Cliffy Bomb!

The past couple of years have been quite a ride for Cliffy B, the bad boy of game design, with the launch of Lawbreakers and it’s lukewarm reception to the attempt to chase the Battle Royale trend with Radical Heights.

So, before we get into this… for people who don’t know lets talk for a moment about who Cliff Bleszinski is. He has a relatively long history in game design going back to one of his first games released in 1994 called Jazz Jackrabbit which at the time reminded me of an emotionally broken Bubsy who went full Rambo. The biggest claims to fame on his resume are his extensive work on the Unreal and Unreal Tournament Series games which can be credited with really kicking off the Arena Shooter genre. The other jewels in his crown are the Gears of War games which were, the first two anyway, massive hits for Microsoft and the Xbox consoles. Outside of the early Unreal games my personal favorite that he was responsible for was the title Bulletstorm and, that really is going to bring us to the point of why I’m even writing this. About a year ago they released a remastered version of the game and the difference in the launch trailers from the original to the new one I think illustrates something about the mentality of the developer.

Here is the original launch trailer from seven years ago.

Here is the Full Clip Edition launch trailer from last year.

If you look at those and then say, “Well, sure, they’re playing up all the new features of the game while the original trailer had to sell it as a new IP.” You would absolutely be correct. The funny thing about that original launch trailer was just how much it ignored the real selling point of the title which was the rough edged dirty humor and over the top violence codified in their Skillshot mechanic. I actually thought, unlike a lot of people apparently, that the narrative of the game was a decent selling point but looking at Cliffy B’s most recent development efforts it clearly wasn’t what he wanted to sell about Bulletstorm. Especially apparent by the fact that one of the earliest jokes in the game includes the phrase, “Murder boner” which is a pretty accurate setup for the tone of the overall game. The comedy was something of a minor sticking point for people as many rightly viewed it as juvenile attempts to see how many different words they could hyphenate with -dick. I certainly can’t argue against that but however you felt about it that was part of the core fun of the game, ridiculous, over the top and at times beautifully nonsensical. It was a pure expression of a game that was just there to entertain whatever audience it garnered to its fullest potential, which I think is as legitimate a goal in game design as any other. A  focus on the entertainment value of a game can often avoid the pitfalls with getting bogged down in the weight of your own narrative.

Anyways, fast forward to present day where Cliffy’s most recent offerings have been a bit puzzling and with the recent announcement that his current studio, Boss Key, was shutting down it had me thinking about what led them here. A couple of years ago we got to see an E3 trailer for a new game called Lawbreakers which appeared to be positioning itself as an edgier, more hardcore version of Overwatch. Certainly their subsequent gameplay trailers like the Between Our Guns started sporting that much more explicit edge and the Skilled AF which asked if you were even good enough to play in the first place. For anyone who was a big enough video game fan in the late 90’s or early 00’s this should sound eerily familiar to John Romero’s hilarious attempt at an edgy marketing campaign for Daikatana.

Daikatana

Just in case you’re not sure, yes, it does actually say “Suck It Down” on the bottom center there next to the EIDOS logo. Thanks John, I’ll never forget you.

These trailers are also coupled with the media tour that Cliff did for the game which had him hyping up core aspects which he felt would be important to potential consumers come launch time. Going back and comparing some of the interviews even for Bulletstorm to Lawbreakers was somewhat eyeopening because of the shift in their overall tone and intent.

In an interview with Games Radar you can listen to Cliffy talk about the fun and entertaining design behind Bulletstorm and how they were trying to get away from the gritty, dour military shooters which dominated the FPS market. He also appreciates a question from the interviewer about how even in games like Gears of War there were still softer emotional moments for the characters.

Well first off I appreciate you mentioning that because a lot of people assume Gears is this big testosterone fest but we try to pace the story so it actually has some slightly softer moments… …. But with regards to Bulletstorm it’s more over the top than Gears but it has it’s moments where the characters get to know each other and it does have these great emotional peaks and valleys which we haven’t really spoiled too much of what happens but you never know who is gonna die or live in a given game campaign.

