Archive for the 'Movie adaptation' Category


TCoR:EfBB: Final Thoughts and Apologies

All in all, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay is a pretty satisfying diversion. It’s mostly quite linear, but it uses that to force the player through a good variety of play styles, from crawling around in ducts to piloting unwieldy riot mechs. It’s like the Half-Life games that way, but shorter and with a slightly more talkative hero.

I think I owe the game an apology or two. I said some thoughtlessly mean things about it in my first post that it doesn’t really deserve. Like about the profanity. There’s swearing throughout the game, but most of it’s much more natural-sounding than the bits I complained about at the beginning, unless I just got used to it or something. It probably helps that most of it is screamed at you by people who are trying to kill you. Also, that crack I made about spending most of the acting budget on paying Vin Diesel? As Ellison pointed out in the comments, Mr. Diesel in fact founded the production company responsible for the game. This certainly changes his imagined relationship to the game, but I’m not sure it really casts him in a better light — “Let’s form a studio to make games about ME!” They’re even purportedly also producing a game about one of his D&D characters.

The idea that Vin Diesel plays D&D at all is a bit of a shock. I mean, his best-known roles are pretty firmly on the opposite side of the Geek/Jock divide. Perhaps I’ve underestimated the man. I regarded him as just another Hollywood action star, but a quick look at Wikipedia reveals things about him that I didn’t know (or perhaps used to know but forgot; I don’t exactly keep track of celebrity gossip). For example, did you know that he’s black? No, really! Or, well, it’s not quite that simple. He’s racially weirdified by the standards of present-day America, and apparently had difficulties getting roles before he became a star, because he was considered not white enough for roles that weren’t specifically black, and not black enough for ones that were. He even made a semi-autobiographical film about this experience, which impressed Steven Spielberg with its poignance. Poignance? In a Vin Diesel flick? I had no idea it was in his range. As Riddick, he delivers all his lines in an affectless growl, but I suppose that’s what’s appropriate to the character. He’s the extreme tough guy, completely imperturbable, as unmoved by pain as he is by the death of others.

And that’s really what puts him on the Jock side of the aforementioned divide. Indifference is not a geek trait; the defining trait of a geek is excessive interest. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to use these terms in discussing Escape from Butcher Bay, either. The whole thing is pitched at a middle-school mentality, the sort that finds transgressive fascination in antiheroes, excessive profanity, and an “M for Mature” rating. Prison is a metaphor for school, and Riddick goes through a symbolic puberty: eyeshine is an unexpected and confusing physical change, and the one burst of Furion fury he experiences in the game is the closest someone so unemotive can get to a mood swing. Well, like I’ve said, Riddick is styled as a Campbellian mythic hero, and the whole point of myth according to Campbell is to point back at ordinary experience, to provide us with ways of understanding our own lives. So, what kind of school experience does this story resonate with? A violent one, obviously. One where you feel oppressed, and so you lash out, and you don’t care much about the little guys you hurt in the process. You’re disruptive. You’re constantly in trouble. You keep your cool, because any display of emotion makes you vulnerable. This is the world-view of the schoolyard bully. And to that audience, the game provides the reassuring promise that you can escape from violence by being better at it than everyone else.

But in that light, what are we to make of the ending? Riddick ultimately doesn’t escape Butcher Bay by punching everyone until they let him go, but by a ruse, in which he cooperates with Johns, the bounty hunter who brought him there in the first place. Johns is actually instrumental in recapturing Riddick throughout the game, but grows disgruntled by the extra work and lack of payment, and at some point is threatened with being imprisoned himself, on a pretext I’ve already forgotten, but probably more because it’s the easiest way to get out of honoring Riddick’s bounty. I suppose Riddick had earned Johns’ respect as an adversary or something, but at the very end, he straps Riddick into his restraints again and just takes him off to some other prison. Again, I think of the way Riddick kept surrendering at the end of each chapter, after facing much worse things than Johns. Perhaps he has some undisclosed personal reason to do this? Heck, maybe they’re in cahoots, doing some kind of bounty-oriented swindle like Clint Eastwood in the beginning of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Except I think he’s the same bounty hunter as in Pitch Black, and I don’t think it this speculation jibes with their relationship there.

TCoR:EfBB: The Failure Cycle

The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay has an overall pattern of failing and starting over. I don’t mean at the level of gameplay — sure, yes, the player repeatedly dies and restarts from the last checkpoint, but that’s hardly uncommon in games. I’m talking about the story. Each chapter has Riddick coming within a whisker of freedom, only to be caught at the last moment and thrown into an even deeper pit, resetting his quests and inventory and forcing him to come up with a new plan. It’s never very convincing when this happens. Why is Riddick suddenly surrendering to the guards when he’s already come through worse just to get that far? But we accept it in the same way as we accept the difference between combat deaths and cutscene deaths in a JRPG. Which is to say, we don’t really have a choice.

