What do you see in James Bond?
For some, 007 is a suave hero – a white knight with impeccable tastes and enviable appetites, serving Queen and country by seducing exotic ladies and foiling evil foreigners. Others see a hopeless anachronism – a state-sanctioned sadist who crashes around the world drinking, gambling, seducing and murdering.
I see something else: James Bond is the ultimate videogame character.
If that sounds even more ridiculous than the space-laser climax of Moonraker, bear with me. Obviously, author Ian Fleming’s creation of Bond predates the evolution of videogames – the first 007 novel, Casino Royale, was published in 1953 and, even by the time of the Fleming’s death in 1964, gaming was still taking blocky-graphic baby steps.
Yet if you analyze the DNA that has helped make 007 such an enduring archetype, it’s jarring how much of his character and milieu matches up with what modern players would automatically expect from a contemporary videogame. Viewed through the lens of AAA blockbuster titles, Bond suddenly seems less a reactionary throwback than a tuxedo-clad prototype. He’s the spiritual father – OK, grandfather – of every smirking, ruthless, egotistical FPS hero ever to have raised a harpoon gun in anger.
The Spy Who Loved Wii
First there are the broad similarities, the nuts-and-bolts stuff. Bond is always a man on a mission, a loose cannon charged with taking down terrorist armies essentially on his own. It’s a situation with which all gamers are instantly familiar, and by which they are surprisingly unfazed, considering how unlikely it is that one person could effectively dismantle an entire enemy organization with little more than a pistol and a passing knowledge of current keycard technology.
Once you begin to consider the correlation, Bond’s adventures seem like the design documents for any recent action game. Although he has yet to effectively dual-wield, Bond does have a signature weapon – the Walther PPK – but will often access upgrades in the course of his assignment, unlocking special devices and abilities by talking to research scientist Q. In fact, with his constant refrain of “Pay attention, 007,” dear old Q functions as weapons shop, upgrade broker and hands-on tutorial, all wrapped up in one slightly exasperated package. The character customization options might be a touch limited – tuxedo, navy uniform, safari suit or scuba gear – but Bond still makes for a convincing avatar. True, he is yet to be given a recharging energy shield but the majority of his superhuman exploits leave him surprisingly unruffled after only a few moments to catch his breath (although the recent brace of Daniel Craig movies appear to relish roughing up their leading man).
Then there are the cars – a series of gun-metal Bentleys in the books, followed by modified Aston Martins and BMWs in the movies – which often become part of the action themselves, reminiscent of the countless vehicle-based bumper levels in videogames recklessly added by game designers to mix things up. And if Bond can’t access the tricked-out rides bestowed upon him by Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he simply carjacks vehicles GTA-style such as a Russian tank in GoldenEye and a battered Citroen in For Your Eyes Only. Parachute this old-fashioned British agent into an FPS or a sandbox game and Bond’s personality traits would mesh perfectly with what’s expected from the casual player: callousness, persistence, and narcissism. Due to these striking affinities, perhaps all game designers are unknowingly indebted to Fleming’s fiction.
One World Is Not Enough
It’s not just the character: even Bond’s world can resemble a videogame. After enduring a briefing from M and engaging in some innuendo-filled banter with Miss Moneypenny, Bond habitually strikes out from London to a succession of exotic locales. In the original novels, this was a chance for Fleming to demonstrate his superior worldliness to a readership that was unlikely to be well-travelled. In the 1950s, Britain was an austere place, still recovering from the punishing effects of WWII. For a readership with recent memories of rationing, Bond’s effortless globetrotting seemed like the ultimate in escapist fiction. As the books germinated into movies, the jet-setting became a stylistic affectation, ping-ponging 007 between distinct, vibrant locations: Venice, Cairo, Las Vegas, Tokyo … even outer space.
Witnessing Bond rattle through each territory, popping off bad guys and gathering just enough intelligence to continue his mission, feels like he is advancing through the themed levels of an intense videogame. He’s no stranger to clichéd environs like sun-baked fire zones (the hollowed-out volcano base in You Only Live Twice, the Afghan desert in The Living Daylights) or slippery snow worlds (remember the silly ice palace of Die Another Day, or Bond skiing off a cliff in The Spy Who Loved Me?).
As the Bond stories became increasingly formulaic, the parade of colourful settings helped distract movie audiences from the lack of character development. Similarly, once you’ve locked down the core mechanics of your main avatar in a game, it’s generally easiest to imply progression by changing up the art assets around them.
Licence To Kill … Repeatedly
If some of these echoes could be explained away as thematic coincidence or happenstance, there’s a more persuasive philosophical affinity between Bond and videogames. Though he rarely does anything pro-active apart from patronizing bartenders with extremely specific cocktail instructions, the fictional world that Bond occupies immediately warps itself around 007 in various ways: beautiful women flutter their eyelashes, ominous henchmen make a beeline directly for him, and local informants conveniently reveal intelligence and then fade away. Does any of this sound familiar?
On the page and on the screen, Fleming’s idealized universe of espionage feels like a clockwork mechanism waiting to spring into life only when Bond makes his entrance. All fiction relies on smoothing down some of the rougher edges of real life, but 007’s narrative magnetism is tough to swallow. And yet, just like in a videogame, the player adjusts any realistic expectations and rapidly becomes accustomed to the way everything happens because of him. For Fleming, Bond’s implausible effectiveness was a way of suggesting that Britain still wielded global influence. For gamers, it’s just part of an assumed contract: I paid for this game so I expect to be the star of the show.
Since he came into being in 1953, James Bond has possessed something that gamers already utilize: a licence to kill. The double-0 prefix means that 007 can murder on a global scale without fear of legal reprisals, and that is the key fantasy exhibited by videogames. Many gamers slaughter people in the name of progressing through the game, and do not feel guilty because it’s the call of duty. If that isn’t the formula of the most popular of modern videogames, from Uncharted 2: Among Thieves to Modern Warfare, then what is?
Nobody Does It Better?
Once you start to associate Bond with modern videogames, circumstantial similarities pop up everywhere. Both often feel clunkily written and/or slightly unfinished. Both regularly face charges of misogyny but do not seem that bothered by them. Both seem happy to trot out the same formulaic plots with minor cosmetic changes every two years or so. But while the evidence seems overwhelming, there is one particularly glaring difference between the two.
If James Bond was truly the first ever videogame character, with stylistic and thematic elements that should dovetail perfectly with the modern gaming landscape, why has there only been one truly great James Bond videogame?
Perhaps it’s because while Bond himself is perfect for games, Bond stories are too linear, too predictable and too dull. GoldenEye is beloved because of its intense multiplayer rather than the single-player campaign. In the early 2000s, when EA attempted to transplant the Bond character into original plots – NightfireM, Everything Or Nothing – they felt like cheap knock-offs with self-parodic titles. Even when EA returned to the source with the slavish From Russia With Love in 2005, the game was roundly panned for being clunky and old-fashioned. Will the current license-holders, Activision, be able to do any better with their next attempt, due later this year?
Probably not. Videogames have already taken everything they need from the Bond mythos; iterating, improving and updating it to the extent that 007 himself has become superfluous. The movie credits used to customarily end with a cocky promise: “James Bond will return …” In videogames, he’s everywhere already.