Versus quotes from his Lawbreakers media tour when you got things like

There is blood in it and people explode and they curse. Y’know, I wanna be, I wanna be the rated R version for all these rated PG shooters.

Whats funny to me about that quote is that it almost perfectly sums up the entirety of Bulletstorm and yet for the life of me I can’t remember it being sold that way during their pre-release press tours. He certainly spoke about the Skillshot mechanics and its overall irreverent take on violence that a lot of the more mainstream shooters treated with a more somber tone but the centerpiece of his talking points remained the entertainment. Lawbreakers and the consumer pitch seemed to be squarely aimed at the concept that it was only for the most hardcore of competitive shooter fans. A move which seems decidedly strange given what the competitive shooter scene looks like and has looked like for much of the last decade. Especially when you consider the place of Arena Shooters in that picture which have garnered little more than small nostalgia based communities around their current releases. Not exactly a market that is begging for a new IP branded as meant for the hardest of hardcore competitive players and of those only the ones interested in a specific game-type. This tactic seems to utterly ignore the fact that one of the largest hurdles for new IPs is appealing to a wide enough audience in order to build a sustainable community. Not to mention the additional hurdles of establishing a new multiplayer only IP that is being marketed to an already tiny sub-demographic of gamers. Additionally the poor decision was made to release the game on a date close to when their target demographic would be returning to school and within a few weeks of Destiny 2 launching. Whatever it was that led Cliff and the leaders at Boss Key to make those decisions they can’t really be ignored when discussing the eventual closing of the studio.

After a release that garnered less than 5,000 concurrent players on Steam for launch day Lawbreakers was at best a game that earned a DOA tag with flying colors. Although possibly the saddest aspect of the entire confusing road to its release was at the center the game wasn’t actually all that bad. It was a bit buggy, it wasn’t nearly as hardcore skill intensive as it was sold and it didn’t revolutionize the shooter genre upon arrival but at its base level it was a game worth the $30 asking price. That realization more than any other cemented for me just how ill advised this genre entry was and how detrimental the marketing campaign for it truly was.

A lot of the time when people write articles like this or break down decisions after the fact it always easy to undercut the arguments with sentiments like, “Hindsight is always 20/20.” which isn’t completely unfair. I think however its important to remember that while things are clearer in hindsight I do believe its pretty plain to see the very avoidable pitfalls Boss Key and Cliffy stumbled into on their way to releasing Lawbreakers. Personally looking back on Cliffy’s contributions to gaming overall I have a lot of respect for the work he has done but as it stands right now all that really does is make the current stumbles seem all the more painful from a fan perspective.

I’m going to cut this off here and pick it up tomorrow with Part 2 where I’ll discuss the second release from Boss Key, Radical Heights, the flaws with its conception and the continuing baffling decisions made by Cliff and his studio. In addition Cliff has begun releasing concept art for some other games he had been hoping to release with the now defunct studio and why I think it offers some important context in regards to the failure of Lawbreakers and Radical Heights.

For now, have a great rest of your day and happy gaming!

  • Non-Washable

 

 

Games on the Silver Screen: Mortal Kombat

mortal-kombat-logo-B3759D730B-seeklogo.com

The above symbol for anyone who was around in the 90’s, even if they weren’t involved  in video games, should be pretty familiar. There is a rather storied history with this franchise including a series of court cases which led to the creation of the ESRB – Entertainment Software Rating Board. In spite of the controversy surrounding it the series went on to spawn more than twenty games and various movies as well as a smaller live-action series released on YouTube. In addition to that it’s also had a fairly successful comic book run which was going as recent as 2015. Many people may rightfully question how something as shallow as a fighting game could warrant so many retellings in story based mediums. Outside of the brutal and sometimes hilarious ways you can dispatch your opponents in the game there actually exists an impressively robust story explaining the games many characters. For the sake of some form of brevity I will spare you the lengthy version of that lore and give you the basic rundown from the game so we can compare to the eventual movie.

