If you like video games, there's a good chance that you like TV shows. But which TV shows would make for the best video games? Is there anything that video games could learn from TV shows? Would some shows be better if you could watch them from within a game? And when the heck are they going to make The West Wing into an educational game?
Wow, those sure are some... Burning Questions.
Kirk: Hello Jason-Bro! It's time for another heart-to-heart. I do so love our chats, you know... it seems we don't get enough time to goof around in IM. So this week, our subject is something near and dear to both of our hearts: TV Shows!
Jason: Hey Kirk H.A.M.ilton! Yeah, we do both watch too much television. I wonder how we could get away with taking a bunch of time to ramble about TV on video game website Kotaku dot com...
Kirk: I hear that site will publish ANYthing!! Still though, we should probably come up with a way to tie it in with video games.
Jason: TV shows as video games?
Kirk: Hey, what a smashing idea! I'll let you start: What is a TV show that you think would make for a good video game?
Jason: Veronica Mars! AKA one of the best shows ever. For those of you who aren't familiar with VMars, it's basically a noir detective series set in high school. Think Buffy meets CSI. But more hilarious.
Kirk: And starring the one and only Kristen Bell! She was in Assassin's Creed, she'd probably be down to do another video game.
Jason: Veronica Mars: The Game would basically have to be a point-and-click adventure, of course.
Kirk: So that brings me to my first question: What I've begun to think of as the "point and click problem" as I think about this. Basically: Of course TV shows lend themselves to being point-and-click adventure games. It would work perfectly for a detective series like Veronica Mars. But surely there are more things that a modern game-maker could layer onto the game. Say, a social mechanic like the Persona games?
Jason: Oh man! The thought of a Veronica Mars game where you act like a normal student during the day and then solve mysteries RPG-style at night... I'm getting a little too excited. I should take a break.
Kirk: Seriously, and you know a Veronica Mars game would have a baller soundtrack. They'd get the Dandy Warhols to do the score or something. So here's a question: How would Backup, Veronica's trusty dog, factor into gameplay? Would players be encouraged to always bring Backup?
Jason: He'd be the Koromaru of the game, of course. You could pick and choose from the standard cast of characters: loveable (and overpowered) paladin Keith Mars, wizard Wallace Fennel, the thief Logan Echolls...
Kirk: Keith would have a power called "Who's Your Daddy?" where he'd distract enemies/guards by being super creepy but well-meaning...
Jason: And of course there's Duncan Kane, the slow-witted but well-meaning Berserker. With the power of epileptic fits. Should we just make this entire conversation about Veronica Mars? Nah, probably not. Your turn: what TV show do you want to see as a game?
Kirk: Haha when we started this, I was like, "Dude, we are going to talk about Veronica Mars this whole time." But yeah, there are so many great TV shows. OK, I have a lot. But here's one, and it's one I feel like a lot of gamers and game critics have mentioned in the past: I'd love to see a show tackle The Wire, or something like it.
Jason: How would you design a game based on The Wire? Don't say Grand Theft Auto.
Kirk: So.. OK.
(Jason, presumably, is hanging on.)
Kirk: The reason I mention The Wire is because when the GTA episodes came out, a lightbulb went off above the head of every Wire-fan who also played GTA. Suddenly we had this story, the story of the diamonds, that carried through several different stories, with many different protagonists and perspectives. And suddenly it became clear that while that story wasn't even close to The Wire in terms of sophistication — I mean, it's really just a story of some diamonds, without all that much deft thematic stuff connecting it all — it still got me (and I sense a lot of others) thinking: Wouldn't it be amazing if Rockstar actually tried to pull something like this, a story told through the eyes of many different characters, who maybe only barely know each other, but has a much grander, broader theme?
(Kirk is still talking about The Wire) ...and while yeah, OK, I think that'd be great, I could see a good game based on The Wire being much more like Syndicate or some other RTS management game. The challenge is, with a game based on The Wire... well, there's a saying in The Wire, "It's all in the game." Fitting, no? But what people are saying is that there are rules to this system, to the dysfunction of urban America, but at the same time, Wire-creator David Simon is saying that the game is rigged, the system is broken, and no one really "wins." So, I guess a good Wire game would be a narratively engrossing, systemically fascinating RTS that was unwinnable.
