So Mr. Anderson, why are video game movies so bad?

What makes a bad video game movie? Some, or rather a lot, of people would say as soon as a studio decides to make movie out of a video game, that’s when things go bad but the Resident Evil flicks are seemingly immune to public disinterest. Four live-action films have been produced so far with a fifth coming next year and Paul W.S Anderson has been involved since the get go, writing and directing his way into RE history.

When interviewed by MCV, Anderson was asked why he thinks his movies have been successful when so many other video game adaptations have not. The answer is a simple case of love and passion for the franchise:

“Despite what a lot of haters on the internet might say, I love the Resident Evil games. And these movies are made with a huge knowledge of the games and a real passion for the games. I think that translates into the movies we make and that’s why they deliver. A lot of video game movies are made by directors who don’t know the video games they are based on from a hole in the head. They don’t do justice to the games, they don’t immerse themselves in the games, they don’t understand what people liked from the games. And that is the wrong approach and clearly those movies don’t work.”

I’m not so sure that the Resident Evil films are all that reflective of the games but appreciate a director wanting to stay true to the fiction, whether he does so or not. A big problem for movies based on games is the kinds of people they’re targeted to. Hardcore fans of a game may want to see a live-action version of their beloved franchise but in reality, the types of games with the strongest narrative worthy of a transition to film work so well already as games. Take the Portal series. Its brilliance comes from being a part of the fiction and not just a voyeur to Chell’s escapades. That leaves the regular film-goer who may not have any interest in video games or worse, considers it an inferior market. The sometimes goofy plot lines and characters can be a little low-brow for these kinds of people so changes are made to a game’s story which ironically makes them low-brow and goofy to the hardcore fans.

But whether Mr. Anderson makes movies respectful of an existing property or not, his point is sound. The first step in creating a good movie is knowledge of the subject. Lifting pieces directly from a game won’t work and equally change too many things and the whole thing becomes a joke. Remember the mess Sony got in with David. O Russell’s plans for an Uncharted movie? He was trying to turn a great story into a Indiana Jones knock off which suggested he hadn’t even seen the games let alone play them. But as video games creep closer and closer to the film industry with the mature and admirably handled concepts in L.A. Noire and the incredibly deep fiction of Portal (to name but a two examples), maybe publishers should work harder on encouraging movie fans to experience these kinds of games rather than producing watered down adaptations.

Rockstar Sydney. An impossible dream

It’s an understatement to say the working relationship between Rockstar Games and Team Bondi was a troublesome one at best but it now appears the controversial publisher is so unhappy with the L.A. Noire developer, that they won’t be publishing their next game. The whole debacle began last month when IGN posted a story about why it took the Sydney-based studio so long to develop L.A. Noire, detailing the seven long years of what can only be described as a living nightmare. Eleven ex Team Bondi staffers gave anonymous testimonials of the abusive working conditions for them and hundreds of other colleagues that included ridiculous working hours with an almost mandatory overtime and weekend schedule, terrible management and a boss, Brendan McNamara, who was one of the angriest persons you could meet.

Since then, the story from IGN has gained momentum with the International Game Developer’s Association (IGDA) currently investigating these claims of an unacceptable working environment. McNamara was approached by IGN for comment where he gave an interview saying things like “I’m not in any way upset or disappointed by what I’ve done and what I’ve achieved,” and “If you wanted to do a nine-to-five job, you’d be in another business,” adding how he also would stay late, work the 110 hour weeks some of the former staff members claimed. It was his blasé attitude towards the situation which angered followers of the story even more.

Two more ex employees have come forward (via Gamesindustry.biz) with their accounts and it was one of these sources who revealed just how bad things have become for Team Bondi. “I’ve heard a lot about Rockstar’s disdain for Team Bondi, and it has been made quite clear that they will not publish Team Bondi’s next game,” they said. “Team Bondi are trying to find another publisher for their next title, but the relationship with Rockstar has been badly damaged – Brendan treats L.A. Noire like a success due to his vision but I think Rockstar are the ones who saved the project. They continued to sink money into L.A. Noire, and their marketing was fantastic. Without their continued support, Team Bondi would have gone under several years ago.” The marketing from Rockstar was very well done and by the time L.A. Noire was due for release, everybody knew its name, helping it sell millions of units over its first weekend.

But marketing wasn’t the only thing Rockstar helped out with. The two anonymous voices spoke of the massive contribution Rockstar gave towards the game’s development, especially over the last two years overruling “many of the insane decisions made by Team Bondi management.” This only fuelled tensions between management and Rockstar because of the publisher’s frustration with Team Bondi’s direction which in turn caused Team Bondi’s management to resent Rockstar for taking away most of their control. Things became very ugly indeed. At one point, Rockstar were planning on turning Team Bondi into Rockstar Sydney, something pretty much everyone expected them to do after playing the game. However, the closer they worked, the more it was apparent this will never happen.

