Why You Should Play – The Pillars of the Earth

As the Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X finally cement their place as ‘current-gen’, we should take a look back at some of the games that defined the eighth generation of consoles.

We’ve seen multiplayer greats like Call of Duty and Battlefield reinvent themselves with both the old and the new (WW1 for Battlefield and CoD with Modern Warfare).

We’ve watched CD Projekt RED go from critical darling with The Witcher III: Wild Hunt to an out-and-out failure with Cyberpunk 2077.

And narrative behemoths have graced our screens like Red Dead Redemption 2 as well as smaller indie hits such as Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch.

Today I wanted to talk about one of my favourite games from the last generation and hopefully turn a few players onto the gem that is The Pillars of the Earth.

Based on a 1000+ page historical novel by Ken Follett and set over forty years in 12th century England, The Pillars of the Earth is about three characters, Phillip, a monk, Jack, an outcast, and Aliena, a former noblewoman.

The story sees the three cross paths as they try to grow their town of Kingsbridge, fend off rival noble families and vengeful bishops, and build a cathedral the likes the world has never seen before.

Jack and Aliena meet when both are still children and we get to see them change with age and experience. It’s an interesting scenario that hasn’t been explored much in gaming. (Source: amazon.de).

It’s not the first book to be translated to gaming. The most famous examples are the aforementioned The Witcher and the excellent Metro series.

But in comparison to those two franchises, The Pillars of the Earth doesn’t sound like it would be a blood-pumping adventure full of swords and shields. It’s a historical novel, not fantasy, so there are no mages or sorcerers to liven up the mostly downbeat and dark mood.

But it’s the moments where the characters cross paths, the battle of wits and scriptures, and the twists and turns as the lead characters sow the wind and reap the whirlwind that make The Pillars of the Earth one of the best narrative games of its generation, and why I want to talk about today.

By God and the Devil – Why The Pillars of the Earth Is So Great

The Pillars of the Earth is one of those games where everything perfectly comes together to build something remarkable. The artwork, the music, the 40+ hours of performance, and the story, each one is a singular piece that makes the whole that much more enjoyable.

The game is a point-and-click adventure that uses a large canvas as the background, scrolling left and right when the player character moves. The scaling is incredible, with entire cathedrals, estates, and even towns explorable, but still retaining exquisite details.

Due to the ‘static’ backgrounds, the game camera works almost like a film camera, highlighting points it wants to draw attention to but without taking control away from the player. This allows the player to feel like they are naturally discovering each location and the secrets they hold.

One repeated location, the crypt at the bottom of the cathedral, is one of my favourite spots in the entire game just from its atmosphere. The use of light and darkness in this one small room is played with so well that it can evoke fear or fascination, just with a simple change of lighting.

The crypt merges from dark and disturbing to a place of comfort and solitude, all through the lighting and camera focus of the stage. (Source: mathlidesound.de)

Part of the excellent atmosphere comes from the music by Tilo Alpermann. Since the game is primarily about religion, the majority of the music is ecclesiastical, mixing male choirs with strings and woodwind instruments with heavy brass approaching in Book 2 and 3. However, it’s in the less traditional aspects where the music shines.

Tracks like ‘Hell’, which incorporates faint chimes and cymbals into its rolling strings, or ‘Bishop Waleran’s Wrath’ which uses an electric guitar for its main beat and what sounds like reversed strings or brass on the second beat give this strange sense of foreboding, of power beyond the characters we control.

The tracks ‘Hell’ and ‘He That Committeth Sin’ blend in one of the darkest and disturbing moments of Book Two. (Source: gamingcypher.com)

While I love the graphics and the soundtrack, the story is the high-point of the game for me, and anyone wanting to experience a deeply engaging and philosophical narrative from the last generation should seek it out.

Set over three ‘books’, each with seven chapters, the story is expansive and slow-build, moving at an almost glacial pace at the start to set the major conflicts, but also the tone of those chapters.

Even the main menu helps establish the feeling of each book. Book One is dark and cold, with many thinking the Devil walks amongst them. Book Two is lighter, showing the characters and their town starting the rebuild. Book Three is shrouded in dust and debris as chaos reigns down once again. It’s a masterclass in simple yet effective narrative design.

The start of Book Three: “Eye of the Storm”, sees death and war come to England, with the landscape in every chapter shrouded in dark fog. (Source: cosmocover.com)

The game switches perspectives throughout, from Phillip, to Jack, then to Aliena, and back again, each character adding a tiny piece of the narrative puzzle until it all comes together for the final couple of chapters of each book.

You could in fact play each book as a standalone story as they build, climax, and resolve like a standard plot structure, but the fun is watching characters in Chapter Twenty-one reference decisions you made in Chapter Four.

At the end of every chapter you get a itemised list of what you did, what actions you took and who you spoke with. A lot of nouveau point-and-clicks like Detroit: Become Human, Life Is Strange, and Telltale’s The Walking Dead have these similar lists.

With The Pillars of the Earth there isn’t always the reference to something that didn’t happen like other games, it’s solely on what did happen, which I feel make it seem more personal, rather than a somewhat A/B approach to narrative.

The main gameplay loop is through dialogue, with your words and tone carving a pathway through the story. While it does have set story beats throughout, there are small paths of deviation that lead to gigantic turns later on, sometimes even in a different ‘book’, so far removed that you might have even forgot what your previous actions were.

Dialogue choices and quick-time-events from the main crux of the gameplay loop, yet from simple premises your choices can destroy families, lead countries to war, and even cause the optional deaths of central characters. (Source: daedlic.com)

While the story is mainly character-based, a major point that dragged me into wanting to see the next chapter is the themes the narrative plays with. Ideas like religion and devotion, sin and violence, even love and sex are explored deeply in The Pillars of the Earth.

Each book features powerful moments that make the story come alive with meaning and emotion. Scenes where characters find or lose their faith while others see the Divine and the Devil amongst them are seared into my mind due to the way they shake the very foundations of the cast, and how there hasn’t been many games that tried to do something similar.

The game also spans the entire development of a romantic relationship, from shy smiles and holding hands to spending passionate nights together (this game actually has my favourite sex scene in all of gaming), and eventually settling down and starting a family, something that up until recently games haven’t tried to depict with any meaningful, long-term effects.

