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Taking Lessons From South Park – How To Not Ruin an Adaptation

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So I was all settling down to write something about adaptations, but then I started to wonder if you could really classify South Park: The Stick Of Truth as an adaptation. I mean yes, in the strictest sense of the word, it’s the television show adapted into a video game, but I’ve come to associate the phrase “video game adaptation” more with terms like “tie-in” and “spin-off”, which connote a game made for little more reason than to remind you of the source, usually not doing much more than pasting characters and designs from the original material onto a proven but bland gameplay concept.

Essentially, the word “adaptation” implies, in my mind, something being crafted to resemble something that was made by somebody else. Whereas Stick Of Truth was, for all intents and purposes, created by the original creators of South Park, and feels far more like a continuation of the show than something that spun off from it. Which is cheering. It shows that video games are becoming more accepted as something that can be a part of the wider, canon-establishing, more mainstream forms of popular media, rather than something that merely hangs off it, like branded lunchboxes and Saturday morning cartoon shows.

It did lead me to the old question of what the formula is for a good video game adaptation of a non-video game IP. Because if someone could come up with a straightforward set of directions to follow, which would always result in a great game that enriches the original, then that person could become very rich indeed.

Back in the day, maybe like in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the formula seemed obvious to me. Video game adaptation never worked if all it did was attempt to follow the plot of the original film (or TV show or whatever). If you wanted to see that story you’d just watch the film, not some clunky and awkward version of it that keeps trying to crowbar in boss fights. The tie-in games I’d played and enjoyed seemed to do well by using the existing universe as a jumping-off point to tell a new story, a la Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force.

Over time, though, too many exceptions to this rule have come up. I’ve played plenty of adaptations that try to tell a fresh story in an existing universe and produce absolute garbage (such as, say, Force Unleashed 2, or most MMO adaptations), and I’ve played one or two that (loosely) follow the plot of the source material and do pretty well out of it (Spider-Man 2 The Movie The Game, not to be confused with Amazing Spider-Man 2 The Movie The Game, Christ this is going to get confusing now).

Perhaps, taking the example of South Park, we can create a new formula: that the adaptation works if the original creators actually take an interest and get involved, not just delegating the task to a jobbing dev team without the vision. But then again, Ghostbusters: The Game. The fact is, big-name creators aren’t necessarily going to have an advantage in game creation, because different skills are involved. Stick Of Truth worked out because the South Park guys seem to have some genuine interest in and understanding of video games, judging by those episodes of the show they did that spoofed WoW, Guitar Hero and Pokemon.


My YouTube colleague and occasional friend Gabriel once told me that, in his mind, the formula for a good game adaptation is to not try to reinvent the wheel. Take a proven gameplay concept and slap it around the chops with the franchise to be adapted. A characteristically cynical position, but I can see the sense in it. It’s probably only fans of the source material that are going to want the game anyway, so might as well just play to the base, forget about trying to wow the game industry at large, and just concentrate on making something that efficiently passes the time and ensures that the audience can go another eight hours without having to stop thinking about Lord of the Rings or whatever you’re adapting.

Then again, suppressing your ambition takes far greater willpower than I could muster. And I can produce counterpoints in the form of (again) Spider-Man 2 the movie the game (not to be confused with etc), as well as Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. Both good games and both pretty unique games (you’ll note one of them follows a film and the other uses its own story, just to drive more nails into the previous theory). But what makes these two games unique is inseparable from the properties they were adapted from. Spider-Man 2 has really good web-slinging physics that drive the gameplay. Butcher Bay has an efficient mix of combat styles and darkness mechanics that run through the very character of Riddick like words in a stick of rock. (Editor’s Note: “Stick of Rock” is apparently something like a Candy Cane in the US, often featuring letters/words visible in the cross-section. The more you know!)

And if you’ll permit me to digress a moment, I’ve always felt that Riddick is far better suited to being a video game protagonist than a film protagonist. Since he’s got seemingly limitless physical stamina, an improbable array of skills, and talks like an angry rottweiler stuck down a well. All of which makes someone boring as hell when you’re trying to introduce adversity and character drama in such a thing as a film, but in video games are the stuff that’s basically handed to you as you come in the door.

So perhaps the only formula for a decent game adaptation is to make sure that the thing you’re adapting translates well to a video game. As in, driven by physical action and centered on a lone protagonist. But then again, again, South Park doesn’t fit under that categorization. Maybe anything could translate to a video game and if you can’t see it then you’re just lacking imagination. I think you could make a pretty good stealth game out of Withnail & I where you have to fend off the lecherous advances of a predatory Richard Griffiths.

At the end of the day, I don’t think there is a single sure-fire method for translating an IP into a video game, because a video game is a very complex thing and so much needs to be added that it falls to the competence of the adaptor more than anything else. Perhaps the more useful formula to come up with would be how to turn a video game into a half-decent film. And maybe while you’re figuring that out, you could mount a quest for the Holy Grail in your spare time.

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