Jason: I'm sure tons of people would enjoy a game that you can't win.
Kirk: See, that's the challenge! This is one way that TV and games are very different, at least now. Bad shit happens on The Wire all the time, and the system and rules are broken and you can't win. And yet it's an amazing, engrossing TV show. Do you think we could make a game like that? What is a game parallel?
Jason: Well, I haven't played The Walking Dead games, but incidentally, don't they always put you in awful situations where you feel like you're making lose-lose decisions?
Kirk: Yeah, actually, that's a good point. And you know what? The Walking Dead totally feels like a playable TV show. Not only do they get away with that very thing I was just talking about, they also have structured their game like a TV show by releasing it episodically. It's not the first Telltale game to do that, but it's the first really good Telltale game to do that, and it really feels like we're all watching a season of TV together. It's such a different rhythm than when people play a big new AAA game, you know?
Jason: Now while I haven't played The Walking Dead, I have played some games based on TV shows. And it's hard to say whether they worked that well. Did you ever play the video game based on 24? Or the LOST one?
Kirk: No, neither! I wanted to play the LOST one but I heard it wasn't good. It seemed sort of like a cash-in to me. How was it?
Jason: Both of those games were interesting in that they were structured just like their respective shows. The 24 game came complete with split-screen montages and ticking clocks, while the LOST game was divided into chapters that all ended on cliffhangers and the word L O S T hurling toward your face. Both games even used voice actors from the show. Neither game was particularly awesome, but they both did feel like playing their respective shows. LOST: Via Domus even ended with some wacky twist that had no payoff whatsoever. Just like the show!
Kirk: Ha. And you know, just like in most games, I didn't care that much that the ending of LOST sucked. The journey was worth it.
But OK, this brings up something between what you said and what I said: I like how more games are starting to feel like shows, with the episodic thing, and the stories that take 20-odd hours to tell... but some of them aren't really based on TV shows. And then we've got this upcoming MMO, Defiance, that will MERGE a game and a TV show. Is that the answer?
Jason: I think it will be weird and crazy and I love that they're doing it. Will it work? Dunno. The thought of having to watch something and also play it is giving me migraines. That's one hell of a time commitment! Remember, one of the big appeals of episodic gaming is that you can play it in short doses — and one of the big downsides of television is that it's on a strict schedule. You have to carve out time every week to keep up. Unless Trion and Syfy decide to make episodes of the show totally accessible at any time — like, hey, maybe they could put a watcher inside the game itself — I don't know if players will be willing to make that kind of huge time commitment, you know?
Kirk: Yeah, you actually totally articulated one of my ideas — what if you could watch the show inside the game? Considering that the show... well, you know, it might be like, really bad, that might be a good way to boost viewership. Hell, I watched the TV shows in Grand Theft Auto IV, I'd probably watch some SyFy show too.
Jason: Oh man, those shows were great! And the radio stations too. That game was so good at creating its own pop culture lore.
Kirk: Right, that's true — actually, I bet the in-game shows in GTA IV were better than Defiance will be. Heh.
Jason: I sure hope not!
Kirk: It'd be great it Defiance is good, but how could it possibly be better than Princess Robot Bubblegum?
Jason: hahaha yes! Maybe Defiance should just say fuck it and go anime.
Kirk: Honestly, that WOULD be easier. I think some of our commenters were talking about how Toonami did something like this? Something about merging animated worlds and video game worlds would just feel more seamless. Otherwise it just feels like when you're watching those FMV cutscenes from Enter The Matrix and then playing the game. You can't help but feel let down. But OK, back to TV shows. We haven't listed nearly enough shows and how they would be games. Gimmie another one: What's another good show, and how would it be a game?
Jason: The West Wing would make for a great educational game. I remember when I took a politics class my senior year of high school, my teacher would always bring in episodes to start debates and show us different approaches to political topics. Imagine a game where you play as President Jed Bartlet and you have to deal with all sorts of different issues. You have to make the right decisions, balance the budget, and avoid pissing off constituents/senators/Republicans/lobbyists/secretaries/China. It'd be fascinating!