The water mill, where Jack and Aliena’s romance begins to flourish. (Source: steampowered.com)

It’s a mature story, not with depictions of violence and nudity but with its ideas and implications, and that’s why I absolutely loved every moment.

I hope that this short post has teased your appetite to experience this incredible game. The Pillars of the Earth was an absolute delight and I can’t wait to dive back in again to one of the best games of the last generation.

Banner Photo Source: iphonelife.com

The Best Levels From The Entire Hitman Series

I recently finished Hitman 3 and absolutely loved it. The game, no, the entire World of Assassination trilogy, starting in 2016, has been one of the greatest gaming experiences I have ever had.

IO Interactive really pulled out all the stops for this trilogy, with stunning locations, unique scenarios, and one of the most personal and human stories in the AAA gaming scene. The reboot, which is now over five years old, still looks beautiful even when running off an ageing PS4.

Today I wanted to talk more about the locations Agent 47 visits in his grand tours around the world. The series is known for creating some of the most breath-taking and intricate levels in gaming, so I wanted to rank the best locations from every single game, starting with Codename 47 from 2000 up until the most recent game from 2021. Let’s start!

Hitman: Codename 47 – “Traditions of the Trade

Despite being over twenty years old, the original Hitman has one of the best levels the series has ever devised, containing a perfect blend of location and eliminations.

“Traditions of the Trade” sees 47 head to the Hotel Galar in Budapest (based on the famous Hotel Gellért) to take out Austrian terrorists Frantz and Fritz Fuchs and collect a chemical bomb Frantz has planted in the hotel.

The level is absolutely stunning, giving the players an entire hotel to explore. In comparison to the other levels in the original Hitman, this one values player freedom and non-linear gameplay as the highest priority. There are zero waypoints to your targets, but the game gives you clues to where to start searching.

For example, what would be the first thing to do in a hotel? Maybe check-in at the front desk. When you sign the guest book, you see one of the target’s room numbers. It’s so simple but perfectly logical, and the entire series has made a habit of including details like these.

The hotel is a nice and calm setting, you’re not immediately being hunted or needing to be stealthy. But that doesn’t mean the level is easy to beat. Security is tight (the hotel is about to host the UN, hence the threat of a terrorist event) so players have to work within the limitations set.

Metal detectors are placed at the entrance of the hotel, meaning you can’t bring any weapons with you. That’s something quite revolutionary for the series, you can complete the level without firing a single shot.

Some unique kills and scenarios (staples of the series) are present here, such as trapping Fritz in a sauna and turning up the heat, and jumping from balcony to balcony to reached Frantz’s bathroom, the only place he isn’t surrounded by guards.

Despite its simple premise, “Traditions of the Trade” is a quintessential Hitman level, with it being the template for many locations throughout the series.

“Traditions of the Trade” is so iconic it was remastered for the 2004 game, Hitman: Contracts, almost unchanged in terms of gameplay. (Source: hitman.fandom.com)

Hitman 2: Silent Assassin – “The Jacuzzi Job

A short level, but a fun one due to the location alone. “The Jacuzzi Job” is the final section of three missions that see 47 head to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, chasing a hacker who has stolen a valuable missile software programme.

I absolutely love this set of missions purely due to the setting, the Petronas Towers, which at the time were the tallest structures in the world. And while the first mission set in the towers takes 47 to the basement, “The Jacuzzi Job” takes place in the penthouse suite.

To reach his target, 47 first has to traverse the roof of the skybridge between the two structures, before using a window-cleaning platform to reach what is, essentially, the top of the world. Taking place during a horrendous thunder storm, with rain lashing down the windows, the location is dark and creepy.

47 must make his way through a series of work offices before the penthouse, with the soft glow of the computers casting shadows across the smart yet mundane work spaces. This is then contrasted with the penthouse suite with its dark-red lighting fixtures, ostentatious architecture, and tacky signs of luxury.

The target, Charlie Sidjan, is surrounded by his female bodyguards (you could call them is ‘Angels’?), chilling in the jacuzzi as the level implies.

To not arouse suspicion from the authorities following Sidjan’s death, 47 has to make his hit look like a robbery gone wrong by stealing some tasteless yet expensive art. It’s an interesting inversion of the standard Hitman trope of being a ‘silent assassin’, leaving no evidence you were even there, making it stand out amongst the rest of the series.

Charlie with his ‘Angels’, with 47 waiting for the right moment to strike. (Source: hitman.fandom.com)

Hitman: Contracts – “The Meat King’s Party

Hitman: Contracts took a series already known for its dark tone and turned it up to eleven. While some fans think the mission “Beldingford Manor” is the better level, I think the “The Meat King’s Party” is the more iconic.

Set in Romania, 47 is tasked with killing slaughterhouse entrepreneur Campbell Sturrock, and his lawyer, Andrei Puscus.

Sturrock was accused of kidnapping the daughter of an ICA cilent (the International Contracts Agency, 47’s employers), but because of legal technicalities and a few bribes, Sturrock got away scott-free. 47 infiltrates the celebratory freedom party being hosted at one of Sturrock’s slaughterhouses to rescue the daughter and eliminate his targets.

The party is absolutely wild. A BDSM-inspired rave with leather-clad guests fuelled by opium pipes and dancing to a dark techno beat, strobe lights dancing off the clinical white walls and machinery, the location alone would be enough to grant its place on this list.

The main target is another highlight. Campbell Sturrock is absolutely grotesque. Morbidly obese, unable to leave his bed due to his size, and eating entire roast chickens with his hands, he is disgusting and vulgar, and one of the stand out targets of the entire series.

But the detail that makes “The Meat King’s Party” stick in the mind is The Girl. Kidnapped by Campbell before being handed over to his psychotic brother Malcolm, 47 finds the girl hanging upside down, her eyes gouged out and her severed arm on the floor under her. Car tree air fresheners hang from the ceiling with her. To one side is a shrine of sorts, and to another is a gramophone playing Paul Anka’s “Put Your Head On My Shoulder”.

And the most chilling part…despite Malcolm being the girl’s killer, Diana, 47’s handler, tells him the mission hasn’t changed. To get the perfect rating, Malcolm must survive. Even in Hitman’s twisted world, sometimes the bad guys still escape justice.

