Earlier this week, Variety reported that Jake Gyllenhaal is attached to star in The Division, an in-development film based on the Ubisoft video game of the same name. The news comes at a time when video games — which have, to date, not been the wellspring from which good movies arise — are experiencing a resurgence as adaptable source material for studios seeking IP with built-in audiences. This will presumably continue even after Warcraft’s raid of movie theaters fails.
The Division, in particular, has Ubisoft feeling unusually bullish: Released on March 8 of this year, it became the publisher’s best-selling game after merely a week on sale, and the fastest-selling new intellectual property in the industry, earning $330 million the week it came out. (It’s a bit of a cheat to call it an entirely new IP — while the fiction is new, the game bills itself as Tom Clancy’s The Division, so there is some brand recognition.) That’s a number that screams franchise, and Ubisoft’s current M.O. involves pushing their franchises into theaters, packaging their games with production companies and negotiating for unusual levels of creative control, with this December’s Michael Fassbender–led Assassin’s Creed serving as the publisher’s maiden feature film voyage.
The story concerns a smallpox pandemic that effectively devastates Manhattan, thereby triggering the titular Division: a network of sleeper agents who are called into duty and grab their hidden parkas and assault rifles to help assure continuity of government. Players, as agents of the Division, are then tasked with helping to restore infrastructure and stand against those who would take advantage of the breakdown of society, while investigating the source of the outbreak.
Of course, when you actually play The Division, things get a little hairy. Since it’s a shooting game, there’s not much for players to do to assist post-outbreak Manhattan that doesn’t involve shooting. That often translates to The Division tasking players with shooting “rioters” and “looters,” completely tone-deaf to the racial implications of its rhetoric.
But a movie can and often should be different from its source material in order to succeed, and divorced from a video game’s necessity to provide its players with an endless stream of things to shoot, a Division movie could clean up its act. Jake Gyllenhaal could conceivably be the leader of this group tasked with keeping the city safe, and the structure of the namesake Division is byzantine enough to allow for twisty intrigue.
The question is whether or not it’s too soon for this movie to even happen. Most video-game franchises wait years for film adaptations, which come after the games are well-established, with many sequels. Consider this year’s crop of video game films: Angry Birds, Warcraft, and Assassin’s Creed have all been around for nearly a decade, with multiple sequels or iterations. The Division came out three months ago. While the game is unquestionably a success, it’s unclear if the title, to borrow a phrase from television, has legs.
Consider its structure: The Division is an online shooting game meant to be played with others, kind of like rival publisher Activision’s much-ballyhooed Destiny. While the set dressing is different, both of these games have goals that are ultimately the same: to keep players invested not by advancing story, but statistics. You don’t play either of these games to get to the end of a thrilling narrative — sure, there’s a story to play through in The Division, but it’s not particularly memorable — you play them in the hopes of getting a better gun, better gear, with better statistics attached, equipping yourself for harder and harder challenges.
That, of course, depends on the game’s developer providing a steady drip of new challenges, and better tchotchkes to reward players with for taking them on. So far, things do not seem to be going so well: Cheating has been a serious problem, and every update the developers make seems to come with a new set of complications, some as recent as yesterday.
It’s quite possible that the game’s long-term performance could ultimately have little bearing on how well a Division movie would do, or how good it could be. Ubisoft and whatever movie studio it partners with will have to work hard to garner interest among non-gamers (and, depending on how the game evolves, possibly even among fans). There is, after all, precedent for what happens when a movie adaptation of an Ubisoft game series misses the mark, and that film — Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time — was based on a much more established franchise. It also starred Jake Gyllenhaal.