King Kong and the Problem with Movie Adaptations

Video game adaptations of movies are, by design, an incomplete experience. Whatever lines we draw – or not – between entertainment, advertising, and art, we must acknowledge that game adaptations are usually meant to complement a movie, rather than stand on their own. Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie is no exception, and this is most evident in the game’s threadbare story. The game assumes you either have already seen the film, or are at least aware enough of the story that you need very little context for the events of the game. This should make sense: Universal Pictures and Ubisoft want you to pay to complete the King Kong experience. Either you watch the movie and want to explore that world in a game, or you play the game and want to see the story you didn’t get.

In a recent profile, Jonathan Blow said, “The de facto reference for a video game is a shitty action movie.” This statement, while accurate, is not a revelation, controversial only for its straightforward truculence. Many games fare poorly in this light, however fun they might be; so many developers blatantly and proudly draw on Hollywood’s offal. There is an obvious irony that video games are applauded for simulating the style of action films, while direct video game adaptations are typically regarded as mediocre, joyless cash-ins. So what should we make of King Kong, a game with a shitty action movie as its literal reference?

Ubisoft and Universal must have anticipated that reaction. Michel Ancel, the creator of Rayman and Beyond Good & Evil, worked side-by-side with Peter Jackson and his team developing the game. The film’s actors contributed their voices as well. Far from a mediocre cash-in, King Kong is a beautiful and immersive first-person adventure, eschewing a HUD, relying on voice cues and visual effects to communicate the player’s health and ammo counts. Even the game’s title, as unwieldy as it is, must have been chosen to let players know that this game has a real connection to the filmmakers, and isn’t some outsourced shovelware.

Playing as Jack Driscoll, you trek across Skull Island alongside filmmaker Carl Denham and shipmate Hayes. Your objective, of course, is to find Ann Darrow, who has been kidnapped by the great ape Kong. The game makes this basically clear, but, if pressed, you would have to guess why you’re on the island to begin with. (Something to do with shooting a film? What’s your relationship to Ann, anyway?) The game shuttles you through all sorts of thrilling set pieces – presented quite directly as scenes from a movie, as the menu looks like a strip of film. The game benefits from its undoubtedly large production budget, as Skull Island is an impressive sight, even as I play the game seven years after release. The folks over at Dead End Thrills would probably have a field day with this game.

The game is generally tense and exciting. Though seen through the first-person, and though you shoot plenty of monstrous bugs, King Kong is not quite a first-person shooter. Your primary action button is more of an all-purpose “Use,” letting you pick up spears, fire guns, turn levers, and so on. Set pieces involve navigating perilous jungle terrain or solving puzzles just as much as they involve shooting dinosaurs. Monsters, in fact, sometimes can’t be defeated with firearms, but must be avoided or distracted. The set pieces grow repetitive quickly, and most boil down to the same one or two challenges framed in different ways. But King Kong is mercifully short and, for the most part, enjoyable, a taut adventure game sprinkled with memorable (if heavily scripted) action sequences.

King Kong may even be strangely underrated. Released in 2005, the game’s opening smacks of BioShock (released two years later), with a dramatic first-person sequence where you swim to shore after a disaster at sea. King Kong’s HUD-less design is elegant and refreshing even today, when so many games still struggle to disguise their arcane interfaces. And the game demonstrates a commanding control of mood and pace, smoothly guiding the player from slow-paced jungle exploration, to tense scenes of survival, to brontosaurus stampedes, and more. You even play as Kong himself a few times, controlling the ape in the third person, and the game handles this transition just as easily. Critics at the time responded positively to King Kong, but many were quick to temper their statements. “By movie-to-game standards, King Kong is an instant classic,” wrote The A.V. Club. “Just don’t hold it to any greater standard.”

The great shame of King Kong is, much as we might want to, we really can’t hold it to any greater standard. For all of its genuine strengths and achievements, it is still just a movie tie-in, an essentially incomplete experience. It doesn’t stand on its own because it’s not supposed to stand on its own, and it cannot reconcile the tension between being its own game and being a commercial for a movie. This problem only becomes worse over time. The shallow story makes little sense in the year 2012 when it might have been easier to swallow alongside the movie, and the game menus are stuffed with obsolete promotional material and long-irrelevant codes for some online promotion.

Early game adaptations did not have this problem, or perhaps did not have the technology to have this problem. So many movie adaptations of the 80s and 90s offer only narrative allusions rather than experiences, using movie licenses as (typically poor) premises for arcade games or home console platformers. King Kong, however, is too new and too sophisticated for there to be any excuse.

King Kong is not unique in this regard, but it is an especially regrettable example. At times, the game comes very close to answering the question: What would it look like if someone made King Kong into a game instead of a movie? The game addresses the themes of the Kong story with some sophistication, despite the incomplete narrative. I feel it must be on purpose that Jack’s primary action is not “Fire,” but rather “Use,” contrasting human tool use with the single-minded brutality of the Kong sections. Alternating between Jack and Kong establishes the relationship both characters have to Ann, both trying to save her from the dangers of Skull Island, yet one trying to save Ann from the other. And a video game is a great medium to explore the differences in size and perspective between Jack and Kong. Monsters which tower over Jack can be swatted aside by Kong; Kong splashes through rivers that Jack must wade cautiously across.

I can’t say King Kong would have been an amazing game in an alternate reality. I thought the 2005 movie was unreasonably plodding for an adventure story, and the King Kong story is itself problematic – a tale of one woman held hostage by two men, offered both literally and metaphorically as a prize to be taken, her most defining features a paralyzing beauty and a terrorized scream. It takes more than a HUD-less combat system to address those issues. But in this reality, King Kong is a game second and an advertisement first, subordinate to and reliant upon the film. If we examine King Kong outside of its context as a movie tie-in, it is an absurdly incomplete experience. If we examine King Kong as what it truly is, an advertisement, then it is a deliberately incomplete experience. I’m not sure which is worse.

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One Response to King Kong and the Problem with Movie Adaptations

  1. Matt Wadleigh June 22, 2012 at 3:42 PM #

    This is an excellent article. You really made me reconsider my opinion on this game and I feel like I appreciate it in different ways. Very well done.

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