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The difficulty with cinema in relation to video games is that while both art forms are experiential, they are not so in exactly the same way. While a game can recreate the atmosphere of a film (see: Resident Evil VII and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Deadly Premonition and Twin Peaks), a film can’t recreate the precise experience of engaging with a game. This is of course down to interactivity; the increased immediacy of how you experience a game and the fact that you are functionally in control of its pacing/editing. While there are ways to attempt to cheat this via extreme means – take Victoria, a two hour, single-unbroken-shot heist film which is as close as anyone is going to get at replicating the immediacy of an interactive medium within a non-interactive one – it’s still not a true representation. Realising this, most films based on games tend to focus on the stories and action but this is a grave error.
While Lara Croft is an interesting character, one can’t deny that the plots of her games tend to be little more than post-Indiana Jones B-Movies with some occasionally clever world-building and impressively rendered locations. Delightful camp nonsense as the live action Tomb Raider films are, there is little present in them which feels authentically close to playing the games; filled as they are with robots, shower scenes and an impressively dated thumping soundtrack. Ask anyone who grew up playing the originals what they remember when they think back on them, most will give you a similar answer; fear. The overriding emotions of the initial CORE-produced games are isolation and fear. You were a tiny, difficult to control and easily-killed figure exploring vast and often pitch black spaces – a technical limitation of the time that accidentally added immeasurably to the suffocating dread – accompanied by minimal score and infrequent but sudden attacks by anything from tigers, yetis, spiders or even dinosaurs. You were the final girl in a tense scenario of her own making which is why the ideal Tomb Raider film is not an action movie but a horror. Enter As Above, So Below.
On a surface level you have some, what surely has to be, intentional lifting here; the main character is a posh young Englishwoman following in her late father’s footsteps as he attempts to find proof of an ancient mystical artifact. This is near word for word, Lara’s rebooted backstory and even the mystical item in question, the Philosopher’s Stone, has previously been on Ms Croft’s hit list. The horror elements are more overt however, the opening section certainly feels more Exorcist or The Omen than it does the fun sand adventures Lara tends to initially find herself in. Still, this remains truer to the subjective pace of playing the games themselves. To see someone else control it, it would look like a wild adventure full of acrobatics and gunfights but that fails to understand that the acrobatics are merely part of the overall slow, methodical advancing through levels which players did. One crept forward, making slow progress, constantly aware that any wrong step with the unforgiving controls would lead to certain, screaming death. To say nothing of the frequent, sudden attacks from everything from large wild beasts, huge rats or the more exotic surprises like mummies and the screen-shaking of a charging T-Rex. If you didn’t nearly shit yourself at discovering that T-Rex den below the Great Wall of China, you’re lying.
Watching the characters in As Above… creep forward, checking the corners and fearing for their lives at every turn – especially once the traps become more frequent – is both a more emotionally comparable experience as well a narrative parallel to a Tomb Raider play through. The eventual shift into the full blown supernatural along with increasingly incomprehensible geography would be an all too familiar sensation to fans of the series. Another similar example would be Drive and how it effectively recreates part of the GTA experience. As with Lara, controlling a GTA character – and if stoic stunt-driver-cum-heist-doer-cum-general-muscle, doesn’t sound like every GTA protagonist, I don’t know what does – might appear like a wacky fun time, there is far less of a carefree sensation while actually playing. The opening car chase in Drive is a perfect microcosm of the GTA experience; indie band playing in the background, effortless but tense driving, a rising panic as the situation escalates with the inclusion of helicopters all while playing hide and seek with cop cars and their lines of sight.
If one is meandering around a main point it’s that, as is noted time and again by critics within the game industry, the reason direct film adaptations fail is that they miss the point of what they’re adapting and have no way to counteract the loss of immersion that comes from translating an interactive art form into a passive medium. This often has the effect of reducing things to vacuous action films. The almost counter-intuitive method by which you keep a semblance of the interactive experience is by slightly altering the genre of what you’re adapting. Tomb Raider is an action-adventure franchise but in order to covey the level of intensity the experience of playing it has, the tension of a horror film is necessary.
This wouldn’t of course be true in every example. One of the few films that actually portrayed its source material quite well was Silent Hill which, to the detriment of a general audience, was a slow-paced, long and atmospherically consistent horror film with only minimal sexing up. Compare that to say the Resident Evil franchise and they opted to go the dumb action film route – which the games sadly caught up to eventually – thus missing the vital atmospherics which made the games resonate. While watching a schlocky B-Movie may not be all that terrifying, playing through one is due to the immediacy which the interactivity lends the experience. And that’s the key, the only way to convey something resembling the immediacy of interactivity in a passive medium is through some form of tension and this is what’s needed for a more effective adaptations. Which raises the tantalising possibility that live, on-stage adaptations could be the way forward but that’s a thought for another day.
Also apparently a film like As Above, So Below in the context we’ve been discussing it in? The internet calls that a “gilm”. Let that sink in, someone is trying to make “gilms” happen. Jesus wept.