Video Games, the Escapist Character, and a Bunch of Thoughts

I’ve previously explored the concept of the escapist character and how they relate to the audience. Characters like James Bond and Indiana Jones are less about character arcs and relationships than they are about thrills and adventure—that is to say, escapism. Such characters are broadly defined in a manner in which their simplicity ensures memorability. They are not so much surrogates for the audience, as they are what members of the audience wish they could be. These characters benefited in the later stages of the twentieth century from the popularization of a medium that could effectively take advantage of them, as the escapist character’s relationship with the audience was perfected through letting said audiences become the character. The medium I speak of, as should be obvious in the title, is the video game.

In a video game, players can take control of a character, and through them thus do things that they could only otherwise dream of. Even the average geek gorging out on nachos and soda can pretend for a time to be Batman or whatever larger than life character they wish to be.*

I’ve also previously written on the perils of adapting a video game for the big screen. The ingredients that make a great game do not translate into a great movie. A game is an interactive experience while a movie is a presentation. That is why great care must be taken even as one transplants what should be a cinema-friendly element—the escapist character—from a video game. One risk lies in the importing of certain characters that might not be able to succeed within the same niche upon transplantation into a new medium.

Given my previous digressions on Star Wars, I suppose it oddly fitting to bring that franchise to the fore once again because the damn theme is still stuck in my head. Prior to the changes made to the canon by Disney, two notably escapist characters were introduced into the fictional galaxy far, far away via video games. Revan and Galen Marek served their roles as escapist characters well within the concepts of the games they were introduced in (Revan in particular even had an appearance that was decided upon by the player), however, upon closer inspection, one can see various ways in which they were a poor fit for the old canon unless certain changes were made.

Revan’s shortcomings as a character lie in the fact that in many respects, he (according to the wiki, Revan is, or rather was, canonically a he) does in fact embody the Marty Stu. While the traits that do define him as such work for an escapist character, they fail to make him properly fit into the larger framework of the franchise, which eschews such characters in favor of broad archetypes that have the potential for developmental arcs. He is described by others as having mastered both the light (ergh) and dark (ugh) sides of the Force without succumbing (argh) to the temptations of the latter. In addition, he is also highly skilled in a variety of disciplines, talked up by others, and even gets the girl at the end. Now granted, this works well for an escapist character. However, this doesn’t quite work all that well within the wider mythos. Looking at it from a more distant vantage point, Revan’s existence undermines the later existence of Anakin Skywalker, the so-called Chosen One of unprecedented potential who, despite all his natural talent and wide variety of skills, was also a highly flawed person who ultimately failed to achieve any of his goals, but at least came to be redeemed and fulfill his destiny in the final moments of his life. It’s why it is so satisfying to see Revan lose badly in his confrontation with the Sith Emperor**, and then suffer further humiliations later on. But as bad as Revan was, there was arguably an even worse example of an escapist character who was more of a Marty Stu when considering the broader context: Galen Marek.

As the protagonist of a game that promised players a chance to live out their fantasies of kicking ass with the Force, Galen excelled in that capacity, pulling off great feats of ability with the Force and shifting the course of the galaxy’s history—an exemplar of power fantasy within the realm of video games. If Revan was but a point in which the audience could insert themselves into the SW saga, then Galen was just a good old fashioned Marty Stu. To bring you an idea of the insanity, let’s bring up how he’s portrayed as possessing such a huge amount of potential in the Force that he tops Yoda by telekinetically moving an entire Star Destroyer (!!!).

I know that size matters not, but holy shit. Galen is in fact, so skilled and so powerful to he manages to take on Darth Vader and win before proceeding toward a confrontation with Palpatine himself (!!!). Oh, and while he does die in the process, Galen does manage to successfully wound the Dark Lord of the Sith while also leaving behind a legacy of inspiring the founders of the then fledgling Rebel Alliance, the symbol of which is based on the Marek family crest (!!!). Are you laughing yet? I know I was.

Anyway, if Revan serves to undermine Anakin, Galen undermines Luke. He pulls off moves that make Luke’s development in the original trilogy look like a joke, and then proceeds to influence history to a degree that rivals that of the heroes in the actual films. It’s hard to see Luke as special and the last hope of the Jedi when others make him look like a noob.

While escapist characters in video games do have the potential to succeed when adapted to new mediums or within the context of a larger story, one should not immediately assume success without first ensuring that they are a proper fit.






* Afterword I: A Very Brief Digression into How the Video Game Narrative Can Be Manipulated By the Game Itself
Given its prominence, the concept of the escapist character and their role within the context of a video game has undergone some analysis within the context of video games themselves. Something other narrative mediums cannot do quite as well is outright mock the player for attempting to escape into a game.

For example, games like Spec Ops: The Line outright mock the players’ attempts to live out their fantasies of being a badass heroic soldier, taking apart the nature of such simplistic narratives in the face of the fog and fury of war.

** Afterword II: Author Inserts in Expanded Universe Works
Something that’s always irked me is how people writing material for expanded universes in established franchises often seem to feel the need to leave their mark by writing in blatant additions that either come into conflict with established canon or go too far in making their particular contributions bigger and better than what already is part of the franchise they are contributing to.