What You Need To Know

The universe of Mortal Kombat is made up of different “Realms” which are actually distinct planets instead of separate planes of existence. In the actual lore the number of realms is actually closer to 15-20 but for the sake of simplicity these are all we’re going to see in the movie.

  • Outworld – A purplish barren wasteland pockmarked by pools of acid, deserts and even the occasional lush forest it is the home of most of the series prominent antagonists. It is technically the amalgamation of a few different realms that Outworld’s Emperors have conquered, but thats for another time.
  • NetherrealmHell.
  • Earthrealm – Pretty much what you would think from the name. It’s the Earth realm, an Earth so close to our own that the distinction seems unnecessary. I guess they have more magic than we do, whatever.

The Mortal Kombat Tournament –

Mortal Kombat was set up by the Elder Gods of this universe after Outworld went on a conquering spree and became much too powerful for other realms to effectively stand up to them. The rules of the tournament however extend to any realm who wishes to invade another. Once a generation the two competing realms send their champions to a single elimination tournament to fight for supremacy. When there is only one left standing they are crowned champion until the next generation when the competition happens again. If one of the competing realms can attain ten straight victories then they may invade the losing realm.

Er, yeah. Try not to think about it too much, this is all based on a fighting game after all.

Who You Need To Know

So lets get to know our all-star cast who will be punching, kicking and, quipping their way to victory.

First up is the rather incredible introduction to our main villain, Shang Tsung.

Shang Tsung

Shang Tsung Wants You! To Join the Mortal Kombat Tournament.

On the left there we have the Outworld sorcerer and all-around soul sucker Shang Tsung portrayed by the incredible Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. Shang Tsung in the name of Shao Kahn the Emperor of Outworld, who you’ll see only glimpses of, is on the brink of making Earthrealm yet another in a long line of conquered planets.

Our scowling villain and his champion Goro (Not the kid in red.) have managed to win nine consecutive tournaments against Earthrealm prior to the events of the movie and first game. Shang Tsung has set plans in motion to lure a couple unwitting participants to the tournament so he can secure a guaranteed tenth win. Earth stands on the brink of invasion and it’s up to our heroes to save the day.

First up is Liu Kang who was raised a Chinese Shaolin fighting monk specializing mainly in Jeet Kun Do and Kung Fu. Also he’s been having some restless nights recently.

Liu Kang

If you’re getting a strong Bruce Lee vibe don’t worry, it’s not just you.

Liu Kang, played by Robin Shou, was raised as a member of the White Lotus Society who trained fighters specifically to compete in Mortal Kombat for the defense of Earthrealm. In the movie Liu Kang left the monastery and moved to America as he didn’t believe in the legends and wanted his own life. The catalyst for him returning was due to the boy in red with Shang Tsung, his brother Chan Kang. Desperate to bring down the man responsible the journey would eventually land Liu Kang front and center at the tournament.

Next up is the no-shit taking law enforcement officer, Lieutenant Sonya Blade. In the movie she works special forces for an undisclosed agency and is introduced along with a brief interaction with her partner, Jax, another character from the game.

Sonya Blade

Lt. Sonya Blade, portrayed by Bridgette Wilson, is pursuing a criminal by the name of Kano (Also from the game) who is responsible for the murder of her previous partner. In the film Kano has been recruited by Shang Tsung to lure Sonya to the tournament grounds under the guise of fleeing justice. Once there she will have to enter the tournament representing Earthrealm for her shot at vengeance.

Note: I just want to note how hilariously awful the flashlight mounts for those shotguns are. Really props department, really? I too can stick a mag-light down some spray-painted PVC pipe and call it a day.

Finally our cast of heroes is rounded out by Johnny Cage, a highly trained and exceptionally skilled martial artist who is seeking for ways to prove his legitimacy on the world stage…

Johnny Cage

… Because in reality he’s an action movie star who is constantly accused of his skill on screen being all thanks to special effects and good editing. With his ego and reputation on the line Johnny Cage, portrayed by Linden Ashby, is eager for any chance to prove that he isn’t a pretender. Shang Tsung takes advantage of this by using his sorcerous powers to pose as Cage’s former mentor offering a chance to compete in a tournament that would remove all doubt of his true skill. Cage accepts and finally our three heroes are on a course to defend Earthrealm.

