck-it Ralph, featuring easily recognizable “gamey” things such as pixels, 8-bit soundtracks, and various video game iconography. However, films such as these simply feature the most surface-level, identifiable aspects of games, without really delving into what makes the medium different to begin with.
So while there have certainly been good movies that happen to be about video games, and there have even been some entertaining adaptations of video games (I happen to find Super Mario Bros. and Prince of Persia guilty pleasures myself), there has yet to be a great movie that really takes the video game experience and puts it on film.
That is, until Edge of Tomorrow, the latest Tom Cruise action/sci-fi vehicle, also starring Emily Blunt as well as being directed by Doug Liman. Despite being an adaptation of the Japanese novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, the film’s most direct inspiration is video games, developing a commentary on the nature of how games are played, and how this impacts our experiences as players and our engagement with storytelling.
On the surface, Edge of Tomorrow’s plot set-up can best be described as “Groundhog Day with Guns”. Tom Cruise plays William Cage, a yellow-bellied soldier who has never seen combat in his life, sent to the front-lines in a last ditch effort to save humanity from an alien invasion. I won’t delve into the specifics here, but a freak accident imbues Cage with the ability travel back in time whenever he dies, reliving the day of the assault every time. Throughout the course of the film, Cage experiences the battle countless times, becoming more adept at killing aliens as well as memorizing and overcoming the threats that thwarted him on previous attempts.
My admittedly crude synopsis betrays just how expertly made and inventive the entire film is, but believe me when I say the film incorporates this mechanic in many fun and creative ways over the course of its runtime. However, more critical viewers may note this narrative choice robs many of the action scenes of all their tension - Cage “resets” the day every time he dies, so there’s really no sense of danger in any of the action scenes - but this this is in fact entirely intentional.
This is because Edge of Tomorrow does what no “video game movie” has done before: it recreates the experience of actually playing a video game. Not in the sense of directly controlling the main character, or making their decisions, sure, but in the sense of rote repetition, memorization, and familiarity required to play video games. Cage progresses further each time he “dies,” but in doing so he must redo everything that got him there up to that point. In his review on Badass Digest, Devin Faraci perfectly describes this as a feeling with which all gamers are familiar, who have “also memorized the movement of enemies, parsing out their behavior,” and much like Cage does many times in the film, committing “irritated suicide” after “blowing the pattern,” trying to set up the conditions for a perfect run-through. Edge of Tomorrow is essentially a 113-minute chronicle of a player reloading the same save-state hundreds upon hundreds of times.
This draws attention to how, as players, we experience narrative-driven games. Many of us seek to role play, to truly inhabit the lives of the characters we control. That is, until we fail and are sent back to the nearest checkpoint, and the player-character within the universe of the game has now become inexplicably more aware of how to overcome the obstacles in front of him, and unlike real life, can repeat each attempt ad nauseum until the perfect playthrough is achieved. What could be more immersion-breaking than that?
Edge of Tomorrow’s use of this narrative tactic also highlights why so many narrative-driven games, despite being fun to play, ultimately fall short in the story department. “Ludonarrative Dissonance” has become somewhat of a buzz-word in game criticism in the last year, highlighting the jarring difference between player character behavior, and the behavior of said characters within non-interactive cutscenes. Many games fit this mold, a recent example lying in Watch Dogs’ Aiden Pierce, a character who in cutscenes appears to be averse to killing, yet in gameplay can murder hundreds with little to no repercussion.
It would be absurd to suggest that all video games should do away with cutscenes altogether, yes, but it seems that games that are aware of and subvert their non-interactivity are the ones that accomplish most, such as BioShock and Spec Ops: The Line, in which the disparity between interactive gameplay and non-interactive cutscenes is highlighted for thematic effect. Games such as these utilize the rules of film in their presentation, but also subvert them to work within the medium of games. Likewise, Edge of Tomorrow subverts the expectations of video games to make its narrative work on film.
We still have yet to see a video game series perfectly adapted on to film - perhaps the upcoming Assassin’s Creed, Splinter Cell, and WarCraft films will change that - but with Edge of Tomorrow, we finally have a movie that shows how filmmakers are beginning to take the medium seriously, and this paints a hopeful picture of the future to come of games on film.