Keep Your Hollywood Out of My Video Games

The other day, I finally got around to watching Warcraft, the latest film-adapted video game product of 2016. As video game adaptations go, I actually enjoyed it more than most productions in the genre. That, however, says much more about the adaptive medium at large than it says about Warcraft, considering the experience was overall rather mediocre. The visuals were phenomenal, but they were wasted on a slow-moving narrative with undeveloped characters and a lack of anything for the average viewer to really invest in. These criticisms lend themselves to an overall stance I have long felt but have been discouraged to share due to its apparent unpopularity: video games really shouldn’t be adapted to movies.

While I say this is an unpopular opinion, it is not totally unsupported. In fact, an entire podcast is devoted to such an idea, The Spinoff Doctors by Jim Sterling and Conrad Zimmerman which can be found here. While I understand fans of video games wanting to see their passion adapted to a more accessible medium like film, time and time again we have seen that the attempts simply don’t work. One need only watch Need for Speed or Bloodrayne to see what I mean. Even the more enjoyable “adaptations” end up bearing little resemblance to their source material (insert Zack Snyder-DC joke). The Resident Evil movies come to mind: while not necessarily good movies by any means, they can be fun zombie romps to enjoy. That being said, the finished product is a video game title with foreign characters and storylines. Alice, the protagonist of the film series and by far the most interesting and developed character, doesn’t even appear in the games. Now while it may sound like I’m a stickler for adaptations sticking exactly to the source material, my argument for video game adaptations is actually quite the opposite. But I’ll get to that later. At the time I’m writing this, Warcraft sits at a critics’ 30% on Rotten Tomatoes, and it had the largest production budget by far. Since something seems to be wrong with video game adaptations, one has to ask what’s happening?

In my opinion, the whole idea of adapting a video game narrative to film is inherently flawed. In order to show why, allow me to talk about how each medium works to provide escape and immersion for the consumer.

For movies, escapism and immersion are done through viewing the experience. Using the collaborative talents of actors, writers, directors, cinematographers, and a host of other trained and skilled professionals, films give their viewers a story that is convincing and/or thrilling, allowing consumers to get lost in the narrative and become absorbed in a story that they are passively participating in. Consumers are bystanders, and the product focuses on spectacle to immerse them.

Video games work on many of the same levels as do films, using voice actors, writers, and visual set pieces to create a sense of immersion. However, one of the things that video games offer that films do not is the opportunity for an observer to become an agent of the narrative rather than a recipient of it. Whereas the TV show Game of Thrones gives us an epic narrative with fantastic characters to follow , the video game Skyrim allows us to become a character and take an active part in the conflicts and adventures within the narrative. To compare the two mediums and try to say which one is objectively “better” is, in my opinion, a futile effort, for the two mediums provide a similar service of escapism in very different ways; the debate would take on an apples to oranges feel. However, efforts to blend the two mediums create some interesting results that offer much riper material for analysis and comparison.

Sometimes, creators want to blend movies into video games, and the best example I have to work with is the Uncharted series. To simply describe Uncharted as a video game cheapens the product and does do justice to what the games truly are. In all honesty, Uncharted games do not offer a lot in terms of strictly video games (hold your pitchforks, let me finish what I’m about to say). Take away the cinematography and set pieces, and you’re left with sporadic gunplay, extremely straightforward platforming, and puzzles added as an afterthought. However, the gaming experience is enriched immensely by the cinematic tone and visuals added to the game, allowing the player to feel like a real action hero in certain transitions. In this case, film and video games unite to offer a unique and special gaming experience (remember this paragraph for later in the article).