47 collecting ‘evidence’ of The Girl, truly ones of the most chilling moments in a series known for its dark tone. (Source: YouTube, Willzyyy)

Hitman: Blood Money – “A House of Cards

Hitman: Blood Money is widely considered to be the best game of the series. With improved AI, greater flexibility with kills, and a story that takes 47 all across America, it is still the benchmark for every subsequent game to compare itself against.

With levels such as “A Dance With The Devil” (a Heaven/Hell themed party filled with rival assassins) “Curtains Down” (killing the lead tenor during an opera house rehearsal) or “Amendment XXV” (killing the US Vice-President INSIDE the White House), it takes something special to stand out in Blood Money. For me, “A House of Cards” reaches that peak.

Set in a giant, Arabic-inspired hotel and casino, “A House of Cards” has three targets for 47 to eliminate, each one working on a different schedule, but crossing paths at set times. It creates a tense atmosphere when trying to juggle all the moving parts and manipulating events, making it that much more rewarding when the plan goes right.

It’s also remarkable how many ways you can take out your targets; catching them alone in their hotel suite, sniping them from the roof, strangling them in the elevator shaft, or even impersonating one of the targets and heading to a secret meeting with the others. With everywhere from the casino floor to the penthouse suites being available, it is truly one of the greatest of Blood Money’s stellar levels.

The Shamal Hotel & Casino sets the stage for one of the most intricate and layered missions in all of Hitman. (Source: hitman.fandom.com)

Hitman: Absolution – “Attack of the Saints

While Absolution is seen as a lesser game in comparison to its franchise, it still has a few stand-out levels.

Some favorites include “Run For Your Life”, with 47 on the run from the police, ending with him having to wait in a crowded metro station without being spotted, hiding amongst the civilians, before slipping away onto an incoming train.

Another is “One of a Kind”, where 47 visits his blind tailor, Tommy Clemenza, to fix him a new suit. It’s a small level, but adds so much to 47 and his world.

But the one I chose for this list is the big one, “Attack of the Saints”. First seen in a promotional teaser trailer, the Saints are a team of female assassins who are dressed in BDSM-inspired nun outfits. It’s a little out-there, but it fits into the grindhouse aesthetic Absolution goes with.

The Saints hunt 47 down to a seedy motel he’s laying low in, and proceed to blow up the entire complex. It’s the first time 47 has ever been caught completely off-guard, dressed in nothing but a skimpy bathrobe and having none of his gear, as the Saints close in to make sure the job is done.

The setting of the motel and surrounding landscape including Tiki bars, a mini-golf course, and cornfields, are the perfect variety of locations, giving us everything from tight hallways to open plains. The cornfield especially, it’s so much fun stalking through the long grass, silently taking out one Saint after another, with bonus points for dressing up as a scarecrow in the cornfield and hanging from his post.

It’s one of the few levels in Absolution that reaches to Blood Money’s success, giving us a variety of targets spread across the map and lets us get on with it, taking them out how we see fit. The Saints are touted as the best agents below 47 and are all heavily armed, so it does feel suitably badass to see 47 take down the people gunning for his job as top of the ICA.

The Saints in their debut appearance, the E3 ‘Attack of the Saints’ trailer, gearing up to take down 47. (Source: gamezone.de)

Hitman (2016) – “World of Tomorrow

To anyone that has played through Hitman (2016) the choice of this level is no surprise and for good reason. The second level of the World of Assassination trilogy takes 47 to Sapienza, a small fishing town in Italy, which hides a dark secret. 

While the first mission of the reboot, “The Showstopper” (set in Paris), was an excellent first step for the game, “World of Tomorrow” was the perfect follow-up. The location is amazing; a beautiful sea-side town, complete with cafes, winding narrow streets, and even beaches.

The targets, two bio-engineers, are housed in an impressive manor built amongst ancient castle ruins, with spectacular gardens and walkways and even an observatory dome complete with giant telescope.

But the location that makes “World of Tomorrow” such a memorable level is the almost sci-fi chemical weapons laboratory underneath the small town. Hitman has always had a little dash of sci-fi (I mean, 47 is a result of a Cold War cloning experiment), but this feels like something straight out of a James Bond film (funnily enough, IOI are now working on a 007 game, which I have previously written about).

Along with the two targets, 47 is tasked with destroying the virus they had been working on. It’s always fun when the levels ask us to do more than just kill targets, such as crack safes or even destroying organs ready for transplant surgery. What’s even better, there is more than one way to destroy the virus, one remotely and one more up-close and personal, catering to different play styles.

Player freedom is at an all-time high in “World of Tomorrow”, with several ways of killing the targets, anything from shooting down a plane using a cannon (from the castle walls), to using an explosive golf ball when a target practices their drive.

The location, tied with the signature eliminations, makes it one of the best levels the series has to offer.

Death and destruction are always an inch away in Sapienza, where 47 hunts down the greatest minds of their generation. (Source: hitman.fandom.com)

Hitman 2 (2018) – “The Ark Society”

Hitman 2 expanded on its predecessor’s work with more intricate level design, distinctive scenarios for each location, and more unique ways to eliminate a target.

Levels such as “The Finish Line”, set at a Miami racing event (with one target driving their prototype vehicle), “Chasing a Ghost”, set in the Mumbai slums (where 47 has to deduce who one of his targets is), and “The Last Resort”, set in the Maldives (with targets hiring you mid-mission to enact their own schemes) are absolutely stunning and worthy of taking 2nd place on this list. But for me, the top place has to go to “The Ark Society”.

Set on a remote North Atlantic island off the coast of Scotland, “The Ark Society” is mesmerising as a location. The main complex is a medieval castle with burial sites, chapels, and a maze of sewer tunnels underneath, yet has a giant glass meeting box perched atop the keep, a dash of modernity clashing with the ancient.

The Ark Society are a collection of wealthy elites, plotting how they will survive the apocalypse, designing remote cities to flee to, researching new ways to extend their lives, and checking out the newest and most lucrative tech companies to invest in.

And because it’s a party, everyone is donned in formal wear and domino masks, aside from the higher level members, who have ceremonial robes.

It’s all pomp and circus, pageantry and playing at running the world, yet it is the perfect hunting ground for 47.

