There was a palpable excitement about King Kong shortly before its release in 2005. Peter Jackson had just come off the amazingly successful and Oscar winning Lord of the Rings trilogy. Unless Jackson pulls an “M. Night Shyamalan,” his name will forever carry with it instant notoriety, drawing a community towards his work eager to participate in whatever artistic endeavor he chooses to create. Like many other media properties of this sort, this built in community makes a natural target for cross-media promotions and transmedia storytelling. Remember that King Kong video game that—much to everyone’s surprise—was actually decent? King Kong and movie tie-in games like it seldom aim high, but they may yet provide an added value—intentionally or otherwise—to media communities.
Grayson Davis from Beeps & Boops recently posted an article on the King Kong game in particular. Davis earns my praise for an excellent piece on the subject of tie-in games and for having the tenacity to revisit the game after all these years. While he looks somewhat favorably on King Kong, Davis argues:
Video game adaptations of movies are, by design, an incomplete experience. Whatever lines we draw—or not—between entertainment, advertising, and art, we must acknowledge that game adaptations are usually meant to complement a movie, rather than stand on their own. (”King Kong and the Problem with Movie Adaptations”, Beeps & Boops, 15 June 2012)
I agree with Davis in saying that the attempt to examine video game adaptations of movies independently of their film counterparts is a futile and counterproductive effort. These games are best understood as pieces of a whole or at least as a larger media or advertising effort. I would also expand on his criteria and include all movie tie-in games in this assessment as well. Many summer blockbusters launch with some browser-based game or another to build and sustain buzz for the film, not to earn praise for smart and addictive gameplay in its own right. These games are intended to build a community for a film property. In that sense, movie tie-in games act as bridges of sorts for community enthusiasm, stoking excitement and then bringing fans into the theater.
That being said, we can look at adaptations and tie-ins in another way—not as incomplete experiences intended for advertising purposes, but as supplements to cross-media community building. We always benefit from a holistic analysis of games. To examine an entire product is to examine the people, the marketing, and the systems behind its creation as well as the end user experience. The same holds true for cross-media products. King Kong (or Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie as it is properly called) is intimately connected to the film. The important point here, however, is that the game’s end goal is not the improvement of the singular film viewing experience.
Warner Bros. recently launched The Fire Rises, a browser-based strategy game release as a tie-in to Christopher Nolan’s upcoming The Dark Knight Rises. Players take on the role of one of Bane’s “upper” henchmen, tasked to send out lackeys to loot Gotham City. The intention, as I see it, is not to trigger some satisfying reaction from movie-goers when they see Bane on the big-screen. Certainly the game exists to build and maintain excitement for the film, but it also acts as a form of communal participatory world-building for players. Batman exists in our minds as a character composed of a combination of his appearances in comics, games, movies, and more. We selectively build up a Batman—or even “Batmen”—using pieces of his identity available in a variety of mediums.
This same process applies to a larger universe as well. Conceptually, Gotham City is a place that we create using bits and pieces of the city depicted in various mediums. The Fire Rises offers yet another part of the city, a lego-piece of sorts, that we can fit onto our conceptions of Gotham. This, in turn, may affect how we view characters within this city when we read comic books, or as will all do next month, watch a movie. This same process occurs in many directions as well. The film Battleship, regardless of how awful it may be, adds a potential value to the concepts or worlds that we have built within the admittedly small confines of the original Hasbro board game.
In this sense, movie tie-in games are small pieces of what is otherwise a community-driven concept of a single property. Take it or leave it, King Kong offers players the opportunity to patch in their own actions into a wider narrative. Similarly, The Fire Rises is an incomplete, although somewhat entertaining, experience, but so are the Batman films in a way. If our question is about specific content, then examining any of these properties as individual experiences is fine. If our question concerns their value to consumers, then we must examine these games and their respective films as pieces of an independent whole, a project of community-driven world building.
Yes, movie adaptations and tie-in games are too often exploitative pieces of marketing schlock. More often than not they are trash. However, in principle, they could be small building blocks, dispensable at first glance, but valuable nevertheless. In the right hands, these pieces may become part of a larger process of community involvement in storytelling across mediums.