Friday, September 13, 2013

J.J. Abrams on Video Games

As a personal point of pride, I rarely, if ever, feel bad for J.J. Abrams. What did he do to deserve the two most powerful mantles of science fiction cannon? But I digress. GamerHubVideos recently did a short interview with the Lord and Master of Science Fiction (tongue buried in cheek) and Polygon did an article about it which brought it to my attention. They mainly distill quote's from him so I thought I'd break things down and do more of a write up.

To be honest, I've always had mixed feelings about Abrams but this really irked me. Obviously he's on the spot and probably not prepared to be talking about video games, something that he doesn't specialize in. However, he says some interesting things and I'll break them down after the break.
"The last game, which was obviously a big disappointment to me, was something that we were actually involved in from the very beginning and then we sort of realized it was not going in a place where we were going to get what we wanted, so we dropped out and they continued to do it despite...y'know".

A lot to unpack there. Yes, the last game was bad, MetaCritic posted zero positive review. So he wasn't the only person to be disappointed by the game, I'm sure a lot of people were. And creative and studio involvement on a video game adaptation is rare. Because of the time it takes to develop a video game a lot of things can go wrong very quickly and very early.

Often times, game developers are not allowed to see the full script, and if they are it is often an early draft which will not be reflective of the final film. Also, developers are not often allowed on set. If they are, it tends to be for large, important, dramatic sequences or set pieces. What then happens is that a developer must capture the spirit of a movie that not only have they not seen, but that is not finished. It's like the worst imaginable thought experiment, one that your livelihood depends on.

Some video game tie-ins attempt to square the circle by telling side stories or prequels. Enter the Matrix is a prime example of this. Instead of attempting an adaptation of an finished movie it told the story directly leading into it and to the side of it. Star Trek takes this route, telling a story that is not Into Darkness.

When Abrams says that they pulled out of the project when it "was not going in a place where we were going to get what we wanted" I don't have to wonder how the game ended up not good. Sure, he and his team were not going to get the game that they wanted, but what game is that? What does it look like? Abrams doesn't tell us. It's a short impromptu interview, I'm not blaming him for the exclusion.

What I would like to blame him for is insinuating that the developer should have stopped making the game when he dropped out. That's sort of nail in the coffin. Instead of staying and trying to make the game as good as possible he walked out and complained not only that the game was finished but also that it didn't meet his expectations.

"To me, the video game could have been something that actually really benefited the series and was an exciting, fun game with great gameplay and instead it was not and was something that I think, for me emotionally hurt, 'cos we were working our assess of making the movie"

Abrams is in no way responsible for the mechanical failings of that game. Nothing about the Star Trek game is good, except some of the visuals I guess. I genuinely feel that he's not being dishonest or disingenuous. He does feel pretty badly that the game got made in the way that it did. In a way, he should, he admitted to abandoning the project when he didn't think it was what he wanted.

However, I think I've played the great Star Trek game that Abrams is talking about. It was the first Mass Effect game. The parallels between the Mass Effect universe and the Star Trek one definitely exist, even if many of the are superficial. But consider that the diplomacy, space exploration, make friends with the good aliens and fight the bad aliens game is Mass Effect. Could a brilliant Star Trek game be played on a similar engine or be spiritually similar? Absolutely, is the Star Trek game like that? No.

Further, I think Abrams is responsible for the fact that the 2013 Star Trek game is primarily a rip off Mass Effect action game. From a purely stylistic point his rebooted Star Trek films are big loud action movies. Diplomacy and exploration are always mentioned as being important but never actually explored, Abrams has Kirk solving most of his problems by blowing them up. Sure, Shatner mainly solved his problems by ripping off his shirt and punching the problems but that doesn't absolve Abrams or the films, or the video games.

"The dream say despite [a film or game]'s existence, despite it[s] pre-existing as a game, despite it existing as a movie, what makes this great? And starting from scratch, from a place of 'let's make this from the ground up great regardless of what's come before.'...Anything that is based one something else needs to exist on its own terms."

I think this should just be the rules for creating adaptations. "Adaptation" is itself not the best word. Abram's reminds me of why I'm torn over him when he says that something not only needs to be independent from its source material but great in its own light. Finding the essence of something and translating it to a new medium is hard work. I do, however, think that sometimes you find that essence and should realize that it is not translatable into another medium. This is sort of the reason why the Superman games have been so bad and why the Arkham series has been so successful.

Abrams is a smart person. That's why some of this is so difficult for me to look through. He's human and makes mistakes. I really enjoyed Into Darkness but felt that it was a brilliant action movie and something of a so-so Star Trek movie. Everyone should stay away from the Star Trek video game, I can't stress that enough. If you feel tempted and have not played Mass Effect go and buy that instead.

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