Fight Club was a challenging, controversial book that was translated into a challenging, controversial movie; five years later, that challenging, controversial movie has been translated into a banal, insignificant video game.
It’s almost a truism that movie-to-game adaptations are a difficult trick to pull off, and Fight Club is an especially thorny case. The film is full to bursting with competing, often contradictory themes. Its messy critiques of retail culture, anarchist rhetoric, and Iron John masculinity are difficult to unpack and absorb. It’s also formally complex, flitting willy-nilly between viewpoints and dragging the viewer through flashbacks and montages at a breakneck pace. Converting a fragmented, sprawling film like this into a game without upsetting the player’s ability to meaningfully interact with it is — to say the least — a daunting task, and perhaps it’s best that developers Genuine Games didn’t bother trying.
So let’s accept the video game version of Fight Club on its own terms. Ignore the book completely, and throw out most of the film’s themes as well; too many ideas just muddy the waters. Recognize that the game is an extension of Fight Club‘s highly stylized violence. Even with its scope constrained to the domain of pure spectacle, the game still manages to come up short.
In the movie, fights between club members were in-your-face affairs: big, loud, bloody slugfests shot and edited to make the audience feel as if they were the ones throwing and taking punches. Fights were also intimate encounters, moments of physical and emotional closeness between the combatants that were as likely to end in a hug as a knockout. The film’s action had a visceral quality to it that both repelled and attracted the viewer, leaving him or her unable to turn away from its abject physicality. This physicality — the sense of being in the fight — is what’s missing from the game.
The affectless graphics are a large part of the problem. Technically, there’s little to complain about: the detailed character models and high-resolution textures are all adequately executed. In fact, they are perhaps a little too well-executed. The game has an overly smooth look to it that runs counter to the messy, blood-stained aesthetic it’s striving for.
A few visual effects are tossed around in an attempt to make things a little nastier, but none of them are able to get much of a rise out of the player. There’s usually some splatter after a hit, but that’s become such a clichéd visual element in games that it hardly registers at all. Droplets of blood splatter onto the surface of the screen as if they had been sprayed onto the lens of the imaginary camera watching the action; it looks as cheesy as it sounds. Near the end of a round, when your enemy’s health is low, it becomes possible to throw an extra-powerful punch to finish him off; the hit is replayed in slow-motion through an X-ray filter, so you can watch the bones shattering (this visual grace note was also used in the Jet Li vehicle Romeo Must Die, where it added just as little to the audience’s experience).
Also adding little to the experience of playing Fight Club is the audio. As with the graphics, the sound effects are passable, but hardly compelling. More distressing is the absence of speech during fights. While characters have plenty to say during non-interactive cinematics (especially in the game’s pointless “story” mode), they fall strangely silent as the player puts them through their paces, barely bothering to grunt as they dish out and take what is presumably a considerable amount of pain. There is a nice selection of music tracks to listen to — selections from the movie’s Dust Brothers-composed soundtrack, as well as songs by Korn, Limp Bizkit, and others — but the music only serves to point out how little else is happening from an auditory standpoint.
Even less engaging than the bland presentation is the stunted gameplay. The basic form, one-on-one fighting in the mode of Tekken or Guilty Gear, is reasonable enough, given the subject matter. As in all games of this type, punches, kicks, and throws are strung together into combos in an effort to drain the opponent’s health and eventually knock him out. Most fighting games achieve variety by including a broad array of characters for the player to use, each with a distinct palette of attacks. Fight Club includes upwards of a dozen characters, but there are actually only three sets of fighting styles to choose from: brawler, grappler, and martial artist. What’s worse, most of the moves and combos available to the player are of little to no use, since most fights can be won by simply mashing the buttons more quickly than the opponent; in fact, this is often the only way to win, since the sluggish controls preclude any attempt by the player to apply strategy to his or her approach.
This uninspired gameplay combines with the flaccid graphics and tired sound to produce a feeling of — well actually, they produce no feeling at all in the player. A video game that’s based on a spectacular, stylishly violent movie should be able to immerse the player in that violence; the player should not only be able to control the images on the screen, but to feel the hits they land on each other, to be enveloped and implicated in the production of pain. We should be having a debate over whether that sort of deep engagement with violence is healthy or productive, but Fight Club the game, unlike the film, is so affectless that it’s unable to spark any controversy. It’s thorough blandness renders it impotent, pointless, insignificant. It’s too boring to be offensive.