The first iteration of the cycle is the tutorial level, a sequence in which the security of the prison is oddly lax, and Riddick manages to make a break for some sewer tunnels to freedom before he’s even been shown to his cell. This turns out to be just an Owl Creek Bridge scenario, a dream he’s having on the way to the real prison, but it’s extremely similar to the real place once he gets there. Chosen One prophetic dreaming, or has he just been there before?

The last iteration — at least, I assume it’s the last — comes when the authorities finally get fed up with Riddick inciting riots and letting loose alien monsters and the like and ship him off to Butcher Bay, where he supposedly won’t be able to cause trouble. This surprised me, because I had assumed that we had been in Butcher Bay from the very start. 1[UPDATE] On review, it turns out that I’m wrong about this. There’s a very clear sign indicating that your are entering Butcher Bay Correctional Facility when you first arrive at the beginning of the game. I’m not sure why I thought otherwise. Perhaps I misheard some dialogue about sending Riddick back to Butcher Bay when he’s recaptured for the last time. The game isn’t very good at communicating details like that to the player. (To give another example: at one point, an inmate asked me to retrieve an item that had fallen into the hands of the PPPs. Who are the PPPs? All I was told was that there were a couple of them hanging out in exercise yard A. In exercise yard A, there were two prisoners and two guards. The designers probably didn’t even consider that it would be unclear which of these pairs was wanted.)

Once you’re in Butcher’s Bay, though, it’s very clear that it’s a different place. The whole style changes. Instead of dirty concrete and corroded metal, it’s all gleaming and sterile, with a greater emphasis on automation and robots. That’s because it’s not a very human sort of prison. It lacks human touches like the hate, vindictiveness and power games seen in the earlier sections, because these are all things requiring social interaction. The whole idea behind this place is that the prisoners are kept in cryosleep most of the time. There are periodic legally-mandated two-minute “exercise” sessions, time spent awake but alone in a doorless room. At all other times, prisoners are stored in little coffin-like boxes, stacked in pyramids in a sort of warehouse. It’s incarceration taken to its logical extreme, with dreamlike exaggeration.

Dreamlike? I don’t think we’ve taken another detour to Owl Creek Bridge (although it does seem once again oddly easy to escape into the works). Rather, I think this place plays the role of the dream-realm to a shaman. It’s Riddick’s otherworld, a place only accessible to him, where he sees the logic behind the world laid bare. This is the place in his Heroic Journey where he’s supposed to gain treasures and learn the lessons that he brings back to teach mankind on returning to the normal world. I’ll probably come back to this once I’ve actually finished the game. For the moment, I just want to ask: what does he gain from this experience?

Not a lot, as far as I can tell. He’s already got his magical powers by this point, his eyeshine and his berserker rage. And look at what happens afterwards. This whole game is a prequel to the movie Pitch Black. At the beginning of that, he’s being transported back to prison. So he executes his miraculous escape, but it’s back to status quo soon after. To the extent that this game is capable of ending in triumph, it’s because it ends before the grand cycle comes around to failure again. The game could have ended in the previous chapter, with Riddick boarding the last shuttle off the planet (and before we find out why it doesn’t take off), and it would be exactly as valid a victory.

It reminds me of something: back when the Lord of the Rings movies were coming out, along with their tie-in games, I had an idea for a game starring Gollum. Like Riddick, he’s an antihero who can see in the dark, and thus a natural fit for a stealth game — I imagined it involving a lot of leaping onto orcs’ backs and strangling them, especially in the early “Escape from Mordor” levels. And in the end? Well, he’d finally achieve his ultimate goal of getting his precious back. I imagined a final shot of him gleefully capering with his prize on a ledge over the fires of Mount Doom. Freeze frame, roll credits. Happy ending.

   [ + ]

1. [UPDATE] On review, it turns out that I’m wrong about this. There’s a very clear sign indicating that your are entering Butcher Bay Correctional Facility when you first arrive at the beginning of the game. I’m not sure why I thought otherwise. Perhaps I misheard some dialogue about sending Riddick back to Butcher Bay when he’s recaptured for the last time.