Now, when the two mediums attempt to blend the other way by adapting video game narratives to film, we start to see problems. Why? Because you immediately lose out on what the original experience was intended to be. Modern video games–as well as plenty of older games–are designed to put the player into the narrative as an active agent. When you take the consumer out of that role and water down the narrative into something that is just observed rather than lived, the product suffers. I was one of the people who were pumped for the Ratchet and Clank movie. After seeing it, I was pretty disappointed, and in hindsight I know why. I was bored watching a character do exactly what I had already done. Making an active narrative into a passive one only leaves gaming audiences bored and non-gaming audiences confused as to what all the hype was about.  Why would I want to watch Alice kill a ton of zombies when I could be killing them myself? Why watch an epic fantasy war when I could be a warrior in it? Sure, there are plenty of zombie and fantasy films that work on their own, but they were designed to be a received narrative, not an active narrative. To put it in more video game-oriented terms, why would I want to watch a Mass Effect movie in which Shepherd’s decisions are predetermined when I could be making galaxy-altering decisions myself? It’s like trying to fit a square block into a trapezoidal hole: close, but not quite the right fit.

So if video game narratives don’t work as directly adapted film narratives, should the union of the two mediums be totally abandoned? Absolutely not! Rather, the productions should seek a route more similar to Uncharted; that is, taking certain aspects of one medium to complement the film as a whole. Let me demonstrate this idea with my absolute favorite film-video game product: Wreck-It Ralph.

Wreck-It Ralph was not a video game adaptation; rather, it was a video game-based movie that carried itself on a new narrative. The movie utilized old arcade and video game references to create a unique atmosphere and please fans of such games while still creating a unique story that stood on its own as a good narrative. In other words, it borrowed from video games to complement its own cinematic goal. If we want video game adaptations, don’t adapt the narrative directly. Rather, use the video game’s settings and properties to create a unique storyline.

As a huge fan of the From Software games, I would love a Dark Souls/Bloodborne movie. Why? Because those games have enough lore in them to support an entire franchise of fantasy films without ever directly going into the games’ main storylines. Why do a movie about the Linker of the Flames when you can be that hero? Instead, do a film epic about the fall of New Londo. Give me a trilogy about the rise and fall of Knight Artorias. It would provide service to game fans while still offering a new narrative that non-players could understand and latch onto. As little faith that I have in Ubisoft, I must applaud them for doing a new adventure in their Assassin’s Creed movie rather than rehashing an old protagonist whose story has already been told. Want a Bioshock film? Cool, tell about what happened before the events of the first game. I already know what happened in Bioshock 1; I’m the one who made those things happen! By expanding video game universes rather than recycling old storylines, movies can provide a unique adventure to newcomers while still providing fan service to gamers.

I don’t know about you, but as a fan of video games I don’t want to pay $10 to just be told what I did. The whole reason I’m watching a movie is to be told about what someone else did. Case in point, if you’re trying to sell me on a Bioshock Infinite movie, spare me the game’s narrative. I was already Booker DeWitt. But I was never really Comstock.

Snarkalicious: A Look at E3 2016 – The…Sigh

To finish up my E3 segments, I bring you what I consider to be the failures of E3 2016. Sony and Nintendo had stellar conferences, giving us exciting new IPs and intriguing new entries into existing franchises. Bethesda and EA also had solid showings. While they lacked  the firepower they have had in the past, they brought some interesting announcements to the table without being overbearing. Then, we have  Microsoft and Ubisoft, showing that this year’s “soft” family was just as its name implies. And boring. And greedy. It was the soft-boring-greedy family. You know. Lots of divorces and what not.

Microsoft

If anyone thought that Microsoft was not totally money-hungry, E3 has hopefully shown them that such optimism is misplaced.

I would love to tell you about the new games that Microsoft announced at their conference, but for the life of me I can’t think of any. There was Deadrising 4 promising to be another remake of the first game, but other than that there was not much to speak of. Microsoft used this conference to announce its hardware journey, a journey whose willing travelers are few and far between.

The Xbox One S is the new slim version of Microsoft’s main console, thus showing that Microsoft is happy to take the cell phone trend of naming consoles from now on. I can’t wait to see the Xbox One Plus, the bulkier version of the Xbox One that is also not really designed to play video games.

