Wonder What '24' Would Look Like With An Unlimited Budget?

Video game version delivers more bang for less bucks, scripter says.

Duppy Demetrius didn't know much about how games were made when he signed on for the upcoming "24" video game, but one key insight hit home rather quickly: Virtual helicopters come cheap.

"You can only have so many helicopters blow up and buildings explode in the TV show," said the writer of the February 28 PlayStation 2 title. "[In the game] you don't have to worry that we're having a helicopter dogfight and it's going to cost millions of dollars. With this, if there's a helicopter fight, let's add a third helicopter."

The 34-year-old Demetrius has been working on FOX's hit action serial since its first season in 2001, climbing his way from assistant to writer to story editor while becoming an expert in special agent Jack Bauer's efforts to beat the clock. And for the past two years, he's been wrestling with his own tough task: Turning a hit TV show into a good video game.

TV shows haven't fared well as video games, at least not critically. This month's list of the top 200 games of all time in Electronic Gaming Monthly lists several games based on movies, but not a single TV-based title. Few gamers have heard of them, but titles based on "ER" and "Law & Order" exist. A new "CSI" is coming from Ubisoft, and "The Apprentice" and "The Sopranos" have games on the horizon. But with even "American Idol" and "Survivor" games being critical and commercial duds, it's clear the networks' finest have not exactly made for gaming's best moments.

In 2004 Demetrius and the game designers at Sony Cambridge began trying to change all that. At the time, the TV show was more than a dozen episodes into its third season but not deep enough for even a show veteran like Demetrius to feel comfortable setting the game in the show's near future.

"Quite frankly, you don't know who is going to be alive in the next year," he said. "We wanted something where we knew we would be able to have certain characters." So the game was written as an extra season, slotted between the TV's second and third. One of Demetrius' goals was to answer the questions fans on Internet message boards were asking about many of the characters' leaps in development leading into the third season.

Gameplay is broken into running, driving, hacking and other types of missions, each of which is precipitated by a display from the signature "24" digital clock. Kiefer Sutherland announces the time at the beginning of each new "hour" of gameplay as he does each episode of the show. In keeping with the show's spirit, Demetrius wrote in cliffhangers at the end of each hour, even though there's no need to keep a gamer hooked for the next installment.

The game further retains the feel of "24" by using its sound effects and split-screen views. It was scored by Sean Callery, who does the music for the show. One of the chief concerns, naturally, was how long the game would be and how the rigid 24-hour structure of the show would translate to a medium where a player can control the speed of Jack Bauer's actions.

Designers tried to provide enough gameplay that an average player would probably take a full day to get from beginning to end. But the game got to feel too bloated. "In the beginning it was all 24 hours and then it started fading off from there," Demetrius said. He expects the game will now take closer to 20 hours, a fair compromise, he figures, given that an hour of "24" is really only 43 minutes long, thanks to commercials.

Of all the TV shows to turn into a game, "24" promised from the beginning to be a relatively easy fit. The show is filled with the car chases and shootouts that game designers know players enjoy. The show's many phone calls were primarily pushed off into non-interactive cut-scenes. Interrogations — a series must, according to Demetrius — were set up as interactive gambits that challenge users to apply more or less pressure with a series of controller button presses.

One element of the show, however, didn't conform to a game designer's natural instincts. "Every season we always have a family thing, which for gamers I don't think is an issue," Demetrius said. "But in keeping with '24' we needed to have the personal issues." So players don't just control Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer or fellow CTU agents Chase Edmunds and Tony Almeida. They also play as Jack's daughter and deal with the relationship she has with her dad.

"We didn't want to make her the poor girl from season two who gets bitten by the cougar," said Demetrius, acknowledging that the need to cater to familial issues dovetailed with the need to explain how Kim Bauer's character changed between seasons two and three and to provide video-game-style action. "We wanted to make her character a strong character so you can actually see the progression."

Demetrius said one of the trickier aspects was writing in the possibility of Jack's failure, a scenario that doesn't come into play in a show where at least some measure of victory is predetermined. "The interrogations were probably the hardest thing to write," he said. "You have to write every variation: every question, every answer, every possible outcome. In the beginning I think there was a question if it would work or if it would slow down the game."

Instead it has been one of the best-received aspects of the previewed versions of the game. Demetrius said Sutherland deserves a lot of the credit for those scenes. "He went in there and he nailed it, and when you think he can't get any more intense, he takes it to another level."