Kirk: Also, there could be a minigame where you get to flirt with that handsome Sam Seaborn. But yeah, I love the idea of a West Wing video game — that game is another one that deals with complicated systems, and a game would be great for communicating that! OK, here are some more. We know that there already is a good Buffy game, since Persona 3 basically is just Buffy. But what about Angel? A game where you're a vampire detective snuffing out evil? That'd be pretty great. If there's anything my recent time playing Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines has shown me, it's that there actually aren't enough good vampire games out there.
Jason: Yeah, particularly season five of Angel, where he's head of Wolfram & Hart and he has to balance his desire to do good with his company's desire to do evil. That show has a fantastic cast of characters, too — it just screams "make me an RPG." And hey, while we're on the Whedon track, how about Firefly Cliffy B had some interesting ideas for a game based on that sci-fi Western series...
Kirk: Yeah, I loved Cliff's ideas! A BioWare-style game set in the Firefly universe would be excellent. I'd love to live on a video game spaceship that felt half as homey as Serenity. OK here's another: a Breaking Bad game in the style of The Walking Dead game. No good decisions, nothing to do but be a huge dickhead and screw over as many people as possible. Plus, that Breaking Bad + Cooking Mama spoof could become a reality.
Jason: Hey, we almost forgot — there's a television game coming out next year that looks to be the best yet. South Park: The Stick of Truth, developed by Obsidian, written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and looking absolutely phenomenal. From what I saw at E3, it looks to be a pitch-perfect re-creation of the show.
Kirk: Yeah, that game sounds great — though I guess I've just got your ravings to base that on. Trey Parker and Matt Stone sure are funny guys though, and hell, they made a movie with puppets work, so...
Jason: Yeah, and Obsidian has the RPG cred to back them up!
Kirk: Kind of a great scenario, really. OK, to do a few more quick ones: A Freaks & Geeks game that's like Bully only less Rockstarry. An X-Files game that's like Heavy Rain but better. A Cowboy Bebop game that is an animated brawler like Afro Samurai. An Avatar: The Last Airbender game that is... I don't know, good somehow. Maybe a fighting game like the Naruto games. Um...
Jason: Friday Night Lights: the Madden/Persona hybrid. A How I Met Your Mother mystery game that has you deducing who the mother really is, Carmen Sandiego-style. Diners Drive-ins and Dives: The Game, in which you have to control Guy Fieri's mouth as you watch close-up footage of him chewing brisket.
Kirk: God, snaps to the Friday Night Lights one. um... OK, an Alias game that riffs on Hitman but stars Jennifer Garner. A Six Feet Under Facebook game where you have to sell funeral services to the bereaved while also managing your sister, who is high on crystal meth. A Deadwood game where you don't duel with pistols, you duel with creative uses of the word "Cocksucker." A Glee game where you have to see how long you can go without violently murdering every single one of your fellow Glee members. Uh... I'm starting to run out!
Jason: A Louie game that just fucks with your head constantly, Kojima style. A Saturday Night Live game where you have to play through comedy sketch mini-games like a round of WarioWare. A Two-and-a-Half Men game made by Zynga.
Kirk: hahahahahaha Poor Zynga. They couldn't even get out of this conversation unscathed.
Jason: How about a Newsroom game where you have to be as pretentious as possible?
Kirk: Ha, or a Newsroom game where you have to report the news in hindsight, but the catch is that you have to do it PERFECTLY. You have to admit, it'd be pretty fun to play a game where we get to break news according to Aaron Sorkin's crazy rules of journalism.
Jason: So basically our lives every day.
Kirk: Right? I wonder if it would have a minigame that involves making lists of TV shows that would be good video games.
Jason: I think we are getting too meta. That's a sign we should wrap this up.
Kirk: Otherwise this VERY ARTICLE might turn into a game. And we can't have that. But yeah, I should probably go. This Terriers season finale isn't gonna re-watch itself!
Jason: In fact, we're getting so meta that it might turn out we're inside the Community video game right now.
Kirk: If only Abed were here to explain the rules! Alas. We'll just have to figure it out for ourselves.
Jason: Kirk and Jason in the mooooorning!
Kirk: Hey, I'd watch.
Top image: Otis Frampton/DeviantART