TCoR:EfBB: Through Riddick’s Eyes

The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay was released in 2004, which seems to be something of a turning-point year for graphics in games: this is the first game I’ve played in my chronological run-down that doesn’t look old-fashioned. At least, not to my eyes, which are probably kind of old-fashioned themselves. We’re almost up to the point in time where I more or less lost track of what was happening in “core” gaming, due to the release of new gaming consoles that I wasn’t about to buy immediately, not when there were so many brilliant indie PC and Flash games to download. In comparison to those, at least, Riddick looks positively futuristic, all highly-detailed textures with differing sheens and convincing dirt and bloodstains. There’s something about the surfaces that really reminds me of technology demos for graphics cards — probably the conspicuous bump-mapping. I guess it’s a good thing that nearly all the characters are either shaven-headed prisoners or helmeted guards, because it really minimizes the number of plastic-looking bump-mapped hairdos you see.

The game is basically a first-person shooter with stealth elements. Or at least, the opportunity for stealth. My own experience is that stealth generally works here like it does in Dungeons & Dragons: it usually ends in a big fight with all the guards, because that’s so much easier to pull off successfully. There’s an explicit “stealth mode”, which mainly seems to mean crouching, but also fisheyes the lens. When you’re in stealth mode and concealed by shadow, the view also tints blue to let you know, highly reminiscent of the stealth view in the Penumbra games. (Penumbra came later, but don’t call it unoriginal. It put its own twists on the mechanic.)

Despite being primarily a first-person game, there are moments when it switches to third-person view, the better to show off Vin Diesel’s manly frame as he climbs up a stack of crates or twists a valve handle. But even when you’re in first-person mode, this is one of those few games where you can look down and see your body (or at least your legs), just like in Mirror’s Edge. The system also shares in Mirror’s Edge‘s problems (or design decisions) with disorientating the player. Fight sequences are turbulent. If it’s a hand-to-hand fight — which it very often is, given how hard it is for prisoners to get their hands on firearms — your viewpoint gets thrown around a lot, even when you’re hitting the other guy rather than getting hit yourself. (Sometimes I’ll be unsure about who actually hit whom.) If it’s a gunfight, the guards’ guns are powerful enough to knock you back, and they all have built-in flashlights that can blind you to your surroundings, particularly when the surroundings are dark.

But then, darkness isn’t supposed to be a problem for Riddick, is it? Night vision — “eyeshine”, as the game terms it — is one of his core characteristics. It’s the reason he was so crucial to everyone’s survival in Pitch Black. It’s why he wears those goggles all the time: without them, daylight is like looking into the sun. Well, you don’t start the game with eyeshine, but you acquire it partway through, right after a harrowing sequence of darkness-based scenarios — first a failing flashlight battery, then a limited supply of flares, twisted troglodytes attacking you all the while — that serves both to make you grateful to not have to deal with darkness any more and to use up the designers’ ideas for darkness-based scenarios while they’re still an option. Once you have eyeshine, you can toggle it on and off at the touch of a button, which presumably flips the goggles on and off. When active, it gives the entire screen a nice pinkish irridescence and warping, one of the better nonhuman-vision effects I’ve seen. And yes, if you activate it in normal lighting, it washes out the screen with impenetrable white.

Eyeshine resolves one of the basic dilemmas of stealth games. In the Thief series, and games on a similar model, darkness is safety. Thus, you want to make as much darkness as you can. But this makes it impossible to see where you are or what you’re doing, so there’s a tension there: you want the environment to be dark enough that the guards can’t see you, but not so dark that you can’t see them. But with Riddick, that tension completely goes away. Darkness has no downside. Accordingly, the game limits your access to it. There are areas open to the sky, where you can’t shut off the sun. More often, there are overhead light fixtures, out of reach. The only way I’ve found to put them out is to shoot them out, and the sound of a gunshot alerts the guards, ruining any chance you had for a stealth kill. But if they’re already shooting at you, plunging your immediate area into darkness definitely makes it harder for them. The only problem, then, is those flashlights on their guns, which blind you even more effectively when the goggles are off.

The most strange-feeling part of the various views is being temporarily ejected from them. As I mentioned, actions such as climbing switch you to a third-person camera. Since this isn’t seen through Riddick’s eyes, it doesn’t get the stealth or eyeshine effects. At the very least, you’re suddenly switching from blue or pink back to the game’s usual FPS browns and greys. Worse, maybe you’ve shot out all the lights, and suddenly you can’t see anything at all.

The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay

I’m on record as declaring a fondness for games adapted from movies, but I really haven’t posted about many. I just haven’t been buying the things since my self-imposed rules forced me to limit my game purchases. The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay is sort of a special case. I had to have it because, on its release, it was popularly acclaimed as the first tie-in game that was better than the movie it was based on.

It’s debatable whether this description is accurate. Goldeneye 007, for example, predates it by about seven years, and was certainly more influential as a game than as a movie. (Heck, the game even started its own dance craze.) Some of the Star Wars prequel trilogy tie-in games were better-received by fans than the movies they were based on. But nothing before Riddick provided such a stark contrast between the overwhelmingly positive reception of the game and the poor reviews of its source.

