The problem isn’t the price tag; it’s the words you can’t use to describe the game.
Conduct the following test, please. Name a favorite movie or book or graphic novel that has been turned into a game.
Pick “GoldenEye” or “Lord of the Rings” or “Watchmen” … or anything.
Jot down the five adjectives that first come to mind about that work of fiction, the words that best describe why it is uniquely wonderful.
Now you need to answer a question: should the video game version of that source material evoke the same adjectives? And if it doesn’t, is that a problem?
For me, the “Watchmen” graphic novel is:
3) Formally Inventive
I played through the “Watchmen: The End Is Nigh” video game, which launches on Xbox Live Arcade today and on the PlayStation 3’s PlayStation Network tomorrow, and it fails the test. It’s a co-op brawler developed by Deadline Games. It lasts six chapters and lets one or two players control a Watchmen character — Nite Owl or Rorschach — in order to punch, kick, or use other button-combo-triggered grappling moves in the service of beating up hordes of bad guys and cops. The game is a walk upstream in a river of enemies who run through rainy streets and factories spoiling for a fistfight.
Here’s my list of adjectives for the game:
5) Graphically Impressive
The lack of overlap between comic and game is the issue.
The game’s a bimbo: it has the looks, but not the sophistication. “Watchmen” the comic was no bimbo.
This download-exclusive certainly looks good, but what is really “Watchmen” about it? The inclusion of Rorschach and Nite Owl in a 1970s prequel to the comic and movie? The writing credits boasting talent from the comic and movie? The use of yellow in the menu text?
The game’s a bimbo: it has the looks, but not the sophistication. “Watchmen” the comic — I haven’t seen the movie and can’t compare — was no bimbo.
A smart comic has turned into a two-player co-op brawler. It’s a beat-em-up.
Is this what video games must do to their source material? Let me clarify that: is this what video games must do to smart source material?
Perhaps I expected too much. I certainly can’t suggest anything better. To imagine a “smart” kind of video game is to envision a complex strategy game or an innovative game-play-driven test of play possibility as seen in “Portal” or “Braid.” Those styles would not have fit the “Watchmen” fiction.
So we’re left with another question: could gaming even do “Watchmen” right?
There was a time when people thought that cinema couldn’t do right by “Watchmen.” Fans felt the graphic novel was too dense and too despairing to be turned into a two-hour blockbuster. But few would call me foolish for walking into a theater believing that a “Watchmen” movie might share the values of the comic. I could at least expect the film to evoke the same thoughts and feelings as the illustrated work. But even I laugh at myself for thinking a “Watchmen” video game was going to be able to do the same.
Remember, it’s a just a beat-em-up.
Perhaps it’s a good beat-em-up. I don’t know the genre well enough to say. I played as Nite Owl and found the combat animations exciting, the finishing moves as crushing as an MMA instant-replay. But I spammed the counter-attack button to victory. I sometimes ran past enemies instead of fighting them and the game didn’t penalize me. I wanted to team up with the omnipresent Rorschsach for some two-man fighting moves — or trade control of hi and Nite Owl mid-game, a la “Lego Batman” — but neither feat was possible. I punched. I kicked. If I had been Rorschach I could have dodged too. Instead, I electrified my enemies with Nite Owl’s charged suit. And when I played it in co-op I held a pulled levers at the same time as my friend to open doors. It got no more integrated than that.
Length isn’t the problem. Some will compare the $20 required to download this game with the $20 charged for “Grand Theft Auto: The Lost and Damned,” an add-on with many times the content as “End is Nigh.” I wouldn’t mind “Watchmen”’s brevity any more than I mind the shortness of “Pac-Man” or “Wii Sports” if the content was great fun. But for a licensed game I expect something even more than fun: fealty to the values of the source material.
Developers might complain about my standards. I’m not focused on what the game was, in and of itself. I am focused on what I want to be able to expect from a “Watchmen” video game — what I want to expect from any video game. “The End Is Nigh” instead reminds me about how little has been figured out in the gaming industry. It hints at how this medium just may not be able to handle certain things. But let’s not condemn all video games just yet, and instead I will lay the charge just on this one game that seems to have been made because it could be rather than it should be.
This video game looked like the “Watchmen.” It didn’t feel like the “Watchmen.” That’s not what I want.