The Cultural Gutter

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Revisionist Fantasy

Andrew Smale
Posted June 8, 2006

What if Sauron got his Ring back?Games are fantasy. Whether it’s casting a fireball spell or commanding thousands of troops on the rolling plains of an ancient battlefield, they allow us to do things that are otherwise impossible in real life. It’s part of what makes them so engaging. Games based on fictional events like movies or books often take liberties with the plot to make a good game, creating a new plot with the player as the central character. As a result, it allows a certain level of re-imagining of the events in the original source material. In the best cases, the player has control of the action’s outcome, ultimately changing the course of the story and creating an entirely different conclusion. However in the world of licensed intellectual property, this isn’t always an option available to developers – especially when the game is intended to be a direct tie-in as part of a larger advertising strategy. A lot of games end up this way, and it’s why most people refuse to consider movie tie-ins anything other than interactive commercials. There has been a shift towards more freedom with intellectual properties in games: recent successes like The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (Starbreeze, 2004) and Spider-Man 2 (Treyarch, 2004) have proven that movie licenses don’t always result in an inferior product. But is this move towards player freedom even necessary?


Games adapted from films or books have a basic story to work around: the start and end points are the same, and it’s the middle that usually gets played with. Besides the numerous console titles that are pumped out in preparation for a movie’s release that bear only a passing resemblance to their namesake, a good example is EA’s multiplatform release of The Lord of the Rings action series. The Two Towers (Electronic Arts, 2002) and The Return of the King (Electronic Arts, 2003) have the high production values of the films, but absolutely no redeeming qualities as a game. You’re in control of the characters from the films, while enemies and plot are fed to you on a rail towards Mordor. The amount of monotonous button mashing is unbearable, and the minimal character customization does little to alleviate how much the experience is overshadowed by its ties to the films.
In cases like Escape from Butcher Bay and Shadows of the Empire (LucasArts, 1997) the entire games are inserted into existing story continuum and have little or no effect on it — they simply capture the “unwritten” adventures of a particular character leading up to something that is known to happen.
In all of the preceding examples the end result will always be the same, because the main storyline is never directly affected. As a result the games are usually less satisfying, because the player is bound by the rules of the storyline. Hero characters can’t die – that ends the game. The next battle is dictated by where you are in the story. Failure to meet objectives is simply another reason to end the game.
Spider Man 2 was not really a movie tie-in; its relationship was mostly superficial. The game follows the free-form mission model made popular by Grand Theft Auto III (Rockstar, 2001), while a story thread based on the movie can be picked up at any time while swinging around the city. It was an original approach for a movie tie-in – the developers were clearly thinking in terms of a larger scale, allowing players to create the unseen adventures of Spider Man for themselves. You can even fail missions and the game will still continue. But the end result is still the same – Spider Man is victorious and New York City is safe once again.
Revisionist FantasyThe Battle for Middle Earth II (Electronic Arts, 2006) is a real time strategy game careful to balance the existing mythos established by Tolkien’s influential fantasy works without adhering to any set storyline. The single player campaign follows the War in the North, which was only hinted at through The Lord of the Rings. But this campaign almost isn’t needed. The game has layers of material from the books and films that permeate every aspect of gameplay. Every unit in the game has a basis in the novels, taking visual cues from the celebrated films. The differences to its predecessor are immediately seen in the “War of the Ring” mode, where a campaign for control of the territories of Middle Earth can be waged as the forces of Good or Evil, to destroy the One Ring or claim it for yourself and change the face of Middle Earth forever. It is immensely empowering, and never feels like the original source material is being undermined.
To that end, a proper sense of scale is essential for giving the impression that players have control of the outcome and possible future of the characters and/or game world. And scale is useless without context. A single real time strategy skirmish is as influential as the previously mentioned action games if it is contained within a larger, uncontrollable narrative.
Part of the appeal of the movie or book tie-in is the ability to re-enact what was seen on the big screen, not necessarily the desire to change what happens. By giving players more freedom, there is less of an emphasis on the story – something that made the game possible in the first place. The result is an experience that is less cinematic, and more of a game inside the perceived boundaries of a film. While there is a push for more freedom in gameplay, I’m reluctant to subscribe to the belief that it’s the future of gaming. Narrative is just as important in presenting a compelling game experience – without it the player is without purpose, lost in a world he knows very little about. The use of films or books to ground players in a world that has been previously encountered through them allows developers to focus on creating a good game, instead of worrying about the story to go with it. The pitfalls lie in letting the source material overpower the entire experience. Because at that point, there’s really no reason to play the game at all – the DVD player is often just as accessible.

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