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Jack Of All Trades: Can 'platform-agnostic IPs' ever work?

Syfy President Dave Howe told Gamasutra that he wants to expand his channel's best shows into the gaming medium. But can so-called 'platform agnostic IPs' ever produce faithful, creatively satisfying results and what are the challenges facing them?

[Syfy President Dave Howe told Gamasutra that he wants to expand his channel's best shows into the gaming medium. But can so-called 'platform agnostic IPs' ever produce faithful, creatively satisfying results and what are the challenges facing them?]

In a recent Gamasutra interview with Syfy President Dave Howe, he states his intention to expand the most popular shows on his channel into various other media ('Platform-Agnostic IPs' as he calls them - see, I didn't just make it up for the post title), with games being the frontrunner. The nature of adapting a story or a world from one medium to another has been the subject of much critical discussion, to the extent that an entire module on my degree was dedicated to the many ways books get translated to film.

Although the act of taking a film property and making a game out of it is done at least as often as literary adaptations, there never seems to have been much discussion about the unique challenges that are inherent to taking a world defined in a linear format and recreating it in an interactive medium.

I've read endless numbers of articles focusing on how bad many film-to-game adaptations are, but precious few (if any) examining why they didn't work and whether it had anything to do with an IP's potential difficulty in moving to such a radically different format while staying true to what fans liked about it in the first place. Speaking purely on a creative level, I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing that companies are looking at ways to move their IPs into different media, but a lot more thought needs to go into carefully selecting which properties are suitable to be moved, as well as how it should be done.

One of the most frequently adapted properties is the character of James Bond, who started out as the protagonist of thirteen literary thrillers by Ian Fleming (which if you haven't already read, you definitely should as soon as possible) before becoming one of the most famous characters in cinema history in twenty-two (or twenty-four, depending on whether you count the two rather dismal non-EON produced efforts) film outings.

While the character's career in books and film can be considered successes (yes, even taking Die Another Day into account), he's had considerably greater difficulty in achieving similar success in the gaming medium. Bond has been around in gaming form since 1983, appearing in everything from side-scrollers to text adventures and RPGs, most of which have long since been forgotten (James Bond: The Duel, anyone? No?) by all but the most arcane corners of fandom.

After the high point of GoldenEye 007, EA got hold of the licence and struggled to achieve anywhere near comparable critical or sales success (although The World Is Not Enough was given reservedly positive notices and with the help of a huge development and advertising budget, Everything Or Nothing sold in respectable numbers).

But capturing the essence of who Bond is and creating the same sense of excitement in videogame form that fans have for the character and his world in the books and films has always posed a problem for developers. As an avid Bond fan, the only game I've ever felt has born even the slightest flavour of the character was GoldenEye 007. EA paid for the films' stars to provide their faces, brought in famous musicians to provide theme tunes, integrated a system of '007 moments' in later games where the player is rewarded for devising outlandish solutions for dispatching enemies or overcoming obstacles, yet their games perpetually felt like reskins of any other anodyne action game.

GoldenEye 007 didn't feel especially Bondian by any stretch, but its stealth system helped it to feel like a proper espionage game, while getting the decorative details spot on (the tone of the mission briefings read authentically: 'Grabbed by the Spetnaz' might be one of Moneypenny's funniest lines) gave it just enough spark to recall my fondness for the characters. The care with which the film's locations were recreated and adapted to suit the needs of a good videogame structure made the right balance between fidelity to the source material and meeting the needs of a new medium.

But the biggest problem with Bond is that the character many of us fans fell in love with, as written by Fleming or played by Sean Connery, simply doesn't suit needs of the gaming format. GoldenEye 007 got the details right to help you feel part of a world Bond might be in somewhere, but you never played in the way Bond would act. Bond, while latterly an action movie star, does not run around gunning people down left, right and centre.

