Thursday, September 12, 2013

Heath Holland On...When Video Games Go to the Movies

Ready Player One? Press Start!

Riddick, the most recent entry in the Chronicles of Riddick franchise opened in theaters this last weekend, and it’s safe to say that once again Vin Diesel used his gravely voice and shiny eyes to save (survive) the day. While it was the third theatrical film to feature Riddick, it’s actually the sixth time (and there’s an argument to be made that there are more) Vin Diesel has given life to the character. Between Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick was the animated, direct-to-DVD feature Dark Fury. But the official Chronicles of Riddick storyline also continued in two video games that served as prequels to the whole shebang.

The first of those games was Escape From Butcher Bay (first released in 2004), a game that allowed players to take control of the character as he attempts to escape Butcher Bay Prison. Most of the game involves sneaking around, killing people from behind, and defending yourself from surprise attacks by other inmates. It’s during the game that we see Riddick get his eyeshine, which allows the players to sneak around in the dark. It’s all pretty fun. In 2009, the story of Riddick continued with Assault On Dark Athena. The games are notable for having Vin Diesel’s full participation, doing all the voice work for the character as well as allowing his likeness to be used for the game.
When all of these different iterations of the Riddick character are experienced in order, the six chapters take on the decidedly epic feel that was attempted -- though not necessarily achieved -- by 2004's Chronicles of Riddick. The movies have been modest cult successes, but the Riddick video games have been more widely accepted than the movies initially were. Some people believe that it was the successful sales of the 2009 Assault On Dark Athena video game that encouraged the production of the newest film by showing that there was still audience interest in the character. Video games have lower budgets than most movies, are limited only by imagination and can allow players to spend much greater lengths of time within the story than a movie can. No wonder more and more people from the movie industry are looking at video games to help them tell stories.

Video games are SUPER successful and make far more money annually than movies do (which, even as a gamer, is sad to me). We’ve gotten to the point where it’s now a real question as to whether or not video games are currently replacing movies as most people’s chosen form of narrative. On the surface, I suppose that makes sense. A night at the movie theater can cost upwards of $30-50 and you get an evening’s entertainment. A brand new video game costs $60 and you usually get a minimum of ten hours of entertainment, sometimes far more. In fact, some games have infinite playability and only end when the player gets bored. Take the Elder Scrolls series, where you can take up a profession and completely lose yourself in an artificial world.

I’m not here to debate the merits of video games versus movies; my loyalty is clearly to movies, and always will be. But everyone seems to know that video games have come a long way since the days of Pong, or Super Mario, or even Mortal Kombat. These days, video games are deep and involved and have extensive scripts. No wonder more and more people from the movies are bringing their talents to video games.

As I write this column, I’ve literally just finished Ghostbusters: The Video Game from 2009. There have been games based on the Ghostbusters franchise before, but nothing could ever hold a candle to what we ended up with in this AMAZING video game. Every Ghostbusters fan knows that Ghostbusters 3 will likely never see the light of day; it’s a movie that’s been talked about for years and years, and it seems like Bill Murray is the one who doesn’t want to return for a third movie.

But Bill Murray had no problem lending his voice to the video game. And he wasn’t the only one who came back: Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson ALL return to voice their characters. But that’s not all! Annie Potts is back as Janine, William Atherton voices his slimy character Peck, and even Max Von Sydow lends his voice for Vigo the Carpathian. Just as he was in Ghostbusters II, Vigo is stuck in a painting. In this game that painting is a permanent fixture in the Ghostbusters firehouse headquarters. It has no plot purpose whatsoever, but you can walk up to it and interact with it. Your reward for approaching the painting is to have Max Von Sydow berate you.
Upon completing Ghostbusters: The Video Game, I found that I had unlocked a documentary on the making of the game. Over the course of about 20 minutes, every actor involved (except Bill Murray) talked about the making of the game and how it was essentially Ghostbusters 3 for everyone involved, using plot points that had been planned for that third movie. Aykroyd and Ramis helped write the script, too, and Ramis tells the camera that the final screenplay weighed in at 1000 pages. You believe it, because the game is packed with the kind of one-liners and moments that made the first movie so exceptional. It’s hour after hour of new Ghostbuster banter.

Aykroyd and Ramis have their fingerprints all over the game and have made sure that every little touch is in line with their vision. For instance, part of your equipment is a scanner that lets you examine each ghost that you encounter. Some of the ghosts are just your basic plasma formations that need to be disposed of quickly, but there are more exciting and entertaining ghosts that you can reference in the game using Tobin’s Spirit Guide from the movie. Each of these ghosts found in Tobin’s book has a colorful name and description, such as Pappy Sargassi, a fisherman ghost. Tobin’s Spirit Guide informs us that Pappy Sargassi came from a long line of fishermen who all died prematurely. Because of this, he feared the sea and, instead of fishing, opened a restaurant in 1950. At the end of his life he thought it would be safe to finally take up fishing. He died choking on a fish stick while being eaten by a great white shark.

Ghostbusters: The Video Game is genuinely charming and fun to play. It’s short, as far as video games go: about 8 hours. But due to that short length, you can play through it relatively quickly whenever you want without a lot of commitment. There are so many interactions between the Ghostbusters that fighting the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man one more time and defeating the minions of Gozer (again) takes second place to listening to the four Ghostbusters bounce off one another 20 years after we last saw them.