With all the troubles between studio and publisher coming to light, it’s clearer now why L.A. Noire although brilliant in some places, is broken in many others. The open-world elements don’t really work and feel out of place plus the added ‘gamey’ features like having very right or wrong paths when questioning people jarred with the rest of the experience. Who’s directly to blame will, for now, remain a mystery but the disgruntled staff have only been singing Rockstar’s praises so far if that helps with your own personal conclusions. It’s a massive shame that development a game like L.A. Noire had to end in such an unpleasant fashion and that Rockstar have pretty much washed their hands of the studio. For all its faults, L.A. Noire has been able to elevate the industry in some form or another and has had far reaching effects that we’ll likely be seeing in future titles. It’s worth adding that Team Bondi’s next game may not be a sequel to the 40’s crime drama and that Rockstar could be still on board if there is ever to be one. As the source said, they poured considerable money and time into it so it might be worth putting up with an allegedly terrible management team in order to be part of a potentially powerful franchise. Then again, now they’re out, they may just want to stay out.

Oh crap, here comes Phelps

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Rockstar’s L.A. Noire has made a name for itself as one of this year’s top games because of the commendable risks Team Bondi took and more importantly, because those risks paid off. But that doesn’t mean the game is faultless, far from it, a clunky combat system and inconsistencies in the acting and ethics of leading man Cole Phelps removes the shine of an otherwise gleaming title. Comedy site Funny or Die have made a parody of L.A. Noire and pin point exactly some of these issues. Like how Phelps may begin a conversation casually only to begin a tirade of anger towards his interviewee. Or the somewhat troublesome navigational mechanics. But FoD’s mimicking of Phelps’ investigatory activities is just hilarious and affectionately pokes fun at the game’s best moments. Enjoy!

Hail to the king?

Nearly 14 years from when first conceived, Duke Nukem Forever shambled onto PCs and consoles early this month and was met with sea of negative reviews. Taking a handful of creditable sources, the average score is around 40 per cent which doesn’t say a lot for the quality of the game. However it somehow managed to top the UK all format charts in a mere weekend, beating what is confidently positioned at the other end of the maturity scale, L.A. Noire and sales are predicted to go well above 1.5 million units. The US wasn’t so forgiving as its first day sales have been called mediocre at best but Duke Nukem Forever is still being seen as a success. Only monetarily speaking mind you.

Duke’s saviours, Gearbox Software, took the game from the shady back alley of broken dreams and finished off what 3D Realms started so for them, the high sales figures are a comforting achievement. Even more so when you think that Duke Nukem will almost definitely become a revived franchise. Gearbox wouldn’t have taken on such a turbulent property if they didn’t intend to make at least one or two more games. Randy Pitchford, ceo of Gearbox, tweeted his pleasure over the success of DNF and gave a little dig at reviews at the same time. He said (via VideoGamer): “With sales data, It seems like *customers* love Duke. I guess sometimes we want greasy hamburgers instead of caviar…”

Fair point. Sometimes we do want greasy hamburgers, we want those games that play to our most immature desires and are almost embarrassed to admit liking it. But there’s a massive difference between greasy hamburgers and out-dated mechanics and concepts. I’ve not yet played DNF but intend to soon although when critics who you trust tell you a game is terrible, chances are it will be. And it’s such a shame when Duke Nukem 3D was so good. Back in the nineties, it did things few other games tried and it sounds as if Duke Nukem Forever is still doing things few other games do. But this time, it’s because no-one wants them anymore.

What will be most telling is what happens when the initial nostalgic hype dies down. Will gamers still be buying DNF in droves or will it become a dominant feature of bargain bins and pre-owned aisles?

The sequel to success

The business of video games is a sequel-driven industry. Just look at this year’s E3, we had a number of franchises well into their third iteration and the most commonly criticised annual series, Call of Duty, will be on its eighth release this holiday. Some refer to this trend as an unhealthy obsession from publishers to basically milk a name for all it’s worth but others have a more forgiving outlook like id Software ceo, Todd Hollenshead, currently working on Rage. He believes (via Eurogamer) not only that sequels are a good thing don’t deserve all the hate they so often receive: “Sequels are unfairly criticised. One regard is they’re not original. You can do a lot of original things in a sequel as long as you’re consistent and true to the universe that game comes up in.” You certainly can. Take Portal 2 for example. It added liquids to the puzzle-solving mechanics and felt as fresh as the first time you entered a testing chamber. But in all honesty, games like Portal 2 are somewhat outnumbered by the new-setting-same-old-experience types of games. However, that doesn’t mean the idea of a sequel is unoriginal, it’s the money-hungry developers and publishers who lack originality.