The two targets, the leaders of The Ark Society, are twin sisters coming from a nouveau riche family. To prove they belong with the old money members, they enact crazy schemes like placing themselves inside a phoenix effigy or putting prospective members through a polygraph test and electroshock torture.

The great twist on this level is the VIP, The Constant. 47 wants to extract him for later interrogation, but the twins are under strict orders that if The Constant becomes compromised then they have authority to use a “kill switch”. Inside The Constant’s head is a poison chip, and each twin has a detonator on them to use at any point. Before 47 can secure The Constant, he needs to be in possession of both switches.

It’s a cool theme, taking away a small amount of freedom to make players feel tense, having to ‘protect’ someone from the other targets has been done before but not to this extreme.

“The Ark Society” is an amazing level and the perfect crescendo to Hitman 2.

The blend of the old and the new makes The Isle of Sgàil one of the most memorable and unique locations of the entire series. (Source: hitman.fandom.com)

Hitman 3 – “Apex Predator”

Some fans of Hitman 3 will say that “Death In The Family” is the best mission of the game. It’s a good candidate; set in an old country manor in Dartmoor, England, and featuring a Knives Out-inspired murder mystery that the player can solve…but for me “Apex Predator” takes the top honour.

The set up; 47 is on the run from his own people and the shadowy Providence faction. It’s not the first time that 47 has been hunted, but after being possibly betrayed by his long-time handler and friend, Diana, 47 is at rock-bottom. He plans to meet his only other contact, Olivia, in Berlin, but just as he zeroes in on her location she tells him to abort their mission.

47’s employer, the ICA, has found the duo, with agents having orders to shoot on sight. Olivia is ready to cut and run, but 47 calmly tells her to keep her head down, signing off with, “I’ll take care of this.”

“Apex Predator” has one of the best locations of the entire series. IO Interactive love setting missions in clubs. We’ve had “The Meat King’s Party” in Contracts, “A Dance With The Devil” in Blood Money, and “Hunter and Hunted” in Absolution.

“Apex Predator” builds upon Blood Money‘s club setting, even keeping the Hell motif, with the name of the nightclub being Club Hölle, and expanding the rival agents from two in Blood Money to twelve in Hitman 3.

Set in a disused nuclear power plant and based on the infamous and iconic Berghain nightclub, it is disorientating and imposing. Between the three separate dance floors, coat rooms, smoking areas, juice bars, back rooms filled with gun-toting bikers, and even the DJ booth, it is an excellent sandbox for the player.

The best part though, the player has no idea who the enemy agents are. Disguised amongst the party goers, club security, bar staff, and more, it is a real unique and discomforting experience, not knowing if the next person you bump into is one of your hunters.

As the level goes on, 47 gets hold of an earpiece and listens in on the handler controlling the operation and the cocky agents who don’t realise they are in way over their heads.

As 47 picks off each agent, the handler, Jiao, becomes more and more panicked, eventually calling off the mission once enough agents are dispatched. If the player manages to kill all twelve, Jiao remarks, “Expertly done, 47. Expertly fucking done.”

It’s a small moment, but paired with 47’s line, “I’ll take care of this”, it elevates the level into iconic territory. Despite being hunted by some of the ICA’s most accomplished and battle-hardened assets, 47 is…well, the apex predator.

The variety of kills is astonishing, with everything from dropping lighting fixtures onto the dance floor, to arranging a closed door meeting with several assassins, where 47 reveals his identity before getting into a raging gun fight.

The location, paired with the excellent set up and loop of hunting and being hunted, make it quite possibly my favourite level of the entire series.

Death awaits 47 on the dance floor of Club Hölle, the main location of “Apex Predator”. Source: pcgamer.com.

Banner Photo Source: playstationlifestyle.com

Thoughts On The Tomb Raider Trailer

Back in June 2016 I wrote a piece on the then announcement of Alicia Vikander being cast in the role of Lara Croft for the new Tomb Raider film. There have been quite a few updates from when I last spoke about the film, the major point being the release of the poster and the first teaser trailer for the film. For those who haven’t seen the latter, let’s have a look right now, then I’ll go through parts I like along with some other general stuff

Okay, so let’s get into this.

First things first, the film has a reported release date of March 16 2018. At the time of writing that is still half a year away. Teaser trailers are usually sent out before the film has been signed off, so a lot of people complaining about poor CGI quality, it’s not fully representative of the final film. Yes, it’s odd to show it in a trailer if it’s not representative of a final film, but hey-ho, look at Suicide Squad. But while the CGI doesn’t look particularly good, the stunts are done for real. Looking at this behind-the-scenes featurette (warning: may contain spoilers), you can see for yourself that the sets are largely built and that the Stunt Co-ordinator is none other than Franklin Henson (whose list of credits is extensive). He has worked on similar themed films such as Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom and National Treasure: Book Of Secrets, which if they are anything are fun, pulpy adventure films that Tomb Raider should fit comfortably alongside.

One point I also want to make is that I love how many references to the 2013 game are in the trailer. The majority of the film is based on the 2013 reboot, along with dashes of the sequel to said reboot, which was released in mid-2015. These are more than just a wink-and-a-nod to the audience who are in the know, these are the scenes ripped direct from the screen to the…erm, slightly bigger screen. The slow-motion jump from the ship, falling through the broken glass of an airplane cockpit, climbing the broken wing of another airplane; these are all shots players of the reboot will recognise. This is probably to appeal to us fans since the film won’t be truly following the game, but that’s adaptations for you, what works for one medium won’t work for another. One scene from the game that hasn’t been shown in the trailer is Lara’s first kill. Lara is using her bow and axe in the trailer, so it’s guaranteed they’ll be some bloodshed, so I hope that this dramatic and memorable scene from the game, where Lara is covered in blood and in shock after killing someone for the first time is in there.

Sadly, there is no Sam or Sam-approximate featured (Lara’s possible beau in the reboot series), just a few lines from Kirsten Scott Thomas being the only female interaction in the trailer. Vikander stated that the film will pass the Bechdel Test, so there has to be some more female characters in there. In the same interview, Vikander also stated the film “…actually has relationships and stories…” so maybe it could be a subtle approach to the perceived “not-straightness” at play in Tomb Raider, which I’ve written about here.