Microsoft also announced Xbox Play Anywhere, a program allowing Xbox games to be played on Windows 10. Because God knows they were running out of ways to convince people to upgrade to Windows 10 almost as fast as they were running out of ways to convince people to not buy an Xbox One.

Finally, we have the bane of Xbox gamers’ wallets: the Xbox Project Scorpio, an elevated performance Xbox console supporting 4k gaming at 60fps as well as VR. The new console will allegedly be able to work with previous games on the lower-tier Xbox One, thus allowing gamers to keep their gaming libraries. Ya know, rather than the multi-hundred dollar console they bought the games for in the first place. Their last hardware announcement was that Xbox gamers can expect keyboard and mouse support for their console in the coming months, leaving a lot of us wondering why you wouldn’t just invest in a gaming PC at that point.

I may be in a minority on this one, but I cannot stand this new trend of churning out updated hardware to hit up gamers for more money every couple of years. E3 should have been an opportunity for Microsoft to convince people that their consoles are a smart investment, but this year’s conference did the exact opposite. Not only did it give people every reason to not buy a console (between Play Anywhere and Scorpio, why waste your money?), it also made moot any former purchases by Microsoft fans. Enjoying your Xbox One? Great, here’s a slimmer fancier version. Oh, and in case you got too attached to the idea of the Xbox One S, here’s an updated console to make your current consoles a thing of that past! Yay money!

I don’t want to sound like a PS4 fanboy by any means; I know that the PS4K is right around the corner. However, despite the fact that most AAA gaming companies see their consumers as no more than dollar signs, why was Microsoft the only one who didn’t even try to hide it at the biggest gaming convention in the world? To use a somewhat controversial comic book parallel, I can’t help but think of Microsoft gaming as a DC Rebirth situation: the new hardware is both too intimidating for new buyers because of the future uncertainty and absolutely insulting to the loyal fans who kept the original Xbox One afloat. For the life of me, I can’t figure out who this Scorpio business is for other than the executives at Microsoft.

Ubisoft

Good lord, here we go.

I don’t like Ubisoft. Anyone who has read any of my past video game pieces knows that. So I was actually hoping that Ubisoft’s press conference would be really good so that people don’t write this off as just me being me, sadistically enjoying ripping Ubisoft a new one. But this conference was worse than the offensively open-faced greed that was present at Microsoft’s conference. Ubisoft’s showing at this year’s E3 was absolutely…forgettable.

Their biggest headliners were a new Ghost Recon game, a new South Park game, some BS Trials sequel using bad 80s pop culture tropes as a gimmick, and a Star Trek VR game. Oh, and of course, some more footage of Watch Dogs 2. Because everyone was clamoring for a sequel. There is nothing at all that sticks out about this conference: the new Ghost Recon looks the same as the other entries in the series. The South Park game looks like it will be much like the last one, a fun little licensed game that fans of the show will enjoy but everyone else will forget about after a month or so. The Trials game is already out and costs an absurd $14.99 for a glorified on-the-rails motocross game. The Star Trek VR game is at least something new, but it looks to be one of the more mundane VR experiences to be expected in the coming year. And then there’s Watch Dogs 2, a sequel that looks practically the same as the last one with choppy gameplay footage and a cinematic trailer that couldn’t keep my attention if it cosplayed as Mr. Miracle and called me Big Barda.

This is the problem with Ubisoft as a company: it’s nothing new. They struck gold with Assassin’s Creed, so what did they do for years? Make a new annual entry. Time for a new IP? Let’s just give people an AC clone in Watch Dogs but feature a broken hacking system and a bland protagonist. Oh, time for E3? Screw it, let’s just show them the same damn games we’ve been making for years and hope nobody notices. The biggest travesty of this conference is that it could have stolen the show if it showed anything at all about Beyond Good and Evil 2. You know, the game their fans have been begging for since the PS2 days. The game that has seen scores of online petitions pleading with Ubisoft to just give their loyal fans what they want. But it falls on deaf ears as we get more of the same recycled gaming experience with the same lazy execution with the same insulting Day 1 DLC with the same broken Uplay system. Microsoft may only see its consumers as dollar signs, but one must ask after this year’s E3 if Ubisoft even sees their consumers at all.

