The Obvious (and Not so Obvious) Problem with Licensed Games

About a year ago, Kirk Hamilton came up with a possible concept for a Pacific Rim video game. It was just a throwaway joke, yeah, but let's think about it for a moment. There's a point I'm trying to make. In fact, let's build on it.

So imagine this: It's a fighting game, for the Kinect. You and a second player team up to fight Kaiju. But here's the catch: You gotta move at the same time.

Well, not exactly the same time. That'd get frustrating fast. No, there'd be a window of time in which you'd have to catch up with what the other person was doing. The closer you were in sync, the more effective the moves would become. There might even be a sweet spot, a tiny and rarely reached area of that time window that would multiply your strength outright.

The Obvious (and Not so Obvious) Problem with Licensed Games

Nevertheless, I could see people having a real laugh just getting there, trying to time their movements, deciding who goes first, what signals to watch for and so on before eventually hitting sweet, sweet harmony. It could be social. There would be bonding, just like there was between the characters in the movie. People could communicate.

And why not go even further? Let's set up an online multiplayer scenario where players around the world can band together in their various mechas to defend Hong Kong from the oncoming Kaiju, reflecting the ideal of international camaraderie that helped Pacific Rim resonate with audiences around the world.

Granted, there are probably, definitely a lot of holes in that idea. Of course there are; it's a four-paragraph concept. For instance, you might spend some time between missions on base and in town, getting to know your fellow pilots and other crew while plumbing the mysteries of the Kaiju. We'd get nothing then from using the Kinect to move around, and while I admit I'm not actually that familiar with the inner workings of the Kinect, I assume you can switch out to a regular controller when you're not in the cockpit.

And that's just the beginning of our problems. Of course I'm not going to write out a full design document that accounts for everything right now, since you (probably!) have a life to get back to, and a full design document would take up too many pages, waste too much of your time, lack the authority to hold any weight seeing as I'm not a proper game designer, and eventually digress from the original point of this article, which we're closing in on fast.

But you get the idea. 2-3 years and a plenty of tweaking later, you get a bona fide gem, a visually and aurally astounding piece of kineaesthetic magic, capturing the heart and soul of the experience, everything it stands for, and putting you right at the center of it all.

The Obvious (and Not so Obvious) Problem with Licensed Games

Boom.

...

Ha ha ha, yeah right. We all know what a licensed Pacific rim game would really look like.

A mutated, mangled mess of game-breaking glitches and loading times, last-last-last gen graphics, gameplay consisting of "whatever's hot right now" shoehorned haphazardly into the game, and a general sense of "I didn't care here." We don't even need to picture it. It's already out.

And it's not just Pacific Rim. You name it: Wall-E, X-Men, 007 Legends, ET, Superman, Tintin, even Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (arguably the strangest one of all.) If you can watch it or read it, there's a fair chance they've made a mediocre-to-poor game out of it. And to make things even more confusing, most of these games (including all of the ones listed above) come from some pretty impressive source material. How does this keep happening? Why do licensed games seem cursed from the outset?

Actually, most of the recurring issues are pretty well-known. See if any of these sound familiar: Rushed development cycles meant to get the game and movie out in sync, budgets squandered just trying to get the license, and an overall lack of effort under the assumption that the brand name will sell itself (a haughty notion if ET has shown us anything,) relegating these games to second-class merchandise, as opposed to the unique adaptations that they could and ought to be.

But perhaps the most overlooked issue is that adapting a movie into a game, and vice-versa, is such a conceptual leap right now that nobody in the industry would have ever had the thought cross their mind to produce the game that opened this essay.

The Boll Weevil

Think about the few licensed games that did work. Goldeneye 1997. Aladdin on either the Genesis or SNES. Star Wars in arcades or Astro Boy: Omega Factor for the GBA. Sure, they were fun to play on their own merits, but they were also nothing like the source material, at least in so much as the Aladdin movie didn't have quite so much acrobatics and James Bond had plenty of things to do other than shooting. This is because the game industry and film/book/comic/sock puppet/whatever else industry just don't operate on the same frequencies.