The trailer and the behind-the-scenes featurette do sadly give away a bit too much of the plot for my liking. Maybe that’s my fault for watching too much, but to be honest, apart from the trailer and poster, I’ve stayed away from news about this film. I’m not going to go through the trailer and start dissecting all the scenes and speculate about what might happen in the story (despite previously doing it for Red Dead, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed and many more on this exact site) because the trailer is pretty clear on the narrative beats, evil scheming and all. Thinking about it, it’s better than Assassin’s Creed, which hid half of its bogus story away from the trailer, making us all believe more than half of it was going to be in the Animus.

Talking of Assassin’s Creed, yeah I know. We’ve all been burned before. Assassin’s Creed was a personal one for me. I’m going to keep harping on about Macbeth forever, because it was the perfect precursor to what an Assassin’s Creed film could look like. That film was excellent, and yet despite having the exact same cast and crew, Assassin’s Creed was a confusing mess, despite showing us the exact opposite in it’s promotional material. Maybe I’m too forgiving of Hollywood, maybe I’m clutching at straws in the hopes of a game I love being adapted for a wider audience. All it has to do is not be terrible. That really shouldn’t be a big ask.

Finally, I just want to address the wave of backlash against Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft. Check out the comments for the trailer up above, or the comments in IGN’s thread on the trailer. I called this back in May, that Vikander was going to have a hard time because she wasn’t “real Lara” i.e. Lara from the 1990s. Despite Vikander herself, the trailer, the behind-the-scenes clips and the poster all saying or inferring that this is an origin story, some people are just not getting it. However, the lovely Easter Egg at the end of the trailer with the dual pistols is a neat nod to the series roots, especially since they look like the same pistols from Angelina Jolie’s TR films…

And hey, Nick Frost is in there, it’s always nice to see him.

Those are my thoughts (or looking back on it, ramble) on the Tomb Raider  trailer. Time will tell if the film is going to be any good, but I’m already excited.

 

Banner photo source: nerdist.com.

How To Make A Good Video Game Film – Part Two

After sitting through the awful Assassin’s Creed movie three months ago, I wrote a blog post titled, “How To Make A Good Video Game Film“. It’s probably one of the highest-viewed posts on this site and I had fun writing it and it led to some good conversations with people who disagreed with my points.

I was playing some Minecraft with some friends and I mentioned that there was a Minecraft movie in the works. My friend sighed loudly and said there was no point to making a Minecraft movie because, “…it would take out the entire reason for playing Minecraft, the gameplay.” I understood where he was coming from, (it’s one of the main reasons given for stopping game-to-movie adaptations), some games are inexorably tied to their gameplay.

(SPOILERS AHEAD for Bioshock and Spec Ops: The Line) Bioshock is a key example. While it might be fun to see Rapture on the big screen, “Would You Kindly” (the phrase that controls the main character) would lose pretty much all of its awesomeness, since we are not playing. Spec Ops: The Line is another. We decide to enter Dubai, we decide to use the white phosphorous and game chastises us for how we play the game. Those choices wouldn’t be there in a non-interactive medium.

To take away the thing that separates games from all other media makes sense, so we should stop game-movies, right?

HOWEVER…

Before we decide that, let me show you a few things.

The Defence of Video Games – The Last Question

Books have been a main source of adaptation since the inception of filmmaking. The Bible, Shakespeare, Dickens, Christie; several key books and authors have been successfully transposed from page to screen. Heck, Chuck Palahniuk is on record as saying the film version of Fight Club is better than his book.

So, we can all agree that book to movie’s work. And believe it or not, there are some books to games. A non-interactive media working in an interactive one. Let’s look at some examples.

  1. I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream

i_have_no_mouth_and_i_must_scream

One of the best science-fiction stories ever written, Harlan Ellison’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi story is a slim tome, I think it’s around ten pages. And they managed to make it into a sprawling hours-long adventure game. Reading it again and again, I’m surprised they managed to make this short story, one with not a lot of character backstory or traditional narrative, into a game, but they did and they managed to create what is regarded as an actual mature game, when mature meant dealing with themes such as sexual assault and the Holocaust (see the link below), rather than mature meaning an 18 Rating and lots of blood.

Harlan Ellison worked on the script with the creators (showing that getting people who care about the property makes it better) and it while it is technical ‘sequel’ and throws out a couple of the themes, it’s thought to be one of the best point-and-click games ever created.

  1. Metro 2033

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I got to read Metro 2033 before I played the game, surprising how it came out in the United Kingdom the same year as the game did. The Metro series, written by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky tells the story of people living in the Moscow Metro system (partly designed as the Soviet Union’s nuclear bomb shelter) twenty years after a nuclear war.

The game follows the same story of the book fairly closely. Players/readers follow Artyom as he travels from one side to the other trying to save his station while encountering hostile humans and supernatural enemies. In the game we get all the main characters from the book, like Bourbon and Khan as well as some of the minute details such as staring down the Librarians or the mummified lady in the ticket booth. I guess this is what happens when the writer of the book helps write the game.

  1. Rainbow Six

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Much like Metro, I read Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six before I played the original game (which sold 25m copies when it was released). There has only been one R6 novel, and while the newer games have made their own stories, the first game stuck extremely close to the novel, with missions directly lifted from the novel. It’s not even a run-and-gun shooter. Violence is to be feared in Rainbow Six, where one stray bullet can kill you, something which the book emphasised heavily. And again, just like the two cases before, Tom Clancy not only helped develop the game but was one of the founders of the company that made it, Red Storm.

Closing Arguments

So what’s my point? Well, if a book can be turned into a film and be successful (LOTR, Harry Potter etc.) and a book can be turned into a game and be successful (the three above, as well as The Witcher and Parasite Eve) why can’t a game into movie work? A book into game shows a non-interactive media working in interactive, so that dispels the usual video-game-to-film argument that the film would just be gameplay footage.

Heck, most games have equivalent films. Tomb Raider is Indiana JonesAssassin’s Creed is both The Matrix and The Mask Of ZorroRainbow Six is Sicario (not to mention the five other Tom Clancy films, showing that his action can work in all three mediums). This is what I meant in my original article about choosing a correct property, something that would work as a film, not Angry Birds or bloody Tetris. A follow up argument might be, “well why do we need video-game films if other films do it the exact same?” That’s a non-argument. Every slasher film has pretty much the same story, but we watch it to see the new things added to it.

