Thanks to some early entries in the field, video game movies aren’t appreciated. Super Mario Bros. is one of the big offenders, having been a poor adaptation of the source material. Mortal Kombat was the exception when it came out in 1995, but video game adaptations were still done through licensing arrangements with a studio, placing how the game appears completely out of the original publisher’s hands. In 2001, a game publisher decided to try its hand at making their own film adaptation
Square had great success with its Final Fantasy line of video games. Created by Hironobu Sakaguchi in 1987, the first Final Fantasy was available on the Nintendo Entertainment System and localized for the US in 1990. The next two installments of the game, FFII in 1988 and FFIII in 1990, were released only in Japan. The two games weren’t so much sequels as new stories exploring the same themes as the first, setting a pattern for the rest of the series. When FFIV came out in 1991, it was for the Super Nintendo and released in the US as FFII. FFV was a Japan-only release in 1992 and had a sequel, Final Fantasy: Legend of the Cryptids. FFVI came out in 1994 with an American release as FFIII.
Up to this point, the series was two-dimensional sprites; the draw was the story-telling with the game play. In 1997, with the introduction of the PlayStation, FFVII moved to three-dimensional characters and a more modern setting. The game also retained its numbering in the American release. Square followed up with FFVIII in 1999, turning the setting into more of a planetary romance with a mix of magic and technology with a hint that the world had avanced since the end of FFVII. FFIX rounds out the original PlayStation console games, coming out in 2001 and moving the setting back to fantasy. As newer consoles came out, Square and, after 2003, Square-Enix brought out more FF sequels, covering everything from traditional consoles to Windows to mobile gaming.
While each entry in the Final Fantasy series is a standalone adventure, there are themes that return every game. Young heroes coming together despite tragedies, the difficulty of the heroes working together, an ancient evil returning, rebellion against a government. Magic is based on elements, both the traditional Japanese and Western, and must be balanced within itself and with nature. Technology isn’t necessarily evil, but neither is it necessarily good; it, too, must balance with nature. There are recurring characters, of a sort. Cid, who first appeared in FFII acts as a mentor to the main character and may or may not be part of the party depending on the entry. Biggs and Wedge, named after characters in Star Wars, have appeared in games starting with FFV and are typically used as comic relief.
As the company worked on getting FFVII, FFVIII, and FFIX published, Square set up a division, Square Pictures, to release films based on their games. The first and, ultimately, only movie created was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Released in 2001 with Sakaguchi and Motonori Sakakibara directing, The Spirits Within was an ambitious project, with the film being completely computer animated. The ambition came with a high price tag; computers of the time, Penium IIIs running at 933MHz – were being pushed to their limits rendering the film’s frames.
In The Spirits Within, the Earth of 2065 has been overrun by alien creatures known as Phantoms that can pull a person’s soul out of their body, killing them. Even a touch leads to an infection that is fatal if not cured in time. Humanity is isolated into barrier cities protected by an energy field. People who leave the city must go through decontamination to ensure no Phantom infection has occurred.
All is not loss yet, though. Doctor Aki Ross, voiced by Ming-Na Wen, and Doctor Sid, voiced by Donald Sutherland, discover of a way to defeat the Phantoms. If the eight signature spirits can be found and combined, the Phantoms can be pushed off Earth. During a trip to the ruins of New York City to gather the sixth signature spirit, Aki is stalked by Phantoms, only to be rescued by her former boyfriend, Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin) and his squad, the Deep Eyes – Ryan Whittaker (Ving Rhames), Neil Fleming (Steve Buscemi), and Jane Produfoot (Peri Gilpin).
On return to the barrier city, Aki finds out that General Hein (James Woods) has decided that the best way to destroy the Phantoms infecting the Earth is to turn the Zeus cannon, an orbital laser, on them. To protect the Earth and its Gaia spirit, Aki reveals that not only is she infected, the spirit signatures she’s collected are keeping the infection at bay.
The seventh signature is found, though Aki’s infection worsens. She falls into a coma and, while unconscious, dreams of how the Phantoms first arrived on Earth. Aki is brought out of her coma by Sid who uses the seventh signature to control the infection.