It makes enough sense. You play games. You watch movies. They're different. Where the latter has cinematography, timing and editing at its disposal, the former reilies primarily on its "visceral" elements, defined here as the qualities of an interactive space that connect with our kineaesthetic senses to make a virtual world feel weighty, tactile, sticky, touchable, as well as on its mechanics, and the finely tuned dialogue they enable between the player and creator. It's no easy task to reconcile one with the other.

This becomes pretty obvious when you go the other way and look at movies based off of video games, which unlike the reverse, have a more universally miserable track record including such icons of abject failure as Mario Bros., Street Fighter, and House of the Dead. Unlike with literature, which is consistently well adapted at this point, video games are so new that we have yet to see a generation of filmmakers that feels at home enough with them to make them work. For now, we have to put up with the likes of Uwe Boll, Paul W.S. Anderson and their contemporaries. Oh, and the picture below is supposed to be a Goomba. Hmm...

The Obvious (and Not so Obvious) Problem with Licensed Games

The big problem here is that the people in charge of these films don't seem to have any real concept of the role of gameplay as it relates to video games, how it contextualizes and often rationalizes what players hear and see on-screen, or how it turns the act of play into an engaging and meaningful narrative of its own. With little else to work off of, they always seem to take the game's high-level premise (which was almost never(FAT GREASY PLUMBER ON I DON'T KNOW WHAT)meant to stand by itself) and take it to its logical illogical conclusion, making up the details as they go along, ignoring the nuance of the game's mechanics and structure altogether. I almost imagine they find those long, drawn-out action-y parts where no story happens to be unimportant. I really hope they don't.

The ideal video game movie would play out like the greatest session of that game ever played, rendered in the visual language of cinema, strengthened, and not hindered, by a plot that made the alien game-logic make understandable, internalizable movie-sense, and it would take advantage of the fact that it was scripted to achieve that. It would be the playthrough in which all the right things happen. Basically, we'd want a movie that felt like this:

But, you know, not machinima. The tricky part of making a video game movie isn't portraying the characters, setting or plot, it's capturing the action and mechanics and translating them into something audiences can see clearly, turning something subtle into something tangible. And you can't achieve that without understanding the way mechanics tie the experience together.

The Idea Garden

If it makes you movie buffs reading this feel any better, video game designers have about as many problems understanding film as filmmakers have understanding games. Although we just went over that, two problems in particular say a lot in themselves about why we're so lost in the first place: non-combat play and the way we define genre vs. the way everyone else defines genre.

So first up: non-combat play. The situation is that we often struggle to make non-combat portions of a game (particularly talking) engaging. And to the industry's dismay, the vast majority of movies have these non-action scenes as an integral part of their core experience.

Now, we're trying to figure this beast out, and we'll probably get there, but I have to make an important point here. Even if we get non-combat gaming right (which is honestly good for gaming at large,) we'll never quite get a game that plays exactly like a movie on a moment-to-moment basis, since movies are linear by nature and video games are not. The story of a particular play session will never line up exactly with the rigidly defined canon of a movie. Some things will take longer or shorter, things will be skipped or happen out of order, or the player may fail to accomplish a crucial goal and in doing so end the game, and all of this will happen in different amounts every time someone plays the game. The adaptation will deviate from the text. And that's okay.

A videogame can never be an exact recreation of a text. It can, however, be a very engaging interpretation of a text, and that is wonderful. You want to make sure your player makes a meaningful choice? Make all choices meaningful. If cinema is a linear progression of time, then we are the timey-wimey ball. Embrace this. Make an idea garden, one where the player can explore the implications of a concept through non-linearity, where every element and every possible outcome reflects on the message the creator was trying to express. There are so many sides to an idea, after all. It should be considered a privilege to let someone see all of them.

The Big Big BIG Problem

The reason we have so much trouble wrapping our heads around non-combat gameplay is because we've convinced ourselves that no one would want to play a game about a load of talking because it wouldn't be fun. Now, I don't think this is true, but as a result, just like when making a game into a movie, a lot of the content gets dumped as a necessity. This creates problems. That's an understatement.

