Makers of comics, films, and video games met at last Sunday’s West Hollywood Book Fair to discuss the rise of the video game franchises based on comics, and the cross pollination of characters across media. IGN’s Chris Carle moderated a panel that included Jordan Mechner of “Prince of Persia” fame; Justin Marks, writer of the upcoming “Bionic Commando” comic adaptation from Devil's Due Publishing; and Flint Dille, co-author of the “The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design.”
Beginning with a question of convergence between media, Mechner is glad to see video games as a valid source of material for other formats. However, he warns that adaptation means removing the specific qualities of each format. “What you’re left with is the story and the characters,” he said. This could lead to a run of bad movie based on games and graphic novels. “Those stories are given a pass and judged less stringently than they would if they didn’t come from that media.”
Marks agreed with that worry. “There’s a perception that coming from one of those media that you can say it’s based on a comic book that it has merit on its own legs.” Instead of indiscriminate optioning of material from other media, Marks thinks the studios should look for the specific titles that bring something new to movies. “There are qualities to certain games and comics that make for a great movie; good character work, a cool tone that we haven’t seen before, for instance ‘300.’”
Dille, having worked on everything from “The Transformers: The Movie” to the upcoming “300” video games, sees all three as one big medium. The advantage of games, he thinks, is interaction. “My son, after playing ‘Guitar Hero,’ suddenly started listening to a lot of music.” Dille’s son was not a great music fan before and asked what changed. His son replied, “I couldn’t interact with it.” Dille uses this as a example of the benefits of conversion. “It provided a gateway for him.” Even in the case of bad translation, Dille says, does not diminish a properties existence in other media. “If a really bad movie gets made out of a comic, the comic book doesn’t blow up or cease to exist.” Ultimately, it leads to less of a downside risk.
The panel believes the recent diversity in tone and concept of movies based on comics is indicative of a generation gap. Kids who grew up in the 1980s and saw comics become much more sophisticated now have decision making power in the studios and champion projects through the development cycle. Marks, using “The Dark Knight” as an example, stated, “[Christopher] Nolan and [David] Goyer had the opportunity to grow up on the Frank Miller era of the ‘80s Batman comics. I think that made a big difference compared to, say, ‘Batman and Robin,’ where they were reaching back to the [1960s] live action TV series.”
This will ultimately lead to a good video game movie, the panel said. “One will come out and make a lot of money,” Marks joked. Dille believes the serious approach is already on the horizon. “When ‘Iron Man’ came out, it did eighty million dollars its first week, that’s a lot of money. But that same weekend, ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’ comes out and does 560 million. That doesn’t go unnoticed. Games are a real medium now; a real business,” he said.
Dille also gave another example of this perspective change. “I had an incredible meeting [when] I was on this superhero game I did awhile back.” Usually, he said, the game developer is treated with disrespect at these meetings. In this particular meeting, however, the major production personnel sat at the table, listened to Dille’s presentation for the game and they asked, “Do you guys have any good action ideas for the movie. They were looking at us as some resource for action [scenes].”
Mechner, now having worked in all three formats, says they are similar in that they feature characters, pace, and plot. Other than that, he approaches them all completely differently. “A video game is really all about gameplay,” he said. “The story is just there to support the game play; enhance it.” A movie, meanwhile, is about the story and characters, sometimes with an action element that supports the story. “That action is kind of an added element of the story, just as the story is an added element of gameplay. They couldn’t be more different,” Mechner explained. A graphic novel, being images laid out on a page is “favorable to certain types of stories.”
Dille actually believes story is much more important to games. “If there is no story or no humanity to relate to, it’s math. I don’t do math voluntarily.” Even the earliest games have a narrative component integrated into gameplay. “Think about Pac-Man. You don’t die while you’re eating the dots. You die when you get greedy; when you’re trying to get the fruits or that last ghost with the power-up.” That sort of merging is key to good games with a sense of drama.
Mechner says there are two stories in a game: The one on the package and one he calls “the Second Narrative;” the story of the player playing the game. When game designers access that second narrative, it can lead to powerful emotional resonance on the level of a movie or graphic novel.
Dille met Frank Miller in the mid-1980s when Dille was working on “The Transformers: the Movie.” He and Steve Gerber were rewriting the drag-out fight scene between the characters Optimus Prime and Megatron. Gerber brought Miller into the office one day. “At the time, he looked like Charleie Manson,” Dille recalled. “He was doing this Batman comic book. We were trying to figure out then end of this Transformer movie and he was trying to figure out the end of what became ‘The Dark Knight.’ We all sort of worked on it together.” They have been friends and collaborators ever since. The lone survivor of “300,” Dilios is named after him. Consequently, Dilios is the star of the “300” video game.
With the “Prince of Persia” movie currently filming, Mechner has had some surreal experiences. “I’ve spent a lot of time, onscreen, trying to make it look like it’s in a desert with real armies. They’re shooting in a real desert and there’s a real army. It’s hot and there’s scorpions. It’s pretty out there.”
Asked about favorite cross pollination between games and movies, Marks suggested “The Simpsons Game.” “It was a fantastic way to take everything that is good about ‘The Simpsons’ and bring it into the game sphere which is true to ‘The Simpsons,” he explained. Mechner said his favorite was a gamed based on the TV series “The Prisoner.” The game was made for the Apple II. “It was a text based game,” he recalled. “It didn’t tell you what the rules were to play the game. You hit keys and things would happen on the screen. Ultimately, the only way to win the game was to actually hit reset on the computer and look at the source code of the program and change a line of code. You couldn’t win within the system, you had to break out of it.” For fans of the series, it’s a completely faithful adaptation.
The panel, however, could not think of a favorite video game inspired movie. A member of the audience suggested “Super Mario Bros.” After the laughter died down, Marks joked, “I thought Yoshi was very realistic.”