A few weeks ago, I shared with readers of this blog some of the thinking behind our annual workshop on translating traditional media content into interactive entertainment experiences. This is a workshop we have done for the past seven years in collaboration with Sande Scordes from Sony Imageworks. Students with different skills and backgrounds are put onto teams together and asked to select an existing media property that they think would form the basis for a compelling game experience. In the course of the week, these teams think through issues of narrative structure, character development, graphic presentation, interactivity, audio design, market potentials, and business models to come up with a 20 minute “pitch” for how and why they think such a game might succeed. The students worked long, long, long hours trying to pull together their presentations and on Friday, they gave their pitches and got feedback from our panel of judges (which combine industry and academic expertise). Every year, we get blown away by the quality of the presentations and this year was no exception.
The winning team this year, led by CMS graduate student Neal Grigsby and including Cabell Gathman, Ben Decker, Sarah Sperry and Laura Boylan, imagined a unique partnership between Apple Music (which owns the rights to the Beatles’s songs and likenesses) and the Nintendo Wii (which offers an exciting platform for a new kind of games/music experience). The presentation opened with a montage of clips designed to display the unique sense of humor and comradary that one associates with the classic Beatles movies, the game like potential of some of the sequences from Help and A Hard Day’s Night, and the ways that the Beatles themselves had experimented with the construction of animated avatars through the Yellow Submarine and other projects. Their high concept — “Grand Theft Auto meets the Fab Four” — a “sandbox” game experience which allows players to take on the role of the Beatle of their choice. As they explained, people have strong feelings about which Beatle they want to be and might not take kindly to starting out the game as Ringo and working their way “up” to John or Paul. They might also have strong feelings about which period of the Beatles’ lives they wanted to inhabit or preferences about which of the many imaginative realms introduced through their songs they might want to visit first.
The Wii would allow novel play mechanics which might range from trying to “net” the Blue Meanies or deliver flowers to “all of the lonely people” to performing as a band — they even imagined a level which might be called “Sitar Hero” which reflects a particular memorable moment in the group’s development. Periodically, the player might be besieged by mobs of screaming fans that rip off their clothes and delay their movement through the levels. As they successfully complete a level, they would get to perform another hit song from the group’s repertoire and they might be able to enter a more surreal, psychedelic realm such as the Octopus’s Garden or Lucy in the Sky with Gardens. Each level starts with a muted palette designed to mimic the black and white of their classic films but as the Beatles master the challenges and spread love through their music, they color our world.
The group’s witty presentation was peppered with a range of compelling slogans — “All YOU need is Love. Wii provide the rest” or “Let it Wii.” They even were able to offer some convincing arguments that this project might not be as far fetched as it might seem, given Apple’s recent venture in allowing Cirque du Soleil to repurpose and remix classic Beatles cuts for their new performance piece.
And if anyone wondered what the Fab Four would look like as game characters, they ended with a series of Beatles Mii (see above) that drew their inspiration from their previous embodiments in animation.
Another team, headed by CMS graduate student Orit Kuritsky, tackled the challenge of converting the classic television series, The Twilight Zone, into a new kind of psychologically inflected Survival Horror title, partnering with Buena Vista Games. Disney has made a good deal of money off of the Twilight Zone attraction at their various amusement parks worldwide, while the rights to the Rod Sterling series belong to CBS. The game would include the figure of the narrator, modeled in Sterling’s likeness, who provides unreliable and sometimes wickedly witty guidance to the player by stepping outside the action and providing comments on his/her fate. The game tried to capture the film noir look and feel of the classic series while taking advantage of the potential of digital media to create distorting and disorienting representations of architectural space. Like the classic series, which drew heavily on classic short stories and original works by top flight genre writers, the episodic content of the game would be developed by contemporary masters of fantasy, suspense, horror, and science fiction, including Michael Resnick and Carol Emshwiller, while music would be provided by Masami Ueda, the composer behind the Resident Evil and Okami games.
The doors (famous from the opening credits) would provide portals into different game worlds where situations would mix elements familiar from the original series with new elements that reflect the extension of Sterling’s social commentary into such contemporary issues as cloning or terrorism. Many elements of the world will be familiar to those who are fans of the series: one can rejuvenate by kicking a can, for example, or one might look outside the window and see a monster on the wing of your airplane, suggesting the creator’s affection towards the original, yet new generations of gamers will anticipate twists and surprises around every corner and Disney would expect tie-ins to its ride.
Another team, headed by CMS undergraduate students Chris Casiano and Kenny Peng, asked us to imagine what would happen to the Harry franchise once J. K. Rowling had published the last book in the series. Rowling has hinted that she might not be opposed to further fleshing out the world around Hogwarts even if she doesn’t plan to write any more stories about Harry himself and has expressed some disappointment in the quality of the Electronic Arts games based on the films. So, what if they could get J.K. herself to help flesh out the back-story of James Potter and the Marauder’s Map — that is, the story of Harry’s father and his classmates. As they noted, the Marauders have been central figures in the fan fiction which has grown up around the Potterverse and the books have provided just enough information to interest even more casual readers in their adventures. In that regard, Harry Potter would not be the first fictional world to use games to broaden the scope of its narrative: they pointed to the success of the Knights of the Old Republic titles in the Star Wars franchise.
Like the Beatle’s team, they were drawn to the Wii as a platform which could allow for an immersive player interaction and they offered a spectacular and playful demonstration of how the controller might support the casting of spells, wizard battles, and quiddich matches. They envisioned a cooperative multiplayer game similar in style to the Zelda Twilight Princess game that is already offered for the Wii but based on elements from the Potter books and associated materials (such as the Fantastic Beasts book which Rowling did as a side project). While we all felt fans would have competing ideas at this point about the story of Harry’s father and mother, we agreed that Rowling was probably the only person who could flesh out those plot elements in a game and have it maintain a high level of credibility with fans. They imagined if the game was successful it could be the springboard for further sequels which took the Potter family into its fateful confrontation with Voldemort and his legions.
The fourth team, led by CMS graduate student Andres Lombana, proposed a heist game set in a virtual Las Vegas and modeled after the Ocean’s 11 movie franchise. They pitched Ubisoft on what they envisioned as a “thinking man’s multiplayer game” which built on lessons learned from the Splinter Cell titles about how to create a breaking and entering play mechanic and which might redeploy some of the assets developed for the company’s recent Rainbow Six Las Vegas title. Players could be either the thieves trying to rob a major casino or the guards assigned to prevent the robbery from taking place. Guards might have capacities such as the ability to use trained dogs to sniff out identifying residue or lie detectors to determine what statements are false. The movie already provided a range of different character types, each of whom offered their own skills and introduced new play mechanics into the series: the pickpocket, the card shark, the acrobat, the pyrotechnic, the weapons expert, the hacker, and so forth. The thieves have to keep an eye on their suspicion meter let it tip off the guards prematurely; they might be able to diminish suspicion through the use of disguises or by spending more time at the gaming tables (involved in various minigames). The game would preserve the smooth style and bantering dialogue of the original franchise, hopefully drawing in George Clooney and the other members of his brat pack to provide original voice acting for the title. Barring that, they envisioned a lower cost alternative where Julia Roberts led a team of original female characters who were trying to beat the boys at their own game. (Robert is noted to be a hardcore Halo fan, according to some interviews, so the speculation is that she might like to be the protagonist of a game series.)