Any gamer, any consumer of author generated entertainment knows that each property has a unique identity and essence. Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of gaming due to its relative infancy and comparative lack of genre diversity when considered against novels, television and film. As an example, look to the two highest selling games of 2011, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3. The two share a great number of similarities: the gameplay mechanics typical to first person shooters, a modern war setting featuring an approximation of real locations rendered in a style striving for photorealism, a strictly linear campaign driven by the spectacle of violence, and a feeling of failure in regards to providing genuine context for the actions that you are tasked with performing.
Strip away the different technology powering the two and the marketing bias and you could be mistaken for thinking that they are completely indistinguishable from one another. This, however, is not true. Almost any player would be able to determine the discrepancies between them if left to play them in succession. This isn’t necessarily because a gamer is particularly observant or that they have the ability to almost instantly discriminate between two such similar properties. The skill springs from the games themselves. As blasphemous as it may be to say it, each has a distinctive soul. From whence is this derived? Clearly, the answer is not to be found in the premise, so it must be in the execution.
Of course there are small differences to the core gameplay tenets of the pair, such as the slightly more squad-driven nature of Battlefield, or the destruction engine employed to make the world feel a bit more visceral. Alternately, there is the incredible responsiveness of Call of Duty’s solid 60 frames per second refresh rate and the patent smoothness of the experience that goes along with it. It may not be prudent to point to the narratives, considering both are brief, serving little point outside of a frame to progress the bombastic action towards ever increasing climaxes of excitement, but there is more to story than plot developments. Each handles its subject matter in a slightly different fashion. It is widely considered true that Call of Duty is created purely as an entertainment experience used to excite, amuse and divert players, perhaps inducing adrenaline and dopamine to keep them playing. Battlefield also serves largely the same purpose, except that it provides a slightly less grandiose theatre as a backdrop and focuses on presenting a slightly more authentic atmosphere. This is even more self-evident in EA’s other shooter series, Medal of Honor.
These dissimilarities emerge not by accident, but from the intent and influence of the creators, as is inevitably the case in any experience tailored by an author. Never mind that most games aren’t viewed as falling into that category because of the feeling that their development is a collaborative effort, without the benefits imbued by having what we term an auteur at the helm. It is still crafted with singular intention by a group of individuals seeking to provide the experience that they desire. This fact is often lost when it comes to translating an experience from one format to another as those adapting the property fail to view it with the seriousness that it is deserving of. For years, this was self-evident in film interpretations of comic books, but that is a trend that has largely been reversed since the turn of the millennium. In its place, we have seen the rise of abysmally presented renditions of video games.
“Despite my best efforts, I still haven’t forgotten this one.”
Resident Evil, Hitman, Tomb Raider, Doom, Max Payne; these are just some of the games that have made the jump to the silver screen, being censured by critics and fans alike, even though they all managed to recoup their losses. In spite of the near universal panning, the reasons from the two groups are not necessarily reconcilable with each other. Critics are usually trained to pick apart the flaws of a production in their many forms and it cannot be denied that a disconnected observer would find issue with the acting, scripting and cinematography. Fans also pick up on these flaws, but it comes in conjunction with – perhaps taking a back seat to – their perception of the films as an extension of what they had previously loved. They fail to live up to expectations, deviating from the story elements. Lachlan wrote an interesting dissection of a possible reason as to why this happens some time ago. I can agree with his sentiment, but I also feel that is due to the laxity of the filmmakers in failing to capture the essence of the property that they are trying to recreate.
They take shortcuts, offering a rough approximation of the narrative style, characters, in some cases gameplay aspects and even the aping of certain scenes, but this isn’t enough. The themes and tone particular to the game are cast aside entirely and it means that something is lost in translation. It isn’t just that the films are sub-par, but they are afterthoughts, serving no greater purpose than to shake a few extra cents free of the pockets of fans. It’s why we cringed when David O. Russel’s intentions for the Uncharted film came to light; and when Heavy Rain, Devil May Cry, inFamous, Metal Gear Solid and Need For Speed, to name just a few, were optioned or greenlit for production. History has provided us all with a very valid stigma regarding such productions. But there is light at the end of this dark tunnel in the form of Ubisoft. The gaming giant set up an internal film division which it will use to adapt its own properties to film and television set to make its debut with Assassin’s Creed in conjunction with New Regency. It is only a small glimmer of hope and not one that will invert the trend, but it’s a good sign for the future, as Batman Begins was for comic book fans.
At this juncture, it would be almost hypocritical not to mention that gaming has had the very same issue for years in the way that publishers have leapt upon the popularity of films to help improve their own bottom line. If anything, the sins of our industry have been even more heinous than those of Hollywood. For years, adaptation efforts were treated with disrespect, mimicking the tendencies of the film industry in treating them as a cheap way to cash in on a property that promised popularity to increase the bottom line of uncaring, egotistical mega publishers. In many cases, they were handed off to small, inexperienced and under-budgeted studios incapable of delivering an experience in keeping with the source material. Not helping matters is the thought that gaming technology, until this generation, was simply unable to create sequences like those of films or render character models capable of portraying a convincing approximation of emotion.