When I picked up the game, I personally had seen neither The Chronicles of Riddick nor its predecessor, Pitch Black. I had seen the trailer, however, and had been struck by the visual style, and how much it looked like a 1980s sci-fi magazine. Pretty much any frame could have been put on the cover of Analog, no questions asked. This seemed promising for the game. Visuals are the easiest thing for a game to get right.

By now, I’ve seen both movies, and I have to agree with pretty much everyone else who’s seen both movies: Riddick is a much more interesting character in Pitch Black, where he isn’t the hero. Pitch Black didn’t really have a hero. It’s more of an ensemble piece, and Riddick’s role in that ensemble is to make everyone else uneasy. We’re told that he’s a criminal, a psychopath, a merciless killer… and then the story finds ways to make the other characters dependent on his mercy. The resulting drama was the main point of interest in an otherwise indifferent sci-fi monster movie. But all the studio seemed to take away from it was “People sure do like this Riddick character, don’t they?”, and so they made a sequel about Riddick’s Heroic Journey, in which he turns out to be The Chosen One and Last Of His Race and similar malarkey. The most interesting parts are when the Joseph Campbell stuff is juxtaposed with the character’s dismal origins, hero as convicted criminal. (Kind of like when Paul Newman did the same thing back in 1967, but more brutal and macho.)

And so, sensibly enough, that’s what the game focuses on. Riddick’s backstory always included an escape from a maximum-security prison, and now we get to make that happen.

The prison environment isn’t as strongly-styled as that trailer, but it’s convincingly prison-like, even though you wander around it with a strange amount of freedom. There’s the whole inmate pecking-order thing going on, with one tough guy ruling over the rest and receiving special favors from the corrupt and violent guards. (He is, of course, killed by Riddick in short order.) The first weapons you get access to are shivs, and, in a nice touch, every shiv is unique: one is made from scrap metal, one from a sharpened screwdriver, etc. The hidden collectibles that unlock bonus content at the main menu take the form of cigarette packs.

And everyone swears a lot. The voice actors, for the most part, don’t really sound like they understand why they’re swearing, but they agreeably say “fuck” when it’s in the script. It reminds me of a story about Mark Twain. Apparently his wife once tried to make him embarrassed about swearing by writing down everything he said and then repeating his scandalous words to him in a cold and disapproving tone. His reply: “You’ve got the words right, but you sure don’t have the music.” I suppose it’s because most of the voice-acting budget was blown on Vin Diesel. I never thought I’d say the words “Vin Diesel is the most talented actor in this”, but such is games.

The Final Cut: Continued Frustration

Before my last session, I would have said that The Final Cut is a game that has to be played twice: once to find out by trial and error what you’re supposed to do, and a second time to use your knowledge of the solutions to spot the clues that you were supposed to have noticed the first time round. But now, I have doubts that even this would be enough.

In the beginning of chapter 2, the detective finally meets his client, Robert Martin-Jordan, in person for the first time. Naturally he has a lot of questions. Some of these questions are about things that just plain haven’t happened. For example, one of the questions is about the things said on an audio tape that I had found, but had not yet found a means to listen to. (Perhaps he has the psychic power to divine the contents of audio tapes? I know there exists a man who can read the grooves on LPs…) Another of the dialog options is to tell him about how you were attacked up on the scaffolding. I had been up on that scaffolding, but there was no attack. All that happened there was a puzzlingly pointless first-person cinematic in which I pressed a button, after which the game returned me to the bottom of the now-unclickable ladder. Oh, and that somehow triggered the end of the chapter. I think I was doing things in the wrong order there.

The whole scaffolding scene had seemed incomprehensible at the time. (In retrospect, the button was probably the one mentioned elsewhere that turns the fire alarm on and off, but it didn’t seem to do anything. Unless perhaps the sound glitches prevented me from hearing the alarm. But if so, did I turn it on or did I turn it off? And either way, why?) But if I was attacked in that scene and didn’t notice, something was very wrong. So I found a walkthrough online to try to find out what was supposed to have happened there.

That walkthrough diverged from my experience of the game before it was even done with the intro movie.

After she leaves for bed, you observe a green car and have a momentary psychic flashback to the time your parents were killed in a car crash.

No I don’t! I saw the car, but there was no psychic flash, and this business about the detective’s parents is news to me. So at this point it looks like it’s just skipping over some of the cutscenes. But only some of them, which is odd. Maybe they’re using multiple codecs? Searching the web for reviews, I don’t see anyone else who had my problems. I see a lot of complaints about the story and the puzzles, but I guess my situation is like the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation in reverse: the more fundamental problems blind me to the surface flaws.

