Thursday, 12 May 2011

Blueprints For Brilliance: How to make a great James Bond video game

['Blueprints For Brilliance' will be a non-regular feature focusing on how best to adapt challenging or interesting properties to a certain medium. It's a bit like Flixist's How To Do It, but with added alliteration.]

Despite achieving great things in cinematic and literary form, James Bond's record as a video game character has a mixed history. The high point was of course GoldenEye 007 on the N64, which in addition to being my all-time favourite game, remains one of the top-selling and most influential FPS' in the genre's history. The Bond game that followed it, a loose adaptation of Tomorrow Never Dies by Electronic Arts for the  PlayStation, achieved commercial success - albeit shifting under half as many copies as Rareware's game - but was critically reviled. The next generation marked a period of stability for the licence, put to games that mostly received both good reviews and sold in respectable numbers, a run of form which ended with the inglorious GoldenEye: Rogue Agent.

Following the Bond licence's move from EA to Activision and the arrival of Daniel Craig to replace Pierce Brosnan in cinemas, there has been an increasingly problematic debate about how best to use the character in his latest incarnation. Quantum of Solace was a mess, while Blood Stone did abysmal numbers at retail and received little mercy from critics, resulting in its developer Bizarre Creations going out of business. The re-adaptation of GoldenEye 007 for Wii was a gamble that paid off both financially (one of the few traditional third-party games on the console to sell over a million copies) and creatively, yet concerns were still voiced that it was more a re-skinned Call of Duty than true Bond game.

So with Activision announcing this week that the licence is being put to a new title by Raven Software, one question remains: what makes a good Bond game?
One of the biggest challenges facing the developer of a Bond game is working out who Bond is. The games have taken their cue from the movies rather than the books until this point, which makes sense in commercial terms, but leads to the creative difficulty that the tone of the movies can fluctuate wildly - the Brosnan and Craig eras, for example, could be seen as two entirely separate entities in terms of content. Brosnan's films were flippant and knowingly over-the-top, while Craig's are more aggressive and character-oriented, with less focus on technology.

This inconsistency has translated to the games those eras have produced as well. The Brosnan era games could be seen as more successful because the films of the time were focused on the aesthetic elements which the gaming medium can replicate without too much trouble: big action, elaborate sets, a heightened tone and focusing more on technology than story or character. When the Craig movies shifted the balance to smaller-scale stories (a high-stakes poker game, a villain seeking to monopolise water supplies) with character moving to the forefront, the games have struggled. The only thing they've been able to identify and use as emblematic of Craig's Bond so far has been hand-to-hand combat (and the ending of Blood Stone mirroring that of Casino Royale), yet the big gunfights and set-pieces from the Brosnan games remain in place, despite appearing anachronistic with the new actor's down-to-earth spy sensibilities.

Whilst adapting the latest games to the style of the current actor is important, the success of GoldenEye 007, originally a Brosnan film/game but adapted for Craig, suggests that even two such disparately toned eras are not incompatible. What is interesting to note is that the GoldenEye movie, despite being all the better for featuring a villainess who crushed men to death between her thighs, is the most sober of Brosnan's efforts, which translated to a certain extent to the N64 game.

Where subsequent releases have increasingly focused on bigger action, Rareware's game gave the player the option of going a stealthier route, taking out enemies one by one with silenced weapons and completing objectives in the order and pace of their choosing. The big firefights were still there, as were the elaborate weapons (all hail twin RCP-90s), but occasionally offering players the opportunity to do things their own way allowed the developers to reconcile the more contradictory aspect of the movie Bond's character as both action man and intelligent, sophisticated spy. Though the game featured a majority of relatively linear levels, that degree of freedom let players become the Bond they wanted to be. 

One of the reasons that the Bond character has endured so long and been able to change tone to suit the times is because of this relative lack of personality. He may get grittier and have more moral dilemmas, but  essentially remains little more than a martini-swigging spy. (In the movies, at least). As the games became increasingly expensive and brought in the cinematic actors, it could be argued that this had the effect of  the games becoming less Bondian through attempts to define him. As Rareware allowed players to decide who their Bond was, their game reflected the character's mutability and became a Bond experience tailored for each player.

