"Do You Want to Play a Game?"
Kuma\War: Frontlines of a New Medium

Mark Wallace | 6 Dec 2005 11:02
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Of course, many of the details of real events are lost in translation to the pixilated world. Kuma is not so much a simulation of war as it is a dramatization of it, just as Walter Cronkite's 1950s television series "You Are There" re-created the stories of people like Joan of Arc and Galileo; you could never know, just from watching that first broadcast cosplay, what it was like to be burned at the stake, but you at least got to swallow the historical events sweetened by the sugar coating of television. Kuma provides a similar kind of sideshow: The game moves people who might not otherwise be interested to look at current events, while the ongoing conflicts of the world provide Kuma with a steady stream of new material.

Certainly, few would consider the accounts of war described by a videogame to be as informative as an in-depth news broadcast. But what's interesting about Kuma\War is not that it translates a live shooting war into a first-person shooter game, but the fact that it does so in as near as possible to real time.

One of the emerging trends in gaming this year has been the imminent appearance of so-called "episodic" games, Ritual's SiN Episodes being the flagship entrant to the still-gestating field. Taking off from Ritual's 1998 FPS SiN (which suffered in the shadow of Half-Life, released the same year), SiN Episodes will present progressive installments, each featuring three to six hours of gameplay, that will describe an ongoing story much like chapters of a book.

The prospect of such an involved, ongoing shooter fiction has many gamers drooling over their Logitechs. But if you ask me, "episodic" is the wrong word to describe SiN's venture (as cool as it does sound). At three-plus hours a pop, SiN's episodes will be more like sequels in a long-running movie franchise than like episodes of a weekly television series. Which is exactly where Kuma comes in.

Halper's brainstorm is to position Kuma for a tie-up with a weekly network television show like 24 or Alias. Imagine it: Every Tuesday night, Jack Bauer dodges terrorists and femmes fatale on Fox. As soon as the credits roll, you download the Kuma episode that re-creates the show and see if you can go him one better. Or maybe it's Thursday nights with Alias, only you get the game episode on Wednesday and play through the back-story leading up to Sydney's latest assignment. Who knows, maybe it's Desperate Housewives that'll have you marveling over brilliant squad AI, as you navigate Mary Alice, Susan, Lynette, Bree and Edie through the streets of suburbia to host the perfect Sunday brunch or bed the poolboy before Daddy gets home. The possibilities are endless!

And on Kuma's production schedule, it could actually happen. The company recently signed with Hollywood firm United Talent Agency to shop the idea to networks, and according to Halper, the response has been very positive. When I spoke to Halper, he was hoping to have a product coming to your PC by January. It could be a weekly game version of a television show, as described above, or it could be something more hybrid: a story designed from the get-go to work as both a TV series and a game. Whatever form it takes, if Halper has his way it could do a great deal to leapfrog games into the forefront of America's consciousness in a way they have not quite achieved so far.

Of course, it will help if both the show and the game are triple-A, engaging products. Unfortunately, that's where Kuma\War falls flat, at least so far. As shooters go, it's not quite doing its job. And the problem is not necessarily Kuma's quick turnaround times. Spending three weeks creating what's essentially a small level might actually be enough time to get some complexity and balance into the thing. While they're not overly complex, many of Kuma's missions seem like they work just fine. It's hard to tell, though, since the current version of Kuma's proprietary game engine is fairly flawed.

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