At least the walkthrough showed me something that I had genuinely missed on my own: I had failed to find the camera angle that lets you access the document giving all the characters’ names. This is something to be careful about, guys. If you’re going to make basic information missable, some people are going to miss it. Given that the rest of the game assumes that you have this information, it would have been a good idea to make leaving the prologue and proceeding to chapter 1 contingent on finding this document. Instead, the game makes it contingent on watching Mr. Martin-Jordan’s welcome video, which contains no information that’s useful once you’re out of the prologue.

It looks like this one is going back onto the shelf for a while, alongside Tender Loving Care. I seem to be having poor luck with technical problems in adventure games lately. You might think that adventures would be less prone to failure than big-name titles, being less technically demanding, but this also means that they’re typically developed on low budgets by small teams with tight deadlines. Also, their low replayability means that they often don’t get a lot of fan attention after release, ScummVM notwithstanding.

The Final Cut: Initial Confusion

By now, I’ve voluntarily restarted The Final Cut several times. I’ve done this because the earlier bits don’t provide nearly enough context to understand what’s going on. You’re a detective, that much is clear. You’ve been hired to conduct an investigation. But no one tells you what you’re supposed to be investigating. The would-be filmmaker has left you a welcome-and-introduction videotape, but it fails to mention what he wants you to do, or even what his name is. The woman who hired you on his behalf goes to bed immediately after driving you to the mansion, and is mute besides, so there’s no getting information out of her. Snooping around the empty house yields a certain amount of data about various people, but at that point you still have no idea who these people are or what their relation is to the investigation; one of them may be the mute woman, but you haven’t learned her name yet at that point either. When you finally encounter a human being you can talk to, you can work out what the mystery is you’re supposed to solve: the cast and crew all mysteriously failed to show up one day. But the conversation only makes sense if the PC already knows this.

It’s as if I’m missing something I was supposed to learn all this from, possibly a manual. The only documentation I have is a jewel-case insert that explains the UI and not much else. I suppose I should search my pile of loose game manuals for something more substantial, but I remember being equally confused the first time I played the game, so I don’t think any such thing was included in the box. Maybe I’m the victim of a packaging error, or maybe the publisher decided to do without it in the American release. Still, relying on docs to deliver the premise is a mistake that few modern games would make.

The really galling thing is that the intro movie, which would be the perfect place to introduce the basics of the case, tells us next to nothing. The player character narrates how he got involved in this job, and does it in elliptic private-eye patois that evokes any number of films not by Hitchcock, but that’s all.

But then again, the lack of clarity doesn’t stop at the premise. While exploring a diner set, I was baffled by the PC suddenly writing “Sound Engineer: Fat guy” in the PDA he uses as a notebook. Only after restarting and playing the scene again did I notice that he had first glanced at one of the counter stools (there’s those subtle head movements again!), the seat of which was crushed. So, that explains the “Fat guy” part, but why did he think the sound engineer had been sitting there? Is this a manifestation of his psychic powers? Probably not; I’ve seen how his psychic powers work by now. He’s gifted with psychometry, or possibly cinemetry. When he touches objects, he sometimes gets a vision of a two-second clip from a Hitchcock film. (So there is a fair amount of FMV after all.)

Any confusion the player feels in the early parts of the game is exacerbated by the disorienting way that the camera cuts from position to position without warning as you explore the grounds. I recall getting lost and unable to find my way back to the mansion in my first session, years ago. By dint of repetition, I’ve got a better handle on the layout now — the main part is basically just two parallel roads with the mansion at one end and a large backdrop at the other, with various sets between them. It would be pretty much impossible to get lost if you could look around freely.

Fortunately, I seem to be pretty much past the initial confusion phase and into the phase of solving deliberate puzzles. This phase starts when you start finding bodies. There’s nothing like a corpse to give a detective concrete goals.

The Final Cut

Well, the Vintage Game Club is proceeding on to its next game 1As I write this, they’ve narrowed it down to four candidates, all of which I’ve already played. , so I think it’s about time to admit to myself that I’m not finishing up the JRPGs just yet and proceed on to something else. Something nice and quick to finish, like an adventure game. I still have a passel of obscure European graphic adventures that I was formerly unable to play due to the GeForce bug.

So, last night, I reinstalled a couple of games, feeling kind of strange about it — it’s been quite a few months since I ran an installer from physical media. First, I tried out Ring 2, the second part of Arxel Tribe’s sci-fi adaptation of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Sound issues drove me away from this; if there’s one place you don’t want the music to be skipping and stuttering, it’s in a game based on opera. My second attempt was another Arxel Tribe title, The Final Cut. This had similar sound problems, but I was able to mitigate them with some fiddling. I still get some ugliness in incidental background noises, but at least the dialogue seems to be playing without problems.