Final Thoughts

You can’t help but compare and contrast the best and worst performances at E3. Look at Sony and Microsoft: with the former, we have a ton of new IPs, exciting and innovative projects, and a postponed new console reveal for the sake of trying to ease gamers into the young new VR world of gaming. With the latter, we have an utter absence of games paired with new hardware left and right getting shoved down our throats. If the console war is still happening, Microsoft just waged the last half of the Crusades on Sony: in an attempt to assert console dominance, they ended up humiliating themselves with the clear message that Xbox isn’t in it for the gamers anymore. And if this video game company isn’t in it for the gamers, then why the hell should we give a yearly installment of our hard-earned money for a the latest shiny new console hardware?

Now, let’s compare and contrast Nintendo and Ubisoft. Both did a similar thing: focused most of their presenting power on past franchises. The big thing separating the two conferences, however, is the fact that one of the companies actually gave a crap about what their fanbase wants. Sure, there are legitimate arguments that the new Legend of Zelda game should have come out years ago. However, at least we finally got what we wanted. It took a while, but Nintendo actually had the self-awareness to say, “OK, you all have been patient, and as a result we’ve got a product that we have worked really hard to make exceptional.” Then there’s Ubisoft, who wouldn’t listen to its consumers if their lives depended on it. To win at E3, you either have to do something different from someone else (Sony actually having games to show off compared to Microsoft’s hardware-heavy presentation) or do the same thing way better (Bethesda focusing on established products with more insight and style than EA). Ubisoft did none of these things, and as a result, people are hard pressed to even remember that the company was even there. This credits truth to the Aboriginal proverb, “Look before you leap, especially if you’re leaping onto a world stage where all you have to show off is cinematic trailers that you’ll cut half the properties from by the release date, you lazy taints.”

Snarkalicious: A Look at E3 2016 – The Good

In this second segment of Snarkalicious, we’ll be looking at the two companies whose conferences at E3 this year offered the most quality to gamers and investors alike. Sony hit all of its bases as far as games and hardware goes, and Nintendo left everyone speechless with its long-awaited LoZ trailer. Let’s get into it.

Sony

Sony once again came through with a stellar conference this year and a ton of gaming highlights. First, Sony gave a final release date for The Last Guardian in October–yes, October 2016–shocking and delighting fans. “I didn’t think it would ever actually come out!” said one reporter in between fits of laughing, crying, and vomiting. Sony also showed a trailer for the upcoming God of War game, featuring Kratos as a warrior-turned-Christian seminary student. This game is said to bring the character’s growth throughout the series to fruition, a promise that leaves fans wondering just what brand of pissed off will this new Kratos be?

As far as new announcements, Sony left fans in utter delight with two huge new gaming developments. First, we got a look at the legendary Hideo Kojima’s new project, Death Standing starring Norman Reedus. I have a joke for this, but I won’t blaspheme Kojima with it because I’m scared this game will end up like Silent Hills (#NeverForget) if we don’t respect it enough. Second, Insomniac (developers of InFamous) is making a new open-world Spider-Man game that everyone is collectively losing their minds about after seeing the trailer. I’ve seen it too, and I must confess: it looks like a really good animated movie. Hopefully it’s also a game!

A new IP also received an announcement and an actual gameplay trailer, Days Gone. “Oh, it’s like The Last of Us,” said fans. “No,” replied executives, “it’s a new IP with a totally unique world and–”

“Hush, fam. It’s like the Last of Us. Just let it happen.”

