Sooner or later, we're going to get a video game based on The Hunger Games. No film can be as popular as this one, raking in just under $155 Million opening weekend, and not bring a huge amount of tie-in products in its wake, video games included.
As KPCC's Matthew DeBord notes, there are a lot of potential problems with making a video game that centres on kids killing other kids in brutal bloodsport. But if handled properly, a video game based on the world of The Hunger Games could be amazing for all the same reasons the books are.
There are gonna be some Hunger Games spoilers in here, so if you haven't read the first book or seen the first movie, consider yourself warned. I'll also allude to things in the second and third books, but I'll keep those allusions vague.
There are indeed already video games that wear the Hunger Games brand -- Adam Atomic's The Hunger Games: Girl on Fire presents a fun and arcade-y iOS romp shooting Tracker Jackers as Katniss. It remains unclear what The Hunger Games Adventures on Facebook is all about, but I'm doubtful it will be a bold and intense re-creation of the games themselves. We've yet to hear a peep about any major studio daring to do something with the brand.
Surely that is in part because the deck would be stacked against any big-budget developer making a Hunger Games game. Video games' perception in the public eye has become tainted to the point that making a video game, any video game, about kids killing other kids could simply be a non-starter, no matter how well-executed the game itself might be.
That said, I truly think that if handled properly, a Hunger Games video game could be smart, intense, emotional and provocative. It could be the kind of game that everyone plays, and everyone talks about. In other words, it could be just like Suzanne Collins' books.
Here are 5 ways that a Hunger Games video could work.
Don't Base It On Katniss' Story
Between the book and the movie, the story of Katniss, Peeta, and the 74th Hunger Games is pretty well covered. But that's okay! There have been 73 Hunger Games before Katniss', and most of them are never discussed in the books. Anything could have happened!
As Batman: Arkham Asylum proved, a video game that is tied to a franchise without being tied to a specific movie release gives its developers the luxury of time and creative freedom. There will be at least two more Hunger Games films, and they'll doubtless be released over the next 2-3 years at least. That's more than enough time to develop a great video game, and if the team isn't tied to one of the films, they'll have a much better chance of making a game that's interesting.
What's more, that whole time, people will be really pumped up about anything related to The Hunger Games. There's no need to rush a game out, or to tie it directly to one of the books. I can think of few things less interesting than a video game in which I simply control Katniss as she sneaks through the woods and reenacts the events of the first book.
By making a video game about the event The Hunger Games but not the book The Hunger Games, the game's writers would be free to build a whole new experience with all-new characters. They could set up a similarly dark, impossible set of circumstances, and focus on characters from one of the other districts. The first book is easily the strongest of the three books, mainly because there is so much uncertainty and tension. What is going to happen? What are these Hunger Games all about? Who will survive? How could this possibly end happily?
All of those questions feel less pressing in subsequent books, as the scope of the story by necessity grows broader and broader. By setting a game during an earlier, unknown Hunger Games, those initial questions could become vital once more.
Make the Protagonist Weak but Crafty
I still haven't addressed the fundamental "Kids killing other kids" problem. I'm getting there!
The biggest mistake that a game studio could make would be to create a Hunger Games game that is nothing more than an action-centric first-person shooter. Broadly, a Hunger Games game probably would work well from the first-person perspective -- many Hunger Games fans, myself included, have felt a perverse curiosity about what, exactly, it would be like to actually take part in the Hunger Games. First-person perspective would probably be the best way to achieve that.
But it would be a huge problem if the player-character was a super-strong, sword fighting career tribute. Running about Skyrim-style, cleaving kids with swords could never fly as a part of a modern-day video game -- and it shouldn't!
But if the protagonist was a smaller, less powerful character who needed to use smarts to survive, the game could pace out combat encounters and focus more on survival. A stealth-based, open world wilderness game like Far Cry 2 without all the guns could make for a damned interesting Hunger Games game.
Picture it: You're small and outnumbered, up against a number of deadly career tributes, and you'd be dead meat if they spot you. The only thing to do is hide, and survive. There are other tributes out there with whom you could temporarily team up, as Katniss did with Rue. You must gather food and hunt to survive. And always, at the edges of it all, are the Gamemakers, ready to spring traps and throw you into another life-or-death situation.
Make The Violence Specific
When it comes down to it, unless the game is about a losing tribute, you're going to have to kill some competitors sometime. There's no real way to make killing another person "tasteful," but why should it be? It should be troubling and difficult, it should feel as scary and real as it does in the books. This can be accomplished by making the violence specific.
What does that mean? It means that every time you off another tribute, it needs to feel like you're taking down an actual specific person. It shouldn't happen often, and it shouldn't make you feel awesome about yourself afterwards.
Video games have come up with a whole arsenal of ways to make gamers feel OK about killing hundreds upon hundreds of people. Put them in helmets or ski-masks, make them robots or part-robot, make them zombies or alien husks. Make them all identical and devoid of personality so that as we blow them away, we are already on to the next target, the next goal to clear before we can move on. Nathan Drake may kill 500 mercenaries while saving the day and getting the girl, but we still like him because, well, who the hell were those random goons anyway?