While more of a “hands off” participant in the tournament I do want to take a moment to introduce Raiden the Eternal God of Thunder who is the protector of Earthrealm.

Raiden

If he’s the protector of the realm then why isn’t he fighting for it? Simple answer is that Raiden, portrayed by Christopher Lambert, is more of the guy who enforces the rules but doesn’t really get into the nitty-gritty of it. Instead he helps recruit the fighters who will do the actual defending. His movie role centers on convincing the three heroes that there is more going on than they understand or may believe. Once they’re on board Raiden is there to protect them from Shang Tsung’s scheming and help guide them through the tournament while they fight for Earthrealm’s survival.

NoteI wasn’t originally intending to include a gif of Raiden but honestly it’s one of the funniest reveals ever. Seeing the face of Christopher Lambert appear under that conical hat never ceases to make me laugh. Sorry, Highlander.

That’s the down and dirty set-up for Mortal Kombat the movie, now lets talk about how they did putting it all together.

The Review

First a quick rundown of the numbers –

Production Budget – $20m
Opening Weekend – $23m 
Domestic Gross – $70m 
International Gross – $51m 
Worldwide Gross – $122m 

 

If you’re like me those numbers were quite a shock because even as a fan of the franchise and having seen the movie when it released I remember it being cheesy and terrible. Admittedly a fun time but by no means a good movie. Those box office numbers are bordering on smash hit for the time, certainly a tidy profit. Even looking at it’s rankings on various records like New Line Cinema’s biggest opening weekends it sits at 27. For context this is the same company who produced the Lord of the Rings movies.
So how did this happen?

You’re kind of asking for trouble when you decide to take a fighting game and put it up in theaters as a feature length film. Not because a lack of lore fluff to work with but rather because the general mentality will lean towards action heavy and story light meaning no substance. Or someone will decide that they’ll be the ones to really show the mythology behind the game and make an unnecessarily narrative heavy feature that ends up being boring or worse, incomprehensible. Or both.

What strikes me as truly strange about Mortal Kombat is that Paul W.S. Anderson actually did neither of those things. The story is actually faithful within reason to the lore of the first game and any changes that were made were really only a result of having to flesh it out into actual dialogue and action. Some obvious limitations because of the PG-13 rating but a rated R movie based on a video game was going to exclude most of your potential audience so again reasonable changes to be made.

Just take a look at the trailer for this movie.

Seeing that again makes me want to go watch it and believe me I say that having already watched it several times putting together this review. In fact it’s playing on my other monitor as I write this. I’m actually amazed at how good that trailer is at doing everything it needed to for such a hard to market movie. It explains a story that has no right to make sense in such a short amount of time for people who don’t know what it is. It hits on every note, including cleverly used game audio, to energize gamers so they’ll be excited to go see it. It’s also got just enough Enter the Dragon vibes to garner attention from Kung Fu Genre fans who might see it on a lark.

In my initial post about video game inspired movies I made the argument that one of the major flaws is directors and writers feeling the need to put their own stamp on an already existing IP. This inability to put their ego aside undermines the appeal to the core audience who will pay to see this film based on nothing more than the title . If you piss them off then you’ve got little else to hang your hat on. Mortal Kombat cleared that hurdle with room to spare and took off running to the finish line.

Everything seems gravy so where did it fail?

For me the true stumbling blocks for this movie laid pretty solidly in the dialogue, acting, CGI and, some aesthetic choices.