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare was also shown. It is definitely a Call of Duty game.

One of the more fun surprises from Sony this year was the new Resident Evil featuring a first-person view. A demo was also released on a small scale, showing off the wonderful graphics, gameplay, and atmosphere that all indicate a return to RE’s survival-horror setting. “Weird, it’s almost as if the fanbase enjoyed the older games or something,” said one executive before almost being crucified.

Finally, we saw some great gameplay of Horizon Zero Dawn, a futuristic RPG style exclusive that looks like a lot of fun. I, however, am already looking to its sequel, Bologna Wheelbarrow Jellyfish.

Two big news stories about hardware came out of Sony’s conference as well, though probably not the type of news you may expect. The rumored PS4K or 4.5 was absent, a breath of fresh air to anyone who doesn’t hate their money. Playstation VR was also announced to be debuting at an average price of $400, a severe price cut compared to such VR systems as the HTC Vive or Occulus Rift. It seems like Sony is trying to make VR a much more financially feasible feature of its hardware, a welcome concession to gamers who don’t have money to blow but still want to try out the newest “wave” in gaming. While I remain skeptical of VR gaming myself, it felt good to know that at least Sony isn’t expecting to sell our firstborn for the gimmick despite the glorious locks of hair and cutting jawline that mine shall have.

Nintendo

As someone who isn’t really involved in Nintendo’s games, I absolutely loved how strong their showing was due to it being one of the lowest-effort conferences we have seen in recent years. Quantity-wise, Nintendo had a rather modest showing; however, in terms of quality, its offerings blew everyone away. Three major things punctuated Nintendo’s conference for me:

  1. Lack of news about the Nintendo NX. While several people saw this as a negative, I saw it as an important decision from Nintendo. Rather than bombarding its fanbase with a new console they’ll have to invest in soon, Nintendo focused on what they are able to offer gamers right now. The NX will debut eventually, and it will have all kinds of questions and controversy attached to it when it does; why bother with all of that now?
  2. The new IP Ever Oasis. While this announcement was overshadowed by obvious fanfare over a different franchise, I am legitimately excited for this project. Nintendo does not announce new IP’s often, but the vast majority of them are excellent products that offer entertaining gameplay and quality investments, such as Splatoon.
  3. Breath of the Wild debut. Look, this is what everyone wanted to see. While many people decry that the trailer was long overdue–which by all means, the game itself is long overdue–this was easily the biggest talking point from E3. The game looks fantastic, and the trailer even featured some in-game content, a refreshing change of pace from the pre-rendered cinematic trailers that usually plague E3.

At the end of the day, Nintendo gave its fans what it wanted. Could they have brought more to the table? Probably. But at the end of the day, gamers care about quality over quantity. Microsoft announced loads of things, but their announcements lacked flavor, originality, and any semblance of what console gamers have been asking for. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Nintendo and Sony proved the old Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he won’t give a flying crap about new gaming hardware.”

Snarkalicious: A Look at E3 2016 – The Fair

Let me start off by being real with all of you: I don’t like E3. The issues I have with the AAA gaming industry are vast, and they are all gathered together and lauded annually at the event, using consumer mentality and manufactured hype to continue abusing their supporters and sucking off their investors. So overall, nah, I’m not a big fan of E3, which is why I didn’t follow any of it in real time. However, as a gamer, I do value the announcements that come out of E3 every year, and as a human being I obviously have opinions about the medium I’m passionate about. Thus, here’s a special edition of Midday Snark where I’ll give a brief overview of each major E3 conference and offer some opinions about what gamers have to look forward to and dread in the coming years. I will try my utmost to not make these summaries a series of me taking the piss out of each publisher for cheap laughs, but you know they’ll come out anyway. This first installment covers EA and Bethesda, two conferences that while not terrific did offer solid showings of games and offers for their fanbases. It may seem like I rail EA in this segment, but their conference was fine in many ways and really doesn’t warrant a spot on my–ahem–lower quality conference segment.