Tetris
Why is this a thing? Do not go see it, I beg all of you. Don’t go even as a joke.

And if we want to look at it the other way, we can. Several games have been turned into books, and not just concept art books or behind-the-scenes. Max Payne 3 had a three-comic series written by Sam Lake and Dan Houser which fits right into the series. Halo, Splinter Cell (a Tom Clancy property) and Assassin’s Creed (which was also based off a novel, Alamut) have all jumped from games into book form and are well-received by their fan-bases. The new Tomb Raider comics had Rhianna Pratchett and Gail Simone (the latter being comic writer of Deadpool, Wonder Woman and Batgirl). That’s an interactive media moving into non-interactive.

And to finish, there is a long-running game series known as S.T.A.L.K.E.R., which is set around the nuclear site at Chernobyl. And before it was made into a game, it was a book before being turned into a play, another book and even a tabletop role-playing game. The creators managed to move between all those types of media, both interactive and non-interactive. But the main thread I want to bring up was the film that was based on the same text. The film is called Stalker (that’s where the game got the name from). And do you know who made that film? Andrei flippin’ Tarkovsky, one of the premier filmmakers to ever come out of the Soviet Union. That film is ranked 29th at the BFI’s ’50 Greatest Films Of All Time’.

While the game is much more bang-bang-shooty than the film, which is a 163-minute philosophical breakdown, the New York Review of Books still said that, “…much of the players activity is oddly in-keeping with Stalker‘s spirit, sometimes even managing to expand upon it.” And while NYRoB says, “…on the face of it, the games don’t have much that in common with the film,” S.T.A.L.K.E.R. isn’t just defined by it’s shooting. Again, it’s one of those games that it’s gameplay might be boring if it were beamed straight into a theatre, but moving away from that might create a great film. I never said that game-films had to stick to their gameplay, but it’s knowing which gameplay can translate into movie action well.

So, let me put that question to you again. If a book can be turned into a critically and commercially successful film and a book can be turned into a critically and commercially successful game, why can’t a game be turned into a critically and commercially successful film?

Argue with me in comments if you have a reason why it wouldn’t work.

How To Make A Good Video Game Film

So, 16% on Rotten Tomatoes for Assassin’s Creed eh?  And after seeing it myself, I can whole heartedly agree. Seeing as we are all disappointed after Warcraft, Ratchet And Clank (remember Ratchet And Clank came out in 2016? No you didn’t, because nobody went to see it) and now Assassin’s Creed, I’ve decided to help Hollywood and the rest of cinema out. As a film fanatic and a gamer, I have been hoping for a good video game adaptation for a LONG time. And while some have come close, none of them ever become worldwide smashes. So, I have devised the four major points of how to get a video game film going in the right direction. Directors and producers, when you approach a video game film, feel free to use this as a tick list to make sure you are on course.

1.Know Your Source Material (And Whether It’s A Good Choice)

To truly understand a book you are adapting, it is widely accepted that you read it multiple times. Why are video games any different? Sure, some games range from four to forty hours, but you don’t even have to play the whole thing. Watch a Let’s Play, or if that’s still too hard, have someone in the crew play it and give you a highlight reel of moments.

You wouldn’t try and make a film adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings if you had only read the blurb and if you’re serious about adapting it, you should know the lore and story of your game. I’m not a huge fan of Halo, but I really enjoyed Halo: Legends because the creators knew the source material. They took the time to learn the lore of the galaxy and world and didn’t deviate from it, creating some exciting action anime fights.

Knowing your game also means knowing whether it is a good property to adapt. Usually this means having a game with a narrative, as you don’t have to faff about with devising a new script. Tomb Raider, good. Silent Hill, good. Warcraft, promising. Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, Tetris, FNAF, terrible, terrible, terrible. 

  1. Understand Your Source Material (What Makes It Successful)

Now that you’ve invested time into learning about your video game, you now need to understand why that video game has fans and is widely celebrated. For example, I give you Hitman.

The appeal of Hitman is simple. A stylish man heads to exotic locales, kills usually the maximum of one person in an understated manner and then leaves without anyone knowing he was ever there. Understanding Hitman means that you know this is the gold standard for play, and that unnecessary killing, especially spectacular explosions where everyone in the surrounding area becomes aware of you is seen as the worst and wrong way to play Hitman. Yet both Hitman films have gone down the explosions and gun-battles route because it’s “easier”. To some the proper way to play Hitman may not seem cinematic enough. In response, I would offer up 2010’s The American of how to do a Hitman-esque film and it to still be entertaining.

For another example, Max Payne. The fun in Max Payne comes from the slow-motion action and the over-the-top hardboiled detective genre. The film didn’t include either of those, with terrible slow-motion effects and a dull script. They took the two things that separated Max Payne apart in the video game world and didn’t add an ounce of them into the film. A film that would be a good template is John Woo’s Hard Boiled.

And I obviously don’t need to talk about Super Mario Bros and why that failed.

  1. Get People Who Are Enthusiastic About The Project (And Dismiss Those Who Aren’t)

I know films have a limited budget, but you can at least try and get people who are interested or have investment in the film. I’ve been critical of Warcraft, but at least Duncan Jones was passionate about his film. Another one would be Christophe Gans, the director of the first Silent Hill (which in my opinion is the best video game based film so far). Gans went out of his way to make sure it was as true to the game as possible, even recreating shots from memorable sections. Actors can also help the film, such as Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft. Jolie wanted to do the stunts for real and worked with the filmmakers to create some amazing action scenes (go back and watch Tomb Raider II before you dismiss me, some of those are great action sequences). And most of us will sit through the turgid Street Fighter for oodles of Raul Julia. Passion from the filmmakers makes things watchable.

Don’t get people who aren’t going to invest time or effort or think video games aren’t worth it. Mark Whalberg loved the original script for Max Payne but became wary after learning it was based on a game. Skip Woods looks like he hasn’t played any of the Hitman franchise before writing the scripts to BOTH Hitman films. And it seems Uwe Boll just uses the name of the games he adapts to generate interest, rather than create anything remotely connected to the games. This type of bounty-hunter approach to filmmaking needs to stop.