That doesn't mean a third-person Bond game can't work - after all, we watch the character  being played by an actor on the big screen. Giving the player a degree of choice in the approach they wish to take to the game's challenges is important though, because one of the things with which Bond has always been associated is his ability to take decisions and think ahead, whether in how to use his gadgets or acquire some vital piece of information. (Quantum of Solace boasted that players would be allowed to think like Bond, yet the staunchly linear experience on offer didn't bear that out). Since the tactical action game has largely been suffocated in recent years by the Call of Duty blockbuster experience, this approach would help to differentiate Bond games from the competition. The stealth sections of the latest GoldenEye game proved one of its most popular features, so expanding on them would seem a valid start.

Giving players more freedom of expression in the gameplay doesn't mean that story should be sacrificed: even celebrated non-linear games like Deus Ex ensured that no matter the decisions that players made, they would always travel through certain narrative junctions. Part of the fun the cinematic Bond experience offers is learning the villain's diabolical scheme and watching the difficulties Bond has to go through to stop it. While the Bond movies take pleasure in the exaggerated nature of their plots, those of the Bond games not tied to specific films come across as rather more rote. As a medium still struggling to find its own storytelling language, perhaps this shouldn't come as a major surprise.

Yet what the Bond licence has, which other games do not, is an extensive history to draw upon. It would be interesting to see what would happen were a developer to look to Fleming's novels instead of the movies for inspiration. If we consider that the differences between a movie plot and a game plot are that a movie plot works best as a flowing narrative where that of a game functions to enable a series of scenarios, pillaging the literary Bond has a lot of potential to play to those strengths.

Nostalgia is a powerful thing with brands as old as Bond, and fans often seem more willing to forgive shortcomings if they feel the experience is as similarly engaged with that sense of history as they are. Where it is more difficult for movies to pick specific scenes from the books due to the need to build a consistent narrative line, the segmented nature of the gaming experience could benefit greatly from it. There are some wonderful action-based chapters in the Fleming novels that have not yet made it to screen, so gaming missions based around, for example, the 'Garden of Death' in You Only Live Twice or creeping through a forest to snipe a target, as in the For Your Eyes Only short story, could appeal to the requirements of gaming fans for the interesting individual scenarios and Bond fans for the connection with the brand's literary roots.

The same can be said of the multiplayer modes. While playing as Oddjob and Baron Samedi was enough of a novelty in the N64 GoldenEye, it seems a waste to use such a rich cast of characters merely as a skin for the standard deathmatch experience these days. If following the Call of Duty model is likely to be the priority for Activision, there's still enormous scope to emphasize the individuality of the characters. Instead of the uniform COD killstreak and perks system, for example, why not have rewards tailored to the chosen character? Max Zorin could call in an air strike from his zeppelin. Baron Samedi could have increased health or the equivalent of the 'Second Chance' perk. Drax could call in attack dogs, Trevelyan or Boris a strike from the GoldenEye satellite, Bond could have enhanced accuracy and damage with his signature PPK, Natalya could have the 'Hacker' perk as a default skill... I'm sure any Bond fans reading this will be able to devise countless scenarios to make Bond-specific multiplayer twists. Why can't developers do the same?

The Bond games need to find a clear identity of their own, by playing to the strengths of the medium and the areas in which it is compatible with such a unique licence and its history, rather than seeking to emulate the cinematic experiences. Like Bond himself, the games have worked best when doing things a little differently, capturing the tone of the era but innovating in ways that make the most of the licence. The success of games like the two GoldenEyes or Everything or Nothing (2004) shows that there is an appetite for the Bond experience in games, but not when having to endure the copycat nature of Quantum of Solace or Blood Stone's mixed messages. Let's hope that Raven Software understand that gamers and fans alike want to feel like Bond, not just look like him.



Silent Hunter said...

The GoldenEye remake, for its multiplayer glory, still inflicted "Protect Natalya" on gamers in the SP campaign...

It's worth mentioning that there was a rather good GameBoy James Bond game as well, with an original story. It had plenty of gadgets and a good variety of levels.

Silent Hunter said...

She has this really whiny voice I couldn't stand, which doesn't help either...

Xander Markham said...

Just noticed after posting my reply that you were talking about the GE remake, not the original. Natalya is much more annoying in the Wii game, that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

The new GoldenEye game was a lot better than I thought it would be. I hope they do something like that next time.