Hein, believing that Aki is under control of the Phantoms, decides that his plan is still the correct one. He lowers the energy field of the barrier city, intending to let a few Phantoms in. Legions swarm the city, causing havok. Hein escapes to the Zeus space station. Gray, the only member of Deep Eyes to escape alive, joins Aki and Sid on their space ship to find the eight signature.
It becomes a race against time. Hein opens fire with the Zeus cannon while Aki and Gray seek out the eighth signature spirit. One of Hein’s shots kills the spirit, but Aki has a vision of the Gaia of the Phantoms’ home world. The infection within her becomes the eight signature spirit and combines with the other seven. To transmit the completed spirit to the alien Gaia, Gray sacrifices himself. On the Zeus station, Hein orders the cannon into overload, ignoring warnings from techs and computers. The cannon overloads, destroying the station and killing all aboard. The alien Gaia and the Phantoms leave Earth, returning home.
Several of the recurring FF elements can be seen in the above. There’s the young heroes with some issues between each other. Despite the different spelling, Doctor Sid is still the wise mentor to the lead character, Aki. The nature of spirits returns, and how introducing an alien spirit can cause problems. The biggest change is that The Spirits Within is science fiction with some fantasy elements, a huge change from FFVII, FFVIII, and FFIX, the three most recent games prior to the movie’s release. Also unlike the games released, The Spirits Within was set on Earth.
The film was a commercial failure. Part of the problem was the sheer cost of production. The budget for the movie was US$137 million, higher than 1999’s Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace at $115 million. Most of the cost was in the animation, from the hardware to the sheer amount of time animators needed to put the film together. Other problems existed. As mentioned above, video game adaptations were known to be poor. The characters, while rendered to be as realistic as possible, fell into the uncanny valley. There was something just off enough to make the characters seem less than real. And, for a video game movie, there wasn’t much action. The Final Fantasy series of games did offer more than just pure action, adding characterization, investigation, and exploration, but the draw of video games is the action. Audiences found the story to be slower than expected. Because of the loss, Square Pictures closed shop and the merger between Square and Enix was delayed.
Artistically, the film was lush. Backgrounds were detailed. Characters had blemishes. The ruined Earth was heartbreaking to see. The Phantoms provided a harsh alien light to the world. Perhaps the movie could have been better off as another entry in the FF line of games, allowing players to immerse themselves into it as Aki, Gray, and the Deep Eyes.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within wasn’t quite what Final Fantasy fans were expecting, but it did touch upon similar themes as the games had. The failings of the movie are technical. As an adaptation, it is a worthy entry in the Final Fantasy line up and breaks the video game adaptation curse.
News has come out about a Tetris movie adaptation. A joint Sino-American production, the budget is reported as $80 million, far less than the typical blockbuster. Yet, the question remains.
For those unfamiliar with Tetris, the goal is to rotate falling blocks of varying shapes into position to clear lines, with the best scores coming from clearing four lines at once. The game combines hand-eye coordination with spatial recognition. There is no cast of characters, no plot, just falling blocks. Yet, according to the report, the Tetris movie will be an “epic sci-fi thriller”. Does this mean the characters in the movie have to discover the source of falling blocks that cause city blocks to completely disappear?
It has been said that video game movies suck. This sentiment can be traced to movies such as Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter: The Movie. Both of those movies were based of games that had actual characters and, at the minimum, a background to explain the reason for the action. The video game Super Mario Bros. III has a plot, albeit the simple scour a world to rescue the princess. Tetris doesn’t have that, just falling tetrominos that need to be fit into empty spaces that won’t cause the wall of bricks to get too high.
What the proposed Tetris movie does have in its favour is Larry Kasanoff, the producer of the Mortal Kombat movie, a film that showed that it is possible to have a video game movie that was enjoyable. The Tetris movie will also have a cast mixing Western and Chinese actors. Right now, though, it looks like associating the movie with the video game is more to get people to notice the work instead of being a faithful adaptation.
