For the next few days, Star Citizen isn’t just a punchline! Over the Friday the 13th weekend, you can try it for free. Go here to satisfy your curiosity. Although it won’t cost you any money, you will have to register a Star Citizen account. This means you’ll be counted among the Starites, or Citizeners, or Crobots, or Whale Wanna-bes, or whatever Star Citizen players call themselves. Now you’ll be part of whatever number the developer rolls out to demonstrate the game’s popularity. But now you can say you’ve actually played it without people thinking you threw a bunch of dollars into a hole.
“There have been 35 major Hollywood live-action films based on video games,” says Shelly Tan at the Washington Post, “and none of them have done better than 50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes”. Her article, Why Can’t Hollywood Make a Good Videogame Movie?, is another one of those mainstream articles that assumes videogame movies are bad because they’re videogame movies, not because they’re bad. She says:
“Need for Speed” failed because studios scrambled to adopt something with strong brand recognition instead of something that actually screams out for a film adaptation. The original game’s story is purposefully empty so that the gameplay — car races — can shine. There simply wasn’t a story to adapt.
The template for the Need for Speed movie wasn’t any videogame. Instead, it was The Fast and Furious, a competing movie studio’s hugely successful racing series. Disney wanted a piece of that pie. The videogame label was just a branding deal. As a movie, Need for Speed was typical car culture silliness, with a hint of 70s cross-country counterculture. There were some bright spots in the cast — Imogen Poots, Rami Malek, Dominic Cooper, and a ridiculous Michael Keaton performance as a DJ — and the car sequences were adroitly staged and shot. Which is what you’d expect from a longtime stuntman. Need for Speed’s director had just done a movie called Act of Valor, which was little more than a string of action sequences that would have fit snugly under a Call of Duty brand. If the Need for Speed movie failed (I, uh, actually liked it) there’s no reason to blame the source material, because its connection to the source material was threadbare.
On the other hand, mythology-rich games like “Warcraft” suffer when adapted into movies, too. Trying to stuff over 100 hours of gameplay into a two-hour movie is a doomed effort…
There is zero gameplay stuffed into the World of Warcraft movie. Or inserted in any fashion whatsoever. It is a fantasy movie with lore and visuals inspired by Blizzard’s Warcraft license. The problem is weird cartoony CG, a director out of his element, and a confused script from an inherently ridiculous genre. It could have just as easily been based on Elfstones of Shanarra, Dragonlance, or The Witcher. It’s the same with the recent Prince of Persia, Assassin’s Creed, and Tomb Raider movies. Their problems have very little to do with the medium of their subject matter and everything to do with bad filmmaking. Consider the Resident Evil movies, which aren’t really Resident Evil movies; they’re Paul W.S. Anderson movies that he makes with Milla Jovovich. They are the Kurosawa and Mifune of movies that happen to have videogame licenses in the title.
Tan suggests “a better game to adapt would be something like “Oxenfree,” which has an eerie coming-of-age story that can be finished in about five hours.” There are two problems with this premise. The first is that the Oxenfree license will put zero butts in seats, and that’s the whole purpose of a licensing deal: it guarantees an audience. The second problem is that Oxenfree’s eerie coming-of-age story has already been done as a movie, may times over. Donnie Darko, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Super Dark, River’s Edge, and so on. But Tan then goes on to say that Last of Us wouldn’t make a good movie because changing it to live action “wouldn’t add much more”.
The problem with this article, and the many articles like it, is the writer’s lack of familiarity with videogames. If you don’t understand videogames, you don’t understand how little of them actually make it into movie adaptations. Movies are an established medium and when they’re bad, it has very little to do with the lack of story in a racing game, or the way games rely on interactivity, or the playing time of a videogame compared to the length of a movie, or the amount of lore in a Blizzard series that dates back to 1994. Tam concludes that there must be something uniquely difficult about adapting a videogame:
…filmmakers have that much more work when it comes to adapting video game material. It isn’t enough to rely on brand recognition or reuse the exact same story; something original and creative has to be added. The tough part is figuring out just what that original thing is.
It’s not tough at all. That original thing is good filmmaking.
(By the way, Shelly Tan does a great job with cleverly designed visual presentations at the Washington Post. Any Game of Thrones fan needs to check out this wonderful thing she made.)
At any point, pause this trailer for Cultist Simulator, the upcoming game from Alexis Kennedy, one of the writers behind Fallen London. Now admire the snippets of evocative text the way you’d admire a screenshot from a less imaginative game.
Morland’s Shop. Inspector Wakefield. Glimmering. Enid, an acquaintance. A Red Secret. Paradoxical Curio. I am afraid, sometimes, that they can see what I am, as one sees ink coiling under glass. These are the Dead who do not descend or ascend, but who remain in the Mansus and dream of Winter. It’s eyes are avid, looking, looking. My new body is smooth without and red within like a sweet fruit.
Now imagine piecing these shreds of prose together to make things happen. Now dismay that you won’t be able to do it until May 31st.
I bet you figured we’d all hate this. Wrong!
Next week: A Quiet Place
All right, let’s get this out of the way. The name “Hexplore It”, or “HEXplore It” if you want to get technical. Why would someone call this game that? Maybe it’s a warning that the map has hexes, but who’s still scared of hexes these days? I’m more scared of square tiles. Can I move diagonally? Does it cost extra? Why not? There’s less to remember with hexes. The Hexplore It developers went further, though. One of the faces on each die is marked with a HEX logo. Replacing the 6 on the d6 makes sense, since a hexagon has six sides, a six-sided die, fair enough. But how do they explain the 1 on the d10 being replaced by a HEX logo? And more importantly, why would a crunchy, in-depth, detailed, hardcore fantasy saga get a name that sounds like something inflicted on third graders forced to learn geometry? Fortunately, the folks who made this game gave it the subtitle “Valley of the Dead King”, which is a much more sensible name for a hardcore fantasy saga. They’re currently Kickstartering a sequel subtitled “The Forests of Adrimon”. Think of Hexplore It as an unfortunate prefix.