The grand concept behind The Final Cut is that it’s based on, or at least inspired by, the works of Alfred Hitchcock. An oddball premise, but adventure games can get away with such things more easily than other genres. I haven’t got far in the game yet (I’m basically at the point where I abandoned it the first time), but so far, it doesn’t strike me as a very good match to the source material. I mean, if I were going to make a Hitchcock pastiche, I’d start off with the stereotypical Hitchcock protagonist: an ordinary man who, through no fault of his own, gets caught up in events beyond his control, like in North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Not all of his films have such a protagonist; sometimes it’s a spy or a master thief or something, but those sorts of roles aren’t specifically Hitchcockian; anyone can make a film about spies or master thieves. Well, the player character here is apparently some kind of psychic detective, which seems a bit outlandish. That’s the kind of premise you’d start with if you had heard of Hitchcock but had never seen his films. Or, more charitably, if you thought players wouldn’t be attracted to playing the Jimmy Stewart role.

The game is driven by the same sort of interface seen in Grim Fandango, which is to say, it’s the Alone in the Dark interface with the addition that the player character turns his head to look at important objects (something that worked a lot better in GF, due to the PC’s freakishly elongated cranium). In this UI, you drive your avatar around with keyboard or joystick, 2The controls here are relative to the direction the character is facing, not the camera, which makes for awkward stumbling and running into walls. Grim Fandango at least let you toggle between character-relative and camera-relative movement modes. and the camera switches between fixed positions depending on your position. And this is the game’s second stumbling block as a Hitchcock imitation — that the camera is controlled exclusively by the player’s position. Hitchcock’s directorial style heavily depends on his control of the camera: I think of the way it emphasizes the separation between inside and outside in Rear Window, or creates tension by lingering on the impromptu casket in Rope, or how in Frenzy it follows a woman to the killer’s door, watches her go through, and then slowly backs off the way it came, as if abandoning her to her fate (and thus forcing the audience to abandon her as well). But here, even in noninteractive bits — which is to say, the dramatic parts — the camera just sits there. I suppose that even with an engine like this, you could give the director control of the camera in FMV sequences, but so far the only FMV bit I’ve seen is the intro.

So, if we don’t have Hitchcock-style premise or direction, what, apart from the blurb on the box, lets us know it’s a Hitchcock game? Well, there are scattered references to specific films — in particular, one of the early puzzles involves piecing together film titles from fragments. And I think the sets are probably from his films. (Note that when I say “sets”, I mean sets: the premise involves a wealthy eccentric who’s making a film on his estate.) I’m not sure of this because, frankly, most of Hitchcock’s sets aren’t all that distinctive. Maybe a real devotee would look at the hotel set and say “Aha! It’s the hotel from scene 17 of Topaz!” But people like me, who have seen a bunch of Hitchcock films and enjoyed them but didn’t rush out to buy the action figures 3On the other hand, I did buy the game, so maybe I’m just in the smallest part of the Venn diagram here., can probably recognize the Psycho house and maybe the schoolyard from The Birds, and that’s it.

You’re out. I didn’t say Simon Says.In short, so far this is Alfred Hitchcock: The Game in the same sense as Batman: The Ride. Still, there’s one bit that I’ve come across that seems like it fits the spirit of the films pretty well. Standing in for a missing actor, the player character gets in front of a bluescreen and mimes shooting at a dummy. As I go through that sequence, I know full well that it’s going to come back to haunt me later — I’m basically giving the filmmakers the raw materials to fabricate evidence that I’ve shot someone. And I can only assume that I was supposed to realize this, even as the PC blithely goes through with it, because that’s how suspense works: as in the famous example of the ticking bomb, it’s enhanced if the audience knows something that the characters don’t. But in a game, it can be taken a step farther: the audience doesn’t just watch the hapless protagonist do the wrong thing, but actively participates. Step by step, you’re given directions — “Stand on the X”, “Draw the gun now and point it at the dummy”, and so forth — and you execute them, because however strong your sympathy with the protagonist, your desire to advance the plot is stronger.

Hitchcock was no stranger to audience complicity, of course: he knew full well that people would pay good money to see him take sympathetic characters and put them through the worst day of their lives. He sometimes even made his audience feel like accomplices in his virtual crimes, as in the aforementioned scene in Frenzy, or the cleaning-up scene in Psycho, where the tension depends on the audience’s desire, at that moment, for the killer to get away with it. But it’s so much more direct in a game.