In the books, he's ruthless but methodical and occasionally even a little pensive (see the wonderful opening lines of Goldfinger when Bond ponders life and death while sitting in an airport terminal). Even in the films, it's broadly true that the heavier the action, the less Bondian it feels. The recent adaptation of Casino Royale was lauded because it slowed down the film series' ever accelerating pace and brought back some of the tension and cold sophistication of the earlier classics.

Consequently, fans began worrying about Quantum of Solace from the moment producer Michael G. Wilson said it contained three times as much action as its predecessor, showing his failure to grasp what had made that film appealing to fans. On a similar note, when EA tried to adapt From Russia, With Love as a videogame, having Sean Connery's Bond running around shooting everything exposed how anachronistic the character is in a gaming world. The extensive changes to the story proved how futile and ill-thought out the whole exercise was, as the drama in the literary and film versions of the story are delivered in ways which have proven impossible to replicate in the gaming medium.

Videogames require there be some sort of action happening at all times to be interesting. This doesn't mean guns need to be firing, but the player needs to feel as though they are constantly interacting with the world. Sipping martinis or being engaged in lengthy conversations (even if you have a Mass Effect-esque menu system) in a game doesn't work because the player is forced to give up a certain degree of control.

Not a lot happens in Shadow Of The Colossus outside the boss battles, but players are still engaged in riding a horse across a landscape and are in full control of that interaction. If you take control away from a player for too long, there's no point in having made a videogame in the first place. Books and film can allow characters to take a break from the action because the reader or viewer's engagement with those characters is on a passive level: they are being engaged as distinct individuals, rather than avatars.

Players engage with game protagonists through the actions they allow us to perform, providing a conduit for us into the gaming world. If a protagonist is given 'personality', it rarely goes much deeper than to set a tone for the game world: Nathan Drake acts like Indiana Jones in the Uncharted games because Naughty Dog want us to experience their world in the same humourous vein as Indy's. Yet if as much of Uncharted 2's playtime was dedicated to dialogue scenes as Raiders of the Lost Ark, players would quickly get bored because they are not able to be in control of those conversations in the same way our every move is important during 'action' moments.

I'm near the end of writing my second novel and as both a game and film geek, I've been giving a lot of thought into how my character could be translated into those media. While there's plenty of action in both of my books, much of their personality comes through means that only the literary medium can offer: a character's thoughts, themes relating to literature and how they're conveyed through the way I structure my prose and storytelling, for instance.

Because my character undergoes a broad evolution as the series progresses, I think he could be faithfully placed into different media at certain point in his timeline. Yet for a character like Bond, whose personality is more concretely defined, moving him into the interactive sphere force you to abandon some of what make him unique and admirable in order to make an interesting gaming experience.

My planned series of novels would be impossible to faithfully translate into videogames, as would many others for the same reason: the chasm between what makes a good book and what makes a good game is simply too wide and the requirements too different. Having constant action, even if it were in another form than guns blazing, would defeat everything that my work is about.

I don't think all adaptations are destined to creative failure, but when dealing with adaptations to the very unique medium of videogames, more care needs to be taken when selecting which properties can make the jump and how they will do so. Whatever the merits of EA's recent God Of War clone, throwing in the odd quote and using the same names did not make their game Dante's Inferno by any stretch of the imagination.

The constantly rumoured Battlestar Galactica videogame, for example, would seem a particularly risky proposition because so much of the drama and flavour of that series comes not through the action, but the relationships between each character and their personal issues. Maybe a videogame can work in Galactica's world, in the same way that GoldenEye 007 worked in a simulation of Bond's world, but the developers would have to accept adopting a very different tone and dramatic style to that fans enjoyed on television.

The Sopranos: Road To Respect game shows how horribly wrong a gaming adaptation of a television series can go when it fails to take these differences into account and doesn't give due consideration to whether it will still be the same property once the transition has been completed. Still, at least no-one's trying to digitize Mad Men. Yet.

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