  1. STICK AT IT

I’ve been hearing over and over again from many facets of both the film world and the geek world that video game movies should just stop. We got our hopes up that 2016 would be the year where video games films started achieving critical success from both fans AND critics, but we were once again left saddened at what could have been.

But we mustn’t shut video game films down. The only way to get good is to persevere. Let’s look at superheroes. Comic book/superhero films are dominating the box office nowadays, but they weren’t always a massive success, critically or commercially. Another geek touchstone, Star Wars. We had to get through two terrible Star Wars films to get back to good ones (yes, two. Phantom Menace is entertaining). Video games are a young medium. Superman was introduced nearly eighty years ago; the superhero genre has had a while to simmer before becoming the hottest property in Hollywood. Lord Of The Rings was almost a century old before that got the full cinematic approach. Games as a cultural phenomenon have had only a fraction of that time; they will have their moment any day now.

So, do you think they are any legitimately good video game films? Are you waiting for a singular property to get the silver screen treatment? Or should we all just drop them and never speak of video games and movies again?

Banner picture courtesy of cbcnews.ca.

Thoughts On The New Tomb Raider Film

After months of speculation, with names coming and going and the writers and directors being announced, we finally have our next big screen version of Lara Croft; Alicia Vikander. But let’s go back half a year and see the beginning of the third Tomb Raider film and the names that are already connected to it.

Ever since October time in 2015, when the first proper rumours announced of a return to the film screen (MGM bought the rights in 2013 but only in 2015 had they started making moves). The studio, obviously wanting to mimic last year’s Suffragette (a film notable for the main crew being entirely women) started canvassing for female directors. Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), Mimi Leder (Deep Impact, Pay It Forward) and Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight) were all brought up as possible directors for the film. Out of those three I would have gone Bigelow, she would have drawn in crowds.

In the end, a fairly unknown Norwegian director, Roar Uthaug, was brought in to direct around November 2015. I researched his film, The Wave, to see what he could bring to the film. The Wave is a Norwegian disaster film about a giant-tsunami destroying a small town in a Norwegian fjord and has received critical acclaim (it was even submitted for Best Foreign Film Oscar). If Tomb Raider 2013 (what they’re basing the film on) was anything, it was destruction and just from the trailer, The Wave looks like a perfect audition.

Just a side-note, many people managed to confuse The Wave with The 5th Wave, a frankly rubbish YA film starring Chloe-Grace Moretz. They have similar names but they are not the same film. Similar to how people managed to confuse The Room (honestly the worst film ever made) with Room (one of the best films of 2016).

The script-writer has already been brought on as well. Geneva Robertson-Dworet, (Transformers: The Last Knight, Blacklist) is penning the script, following the tradition of female writers of Tomb Raider (Vicky Arnold for TR2 and Rihanna Pratchett for TR 2013). Hopefully Robertson-Dworet will find some inspiration from Pratchett’s 2013 work, but change where appropriate. The “First Kill” arc (where Lara kills her first human and starts to uncontrollably sob, but then five minutes later is mowing down enemies like Rambo) would be a good place to deviate. It would turn into parody if the film went the same way as the games, but it could be a glorious high stab at violence and brutality and what it does to a person if they film it right. And last point about the games, they damn better put some Lara/Sam in there. I, along with a large amount of 2013’s player base did not put so much investment into that relationship for it to not feature in the film.

Lara vs Lara
The new film will focus less of the action girl (right) and more of the survivor plotline (left). Source: imgur.com.

And finally, just a few weeks ago, Alicia Vikander was announced to play Lara Croft. Before her announcement, all bets were on Daisy Ridley. Yes, Ridley was great in Star Wars VII and looked a lot like LC, and with her telling the Hollywood Reporter that she had been in talks to play the part, it looked almost certain that she would be cast. I had my reservations however. Ridley had only been in bit parts before jumping into Star Wars. I thought maybe trying to helm two franchises might be a bit much for one relative newcomer.

Compare her to another Star Wars alumni Harrison Ford, or another actress Jennifer Lawrence. Sure, both of them have held two major franchises before, but in between they did other contained work (Apocalypse Now and Blade Runner for Ford, The House At the End Of The Street and anything David O. Russell for Lawrence). That’s what I think Ridley needs, instead of another blockbuster, she could build a reputation for smaller, indie work. Sadly, deep down I knew my #1 choice, Camilla Luddington (the voice and motion-capture for Lara in the games) would not be chosen due to her less-known status (unless you watch Greys Anatomy). But as soon as Vikander was chosen, I knew it was a good shout.

Alicia Vikander HQ photo
Our next Lara, Alicia Vikander on the left. Render of Lara from Rise Of The Tomb Raider on the right. Source: filmonic.com.

Vikander has only really come onto the mainstream scene recently. Despite performing since 2006, many people haven’t seen her work. I first saw her in 2012’s A Royal Affair, but you may have seen her in one of the six films she was in back in 2015. If you want a good base for her work, I suggest A Royal Affair, Ex Machina and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. That trio will show off action, drama and romance and several flourishes of what Vikander may bring to Lara. If you really want to you can go see The Danish Girl but her performance wasn’t anything particularly special. Also, keep an eye out for her in the new Jason Bourne, although how “hands-on” (i.e. breaking people faces) she will be is unknown.

So, we’ve got around a couple of years until we see the third Tomb Raider in cinemas (at the time of writing it was a 2017/18 release date). And with Duncan Jones’ Warcraft and Justin Kurzel’s Assassins Creed coming out later in 2016, are we seeing a tipping point for video games? If anything, Vikander will bring a strong performance and it’s always nice to see Gaming’s First Lady back in the limelight.

P.S. In TR 2013 there was this scene…

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Source: kotaku.com.

This is a scene ripped directly from 2001’s horror film The Descent. Just something interesting, I wonder if they put it back in the TR film. Film imitating games imitating film?

 

Banner Picture. Source: Google Images.

Thoughts On The Assassins Creed Film/Trailer

The first teaser trailer for the Assassins Creed film came out last night morning and as both a connoisseur of film and a fan of the games (up until Assassins Creed III, because that’s when it went too far into stupid territory) I thought I would give my thoughts on the trailer and then general ideas about the film and casting.