   [ + ]

1. As I write this, they’ve narrowed it down to four candidates, all of which I’ve already played.
2. The controls here are relative to the direction the character is facing, not the camera, which makes for awkward stumbling and running into walls. Grim Fandango at least let you toggle between character-relative and camera-relative movement modes.
3. On the other hand, I did buy the game, so maybe I’m just in the smallest part of the Venn diagram here.

Lego Star Wars as a whole

It’s notable that the lego aspect of the Lego Star Wars games isn’t very strong compared to the Star Wars aspect. At no point does the player actually participate in assembling things out of legos. Oh, sure, there are loose piles of legos here and there to be assembled — created, in some cases, when the player blasts an existing lego structure apart — but the player’s involvement in the process is just plunking a character into the middle of the pile, holding down the “action” button, and watching the legos fly to their predetermined spots. Beyond that, lego is basically window dressing on a Star Wars substrate. Like all stylistic aberrations, you get used to it after a while, and basically stop noticing anything strange about it. (With some exceptions, of course. Seeing Lego Slave Leia for the first time was a bit of a shock.)

So where does that leave the Star Wars aspect of the games? If I’m not mistaken, Lego Star Wars and Lego Star Wars II taken together form the only complete game adaptation of the entire 6-episode saga in a single consistent idiom of graphical presentation and gameplay. The closest I’ve seen is a coin-op rail shooter from 1998 that only covered the original trilogy, not the prequels (which hadn’t been released yet). Absurd as it sounds, this makes the Lego games something like the definitive game adaptation of the series.

As such, they provide a good perspective into Star Wars and its relationship with games. It’s hardly news that the prequel trilogy was more videogame-inspired than the original trilogy — the race in Episode 1 and the platformer-like droid factory in Episode 2 in particular have aroused suspicion that they were added to the movies specifically in order to provide fodder for videogame adaptations. “Racing games are popular,” one imagines Lucas saying. “We need a canonical basis for a racing game. Can we use the Endor speeder bikes? Nah, let’s do something more completely like Daytona.” Even if that’s not how it happened, it’s hard to imagine that these scenes could have been produced without anyone involved in the production consciously imitating videogames. The original trilogy, on the other hand, went the other way: instead of videogame-inspired, it was videogame-inspiring. The movies were showing things that couldn’t be effectively done in games yet, but it all looked so cool, and had such obvious promise for the fledgling game medium, that people tried anyway. And they kept trying until the technology caught up and they really could do something that looked as cool as the movies, or cooler. And then they did it again with legos.

As much as I’d like to say that the innovative original trilogy yields better game material than the imitative prequels, it’s just not so. Apart from specific set-pieces, there’s one thing that really separates any game adaptations of the two trilogies: the bosses. The prequel trilogy had a whole bunch of characters that were basically level bosses, such as Darth Maul, Count Dooku, General Grievous — even Sebulba, as the only opponent with a distinct name and personality, is effectively a boss for the Super Anakin Kart sequence. Darth Maul was a disappointment as a character in the movie, especially after all the hype, because all he did was attack the heroes every once in a while. But in a game, that’s not disappointing at all; it’s exactly what we expect. So the prequel trilogy gets a gold star for its colorful array of baddies. In the original trilogy, it’s basically Vader, Vader, Vader. Oh, and briefly Boba Fett, but mainly Vader over and over again, on the Death Star and Bespin and Dagobah (even if that’s just a mystical vision, it’s still a boss fight), until the end, when you fight the Emperor, who isn’t very interesting as a fighter — he basically just zaps one of the two player characters with Force Lightning until you switch to the other character and hit him. They had to turn that scene into a series of platformer puzzles in order to make it viable.

[added June 9 2007] Vader basically has the opposite of Darth Maul’s problem. Unlike Maul, he does a great deal more than just attack the heroes: he captures the princess, interrogates her by extreme means including making her watch him destroy an entire planet, orders underlings around and force-chokes them to death when they fail him, exposes Obi-Wan’s lies, and ultimately switches sides and betrays the Emperor. But only the last of these points translates into gameplay; the rest are shown in cut-scenes, if at all. So he’s less interesting as a videogame character than as a movie character.

Lego Star Wars II: Extras and Secrets

Getting through the Return of the Jedi section of Lego Star Wars II didn’t take long. Cleverly, they used Vader’s redemption at the end of the movie as an excuse to turn him into a player character. This was something of a relief, because it means there’s one Dark Force wielder who doesn’t have to be purchased with lego studs. Once you’ve been given control of him once, you can have him in Free Play mode whenever you like.

