The common reaction to the idea of a video game adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are is typically that of surprise; there certainly doesn’t seem to be any faithful way to translate the book into game form, and even the movie with all of its length and added narrative doesn’t exactly lend itself to gaming. Given the incongruity of the source material with familiar gaming tropes, it’s understandable that one might be a bit more excited about a Where the Wild Things Are game than your typical kids’ movie game. At the very least, it’s going to take some imagination to turn the source material into something that can be played on a game console.
This turns out to be true, but not in the way one might hope.
Here’s the hope: Developer Griptonite recognizes the decidedly non-traditional narrative arc of both the book and the movie version of Where the Wild Things Are and uses what little narrative framework is provided by either or both as the starting point for a movie-based game that doesn’t play like a movie-based game. Perhaps they could offer a farming sim with minor social elements, a vaguely Viva Piñata-type experience surrounding Max’s time as king of the wild things. Maybe it could be a rhythm game with an action twist as Max stirs up the ultimate wild rumpus. Whatever Griptonite would do with the game, it seemed obvious that what they couldn’t do was offer the sort of running, jumping and slashing platform adventure experience that tends to be pushed out of the industry machine whenever a less symbolic and intense children’s movie comes out (see: Ratatouille, Monsters vs. Aliens, Ice Age 3, and so on, and so forth), right?
Well, that’s where the imagination comes in. Instead of coming up with a game mechanic that closely matches the feel of the book or the movie, Griptonite devised an entirely new narrative, whose sole purpose is to allow Where the Wild Things Are a clear conflict, quest, and resolution, for the sake of fitting it into the typical pseudo-platformer licensed game template. We get to hear a new story about the wild things, but it’s strictly for the purpose of making us play the same type of thing we’ve played millions of times before. It’s a disappointing approach to the story, and plants a bad taste even before much of the game has even been played.
Here’s how the gaming incarnation of Where the Wild Things Are progresses: You’re given a reason to follow a wild thing. You follow the wild thing. Something Momentous Happens. And repeat. At the beginning, Max is simply trying to assimilate into the island of the wild things, following them around for the sake of exploration and proof that he is worthy to be among them. As the game progresses, he follows them around for the sake of finding another island (because of the soon-coming demise of the wild things’ current island). I won’t spoil the ultimate solution that Max and the wild things come up with and eventually achieve given that it’s the best (and most surreal) part of the narrative, but to be sure, there is always a reason to be moving forward, obeying the invisible fences and bottomless pits of platformer design.
Oh, and there are collection quests. Lots of collection quests. Over the course of his five-or-so hour adventure, Max will look for 60 trinkets for every wild thing in addition to 95 fallen stars. That adds up to over 500 things to collect, most of them hidden in breakable bushes or firefly nests. It’s an almost obscene number of things to be collecting, but there it is—and missing these items means a less dynamic hub level. The village of the wild things fills out as you collect more and more items for the various wild things, giving the player more places to explore and more things to do in the only free-form section in the entire game. As such, you’d better be willing to collect or else you’re going to miss out.
So sure, there is certainly plenty to complain about in Where the Wild Things Are. The story itself is actually surprisingly interesting and appropriately bizarre by the end, but it’s that story’s reason for being—and the play mechanics driven by it—that grates. Even so, believe me when I tell you that children are transfixed by this game. They’re not pulled in by playing it really, so much as they are by watching it.
My own two oldest children, at seven and five years old, developed a mild obsession with this game in the short amount of time that I spent playing it, in a way that previous children’s games that I’ve played for this and other publications never quite managed. The fact is, even with its rote style and embrace of many of the worst of gaming’s tropes, Where the Wild Things Are simply doesn’t look or act like any game they’ve ever seen. Its soundtrack is quiet, atmospheric, and creepy. Its color palette is very, very muted, to the point where it almost feels like you’re playing in black and white at times. And its storytelling style is abstract and minimal; Max rarely opens his mouth in the game except to roar, and the wild things that Max interacts with the most tend to be quiet and thoughtful even as they make decisions in at least as childish a manner as the movie projects onto them.
I’m not going to pretend to believe that my seven and five-year-old are catching the symbolism of the island of the wild things, that any of the metaphorical heft of Sendak and Jonze’s work is coming through in this particular context. Still, it again reinforces the notion that while playing to the lowest common denominator of children’s entertainment may work to a degree, the stories that kids remember are the ones that don’t. Children want their literature, their movies, and their books to consider them as something other than sugared-up automatons with low attention spans; children are drawn, just as adults are, to art and media that dares to be something different.
From an adult perspective, then, it’s easy to see that Where the Wild Things Are falls into the same traps as so many of the film-licensed games before it by applying a story that allows it to do just that. From a child’s perspective, however, it’s still different enough to make it stand out from the bright-colored, loud, overexuberant tripe that passes itself off as modern family entertainment. Whose viewpoint is worth more, in this case, depends entirely on who you’re buying it for.