First, roll call of the men and women involved in bringing Assassins Creed to the cinema. Kurzel, Fassbender, Cotiallard, Kurzel (again?), Arkapaw and finally Kyd. To most people, they are just a load of names, so let’s break it down.

  1. Justin Kurzel. The director of Assassins Creed. Director of 2015’s Macbeth (prepare to see that film pop up a lot in the following paragraph) my number one film of 2015.
  2. Michael Fassbender. The main star. To see his best work, I recommend Hunger, Shame (if you’re feeling up for it) and 12 Years A Slave (all by Steve McQueen). Also Macbeth.
  3. Marion Cotillard. The first female role in the trailer. To see more of her work, look for the Edith Piaf musical biopic La Vie En Rose or if that ain’t your thing watch her work in Public Enemies. Also Macbeth.
  4. Jed Kurzel. The composer. Brother to director Justin. His best work includes Kodi Smit-Pchee and Fassbender’s Slow West last year. Also Macbeth.
  5. Adam Arkapaw. The cinematographer (aka the guy who makes the film look like it does). Responsible for the camera work in season one of True Detective and THAT six-minute long take (WARNING: Contains strong language and violence). Also Macbeth.
  6. Jesper Kyd. The other composer (although for Assassins Creed he’s in the “music department”). Composer of the AC games from the first through to Revelations and the superb Hitman game scores. Sadly no ties to Macbeth.

I could stop writing there. Six names. Damn good pedigree and an exciting intellectual property. Let’s look at the trailer.

 

Done? Okay. Let’s talk.

The Assassins Creed trailer is how you do a trailer. Oh yeah, there are problems with it, but what a trailer should do is tell you the story, not the plot. To see of a film that does the reverse, look at the trailer for The Double. It gave away its twist long before it was ever in theatres. What does Assassins Creed do? We learn about the Animus, Michael Fassbender’s double lead role, his abilities as an Assassin and our setting, but what have we learnt about the plot? Nothing.

The trailer is giving us the nice blend of the things that made Assassins Creed the series it now is. Hack-and-slash combat, free-running across exotic rooftops, a brooding misery-guts under the hood and some bonkers modern day stuff involving sinister corporations. It’s got the iconography down; the eagle, the colourful rooftop base-jumping (Spain here is represented by Malta), the mantras of the Assassins and the signature Leap of Faith at the end. According to Fassbender, that move is a real guy and a real stunt, “We’ve got [stuntman] Damien Walters doing a 120-foot leap of faith, without any rope, into a bag.” If the rest of the parkour-infused set pieces are practical as well then this will definitely be one to watch just for the stunts alone. Malta is also a good choice of location/filming. While big films like Captain Phillips and World War Z were filmed there, no film has shown off the architecture of the small island or it’s capital Valetta.

From the clips, the film looks great. Arkapaw is earning his name as one of the greatest cinematographers alive today with the compositions. The fights look to be wide-angle shots with good choreography, so hopefully the rest of the film doesn’t mirror something akin to the fights in Quantum of Solace. There will obviously be handheld camerawork for some fights (ever since Paul Greengrass popularised it in The Bourne Supremacy it will feature in every film with a fight scene) but hopefully most will keep their distance from the actors.

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Still from the trailer showing Fassbender in combat. Source: Games Radar.

The Animus was a sticking point for me. To any who don’t know, the Animus is a machine that when you are plugged in, you can jump back into the memories of your ancestors (Michael Fassbender will be playing two roles, one as Callum Lynch in the present and Aguilar the Assassin during the 1500s.) I thought this might throw a film audience. Gamers can suspend their disbelief while I think films need a bit more coercing. To anyone a bit confused, think of the Animus as similar to The Matrix. It’s a fake world that you can play around in to your hearts content. It might have been better to drop all present day stuff though. The games tried a similar double narrative and it only served to highlight how bland the present day character was in comparison to his ancestors. Eventually they did drop all pretence about a future-based war and got on with the free-running across European cities, but if the film handles it, again, like The Matrix did in the first film, it might just work.

The film moves away from the storylines of the game, which I think is for the best. The ability of the Animus is that we can have several unconnected films but they are all under the banner of Assassins Creed. I’m curious however on the choice of the Spanish Inquisition as a setting. Sure, it’s a great setting, mirroring the settings of the American War Of Independence in AC3 and the French Revolution in AC: Unity. But the choice of the Inquisition, the 1500s, mirrors the timeline of the “Ezio Auditore trilogy” three games following Italian Assassin Ezio Auditore during the Italian Renaissance. There is also a rumour of a Caribbean Assassin featuring in the film, which ties in with the Kenway Saga (which follows a grandfather to grandson storyline of the Golden Age of Piracy to the American War of Independence). If they do want to include these references to the games, I hope they keep them to a cameo at best. As a fan I want Assassins Creed to draw in more people than the games ever could and I think these titbits might detract from the story at play here.

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Will the other Assassins appear in the film? From L to R, Altair Ibn-La’ahad, Ezio Auditore, Connor Kenway, Edward Kenway, Aveline De Grandpre and Nikolai Orelov. Source: Google Images.

Lastly, that trailer music. Ugh. The AC series is known for it’s rather excellent musical choices for it’s trailers (Justice for AC2, Imagine Dragons for AC3 and Nils Frahm for Unity) but here we have Kanye West. Remember this is a teaser to start with and it’s more a marketing decision rather than a reflection of the film. Let’s wait until the next one, it can only get better.

And to end, I’ll rank my list of Assassins Creed games. Note: I have only played up until AC3, so everyone shouting “B-but Black Flag…”, I haven’t had a game system for a while, so calm down.

  1. Assassins Creed 2
  2. Assassins Creed Revelations (mainly for the city and multiplayer)
  3. Assassins Creed (best combat of the entire series and the Arabian setting was interesting. Also you actually assassinated people)
  4. Assassins Creed Brotherhood (felt like a step back after AC2 and a terrible story. This is where is became less about the assassinating and more about faffing about)
  5. Assassins Creed III (the only redeeming thing about it was the tomahawk combat)

 

Cover photo source: Google Images.