It’s All Real To Me

When I’m sitting in a theatre watching a terrible movie made from a great game, the first thing I think to do is blame the marketers.

When a marketer approaches a product – and that’s what Lord of the Rings and Halo and Star Wars are to marketers – he’ll ask, “What is the brand? What are its brand properties? What are the brand’s demographics? What does the brand stand for in the mind of its consumer? How can we extend the brand?”

I’m not making this stuff up. Just listen to Marvel Studios’ CEO, Avi Arad, talk about the recent Fantastic Four movie: “It’s a tent pole film that supports all our brands and every area of our business.” It’s not a story, it’s not a setting, it’s not a modern myth for our time – it’s a “tent pole” for supporting “brands.” You know, brands like Dr. Doom?. Or was that Dr. Doom®? You get the point.

Marketers are taught to think this way in school, mind you, so we can’t blame them too much. But contrast it to the way some of the great creators have approached their creations.

Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan, felt he was documenting the story of a character as it really happened – “[Conan] simply stalked full grown out of oblivion and set me at work recording the saga of his adventures,” he explained. Likewise, J.R.R. Tolkien saw himself as a historian documenting a world, bringing to light something which was real. When Tolkien was once asked a question about Middle-Earth to which he had no answer, he wrote in his diary: “Must find out.”

“Must find out.” Think about that.

Obviously, as the creator of Middle-Earth and the author of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was entitled to give any answer he would like to any question about the setting. But he didn’t: He waited to learn the right answer. Tolkien understood that given the totality of his creation, there almost certainly was a right answer, a logical answer that made sense within his canon, his mythology, his history, and his themes. He respected his creation enough to be true to it, to work at discovering what that right answer was.

What he didn’t do was consult a demographic survey to find out what answer would most appeal to white males aged 18-30. Tolkien never brand managed Middle-Earth. That’s something only a marketer would do.

The problem, you see, is that marketers don’t understand escapism. They don’t understand that the most powerful reason you’re reading Lord of the Rings, or playing Final Fantasy X, or watching Star Wars, is to suspend your disbelief and immerse yourself in a world of action, adventure, and heroism.

And so, they don’t understand that the key to successful escapist fiction is verisimilitude. You’ve probably never even seen that word before in your life. But that’s only because The Man has kept it from you. Say it now. Feel its power. It means “the quality of appearing to be true or real.”

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There’s a very telling scene in the movie Galaxy Quest where Captain Nesmith (Tim Allen) calls on a young fan, Brandon for help:

Brandon: But I want you to know that I’m not a complete brain case, okay? I understand completely that it’s just a TV show. I know there’s no beryllium sphere…
Nesmith: Hold it.
Brandon: no digital conveyor, no ship…
Nesmith: Stop for a second, stop. It’s all real.
Brandon: Oh my God, I knew it. I knew it! I knew it!

It’s funny because it’s true. We want to believe. We want verisimilitude.

And I don’t just mean the hardcore fan. Too often verisimilitude is dismissed with smug statements like “the fans’ expectations are too high.” The irony is that it’s the other way around. The fans’ expectations are too low. The fans will watch vomit congealing if it’s got the brand they love attached to it. I should know. I was in line for The Phantom Menace on opening day.

Expectations are higher, not lower, among mainstream consumers. Much higher. The reason Joe Superbowl doesn’t like Star Trek or Fantastic Four or Halo isn’t because those settings seem too real. It’s because they don’t seem real enough. For whatever reason, those settings can’t immerse the average consumer enough; they can’t overcome his skepticism; they can’t make Joe Superbowl believe.

For a lot of American men, Tom Clancy’s world of espionage and military drama is easier to believe in than Tolkien’s high fantasy. For a lot of American women, it’s Danielle Steele. Neither Clancy nor Steele ever let their audience stop and think, “That last chapter was so implausible that I can’t believe another word in this entire damn novel.” Both authors understand verisimilitude.

In every medium of story-telling, books to film to games, verisimilitude is prized by creators. The most masterful story-tellers are so good at it that the reality of their creations can break out of genre confines and capture the imagination of the unimaginative mainstream. Think Stephen King.

The problem comes when the creation is translated into a new medium. It’s a process that’s almost always handled by marketing executives – whether they market for Scholastic, Paramount, or EA. Or as Harry Knowles would put it, “when [movie adaptations] end up sucking the ass end out of a rotting donkey… it’s usually the terrible decision of folks in the studio that just don’t get the heroes they’re dealing with.”

Unfortunately, we can’t completely blame the marketers, even though I want to. Especially not when it comes to games. There’s a reason that games tend to have worse adaptations to other media than say, Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or even Spiderman. And – it pains me to say this, you understand, pains me – that’s because games don’t deliver verisimilitude as much as other media.

All video game makers understand the importance of verisimilitude. You can see it in their ruthless pursuit of photorealistic graphics and real physics. And it’s no coincidence that games have grown more popular as they’ve grown more believable. But even now – to be immersed in a game, you really, really have to have suspension of disbelief. You have to be able to accept that your hero has the prowess to take four 7.62mm rifle rounds to the chest and carry six different heavy weapons, but not enough strength to batter down a locked door or climb up a six-foot wall. And that’s just the loopholes in the physics. We haven’t even gotten started on the story. Valve is a brilliant studio, but Half-Life 2 lost its verisimilitude when Gordon Freeman sat through a ten minute tutorial on how to use a gravity gun and never asked the simple question of “hey, you know, where am I and WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?”

Of course, there’s reason, good hard technological reason, for this state of affairs. But if you’re not a developer you probably don’t know the why. When a studio executive gets his hands on a game, he’s getting a product that seems like it has little respect for verisimilitude. That makes it’s quite easy for him to just blow the whole thing off – canon, backstory, characters – and just use the name and make a movie he thinks will bring in the fat bucks. I mean, Lara Croft’s just a brand, right? I mean Lara Croft®. And game makers have, so far, not succeeded in making the case that more is at stake – that character, story, canon, verisimilitude matter when making a movie about a game.

But you know, we can’t just blame the game developers, either. After all – who is playing the games, and who is going to see the movies made about the games? As I said earlier, hardcore fans are actually an easier audience with lower expectations of verisimilitude than the mainstream. They don’t get all that bent out of shape about absurd plot holes and ridiculous exceptions to pre-existing canon. They’ll deploy retroactive continuity adjustments at the drop of a hat to make it all fit. They’ll spend ten minutes running around a stupid six-foot polygon that our hero somehow can’t cross. They bark, but they don’t bite – they go see the stupid movie.

So next time I’m sitting in a theatre on opening night, having waited in line for two hours to get the chance to be the first to see a terrible movie made from a great game, the first thing I’ll do is blame the marketers. The second thing I’ll do is blame the developers. And the third thing I’ll do is blame all you people around me for encouraging the studios to make this crap. Damn fan boys.

Max Steele is an enigma wrapped inside a riddle. When not actively being mysterious, he passes his time manipulating time and space to fit his plans for world domination.

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