In contrast, here is what Kevin Smith said about helming a Buckaroo Banzai TV series:
“I’ve been tapped to adapt BUCKAROO BANZAI into a series, which is something of a dream come true: I’ve loved the 1984 movie since I was a kid. My well-read copy of the film’s novelization by screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch is my Bible. But I’m not gonna be directing this alone: it is my intent to assemble a dream team of cult movie directors for the 10 episodes of this #BuckarooBanzai series – folks like #DonnieDarko director Richard Kelly, #ShaunOfTheDead director @edgar_wright and of course, the #Banzai director himself – WD Richter. Same with the writing: I want to bring in the creator Rauch himself to write the flashback episode detailing the night the red Lectroids came to Earth (with the help of #OrsonWelles and his War of the Worlds broadcast.) The other scripts will be penned by other #BlueBlazeIrregulars who worship this flick like I do. Cast-wise, I’m hoping to get the great Peter Weller to play Team Banzai’s greatest enemy, Hanoi Xan! And any cast member from the original who wants to play is gonna be welcomed like returning conquering heroes. Long story short? Don’t worry: I’m not gonna #KevinSmith this Banzai series at all. It’s gonna be 100% true Buckaroo. Which means the watermelon will NEVER be explained. #MGM #yoyodyne #buckaroobanzaiagainsttheworldcrimeleague”
Smith is making the effort to keep the elements he enjoyed about the original film. The Tetris movie, with the announcement, isn’t making that same effort. It feels much like Hasbro’s accouncements for movies based on their properties, Battleship, Candyland, and Monopoly. The movie is being made to cash in on the name, and Battleship showed why that’s not always a good idea.
However, it is still early, with just the announcement of a Tetris movie. Threshold Global Studios, the partnership behind the movie, wants to create films that bring the East and West together, which isn’t a bad idea. Here’s hoping that the Tetris movie does well enough to keep the partnership going.
I’m looking forward to No Man’s Sky – which is apparent if you see my Twitter, Facebook, blogs, or just talk to me. The procedural space adventure fascinates me as it pushes all my buttons – and of course I’m big on procedural generation, so of course I’m following it.
Acknowledging this, this is fair warning you’re gonna see some No Man’s Sky posts. It’s relevant to my interests, to what I do here, so I hope they’e informative and interesting.
As I’ve scanned internet posts and Steam communities, one useful insight I’ve seen is that the game may face an issue of being “a mile wide and an inch deep.” A game, in short, of great breadth but not a lot of depth. I think this concern is worth addressing, as it reveals some truths about games, procedural games, and their development.
The concern is one I feel is legitimate for some in the audience. NMS’ videos make it clear that the game presents an enormous Sandbox galaxy, with straightforward systems of crafting, exploring, fighting, trading, and reputation-building. This may be enough for many (such as myself), and certainly enough for a broad, wide adventure – but it may not be enough for everyone attracted to the premise.
The “mile wide” may stand for people, but for some people the game may not have the depth they want – or the kind of depth they want. You won’t be building structures, negotiating trade agreements, or going on elaborate story quests – hallmarks of other games and science fiction. For some NMS will have everything they want – for others it’ll be a beautiful galaxy that might not have what they want, or enough of it.
I analyze what I see from NMS’s designers and ads, because watching this dream game evolve has taught me a lot about games and procedural generation. The concern about NMS not having the depth some one made me ask, simply, what if the game tried to add more?
It’s not hard to imagine adding some more classic science fiction elements from the novels that inspired it. Take the simple alien language engine and add some negotiation and trade deals. Allow some encounters to spawn some quests – like smuggling something thorough a blockade. Maybe even a bit of building or improving buildings. Just a bit more maybe . . .
. . . and this is where it gets complicated.
First, even if there is a desire to add “more” we’re talking a game with a setting the size of a galaxy, filled with procedural content so large the devs had to make in-game probes to study the worlds. Any addition of new features could produce development nightmares, adding them onto an already careully developed and tweaked engine.
Second, the developers would have to choose what new features to add to their already polished set. What would sell? What do people want? S much work is procedural, so much unknown, can the devs predict what people will want? Will they be able to balance demands? They can’t be sure how people will react to the game – potential pirates may become explorers, traders decide to cut out the middlemen and become pirates, and explorers may drop their archiving duties to just swap rare minerals for cash. Throwing in more features requires careful consideration of how the audience will reacts.
Third, if the new items could be added, then comes the question of testing. Adding new features onto procedural content produce a new nightmare of testing it and making sure nothing else broke and all the pieces work together. That “mile wide” part means a lot more testing work when you try to make that “inch” a bit deeper.
