After playing and reviewing GoldenEye again recently for the first time in years (Check out the video podcast here) and with Riddick about to be re-released I started wondering about the distinction between the good and bad (and terrible) games based on movies.
For the longest time, they were just sideways-scrolling platform shooters or brawlers, with tenuous links to the narrative of their movie counterparts, often featuring hero models who bore no resemblance to the actors. For every step forward (True Lies) there were five drunken staggers backward (Robocop 3, Lethal Weapon, Jurassic Park on the Genesis). This was back when a simplistic adventure could be swiftly knocked together and released around the same time as the movie with relatively little prep time. Even considering this fact, the trend led to some of gamings most wretched abortions as thousands of buried E.T. tapes will attest. Later on as technology improved, shallow 2D adventures gave way to shallow 3D ones and despite the lack of quality increase, development times extended due to volume of programming for this new dimension and burgeoning opportunities for FMV and realism. The choice was either bring it out way after the theatrical release (GoldenEye) or rush it out for with the movie for marketing reasons (Batman Begins). In pure financial terms, obviously the latter seems most likely to elicit profit; people buy in droves because of multimedia hype, this will dry out in the months and years it takes to craft a substantial game so why bother? But that only makes sense if you know nothing about games. GoldenEye sold gangbusters and was one of the best reasons to buy an N64. It had a tight, innovative single-player mode, groundbreaking four-player death-matches and stands as the first brilliant console FPS. The fact that it was a movie tie-in and you were playing James Bond was just the icing on the cake but almost seemed incidental to it’s success. It was a fantastic game, decorated to feel like Bond’s world. Look to the thoroughly shitty Tomorrow Never Dies and The World is Not Enough to see what happens when you don’t pay attention to that crucial first part.
The central problem lies at the top. Film producers list the video game along with the MacDonald’s promotion and the action figures in terms of a small part of the mass-media event that a big cinema release tends to be. So time and budget are rarely a luxury and quality is often not an issue. Look at Pixar’s releases. Nearly every one of their films is a masterpiece, but their best game tie-in; Cars is only pretty good. The fact that an alarmingly high percentage of movie tie-ins are aimed at children, frequently seen as having no taste or understanding of quality by producers also means that most of the games are going to be bad. You can picture some cigar chomping Hollywood savage tanned nutmeg-brown with a $300 haircut and a phone taped to their ear, sat by his triangular pool, jerking off idly into a pile of money, saying “What else can we do? We got the Mountain Dew promotion, the cartoon’s coming out this summer, the Pussycat Dolls are doing a music video and oh yeah, let’s do a video game. I know a guy.” Twisted exaggeration, yes, but the truth nonetheless.
It’s a costly process to channel developers into making a movie tie-in. They fight against an unmoving deadline, glaring dissimilarities from the source material, unwilling actors, (Sierra found that out the hard way with their Damon-less Bourne game) and more often than not, a narrative that does not lend itself to an eight hour, action-packed video game adventure. Nobody sets out to make a bad game, but it’s very easy to make a bad one anyway if you aren’t given time, research or resources and the money-men are breathing down your neck with release dates. The results range from Jack Sparrow dying when he touches water to the epic grandeur of the Lord of the Rings trilogy reduced to hack, hack, hack, uh-oh Gimli died!
Think of the best movie tie-ins. GoldenEye, Riddick, The Warriors, Die Hard Trilogy. All aimed at adults, all released significantly after the films in question. (Butcher Bay had much more to do with Pitch Black than the horrendous Riddick follow-up). They were all made by experienced developers with their hearts set on carving out excellent games and the producers were wise enough to step back and trust in the strength of the source material to fuel sales, long after the DVD had come out. But think of the worst, and you’re probably envisioning games released a week before the movie, terrible review scores, jerky, unpolished gameplay and very little added to the central story. At best you sit and watch a crude interpretation of the action from the film on a loop, hammering the A or X button or flailing your Wii mote. It’s not a trend likely to end any time soon either, with these games being massive hits, because in terms of sales, the money-men are absolutely right. Most kids don’t have any taste. God bless the ones that do, because they’re the ones begging their mommy’s to let them play Psychonauts or Super Mario Galaxy, but too many are swayed by advertising and the dreamy pursuit of more Ratatouille fun (as if a crummy 3D platformer could distill the subtle, gourmet genius of that film). If they enjoyed the film, surely they’ll enjoy the game, and it’s that promise of potential that keeps this cycle of derivative crap circulating forever.
But take heart, because the opposite end is even worse. Movies based on games are so bad, that they hardly even count as films. Michael DeLuca allegedly wanted Kurt Wimmer; writer and director of Ultraviolet and Equilibrium to write the movie version of Metal Gear Solid. This was after David Hayter’s script was passed on. For producers to disregard the individual who’s been inside Snake’s head and embodying his voice for a decade yet seek instead, the man who adapted Sphere for the screen suggests to me a level of blind ignorance of the medium of games that borders on comical. If you want someone to blame, look at the richest bastards in Hollywood. I used to love movies, but it’s stories like this treatment of arguably the greatest game ever made that make me look at what EA did to Godfather II and think to myself; it could be worse