Another classic movie series that has been given the video game treatment recently is Back To The Future. The newest game to hit the current gaming systems is almost as impressive as Ghostbusters: The Video Game because it sees the return of both Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd. Bob Gale, the co-creator and co-writer of the original trilogy was involved in the creation of the game. It seems that more often than not, the creative people behind these successful movies seem to want the games to be just as successful as the movies, which I think says a lot about the state of current gaming.
Full disclosure: Michael J. Fox doesn’t do most of the game’s voice work for “current” Marty, but instead lends his voice to a future version of Marty McFly, as well as an ancestor McFly. It almost doesn’t matter to me, because through video game magic I can see Marty and Doc go on one more adventure like time hasn’t passed at all. Speaking of time not passing at all, even the retired Sean Connery got into the game (get it?) in 2006 when he “starred” in the video game version of From Russia With Love. You may be thinking that they probably just used his old dialog from the '60s film…but nuh-uh! Connery came out of retirement to record all new dialog for the video game, which expands on the movie and incorporates more traditional James Bond gadgets (like the jetpack, baby, yeah!) that hadn’t made their debut when the film was released.
I could just go on and on, because that’s what video games do -- they go on and on. I could talk about how the Batman video games Arkham Asylum and Arkham City are the greatest cinematic realizations of the Batman universe period, surpassing both Tim Burton’s and Christopher Nolan’s reach (the games draw heavily on elements from both director’s versions of the Batman universe, as well as the Bruce Timm animated series) because of their ability to tell stories outside traditional movie boundaries of budget, believability, accessibility, and length. Plus, the Arkham games aren’t going for a traditional, wide audience. The core audience of gamers is composed of people like me: people in their 30s with a nostalgic love for pop culture and who have disposable income.
I could also go on and on about how the games based on the Spider-Man movies expand the stories of those films in a pleasant way and incorporate characters that the movies didn’t have the time or the means to feature. Or I could talk about Hugh Jackman in the Wolverine game from a few years ago, or how Liam Neeson, Samuel L. Jackson, Kiefer Sutherland, Patrick Stewart, Nathan Fillion, Sean Bean, Ron Perlman, Gary Oldman, and Mickey Rourke all have video game voice work in their resumes. Video games are here to stay. That’s a good thing, as long as we keep it all in perspective and don’t let them overtake movies in our hearts and lives.

Video games can be many things to many people. They can be interactive stories that totally immerse us in a cinematic experience OR they can become a place where we can hide from the world instead of living our own lives. But they can also be Deloreans, time machines that can capture that old cinematic magic from the movies of our childhood and allow us to be an active participant. While the filmed image is frozen in time, video games can cheat the clock and create a false reality. Like most things in life, they can be a blessing and they can be a curse. And like movies, how far we let them transport us is completely up to us.

*Note* Heath Holland is more than willing to license his likeness for video games, spin-off action figures, and an animated series. Also, enter the code “up up down down left right left right B A Start” to read this column in God Mode.


  1. Since I'm in Trek mode of late, I'll put a good word in for Star Trek: Judgment Rites, a fantastic graphic adventure from Interplay. It's really a tribute to the original television show, but I'm justifying it because the cast did make 6 movies together. This one is special. All the original cast members did voiceovers, and certain sections are devoted to the secondary crew members (Uhura and Scotty each get moments to shine, for example). It's a genuine celebration of the spirit of Trek - Kirk even gets a big philosophizin' speech at one point.

    While not reaching the heights of Judgment Rites, the Next Generation crew got their own cool adventure game with The Final Unity from Spectrum Holobyte. Once again, all the original cast are on hand for the voices. I've been dying for someone to port this to the iPad.

    1. Star Trek: Judgement Rites, heck yeah that was as great game! You have inspired me to dig it up and try it out on DosBox.

    2. I never played that back in the day, but I just googled it and it looks AWESOME. I was never much of a PC gamer, but I may have to change that. If it still plays on current systems. Star Trek has a pretty dodgy track record when it comes to video games, so this is definitely something I want to look into. Thanks!

    3. OMG, it's a free download (I guess because it's a 20 year old computer game). I'll have to figure out exactly how to run it (DosBox, Tom?) and check it out.

    4. Looks like the 25th Anniversary game is a free download too. I'll see you guys next April.

    5. The 25th Anniversary game is pretty good too. By the way looks like that site has Judgement Rites as well.

      Both titles run well in DosBox, though you may have to mess around with your emulation CPU cycles to find a good running speed. Let me know if you have any trouble getting it up and running.

  2. I've got a question. I've recently seen two animated films that many would consider failures: Foodfight and Last Flight of the Champion. In both cases I thought the level of animation might be enough for a video game, but not a feature going toe-to-toe with Pixar. Barely moving faces, non-furry or feathered surfaces, moving like Macy's Parade balloons.

    Am I right? Is this level of animation more accepted in a video game? Is that why the filmmakers thought the kids would sit still for it?

    1. I just watched the trailers for both of those movies. Foodfight looks like it could have been in a video game 10 years ago, but definitely not these days. And Last Flight of the Champion looks absolutely horrible. It looks like those mid-90s CGI movies. Wait, it looks like Veggie Tales! Maybe the animation looks like that because they had an extremely low budget?

      The average video game budget these days is between 20 and 60 million dollars and the goal is to have cinema quality graphics as often as possible.

      Here's a trailer for Batman: Arkham City. This came out two years ago, so things have actually moved on even further since then, but it shows where the technology is. I'd totally watch an entire movie of this.