Fourth and finally the extreme “width” of the game means that, with too much “depth” the game might become a muddle of choices and options. NMS may give you the stars, but its focus on being a kind of space exploration/survival game provides useful boundaries for play. Throw in a few more features and a game that already provides little direction could end up a muddle.
Those concerned about depth have a legitimate concern – for some of the audience (again, I think most people buying NMS who are informed will know what they’re getting). But I think the creators have a sweet spot of features for this grand enterprise, and changing beyond that is fraught with dangr.
Is it the right choice? Well, we find out in June 2016 . . .
Space opera has long been a staple in science fiction. Sprawling epics, from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars through Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers to Star Trek and Star Wars and the original Battlestar Galactica, where good and evil are easily determined and the stakes are high. Even if the heroes run into obstacles too much to overcome, they triumph in the end.
The past two decades have seen deconstruction of many forms of entertainment, taking the original works and applying a grim, gritty, realistic or semi-realistic filter and showing the results. The remade Battlestar Galactica is an excellent example of deconstruction. The original Galactica, despite the last survivors of the Colonies being on a ragtag fleet being hunted to extinction, left the viewer with optimism that humanity would survive. The remade Galactica, there was the question of who would finish off the fleet first, the Cylons or the humans.
With desconstruction comes reconstruction, the rebuilding of the tropes associated with the genre. In this case, Bioware’s Mass Effect series of video games. In 2007, Mass Effect introduced video gamers to a galaxy where humanity joins a large number of species already capable of faster than light travel. Planets and locations range from the high tech and political centre Citadel Station to frontier colonies like Eden Prime and hell holes like Omega. Into this, eldritch abominations return from beyond the galaxy, intent on destroying all life as part of a cycle of destruction.
Players took on the role of Commander Shepard, a special forces member of the human Systems Alliance Navy, as he or she* investigated an attack on the human colony of Eden Prime. As the investigation progressed, Shepard picks up an eclectic band of supporting characters, including a rogue Citadel Security officer, a homeless pilgrim, and a naive archaeologist, and learned about the threat to the galaxy being spearheaded by a rogue Citadel Council special operative.
The follow up games, Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 continue the investigation and fight against the abominations, even while Council doesn’t believe that there is a danger. Throughout the series, despite the threat, despite the inevitability of the abominations returning and succeeding, the hope exists that Shepard will prevail and unite the galaxy against the threat.
In 2012, Funimation**, in conjuction with T.O. Entertainment*** and Production I.G.**** released the animated feature Mass Effect: Paragon Lost. Part of the goal of the feature was to introduce a new playable character for Mass Effect 3 in case Shepard died during the gameplay of Mass Effect 2 while still succeeding with the mission. Another goal was to introduce the game to new players.
Paragon Lost follows Lieutenant James Vega, a marine in the Systems Alliance Navy, as he and his squad race in to protect Felh Prime from an attack by krogan mercenaries. Vega and his teammates show off the different classes available in the game without calling them out by name. Instead, the movie shows what each class does, and the abilities shown are possible in-game, even by Shepard with the right choice of class. The movie starts shortly after the beginning of Mass Effect 2 after the apparently loss of Commander Shepard, and takes place before the start of the real plot of the game. Through the course of the movie, Vega discovers the abominations and what the race known as the Collectors are doing and works to prevent a tragedy.
As an adaptation of a video game, Paragon Lost needs to be able to tell a good story within the framework of both the plot and the gameplay of the Mass Effect series. As seen with Battleship, getting how a game works into the visuals can be problematic. Working in the Paragon Lost‘s favour is having a common ground with the video game – both are visual. The special moves available to Shepard and his or her team are already shown on screen. Paragon Lost shows the viewer each class and what it can do easily enough, from the flashy to the subtle. The movie also shows the setting, giving a taste of the Mass Effect galaxy despite staying primarily on Fehl Prime.
The other major factor in the Mass Effect games is the effect of player choice. A decision made in the first game will return to haunt the player in the second and third. Movies, with the exception of Clue, tend to have just one ending. Interactive DVDs do exist, but are marketed more as games than movies. Paragon Lost, though, still manages to introduce the idea, giving Vega a critical decision and showing the viewer the ramifications of his choice, in a way that drives home the seriousness not only of the immediate results but the long term war to survive.
Next week, the legacy of early computer animation.