Note: I will not be hitting every little thing; just the more major stuff to give a feel of each company’s showing.

EA Games

EA offered up a surprisingly fair showing, not giving off any insidious or incompetent vibes that most gamers have come to expect from it. However, much of its showing was more of the same from past years. We got looks at FIFA and Madden games which sure enough look exactly the same as the other entries from 7 years ago. We also got some dubious news about Battlefield 1 and the source of my first real swing at E3 news with EA saying that “No player will ever experience the same match twice.” Great! I’m sure Ubisoft will announce Beyond Good and Evil 2 as well!

My biggest problem with this kind of announcement is twofold: for one, it’s a cheap advertising gimmick that will always be technically true. Of course no two matches will be exactly the same, just as no two matches from Halo or Call of Duty or Gears of War were exactly the same. Players run out of ammo at different points, different players are involved in a lobby, your neighbors screaming for volume consideration at different points in the match distracting you. Is that announcement true? Technically, yes. Does it really mean anything that it implies? Absolutely not. You will eventually experience matches similar to each other, for you only have so many different maps, objectives, classes, etc. to go around. This kind of thing bothers me because it’s totally unnecessary; I don’t care about having an entirely novel experience every time I power up the game; I care about having quality experiences. All these announcements do is fuel the hype train with empty promises that EA gets away with due to technicalities.

The next big thing EA announced was the new Titanfall, the sequel to that game everyone played for 2 weeks and then forgot about. This one will be available on PS4, which was a surprising announcement, and will also feature a single player campaign, and boy did they laud that like it was Gabe Newell’s gift to the number 3. Congratulations, EA, you’re selling a game for full price that actually has the content expectations for a full price release. That’s a big step for you, isn’t it? People have to wonder, though, if by single player campaign they mean you’ll be alone in the servers again 20 days after launch.

The last two things from EA were a weird behind-the-scenes trailer of the new Mass Effect: Andromeda (gameplay-free, of course) and the announcement of their new indie game publishing platform, EA Originals. Quite generous of EA to introduce indie gaming the wonderful world of microtransactions and superfluous season passes. Thanks for taking care of the little guy, EA.

Bethesda

After last year’s trump card of a conference, Bethesda was somewhat set up for an underwhelming showing. However, despite not having the firepower of a Fallout 4 reveal, Bethesda did really well. I’ll have to reach for some jokes on this one. Following DOOM in its reboot steps, Quake was revealed to have a new installment that no one really saw coming. It looks like its gameplay will look a lot like Overwatch, featuring a champion class for the player to choose. It will apparently be PC-only at release, so our Master Race overlords will have to let us know how it is in between updating graphic cards and deriding consoles for things consoles never professed to have in the first place. Bethesda is also jumping on the VR bandwagon with news about adapting Fallout and DOOM for the HTC Vive. Ya know, if you’re tired of just spending hundreds of dollars on consoles and want to start actually burning your money on hardware yet to be truly tested in quality or adaptability. Pesky disposable income.

The rebooted Wolfenstein is receiving a new installment, an announcement that literally no one cared about as soon as new Dishonored 2 gameplay was revealed. Yes, actual gameplay at E3. Bethesda, you crazy radicals. Bethesda also announced a current-gen remaster of Skyrim with updated graphics and mod-capability. “We thought about releasing an Oblivion remaster too,” said a nameless Bethesda exec, “but we figured making people repurchase two old RPGs would just be showing off.” This announcement effectively softened the blow of Elder Scrolls VI being years off. You know, in case some kind of delusional fan actually thought that game was anywhere near release.

The rest of Bethesda’s conference was mostly taken up by Fallout 4 DLC, proving true the old adage “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t sell a game as a finished product without stringing your fanbase along with other installments that you probably could have included with the base game if you had delayed a few months.”