More than a decade ago, legendary movie critic Roger Ebert caused a minor uproar by arguing that "video games can never be art." Ebert, of course, did not actually mean never as in never, ever, ever, and he allowed that his opinion might change if the form evolved. But he insisted that the games that had already been made failed as art, in part because none would survive the test of time.
Video game players do not, on the whole, come across as a very chill bunch, especially when talking about games online. There are exceptions, of course, but the most vocal are obsessive, particular, demanding, hyper-focused, and deeply defensive about their favorite games. So rather predictably, Ebert's column started an extremely online argument among gamers sticking up for their hobby, and younger culture critics eager to make the case for games as culturally important. Of course games are art, they said, and then pointed to a game or handful of games to prove it. I myself participated in this discourse on multiple occasions, and at this point I consider the matter largely settled. Video games are obviously art. (Have you played Disco Elysium?) The matter is settled.
And honestly, even if they aren't, it doesn't really matter, because digital games are so embedded in the cultural firmament. Almost everyone plays digital games of some sort. Even if you are not logging in for a 19-hour push through the latest Destiny raid, and have no idea what that even means, you're probably wasting a few minutes at a time with Wordle or some other app-based trifle. Social media now incorporates gamelike elements, encouraging users to rack up likes and shares. Cops in Los Angeles ignore obvious robberies to catch Snorlaxes in Pokemon Go. Video games are the mortar between moments. They are how we occupy, and waste, our time.
As games became a default mode of cultural consumption for so many, they have infiltrated other mediums as well, most obviously the form that Ebert spent his career writing about, the movies. Hollywood loves adaptable properties, especially those that already have some cinematic elements, like comic books and video games.
And thus the inevitable march from the console to the big screen has raised a slightly different question from the one that Ebert asked: Are video game movies art? And there I think the answer has to be a pretty firm no.
The latest bit of evidence comes in the form of Uncharted, a big-budget adaptation of the popular PlayStation game series. In theory, the Uncharted games should translate easily to the big screen: They are story-heavy and smartly written, with strong characters and loads of can-you-believe-it blockbuster action. If you are not much of a gamer and you sit down to play an Uncharted game for the first time, you might be surprised by how cinematic these games are. Yes, there is plenty of actual gameplay, built largely around a combination of stealth, shooting, and complex climbing. But even the gameplay tends to come across as cinematic, with increasingly tense buildups inevitably leading to grand, delightfully orchestrated Spielbergian setpieces. It should be easy to transform this franchise into a fun movie.
Apparently, it's not. Directed by Ruben Fleischer, who most recently made the turgid yet annoyingly successful Tom Hardy comic book movie Venom, Uncharted is dull, witless, and entirely tension-free. The big setpieces are CGI slogs that somehow come across as more video game–like than the games themselves, but without any of the cleverness or exuberance.
The treasure-seeking, puzzle-solving elements that make up the movie's middle chunk might have worked in a game scenario where you're trying to solve the environmental challenges yourself, but in the movie it just looks like a bunch of people running around slotting rare treasures into crevices on what are supposed to look like ancient ruins but are obviously just soundstage sets.
The dialogue between the two big stars, Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg, sounds like a screenwriter filled page after page with "insert quippy banter here" and never got around to writing anything. It's an entirely lifeless and joyless product, devoid of any of the pulpy pleasures of either classic big-screen adventures or even the games themselves.
Instead, it plays like a rote checklist of elements that fans of the games might like to see on screen. It does not try to please fans of the games so much as placate them. Indeed, in an interview with gaming news site IGN, Fleischer seemed to hint at this. Asked about whether his experience with Venom, a comic book movie about a fan-favorite Spider-Man villain, he responded by noting that both properties "feature a very loyal and passionate fan base for whom the source material is precious and they're very protective of." It's not surprising that at times Uncharted seems almost afraid of its fanbase, too scared to try to do anything interesting, lest the gamers revolt. It's made entirely in a defensive crouch.
It's not that it's impossible to adapt video games to a more conventional scripted format: Netflix's Castlevania and Arcane adaptations are both excellent, although both are series rather than standalone features. Neither is unfaithful to the source material, but in both cases, the games serve as inspirations for well-told stories that are somewhat independent of the games. They build on the games rather than simply repeating familiar elements.
In contrast, Uncharted comes across as desperate to avoid the wrath of gaming's most obsessive, outspoken fans—the same cohort who responded so defensively to Ebert. But that deference, and the creative timidity it produces, has consistently led to game-based movies that try to honor their games but end up failing them. Warcraft, Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Doom, and, yes, Uncharted are all properties ripe for adaptation and translation. Instead, the movie versions are all trash. That's a shame. It's a strange thing to say, but video games deserve better.