Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Trials By Fire: Echoes in Hallways

Trials by Fire is a column from D. Bethel whereby two game demos are arbitrarily judged and one is declared the victor.  In actuality, it's a veiled rant.  This edition discusses video games created as adaptations of other existing properties, as exemplified by the demos for The Walking Dead and South Park: Tenorman's Revenge.

Throughout the generations of consoles, a licensed or adapted game became a term that meant "not worth your time or attention."  That definition persists among most players.  A few have stepped from the darkness to make lasting, favorable impressions, however.  Though the successes are minuscule planktonic flakes floating around the deep pool of failure, this small sample size clearly indicates what makes an adapted game work.  Ultimately, a successful adaptation isn't something that just reskins a popular game nor does it slavishly follow the plot/characters/dialogue of the original product.  An adaptation works best when a developer uses the methodologies and theories of the video game (or any) medium to capture the timbre of the original property.  In short, good adaptations are also good games, staying away from what made the property a good book/television show/comic book/etc. because what makes a good game never changes; it's the developers' decisions throughout the making of a game that matter.  Developers must do everything they can to make a video game and not some digitized reflection.  Close attention to these decisions can effectively guide a player through the demos of Telltale Games' The Walking Dead and Other Ocean Interactive's South Park: Tenorman's Revenge, two adaptations that approach their respective properties from very different paths.

The Walking Dead is notorious for being a comic book (and, more recently and famously, an AMC television show) that is not, actually, about zombies.  It's about humanity in the face of survival and despair, grasping at superficial granules of hope.  Zombies are, after all, just nihilistic representations of our own fallible and fragile mortality, showing us that no matter what we do and how we try to stand out, every individual is, ultimately, a walking corpse until we are forced to stop.  The fact that Telltale Games' interpretation of The Walking Dead is a classic point-and-click adventure game (not a shock for Telltale) is actually the perfect gameplay formula for a property that could have been needlessly lost amid the zombie game plethora.

This is a story about human kindness.

Not much context is given in the demo, though not much is needed.  The player is given control of a ramshackle man named Lee.  He has deposited himself in a backyard that is fairly immaculate considering the zombie apocalypse (raise your hand if you're tired of hearing that term) is omnipresent, and quickly meets up with other survivors.  What makes the demo stand out as an adaptation is how the gameplay so completely summarizes, translates, and relays what makes The Walking Dead so unique in its other forms.  The focus of the game is not the actions the characters take against the zombies (though that is present and brilliantly executed––pardon the pun), it is about the quiet between the scares; it's about not knowing what to say to a stranger met on the road, a person as scared as you but also just as skeptical.

It's also about corpses trying to eat you.
It is in these choices, more than the clever and tense action scenes, that the demo shines and captures what is important during an apocalyptic survival situation: the choices you make by speaking to others are important, but not in the paragon/renegade style en vogue right now.  At various points throughout the demo, the player is given a list of conversational responses depending on the situation (which must be chosen within a very limited time frame, too) and, often, after making a choice and watching your character respond, the game literally tells the player, in non-diegetic text, that the character "will remember this."  It, like the impossibly dire apocalyptic backdrop (rendered in a fine cell-shaded fashion), solidifies the choices the player makes––they feel permanent, undoable, and fatal even if the response was wholly ethical.  Despite not officially being an RPG, The Walking Dead forces the player to act as an unknowing, tragic, and invested participant in a situation that, in the long run, is impossible to survive.

As seen on tv.
Survival is the motivating factor for Other Ocean Interactive's South Park: Tenorman's Revenge, but for startlingly different reasons.  First and foremost, Tenorman's Revenge is a lot of fun, and the challenge is to keep the South Park boys alive in a strange, entropic, cyberpunk future world populated by robotic gingers and horrible genetic experiments.  Tenorman's Revenge is a mildly exploration-driven platformer where the player controls all of the foul-mouthed crew from the television show as they amass "time particles" (coins, basically), stomp on enemies, and collect important artifacts in preparation for a confrontation with the level's boss.  The controls are tight which allow for fun 2D platforming and the South Park-tinge that veils all the tropes and expectations of the genre is clever and hilarious (there is some ridiculous fan service going on here).

I love that episode with the ladders and platforms!
Visually, the game eerily recreates the aesthetic of the show, and is probably one of the few times a video game can claim that it looks and sounds exactly like the televised counterpart.  This is due, in part, to the conscious simplicity of the show itself, which lends easily to the restrictions of video game animation.  There is a lot of authenticity to the game: the voice talent and the quality of humor are on par with the show, the design––from the levels to the enemies to the collectables––are "in character" and blend seamlessly into the long established aesthetic, the sound design lends a lot to the believability of the game.  However, it doesn't necessarily "feel" like South Park.  Instead, the demo feels like a spinoff story, a weird filler episode in which the creators satisfy a specific sci-fi urge only because "it's just a video game."  I understand that every level is quite different, but that only lends to the inauthentic vibe the demo gives off––it feels like a lesson in indulgence rather than a complete and honest adaptation of the series into video game form.  If anything, South Park has become a beacon of social (nigh didactic) criticism; if Tenorman's Revenge has anything important to say, it is noticeably absent in the demo.  However, that is not a complete detractor––it is a very fun and funny old-school platforming game.

Tenorman's Revenge is, undeniably, a South Park-flavored game, but it is not a South Park game.  It is too light, too different, and too focused on being a game to be considered the video game equivalent of the show.  Unlike The Walking Dead, Tenorman's Revenge doesn't quite evoke in its players what the South Park television show evokes in its viewers.  Tenorman's Revenge is a decaying echo in an empty hallway, forgotten beneath The Walking Dead's performative declaration of substance, meaning, and purpose.  Both demos speak to quality and enjoyment; however, only The Walking Dead breaches the barrier of low-expectations to become a game that does not slouch next to its other selves like most licensed games do, but, instead, stands proudly beside them.

The Victor:  The Walking Dead

D. Bethel never has time, but when he does, he makes
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  1. What do you think are the best and/or worst licensed games that you've come across?

    1. Wolverine Origins, for this generation, was pretty boss.

    2. Going back a generation I'd say that The Chronicles of Riddick (xbox) and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (ps2) were some amazing licensed games. Aladdin (genesis) is another great one as is Transformers: War For Cybertron (360). The granddaddy of them all is probably Ducktales (nes).

      I don't think I've given any of the bad ones enough thought to remember them.

    3. I had Last Action Hero for Genesis and it was pretty damn terrible. As far as a good one,hmmm that's actually a lot more difficult for me! Dungeons and Dragons: Demon Stone was pretty good. Very similar to LOTR: Two Towers, which I also liked.

    4. Aladdin for the Genesis was MY JAM.

    5. Space Ace for SNES is a bad one.

  2. I had a nice list of shitty licensed games in an early draft: "Adapting an outside property into the video game medium rarely lands soundly, though not for a lack of trying. Take, for example, shining gems such as the infamous E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600; the NES’s awful X-Men; the light gun-based, Aerosmith-helmed, arcade head-scratcher, Revolution X; the strange PS2 Fight Club fighting game (as painfully reviewed by our fair Known Griefer, Chris)–––Superman 64, anyone? And, of course, the list goes on."

  3. Isn't E.T. the game with the massive dump of unwanted copies buried somewhere in New Mexico?

    I like those Resident Evil games based on the Milla Jovovich movies.

    1. There's a Wikipedia article about the mass burial!