Thursday, 4 March 2010

I came to this place to build the impossible.

I recently completed Bioshock 2, which I found to be a complete success in exactly the same way that Toy Story 2 was a complete success. I would like to think that I don't have to explain Toy Story, but I have a very dear friend who made it to her 15th birthday without seeing Star Wars, so you never know.

The explicitly-named Toy Story is the tale of cowboy doll Woody and his struggle to come to terms with owner Andy's acquisition of spaceman doll Buzz Lightyear. Woody's initial resentement towards Buzz is understandable, even if his petulant behaviour is unpleasant. Hijinks ensue, an adventure takes place, and the film ends happily with Buzz and Woody the best of friends and each occupying an equal, if different place in Andy's affections. It's a great story which gently plays with the fickle nature of America's romantic notions about the Wild West and space (or as the literary amongst you might have it, The Froniter), but at its heart it is about how quick children are to grow up. Unlike so many childrens' films which end "Happily Ever After", Toy Story acknowledges that time passes and nothing lasts forever.

Sorry, I have something in my eye.

Toy Story 2 follows Woody as he tries to replace Andy's waning affection with the sterile but permanent adulation of adult museum-goers when he discovers he is in fact a valuable collector's item. More hijinks ensue, and Buzz, now several years older and wiser, returns to help him remember what's important. Along the way they meet disillusioned cowgirl doll Jessie, who cannot bear to be abandoned by yet another child.

Don't worry, it all turns out alright in the end.

Toy Story 2 is that rarest and most beautiful of creatures, the sequel which equals its predecessor (without being merely part 2 of a trilogy, Scream fans). It manages to do that by telling a story that was somehow hidden within the first film; that in seeing Buzz as competition, Woody was missing the point altogether and that one day, neither toy would be Andy's favourite thing. Sequels fail when they try either disregard the original altogether or tell the same story but with different antagonists.

Anyway, Bioshock 2 manages to do much the same thing. Bioshock told a strikingly imaginative story about a city under the sea founded upon extreme objectivist principles (which we will get to later). It focussed largely on the power struggle between the idealist founder Andrew Ryan and his practically-minded and market-savvy rival Frank Fontaine. The exploitation by both parties of the "Little Sisters" gave the game an emotional centre. The player can either exploit the Little Sisters for their own ends or save them, but in order to do so they must first destroy each child's "Big Daddy", the diving-bell-clad protectors which follow each Little Sister around.

Bioshock 2 doesn't try and fix what was never broke. The game still takes place entirely in Rapture, and the mechanics are largely the same, but for the odd upgrade. It does, however, access the stories which lay dormant within the original Bioshock, just as Toy Story 2 did with its predecessor. Namely the stories of the the Little Sisters themselves, their Big Daddies, and those residents of Rapture with intellectual misgivings towards Andrew Ryan's politics.

It answers questions which one might have after playing the original game. Like what happens when the Little Sisters grow up? Why are the Big Daddies so devoted to the Little Sisters? Didn't anyone think there might be another way of using the vast power harnessed by Andrew Ryan? (Answers: nothing pretty, pheromones and oh yes).

So what's my point, you ask? Well I mean what I say about the sequels, in the most heartfelt way. If Tom Stoppard taught us nothing else (and I couldn't tell you if he did or not, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was quite enough for me), it was that there are always stories hidden within the stories we thought we knew. If you're interested, you might like Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, which tells the story of The Odyssey from the perspective of (you guessed it) Odysseus' outwardly stoic wife Penelope, left back on Ithica for ten years and beseiged by suitors after her husband's fortune.

My other point has nothing to do with Toy Story (sadly) and everything to do with the objectivism I mentioned earlier. Objectivism is a philosophy created by the novelist Ayn Rand which champions, amongst other things, rational self-interest.