Up first: Zero Theorem, Waco, Raw, and Thelma. Then we talk about our favorite audition scenes besides the one that should be everyone’s favorite.
Next week: Ready Player One
Terry Gilliam’s pre-apocalyptic time travel sci-fi is the winner of this year’s Make Us Watch Whatever You Want Fund Raiser! So how did that turn out?
Next week: our favorite auditions
Czech boardgame developer Vlaada Chvatil’s Through the Ages is a nearly unplayable masterpiece recreating the sweep of history with a handful of elegantly interlocked systems. It’s hard to learn, even harder to learn to play well, and even harder than that to actually get through a game. Playing Through the Ages competently requires failing Through the Ages several times over, wasting your and your friends’ time when you all could have been playing something you already knew and enjoyed.
For some reason, the boardgame’s publisher figured they’d make an iOS port of Through the Ages. As if. They didn’t have any experience doing videogame ports of boardgames, much less boardgames as sweeping, unmanageable, and esoteric as Through the Ages. It was bound to be a disaster. Instead, in one of last year’s biggest surprises, it was a triumph. It turned Chvatil’s unplayable masterpiece not only into a playable masterpiece, but an accessible masterpiece with a clever and funny tutorial, a built-from-the-ground-up interface that makes information intuitively available, as competent an AI as you want, a set of engaging challenges that will help you flex various ways to play, and smooth multiplayer support for real-time or asynchronous games with friends, enemies, or just strangers. It is the best boardgame port I have ever played.
Today it’s available for the PC with thorough cross-platform support to play with iOS players. It even synchronizes your progress with any challenges you’ve beaten on your iPad. Through the Ages is available on Steam for $16.
Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
This is what I say out loud. I’ll mutter things from time to time. But this I say. Out loud enough that the cat mewls because he thinks I’m talking to him.
Yes, I tell him.
The best peak moments are in games that also have the lowest bleak moments. Kingdom Death: Monster is nothing if not bleak. It will test your willingness to subject yourself to the ruthless whims of the random number gods. You will roll Blood Geysers, Exploding Heads, leprosy, and two 1’s when you only need one of them to be a 3 or higher, so your population drops because a woman just died in childbirth. It exists to kill you so that you’ll be elated during moments when it doesn’t.
It takes an hour and five minutes to cook a frozen Marie Callender chicken pot pie. One of the curious properties of Space Tyrant, a sci-fi micro-grand strategy game, is how it reduces that time to about 20 minutes. Because there’s no way I put that chicken pot pie in the oven, sat down to play Space Tyrant, and have been at it for an hour and five minutes. That’s just not how time works.
Thumper begins as an artsy look at the life of high school kids with all their social media and first loves and difficulties in school and casual drug use and absent parents. Leads Eliza Taylor and Daniel Webber positively glow as a young couple, ablaze with bright blue eyes and radiant smiles. But Taylor doesn’t quite fit. She’s got too much presence to play a high school student in a movie about the travails of vacuous youth. Beneath the self-assured sexuality of a young Kathleen Turner, there’s something maternal about her, something with the wholesome midwestern quality of a zaftig Reese Witherspoon. She has gravity beyond her years, or at least beyond the years of the character she’s playing. She’s as out of place as a 22 Jump Street character. Thumper knows just what to do with this disconnect.
Writer/director Ross Jordan has a background in MTV docudrama, which presumably informed this movie’s starting point. But Thumper doesn’t stay where it begins. By the time it has strayed into conventional territory, dragging a trail of cliches behind it, it has at least come in from a new direction. The cast can handle the familiar beats, with Pablo Schreiber charging ahead. When Taylor’s character asks him if he’s a shepherd, he demurs to deliver a small speech about the disaffected lower class, tinged with just the right amount of racism to sound real. But Schreiber is a shepherd here. Without his presence, Thumper probably wouldn’t work, and Jordan’s cliches would sink instead of skipping across the surface. Schreiber is an actor in the middle of a fascinating career, spanning crime thrillers and arthouse comedies, action schlock and serious drama, TV and movies. Come to Thumper for its attractive blonde leads, freshly imported from Australia (it’s a real hoot to listen to Taylor and Webber in interviews, accents in full bloom). Stay for the Schreiber.
“Here comes Alicia Vikander!” says Kelly Wand. You have been warned.
Next week: 12 Monkeys
After you get past gluing together teensy bits of plastic and then receiving your mauling at the claws of what should have been a tutorial, Kingdom Death: Monster finally shows you what it really is. Once you’re filling out the sheet for your settlement, you’ve arrived and now you can see clearly. Now you can see what the road ahead looks like. What’s that strange hulking shape up there? Is it getting closer?
After a little bit of complicated math about the Anno series, we discuss Surviving Mars, Vermintide 2, Antihero, Endless Space 2, Space Tyrant, Pit People, Into the Breach, The Crew 2, Sea of Thieves, Diluvion, Kingdom Come: Deliverance, and Sniper Elite 4. That’s an even dozen games in less than an hour!
The good news is that you guys are awesome! We got 1,803 votes for this year’s Make Us Watch Whatever You Want Fund Raiser. The bad news is that this is a podcast about Eli Roth’s Death Wish. You can jump to 1:21:30 if you don’t want to commiserate with us.
Next week: Tomb Raider, and the Make Us Watch Whatever You Want winner the week after that