So I haven't really wanted to write all that much of late, maybe it's because summer is pretty much here but my desire to do anything even vaguely game-related is waning somewhat. The other day though I found myself trying to hunt down some video reviews for old games that I was curious about, and feeling a little unsatisfied by what I was hearing decided I'd write some thoughts down about a subject that's been on my mind for awhile.
So yeah, for some reason I suddenly had the desire to look into whether or not there were any decent Ghost in the Shell or Evangelion games. I have no real affinity for fan service and I like the games I play to be thought-provoking and challenging in some way so generally I don't like tie-ins from one medium to another because they usually suck. If you've played pretty much anything based off a movie before you'll know what I mean.
Ghost in the Shell and Evangelion are two massive, very popular, franchises though and I thought maybe, just maybe, there might be some gem hidden in amongst all the crap. You know something that might satisfy that good story and themes/challenging gameplay itch. You do get this sometimes with franchises that cross over from another medium into games - most of the really big name titles from the Alien(s) franchise, for example, are pretty mediocre and forgettable, but there's the odd game that really stands out as special.
The examples I found for GIS/Eva though, perhaps not unsurprisingly, ranged from games that seemed to exist just to milk the IP for fan service and play off the current game trends (*cough* anything on the iPhone), to some perhaps average to above-average games released a generation or more ago that mostly just focused on the action from the shows and not much else.
Not really what I had hoped for.
I hadn't really thought about it until after I realised I was really kind of disappointed by what I'd found but for some reason I expected more from the games based off some shows I thought really had some depth to them. It's like if they announced (another) Blade Runner game and it turned out to just be an iPhone game where you touched the screen to make dancing Rutger Hauer heads explode before they one-shot kill you; sure it'd be amusing, perhaps even entertaining to a certain degree, but when you're a fan of something and you really like the themes it tackles and the characters in it, you want the game of it to do more than just give you shallow, very passing, entertainment. You don't want the starter, you want a main course, y'know?
I guess I kind of expected some sort of odd juxtaposition of different gameplay segments all bound together by a plot that made the games make sense. Ghost in the Shell is about this cyberpunk future where a secret paramilitary police unit fights criminals and investigates the political machinations of different factions within Japanese society; whilst Evangelion is pretty much Silent Hill 2 with robots, using the excuse of these extra-terrestrial invaders to explore the psychology of a group of really fucked up kids and the adults who exploit them ...with robots!
They both work as entertainment because they're pretty far out there and imaginative, and like say Blade Runner or Aliens if they're going to be made into a game properly you need to capture some of what made the original property work so well for them to work as games. Though it's obviously not an exhaustive list if they were going to make a good Blade Runner game it'd need to make you do all the things you'd expect a blade runner to do: hunting down leads, visiting locations round the city, claustrophobic shoot-outs with synthetics in alleyways/across rained-on rooftops, that sort of thing; with Aliens you'd need the obvious shoot-out segments, but perhaps also manning the gun turret on the APC as you escape some xenomorphs, crawling through vents, sealing doors with a blowtorch - basically in both cases people want to feel a part of the movie.
Too often making a game of something is simply reduced to: gameplay/cutscene/gameplay, when really what you want to be doing is capturing a sense of the IP with the game – this doesn't necessarily mean no cutscenes but use gameplay to make the player feel a part of the action.
Hostage situations in office buildings have been something of a recurring theme in every iteration of Ghost in the Shell in one form of another, so why not have the player control a sniper's eye view during one, or have the player control the cop who inserts the small robotic eye through the ceiling that spies on the terrorists holding the hostages? What about a Tachikoma or Fuchikoma (both kind of small semi-autonomous walking tanks) motorway chase with some terrorists in cars? Why not have segments of gameplay where you investigate a crime/crimes - knocking on doors, questioning suspects, etc?
Though obviously giant robots figure prominently in it Evangelion is really mostly about this futuristic city that is under repeated siege by towering extra-terrestrial creatures, so why not let the player organise the defence and play the part of whoever's in charge of firing all the defences before they move onto actually piloting the Eva? Or what about a sequence of gameplay where you're inside a character's head trying to sort out their issues?
Why does a game just have to follow the model of gameplay/cutscene/gameplay, why not gameplay type 1/gameplay type 2/short cutscene/gameplay type 1, or any more complicated pattern? I know obviously that this means potentially more work but it seems like, especially with games based off popular franchises, that it gets forgotten why games are so enjoyable and why people are so willing to throw money at a really good game. We want experiences, we want to relax and 'play' as somebody else, whether it be a detective tracking down synthetics, a futuristic lady cyborg investigating her country's internal politics, a hardass marine watching his friends get slaughtered by aliens or any number of other stories.
I don't think it's about copying elements from those movies/TV shows per se but rather emulating the way they can immerse and entertain us and building on it because it's a game and games can do so much more. Games always have to follow models and standards from their genre to a certain extent but then over that needs to fit what makes the game unique – the unique gameplay segments, the level design, the story that wraps around it all.
Along those lines I've always felt as though Hideo Kojima is a good example of a game director/designer/whatever his job title is, who gets why the movies he borrows from are awesome but also knows at the same time that games are a completely new medium with a completely new set of rules to be worked with if you're going to make something really great.
Though some of the later MGS games (especially 4) got bogged down in cutscenes, each new game has added elements that let you play around with the world and feel immersed and interacted with, whilst the game itself continues to tell a really engaging story. Snatcher's another good example of this engagement, there are the usual little sections where the game prods at the Fourth Wall that Kojima does but also more generally the game makes you feel like a junker (detective, for lack of a better term): questioning witnesses, examining evidence, putting mugshots together.
I'd hesitate to call any of Kojima's games a perfect example of what I'm looking for but I think he has his head on the right way when it comes to engaging with the player. Size and Length are good in a game but what matters most is having a fun and engaging experience. Arguably a lot of games do coast on the fact we mostly want something to pass the time (hence games) but the best games I think are always those that try to do more to immerse and engage with the player.
I think the problem for games based off popular franchises is that generally we tend to notice that lack of effort more, especially when they're based off quality source material, which sucks for them. Though it seems to escape a lot of big studios we don't just love things because they include explosions or familiar characters, it's about the stories as well, it's about feeling engaged and immersed.
At the end of the day I'm not all that bothered that there aren't really any good Ghost in the Shell or Evangelion games – it's nice to be able to pick something up and feel it's familiar and know you're going to enjoy it before you've even played it but all the same there are a fuckton of excellent completely original games out there already so it's not like I'm going to run out of good things to play anytime soon. It is sad though that often when it comes to big IPs, to popular franchises, that the passion and creativity that made them so beloved in the first place is so often put aside to create a game so by the numbers it's painful.