That could never fly in a Hunger Games game. If there are 23 other tributes, they all need to feel real, to have faces and names. Steve Gaynor, a smart designer and writer who was project lead and writer on the fantastic Bioshock 2 expansion Minerva's Den and spent a year at Irrational working on Bioshock Infinite, expressed the need for specific violence thusly:
It bothers me that people demonize violence in video games as a concept. I understand that it's because violence is so wildly overused, and often so luridly fetishized, that the instinct of those of us immersed in the medium is to swing 180 degrees to the other side of the spectrum: no killing! no guns! no blood! But violence -- and I'm not trying to be apologist here -- is an integral element of drama through the ages. The question is in its application. Violence can and should be powerful; I argue that video games rob violence of its power by making it lightweight, pedestrian, throwaway, meaningless -- by making it de rigeur, the violence no longer matters: it is made mundane.
The violence in The Hunger Games books never feels glorified or thrilling. It's brutal, it's fast; it happens when there is no way out. The action feels horrifying, closer to Stephen King than Tom Clancy. Characters brood over the people they've killed, they have nightmares about them.
The video game should be the same way. In his piece about specific violence, Gaynor cites the now-famous scene in Bioshock when players finally kill Andrew Ryan. Killing him feels like a Big Freakin Deal, since he is a specific character with motivations, desires, and a real personality. While fighting his or her way to Ryan, the player may have killed a thousand masked enemies, but Ryan's death feels disturbing, visceral, specific.
Similarly, killing in a Hunger Games game needs to feel specific. It should not be lost on the player that these are other human beings that are dying, that they have names and stories and are not simply faceless NPC cannon-fodder. That means that every fight will have to be hard-won, and the "villains," such as they are (surely some vile career tributes can be drawn up as long-running antagonists) should all be treated as boss fights, more or less.
Please God, No Multiplayer
The idea of multiplayer gamers assuming the role of kids who mindlessly slaughter each other in endless online recreations of the Hunger Games is a deal-braker, plain and simple. It would move any theoretical Hunger Games game from "interesting" to "bad taste" in about the time it would take for the first "Sickest Hunger Games Multiplayer Kills" video to upload to YouTube.
This theoretical game would have to be single-player only, and even more than that, the game's story would probably need to be heavily authored and controlled. Suzanne Collins did a great job of writing herself out of a whole lot of potential problems in the Hunger Games books. She sneakily kept her protagonists somewhat redeemable and her stories teen-friendly while not losing the edge inherent to their basic setup.
Yes, kids kill other kids, but every time it happens, it either happens in a blur of mostly off-screen (or in the books, out-of-view) action, or it happens in specific, dramatic ways. Katniss takes out a few kids, but only one feels truly like a straight-up murder, and that's the boy who she kills while attempting to protect Rue. It's in the heat of the moment, and it feels justified. And even that death haunts her.
By keeping a tight grip on the story, Collins keeps all of Katniss' other kills as neat as possible -- the blonde girl who dies in the tracker-jacker attack, how Cato is knocked back to into the horde of killer mutts; as much as Katniss is indeed a killer, the story is controlled enough to let her be conflicted and not bloodthirsty. Similarly, the other sympathetic characters -- Peeta, Rue -- never kill anyone, and are kept pure throughout.
Any recreation of a Hunger Games would probably require 23 teenagers to die. But how they die would be up to the game's writers. If carefully controlled, the story of a Hunger Games game could be softened in much the same way as in the books, without losing the edginess that makes the whole thing resonate.
Actually, Forget Action Games. Get Creative!
Everything I've said up to this point can be applied to a first-person action game, which I do think would lend itself to creating a visceral, intense Hunger Games simulation. But who says the game has to be a full-on action game? I guarantee you that everyone who says "Man, I hope they don't make a Hunger Games video game" is picturing Modern Warfare with kids. But video games can be much more interesting and varied than that.
Maybe it could be an adventure game, one with a branching story. Maybe it could occur just as much around the games as during them. Maybe it's a third-person adventure game like Ubisoft's I Am Alive. Who knows? The sky (and game developers' creativity) is the limit.
An adventure game, either of the point-and-click or the third-person variety, could be great. Hell, some sort of resource-management/strategy game where you play a mentor who must get his or her tributes through the game alive, watching excerpts of the events on a screen while wheeling and dealing with various sponsors in the capital could be very interesting. Or, if you wanted a really dark game, you could make players play as a compromised gamemaker who is trying, for some reason, to keep certain tributes alive for as long as possible.
Any of those things might work, and I'm sure there are a ton of ideas I haven't thought of. My point is that game developers will need to be smart and creative in how they approach a game version of The Hunger Games. But there's no reason they can't be -- I reject the idea that a Hunger Games video game must necessarily be crass and overly violent, that it must make the fact of the games themselves any less fundamentally horrific than in the books or film.
It could well be that no publisher will dare get near a game built around a concept so grizzly and potentially controversial. But that just seems so unlikely -- The Hunger Games as a brand is currently printing money, and some publisher is going to see that and take a risk.
But the books and film aren't popular just because they provide an irresistible concept. They're popular because they're great! They feature strong, interesting characters, and they always keep us guessing. Even after finishing all three books, I want to know more about Collins' world. Panem feels gritty and believable, full of action, romance, and fights for survival in desperate circumstances.
In nearly every aspect, this world lends itself to brilliant storytelling. If approached with the right mindset, it could make for a hell of a video game, too.