Hollenshead went on to say how beneficial sequels can be because it shows the developers are doing something right. If enough people are left wanting more at the end of a game – and not because they felt short-changed by the experience – then the devs have done a good job in creating a universe that gamers want to play in. How many times have you played a game and thought it was so close to being great and with a bit of tweaking it could be? That’s where sequel can play an important role in keeping a good idea alive. I would argue L.A. Noire falls into this category for me. The facial tech and attitude towards story and maturity is outstanding but the its average shooting and chase sequences weaken the game for me. Make a second game (not necessarily using Phelps as the protagonists) without all the ‘action’ and it could be amazing. As Hollenshead says: “Why throw it all away and have to start over every single time?” For as bewildering it seemed for Human Head Studios to be developing Prey 2 with barely any linkage to the first game, it makes sense when you think all the hard work of creating the initial fiction had been done for Prey 1.

Another way of looking at it, suggests Hollenshead, is to consider Mario games as sequels or at the very least off-shoots to the original Donkey Kong: Mario Kart, just because you’re not calling it Donkey Kong 17, doesn’t mean it still doesn’t have Mario in it,” he said. “The reason why Nintendo has been to a great extent inoculated from criticism along those regards is they execute very well in the games they make.” Which brings me back to the point of Portal 2. Yes it’s a sequel, but a mighty fine one at that and I would hate to not be able to go back into that universe and story for the sake of not advocating sequels.

True enough, annualising a game to ride out its previous success and hype often ends in tears for us gamers who get an awful feeling of familiarity but like Hollenshead, I agree that sequels can be awesome and deep down if you love one game, chances are you won’t scoff at the idea of it becoming a franchise.

L.A. Noire official launch trailer makes me wish it was Friday (next Friday)

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Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the official launch trailer for Rockstar Games’ next big hit, L.A. Noire. How do I know it’ll be a hit? Given the wealth of hype surrounding the game what with its startlingly realistic facial animations, film festival-wooing story line and the fact that it’s a Rockstar title, I’d be more surprised if it wasn’t a hit.

Though considering Team Bondi have developed quite a different game for Rockstar, the trailer does stick with the tried and tested method of focusing on gun fights and action. That’s not a bad thing, far from it, the footage looks awesome and something I’d very much like to be playing just a little different from previous trailers that champion everything else about the game, like interrogating witnesses and searching for clues. But lets face it, the mainstream audience don’t want to see those kind of things, they want action, they want shooting and Rockstar wants this game to sell. I’ve got my copy pre-ordered (yes I know, I’m part of the problem) and know at least a few more who’ll be picking it up next week. So that’s at least three copies… anyone else planning on getting it? (as if I need to ask!)

L.A. Noire skips a beat

Remember the chortling at Nintendo for adding a feature in its games where you can skip hard segments? It appeared in New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Donkey Kong Country Returns so that younger and more casual players could potentially get through the entire game without feeling like inferior gamers. Though a lot of people saw it that way and in some cases, your ‘hardcore’ status was brought into question if ever you resorted to this digital aid. But what if Rockstar Games were to include such a feature and if one of their most ambitious titles was the first to try it out? Does it still remain a joke?

At the Tribeca Film Festival, attendees were shown a screening of L.A. Noire – the first time said festival has allowed a game to take part – and it was during the Q&A session that art director, Rob Nelson, revealed an in-game option that allows players who failed a certain segment a few times to skip it altogether. “You can skip those action elements and still experience the bulk of the narrative,” he said. Since Rockstar are going after a considerably wider audience for L.A. Noire, it actually makes a lot of sense to let those who wish only to absorb the story to do just that. Depending on whether they actually own a console of course.

What’s strange is how for traditional gamers, it’s usually the other way around and the cut-scenes are the parts that get skipped with action being the main reason why a game is played. But as the industry strives towards being something more than a quick entertainment fix, story is becoming increasingly important to the point where it’s now taking precedence over balls-out action sequences. The majority of L.A. Noire is devoid of action per se and instead has players seek out clues, interrogate suspects and slowly unravel a case to completion. MTV Multiplayer blog who reported the news said that in the demo shown which lasted about an hour, only about five minutes could be considered action-packed with the rest massaging the often neglected grey matter. Despite having a similar look to GTAIV in terms of engine, the gameplay itself is more akin to Heavy Rain they said.

It’s a bold move. Not the inclusion of a skip button, games have had something similar even before the aforementioned New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Devil May Cry 3 had a somewhat patronising but comparable pop up message on failure, suggesting troubled gamers try the easier setting. Rockstar are taking a risk by such a massive departure from their previous titles and fans wanting a cop-based GTA game may be angrily disappointed. But if they succeed and lure a different kind of gamer altogether while delivering an all encompassing experience for everyone clambering for more out of their games, L.A. Noire could be more important to the industry than anything that has come before it. Can games finally be regarded with the same respect as some movies rather than being mocked for cheesy story lines and emotionless characters? Maybe…