A humble request to bring back weird video game adaptations
The weirdness is gone. That's what I miss about the game industry as a whole. Not so much the hand-drawn graphics that felt like they jumped out of somebody's garage, or the old controllers, or the sense that one was engaging in a new breed of hobby. I have little isolated pangs of nostalgia about these things, because they happened in the past, and you can't get the past back. You mourn whatever you can't get back. But I don't miss them. I just miss the weirdness.
The industry has stagnated creatively because the unblinking march of technological progress has made budgets soar, and thereby cranked up the pressure to back a winning horse or be damn sure that you're breeding a new one. So the trend is to expand the momentum of proven winners. Every new Grand Theft Auto must render the old one obsolete. Every new Madden must try again to convince players they're at the actual, honest-to-God Super Bowl. In 1993, a video game could be anything you wanted if you had enough imagination and squinted; in 2015, a video game can be eight or nine things, and four of them are Call of Duty.
The result can sometimes feel like the world's shiniest rut, a '98 Tercel plated in gold. It's not that the games are worse though, it's that the element of surprise is gone unless you're actively digging for it.
Licensed games have always been of suspect quality. It's innate to the concept. But a million years ago, during the Bill Clinton administration, the sheer scope of which licenses could be turned into games was enthralling – and weird – and now that's all gone. There were games based on The Blues Brothers, Home Improvement, King of the Hill. Even Fahrenheit 451. (Really. It came out in 1984 and Ray Bradbury contributed original writing for the prologue.)
Licensed games would be a fine place to start reclaiming video game weirdness on a grand scale. It can't ever happen again, the "how would you possibly adapt this?" free-for-all that spawned games literally based on cereal, but let's imagine what properties could be adapted if we had the weirdness back, the weirdness afforded by low stakes and low budgets.
So, as a creative exercise -- and hopefully a prompt for an enterprising indie developer to go out and make a weird, vaguely disreputable game -- here are a few left-field licensed properties that I firmly believe would have had potential as games before budget became king.
1. House Of Cards
What do I know about House of Cards? Nothing, that's what. Not a thing at all. It's one of those shows the internet is obsessed with but I never hear anybody mention in real life. But most weird licensed games back in the day, lest we get too sentimental, were shovelware designed by people who knew nothing about the property they were adapting, which makes this a perfect place to start.
I've picked up a few secondhand details about the show. I know Kevin Spacey sounds like he's doing a Foghorn Leghorn impression and his character eats ribs. That's enough information right there. A House of Cards video game will be a side-scroller on the Xbox Live Marketplace. You play Foghorn Leghorn, and he goes around collecting ribs, and dodging the heavily armed farmers who want to take his ribs away. Maybe it could be ad-supported. At the end of every level you'll be prompted to buy the premium version or you're subjected to an advertisement for a restaurant that specializes in ribs. This is completely disrespectful and utterly broken, but so was Superman 64. It fits right into a proud historical tradition.
2. True Detective
I have seen this one, however, and there's a legitimately solid idea for a licensed game in it. An expensive one that actually respects the property, mind you, but hey, The Godfather adaptation had enough money kicking around to try and get Marlon Brando to record dialogue. It's not impossible.
Here we have a show about two detectives walking and driving around solving mysteries in rural Louisiana. One of the detectives is wracked by cosmic horror. The adaptation potential is obvious. Have you seen the show? It has straight-up boss fights in it. Here's what you do. You clear the rights, call up Rockstar, hand them $200 million or so, and say "Grand Theft Auto meets Eternal Darkness." Then you hire some security guards to make sure no Silicon Knights veterans throw bricks through your office window. Then you've got one of the best games of 2015.
3. Paris, Texas
This 1984 Wim Wenders arthouse classic is almost fundamentally unadaptable. It's about a man staggering through the desert, all of his human contact gone, totally silent and locked inside himself by grief. It's an outsider's look at American myth. It has no interactive potential.
But developers used to get away with games like this. Games where nothing happened. Especially on the PC. There's precedent for a game where your primary task is to confront the void, whether it's Desert Bus or Microsoft Space Simulator. You could make it an homage to Team ICO: a game where absorbing ambience is the principle objective.
Maybe you could set your character out walking through the desert. Occasionally, as in the film, Dean Stockwell would interrupt you and say "What's out there? There's nothing out there." A text box would show up saying "There's nothing out there. Keep going? Y/N." Repeat for 50 or 60 hours. You keep going until you go mad. Part game, part social experiment.
4. A Confederacy Of Dunces
There's a curse on this book. The author died before it was published. Everybody who tried to film it in 1982 (Harold Ramis, John Belushi, Richard Pryor) is dead. All the subsequent possible leads (John Candy, Chris Farley, Divine) are dead too. In 2005, there was to be a Will Ferrell version, which was foiled by an act of God (Hurricane Katrina) and an act of man (the head of the Louisiana State Film Commission was murdered). Inexplicably, given what a breezy and joyous read it is, that book is a vortex of death.
But let's tempt fate. Maybe the curse only applies to Hollywood adaptations. There is no known curse on making it a game. It could be done. Watch, I'll throw out two words and it'll all make sense. Tim Schafer. A Confederacy of Dunces is a picaresque comedy epic, and Tim Schafer knows that sensibility like the back of his hand. Psychonauts is proof enough.
Hand him the keys to make a picaresque adventure-platformer. Have maladjusted and shockingly overweight protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly hop around New Orleans like Jack Black's character in Brutal Legend and throw some Voodoo Vince in there. Ignatius can ramble from job to job, restoring his health with nourishing bottles of Dr. Nut. Have him tote his hot dog cart around.
His weapons would be obvious: yelling, slapping, and throwing hot dogs. His conflict would be obvious too. He's on the run from his mother and Claude Robichaux, both of whom want to put him in an insane asylum. Position it as a literary follow-up to Psychonauts and break the curse. It can be done. Somebody give Tim Schafer a blank check so he can bring the weirdness back. He's the man for the job.