The rising costs of development has seen a dwindling of such poor efforts, but one publisher in particular stands out in its adherence to this propensity: Activision. This year alone, they launched no less than three games based on films: Battleship, MiB: Alien Crisis and the recent 007 Legends, (the last of which Michael Urban saw fit to tear shreds off in his review). These games all have a few things in common. One is that they are insipid, uninspired first person shooters that incorporate half-baked ideas. Another is that they do not do sufficient justice to their source material (and how that is possible in the case of Battleship…). Finally, each has been universally slammed by critics for being so utterly abysmal that they are nothing more than a waste of development dollars that could have been turned to more worthy projects.
“A more worthy project?”
Thankfully, other publishers have realised that pointlessness of such activity, electing instead to focus on internally created IPs, or at least make a solid effort in adaptations. At the head of this trend is Rocksteady, developers of the Batman: Arkham games, who have received immense amounts of critical acclaim for their two projects due to their stellar gameplay and production values, as well as their respect for Batman. Similarly, Terminal Reality were praised for Ghostbusters: The Video Game back in 2009, with some sources going so far as to label it Ghostbusters III. Frogwares recently made a very convincing effort in the form of The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, as well. Unfortunately, we’re still getting the likes of Lord of the Rings: Aragorn’s Quest, The Bourne Conspiracy and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. While none called be called terrible outright, they each took too many concessions in their story or tone to necessarily be reconcilable with their respective sources.
Increasingly, these sins are being applied to properties birthed in the realm of video games as publishers rely on the names of their biggest brands to persuade consumers that a new project is worth their time and money. The most recent example of this is Resident Evil 6, which, by and large, tosses away the pure survival horror aspects that have long been the forte of the series in favour of high octane action. It can be argued that having Chris, Leon and the rest of the characters as incapable and under-prepared as they were in the seminal entries would be unrealistic, but abandoning any semblance of that core gameplay is even more sacrilegious. It’s hardly the only example of recent times, either. Nihilistic’s Resistance: Burning Skies, an outsourced entry in Insomniac’s alternate history shooter series was criticised for completely missing the point and unique properties of the series. The Fabula Nova Crystallis saga to date has been a bit of a punching bag for moving away from everything that Final Fantasy used to stand for. Yakuza: Dead Souls left many fans scratching their heads with its focus on zombies and gunplay, neither of which had really ever been seen in the series before.
There are several more games that appear to be taking this route of abandoning or altering the fundamental focus of their series’ gameplay in the year to come, including Ratchet and Clank: QForce, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z. Whether these changes are made excusable by the fact that these aforementioned titles are all spin-offs is left for you to decide. As essential as a recognisable gameplay base is for any game, the importance of story, theme and narrative can never be understated. And it seems that this is a more ambiguous and contentious issue when it comes to the reaction of fans. Some are willing to embrace a new direction, while others are simply bilious in their contempt of a new vision.
“See, New Dante never got up my nose.”
Nowhere is this diametric opposition more apparent than in the cases of Ninja Theory’s upcoming take on Devil May Cry and Irrational Games’ BioShock Infinite. The former has seemingly been the victim of a consumer smear campaign since its announcement. Although the core gameplay of the series remains intact, with relatively few concessions, the game alters the appearance, personality and role of several stalwart characters to fit new ends in the contemporary setting. Much promises to change with Ninja Theory’s propensity for thematic storytelling, a facet at odds with the series history. It begs the question of whether the hatred is birthed from the attempted instillation of a new spirit, or the abandonment of the original, unfinished in the eyes of many, continuity.
Compare it to the latter. There was almost no doubt from the outset that BioShock Infinite was one to watch, yet it throws out almost every single story element from the original game for a novel new setting. Taken at face value, it should be construed as a betrayal on the same level as DmC: Devil may Cry. However, there are mitigating factors. The first of these is that it is still in the hands of the original developers, which results in a sense of trust that the concepts of the original property remain present. This goes hand in hand with the fact that, from everything we know of Infinite so far, there are several thematic ties between the two related titles. Each of them presents a Utopian society that has fallen from the grandeur of their original ideas. Both feature the backdrop of a civil war between the leaders and populace of their cities, and both ask questions regarding the hubris of science. It’s familiar without being overly so, as was the case of BioShock 2 and it is the retention of these themes that will grant it success comparable to that of the initial outing.
Is that to say that it would be viewed in a lesser light were it to adopt a whole new range of themes to go with the setting? Probably not, but fewer people would be willing to throw themselves into it fully and unequivocally as the unfamiliar is not nearly as comforting. When it comes to something with the following of BioShock, or Devil May Cry, or James Bond, or Jason Bourne, or Star Trek, or Firefly, or any of a thousand other properties, each has a particular set of traits that set it apart from its fellows; that make it unique and charming and draw the fans. To ignore these aspects is to ignore the very soul of the property and what is the point of continuing or translating it if it comes at the expense of that most crucial aspect? What I’m trying to say with all of these words is that essence always needs to be taken into consideration when creating or reviewing something based on a previously established property. To do otherwise is to simply not show it the respect that it deserves.