Look at the old SW EU and check out just how many authors felt the urge to write in characters, abilities, and devices that completely eclipsed what was presented in the films in terms of scale. In addition to the ridiculousness of Revan and Galen, we also had villains who rivalled Palpatine in terms of just what they could do despite Lucas outright calling Sheev the very worst and most powerful of the Sith Lords. We also had other superweapons that foreshadowed Starkiller Base and its ability to rehash, with visibly diminishing returns, the dramatic potential of the original Death Star.

It even expands to the serial escalation of The Force Awakens. It’s not enough that we have a new bigger and badder Death Star, no. It’s not enough that once again (remember what happened in the Star Trek movies?) J.J. Abrams has to arrange convenient methods of travel that cut down travel time for characters down to almost nothing (did anyone else think that Han’s new trick of going into hyperspace from or to enclosed locations was kind of ridiculous?). No, now, based on suggestions from materials beyond the movie, it’s suggested that Snoke has to be some sort of big bad villain whose scope makes Palpatine’s look minor in comparison. Palpatine, the closest thing to the Devil himself in the series. They knew they couldn’t top Vader, but they just couldn’t help themselves with trying to take on the other iconic villain in the franchise.


Why Movies Based on Video Games Feel Somewhat Pointless

With the Warcraft teaser trailer now out, fans of the franchise are clamoring for a movie adapted from a video game that doesn’t suck. It’s telling that among video game adaptations, the best reviewed are films like Mortal Kombat and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, neither of which I would call anything more than passable. This problem goes way back, with some seriously horrid misfires such as the Super Mario Bros. film that is an adaptation in name only. The most entertainment that one can hope for is something like the Street Fighter movie, which had Raul Julia’s truly legendary swan song of a performance to elevate the movie from campy, but still mostly bad to so bad it’s hilariously good. To be honest though, I think that part of the problem with movie adaptations from video games is that the very change in medium this requires is a seemingly insurmountable mountain in itself.

The thing about video games is that most people don’t play them for the story; rather, they play them for the sake of playing, well, the game. It’s right there in the term “video game.” This isn’t supposed to be a movie or an art piece. It’s a game. If you wanted to make it artistic or cinematic, you’d either call it an interactive whateverthefuck or simply make a movie. A lot of people seem to miss the obvious problem with focusing so much on storytelling in a cinematic mode in a game. Most times, the plot is just there so that players have an excuse to have the characters do whatever it is they do to ensure that the game happens as it does, as in the case of Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja, which asked if you were a bad enough due to rescue the president. While it’s true that some games have decent stories and characters, the fact is, a lot of these games take advantage of their medium to tell a story interactively (the first BioShock, for example, took elements of a video game that players took for granted and then used them in the story in a manner that was genuinely shocking and memorable). One of my issues with games that barely have any gameplay is that whoever made them wasted their time making a poor game when they could have aimed for making an interesting movie or book or whatever narrative-based product. That’s not to say that interactive works can’t tell stories in mediums other than video games.

Take visual novels as an example. Oftentimes, readers are given options where they might make choices like they would in a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book or dialogue options. In short, these “novels” give their readers a chance to impact the work to a certain extent. At the same time, visual novels are able to take advantage of the medium. Fate/stay night takes a scenario, then repeats it twice with minor differences at the start that eventually lead to greater distinctions between the three routes available to readers. In contrast to Fate/Zero, which is a more traditional narrative (it was first released as a light novel) that serves as a prequel to the other work, FSN requires reading through all three routes (among other things) in order to develop a full understanding of the story, the universe it takes place in, and the characters, all of which are explored to different extents and from different angles depending on the route. To read only one of the routes is to know only 1/3 of the whole story.

One film that was indeed adapted from a game, and pretty decent in its own right, even if it did take time to become a cult favorite, was Clue. Of course, this was an adaptation of a board game, but the way the film was executed resulted in a product that was a worthy movie in its own right. The casting is in many cases brilliant, and the movie realizes just how silly the very premise and naming traditions of the game are, reflecting that in a farcical tone and multiple endings, evoking the game it was adapted from. Even then however, it was less an adaptation of the game than it was a movie that took the game’s conceits and played with them while adding some more silliness to the proceedings.

This goes back to the matter of video game adaptations. They are in the end just plain unnecessary. Why would I watch a movie about whatever when I would much rather be waiting for this overly long cutscene to end so that I can start playing the game? A story as told through interactive gameplay should be distinct from a story told through a more traditional narrative medium without interactivity like that of a movie. In the end, both mediums are aiming to do different things with their respective audiences, and it’s the failure to recognize this that leads to people scratching their heads when films based on video games just don’t work. This isn’t like when a book and its own adaptations need to be differentiated as different takes on the same basic story. Rather, this is a difference between mediums with completely opposite approaches to just how they interact and are to be interacted with by their audiences.

It’s such a dang shame that people can’t recognize that. And that’s why I can’t really buy into the hype for Warcraft. Despite seeing the budget and the director at the helm, and the potential of finally having a genuinely good film adaptation of a video game, in the end, there’s little point to adapting a game faithfully by cutting out the game.