Rand wrote several novels, the most relevant in this case being Atlas Shrugged (1957) which enjoyed a huge renaissance in the wake of the original Bioshock. The game was met with much interest from the Objectivist Community, and Objectivism was discovered with much interest by gamers. The question I am slowly meandering towards therefore, is one of adaptation. Bioshock is anything but a video game adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, but it has about as much in common with it as Dante's Inferno has with, erm, Dante's Inferno.

Gosh, what a tenuous link. Speaking of tenuous links...


Please do look closely at the bottom image. I want you to see how Dante has stitched a cross into his rippling chest.

Last weekend, a friend suggested playing the Dante's Inferno demo on the XBOX. Earlier, he had suggested that Bayonetta was no better than Wet*, and I had taken it quite personally. Consequently, I was fully prepared not to like anything about Dante's Inferno.

As it turned out, Dante's Inferno wasn't too bad. The graphics were splendid, and I especially liked the way you could ride around on a giant demon goat thing and make it breate fire. There's not enough of that kind of thing in games today. The fight system wasn't especially inventive (bash stuff with axe, impale enemies upon axe, that kind of thing), but there was nothing wrong with it.

As an adaptation of the poem, however, it raises a few questions. Like why does Dante have a (strenuously) British accent? Where is Virgil, who in the poem leads Dante through Inferno? Why does Dante have to fight the souls of the damned? How is he able to shoot burning white crosses ? Why is Beatrice in hell? Why does she always have at least one breast exposed?

But so what. I'm not in the least bit outraged by the monumental diversions from the original text. Why should I be? I am of the opinion that if you adapt a book into a film, the film should be good on its own merits. If this means diverging wildly from the source material, so be it. If it's an achingly faithful adaptation that still manages to be neither insightful nor entertaining, then the film makers may as well have not bothered. Films can do things books cannot (despite being unable to do things that books can do), so a film of the same story will always be a very different animal to the book and should be recognised as such.

I feel that the same should be true of games. Generally, licenced games are adapted from films rather than books (that's another post, by the way), but even so, there is no point simply making an interactive version of a text and calling it a game. If you want to make a game, make a game. By enjoying a game which has little in common with its source material, you are not betraying the original. In quite a pure sense, you are seeing the original through someone else's eyes, from another angle. In a way, that's not too different from reading Margaret Atwood's interpretation of The Odyssey.

Admittedly, Bioshock is probably a better advertisement for the unique narrative power of games than Dante's Inferno, which is basically just big dumb fun with lots of boobies. Actually, Bioshock isn't an adaptation of Atlas Shrugged (though it would help my argument if it was), although Rapture's mastermind is a man named Andrew Ryan, which is only a few letters away from Ayn Rand. Oh well.

After an article filled with tenuous links, patchy arguments and mixed metaphors, there seems to be only one thing to do, and that is to list likely upcoming video game adaptations to well-known works of literature. We'll be following the example of Baz "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet" Luhrmann and including the name of the author in the title so you don't make an idiot of yourself in the pub by thinking it's an original story.

William Shakespeare's Hamlet  
An exciting new hack-and-slash adventure, William Shakespeare's Hamlet takes place in the darkened corridors of a Danish castle. Master sword-slashing techniques as you exorcise ghosts and slaughter your enemies in pursuit of your evil Uncle Claudius. Vengeance has never felt so good.

Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist
The first mainstream roleplayer game set entirely in Victorian England, Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist allows you to work your way up through society from urchin to king. Choose your path: Will you be virtuous and share your crusts of bread with the other children in the orphange? Or will you steal and extort your way to the top?

Herman Melville's Moby Dick
Battle on the high seas as you take command of the Pequod and hunt down leviathans. Sail at breakneck speed with your arsenal of harpoons, each more powerful than the last. Features all-new spectacular boss fights.

*I don't really want to put anything to do with Wet on my site because it isn't even "so bad it's good" or "bad but quite funny". It's derivative, humourless trash, and the main character Rubi has about as much in common with Bayonetta as a rusty lawnmower has with a Ferrari if you imagine that Ferrari can shape-shift into a harrier jet that spews rainbows and love from its exhaust and the lawnmower is a snarky little bitch.

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