About those lego studs. Lego studs fill the same role as “bolts” in Ratchet and Clank: little money items that you acquire mainly by breaking stuff. Some of the various secrets and extras can be purchased with lego studs, but, in most cases, you also have to unlock them by completing some other task, such as completing a level or finding a special “power brick”. There are also gold bricks which accumulate to open up bonus areas, and which are mainly earned by accumulating a certain threshhold of lego studs within a single play-through of a level. It’s all rather byzantine, but it’s done with juicy feedback, both when you attain a goal and again as a summary of your accomplishments on finishing a level. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing, you know when you’ve done it, and even if you don’t know what it means, you know it was a good thing.

To use my earlier nomenclature, finding power bricks is a Challenge, and accumulating lego studs is an Activity. So getting all of the extra powers requires both. One of the powers is particularly worth noting: it multiplies stud yield by 10. So this would be the perfect thing to aim for in order to minimize your time spent stud-farming, except for the fact that it costs more than all the other purchasable items put together. Seriously, there are only two reasons to go for that one. One is that you just enjoy making your games display very large numbers — not something that appeals to me, but this is for the people who keep on trying to beat their own high scores at games they’ve already won. The other is the completist’s urge to catch ’em all, to not have any gaps in their collectibles. Well, Lego Star Wars II is officially off the stack now, but I definitely want to keep hunting secrets at least until I finish all the mini-kits. (Each level has one, in ten scattered and hidden pieces. I don’t know much about the toy line, but I assume that they’re all replicas of actual purchasable lego kits.) Whether I go for the 30-million-stud exercise in uselessness depends on how close I am to it after that.

Lego Star Wars II

When I first became aware of the original Lego Star Wars game, my first thought was of an enormous lego Death Star that I had seen in a store window. The whole idea of taking that huge sphere of grey bricks and blowing it up, sending a firework-like shower of lego flying through space in all directions, was tremendously appealing to me. So you can imagine my disappointment when I learned that the game only covered the prequel trilogy, and my delight at the sequel covering episodes 4-6. That’s two Death Star explosions, one in 4 and one in 6.

Well, I can report on the first of those explosions now. It wasn’t all it could have been. The game keeps the scale too consistent to make the moon-sized Death Star noticably lego-like from a distance. Still, that’s the only disappointing thing in this game so far. (It’s so similar in style and gameplay to the first Lego Star Wars, it usually meets expectations exactly.)

The Lego Star Wars videogame franchise is, needless to say, peculiar. Game adaptations of things that are adaptations themselves actually aren’t all that unusual, but usually it goes book — movie — game (like the various Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movie tie-in games) or comic — movie — game (like the mandatory tie-in game for every superhero movie since 1990), not movie — licensed toy line — game. 1 The only other pattern I can remember seeing offhand is book — comic — game without any movie involved at all. This was done by an adventure game based on Druillet’s comic adaptation of Flaubert’s Salammbo. This, incedentally, is one of three games I own that I discovered only after purchase to be based on French comic books. One effect of mediating the adaptation of the movies through lego is that it becomes pointless to take it all too seriously. We’re presented by a world, yea, a galactic civilization populated entirely by lego people. The designers run with that, throwing in lots of slapstick and silly hats — the silly hats have no effect on gameplay; a silly hat is its own reward — and allowing comic dismemberment. We’ve heard about Wookiees pulling people’s arms out of their sockets, but now we get to see it happen. It happens quite neatly: Chewie pulls on an arm, the arm pops off.

For all its flippancy, it’s actually a better-designed game than most of the other official adaptations of the saga. Well, okay: there have been Star Wars-based videogames for nearly 30 years at this point. The Death Star trench run and the Battle of Hoth have been made and remade in so many games, it would be surprising if they weren’t getting pretty good at them by now. Indeed, the designers of Lego Star Wars II seem to want to avoid repeating other games here: the trench run is surprisingly short, and Hoth has various innovations added to spice it up. (Basically, the tow cable has uses other han tripping up AT-AT’s.)

Right now, I’m all the way through A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, which is to say, I’ve gotten 2/3 of the way to the end. It took the better part of a day. Like the original Lego Star Wars, this is a pretty short game. Or rather, it’s a game for completists, and their close kin, perfectionists. Reaching the end of Episode VI shouldn’t take long, but getting all the stuff — the golden bricks and the hidden multi-part lego models — will take slightly longer. Reaching the end of the game is in a sense only the beginning, just a way to unlock all the characters you’ll need when you go back to hunt secrets. Some optional areas are accessible by using the dark side of the Force. There are only two characters in the movies who can do that, and I suspect that they’ll be the last ones to become available for play.

   [ + ]

1. The only other pattern I can remember seeing offhand is book — comic — game without any movie involved at all. This was done by an adventure game based on Druillet’s comic adaptation of Flaubert’s Salammbo. This, incedentally, is one of three games I own that I discovered only after purchase to be based on French comic books.

Older Posts »