In the world of narrative, there's a spectrum of adaptations, with two extremes. on one extreme, there's an adaptation that matches the source material beat-for-beat (Think Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood in contrast with the original 2003 anime,) and on the other end we have "in name only" adaptations that use the trappings and iconography of their source material to make an original statement (sort of like Pirates of the Caribbean vs. its source: a theme park ride,) with all adaptations lying somewhere in between. Both kinds are great, but in video games we see so much of the latter and almost none of the former, which is disappointing.

But what are to do when our formal language is so constrained? That people assume anything non-action to be less fun is the reason why we haven't seen an authentic James Bond game yet, one that involves masquerading as a normal person, surveillance, battles of wits, and other not as necessarily violent but equally fun parts.

But of course, forget fun. The entire fact that we've framed this question around whether or not something is "fun" shows what the real problem is. The true gulf between film studios and game studios in an ideological one. Our hearts are in different places.

×The Obvious (and Not so Obvious) Problem with Licensed Games

Also, fun is a loaded word.

There's a fuller embrace, on the film side, of the mechanics of the medium as a means of expression (and it's not just films that do this, mind you.) But we often revile such a thought. When we try to filter their work through our state of mind, the results tend to get messy.

For instance, if an adaptation of Pacific Rim came around that did perfectly capture the spirit of the film, most people would call it a genre-buster. The one I described above would already be some sort of brawler-life sim-adventure-massively multiplayer proto RTS. And I will make it worse if I need to.

I promised I'd get to this, didn't I? The thing with us is that we define our genres based on mechanics as opposed to the way the experience is meant to make us feel. Imagine if movies used genres like "tracking shots" or "deep focus photography," or if books used genres based like "conversational prose" or "ellipses." Sounds silly, right? Now imagine all the action-oriented games that fall outside the official "action" genre. Sounds silly right? But those actually exist.

Pacific Rim was made with a specific idea in mind, and Director Guillermo del Toro was willing to use whatever techniques were necessary to achieve this effect. Isn't it limiting to say that a given mechanic can only be used in an RPG, or a Shooter, or a Platformer?

But I digress. The only system in which a genre system like that would work would be one where the kind of experience you got out of it had been defined in advance. That, conveniently enough, is our system. And our experience of choice? Infinite fun.

But wait! Aren't books and movies a form of entertainment, too? Aren't they fun? That's a gross oversimplification. The reason we enjoy these stories isn't because they're fun, but because they're many things at any given time; Funny, sad, empowering, terrifying, thrilling, challenging, infuriating, comforting, sincere, ironic. The emotional content of a story can change several times with in a single paragraph, within a single sentence. And it's the net product of these twists and turns that make the overall experience so engaging.

Conclusion

Now, let's wrap this up. Are fun games bad? No. Are there benefits to variety? Evidently so. Do we need to grow up? Yes. But don't the other factors matter when adapting a film or a book? Absolutely! You can have all the time in the world and your shoestring budget will still show through. And no amount of idea gardening will save you from a three-week development cycle. And yes, we are beginning to see games that bridge that ideological gap. And no, they are not boring.

So where does that put us? In an awkward place. We know where we're going, and we can get there, but we're not there yet, and we know it.

Man, here I am making a big fuss over why we don't have a better Pacific Rim game. But it's funny how one little problem can tie into so many big ones. Might as well bring it up.

Ah, well. Anything's better than this:

I mean, look at that. Do you understand my problem now?

So, is there a movie, a comic, a play, radio show or a work of literature that you think would make a nice video game? Sound off in the comments below!

By the by, gaming supergod Shigeru Miyamoto asked Stephen Totilo to run a poll on Kotaku to figure out what kind of game players most wanted to see on the Wii U. People would recommend the posts they agreed with. Sounds fun, huh? We're honestly not sure where all of this is going, though, so try not to get your hopes up.

Anyway, here's my choice.

This is my contact page.