In movies like these you expect a certain amount of cheese and camp when it comes to the actors or their dialogue and as such I don’t find a lot of fault with the actors themselves. At various points in the movie you can clearly see that they can act like normal human beings when they aren’t being forced to deliver stiff and unimaginative dialogue. Actors are often put in the uncomfortable position of knowing that what they’ve been given isn’t all that good while needing to simultaneously buy into the directors vision. At a certain level actors can wield more power on set to help shape the movie and hopefully help improve the quality by working as a team with the director and writers. I’m also sure that just by virtue of the kind of movie being made that the quality of things like the dialogue and overall acting weren’t super high on the priority list.

Even more unsurprising when you consider that Mortal Kombat was the fourth movie based on a video game being preceded by –

  • Super Mario Bros – 1993
  • Double Dragon – 1994
  • Street Fighter – 1994

I can’t really blame them for not having a lot of faith in the genre.

As far as the CGI goes I’m going to use what by now is probably a tired old metric but looking at the quality of special effects in this movie and then remembering Jurassic Park came out two years prior is painful. I certainly understand that they weren’t working with with the same budgets, in fact Jurassic Park had triple what Mortal Kombat did, but then when do what they did with Reptile?

They clearly had access to very talented set and costume designers so it makes the decision to include this–

Reptile

When they probably could have designed an incredible costume with a few lizard like prosthesis for the actor that would have been much cheaper and looked much better. Additionally the insane animatronics to bring Goro to life make me question further how their version of Reptile ended up in the same movie. Obviously they wanted something that looked nothing like Sub-Zero or Scorpion and it’s hard to say that was the wrong impulse to follow in the moment without the benefit of hindsight. But given everything else they accomplished it seemed like such an avoidable misstep. Especially given that they just morph him into the much more familiar looking Reptile two-thirds of the way through.

Combined with CGI and aesthetic choices that brings me to Scorpion’s kunai-harpoon which for some bizarre reason they decided to make into an apparent symbiotic creature that lives inside his arm? This feels to me like the encroaching ego of the people in charge who can’t stop tweaking and improving on whats in front of them. I can almost hear the discussion –

“He has a harpoon, right?”

“Yeah, but thats boring. Anything we can do to punch it up?”

“Well, he’s called Scorpion so maybe he should have like a stinger?”

“Like a tail?”

“Nah like his harpoon is his scorpion stinger.”

“I like that, but it should be alive, like a creature. Be able to move on its own. And lives in his arm but comes out through his hand.”

“Uh, okay.”

I get the impulse and often have to fight allowing myself to do the same thing but hopefully continuing to talk about the concept helps others avoid the same pitfall.

Lastly on aesthetics I wanted to touch on sound design with the use of game audio and music sprinkled throughout the movie. Like I mentioned in my last post part of the appeal going to movies like this is the thrill of seeing and hearing your game come to life on the big screen. Part of that is transferring iconic action, dialogue and visuals accurately into the script in ways that don’t ask for the kudos when doing so. They should feel organic in their new setting and not stick out as the references that they are. In Mortal Kombat the first time we hear the games main theme outside of the opening credits is for a fight between our three heroes and a bunch of faceless goons. How much more impact would it have had underscoring the final conflict of the movie or one of the other major fights between named characters? They also use the phrase “Flawless Victory” a few times in painfully awkward ways and whats worse is they use it incorrectly, even outside of the context of the game.

“Flawless” implies that the victor made no mistakes during the course of the fight, that they emerged undamaged. In one case it’s used correctly but pointlessly as the defeated opponent was a faceless mook fighting Sub-Zero after which Shang Tsung basically looks into the camera and says it to the audience. Then Liu Kang says it after the final battle with Shang Tsung where he gets hit several times. I know it’s nit-picky but adaptations will live and die based on their accuracy to the source material, much of the audience were fans already for a reason. It might be controversial but I would go so far to say that accurate references and representation of the source material is almost more important than the quality for longtime fans.

I know we still get articles wondering if the latest movie based on a video game will “finally break the curse and be good” like the ones that popped up about Rampage. Overall though after going back and watching this movie, several times, I honestly have to say that I would probably recommend this movie to people who question whether or not a good one has ever been made. It is certainly a product of it’s time and I don’t think it rises above the style of Kung Fu movie its loosely based on but I can’t say that it is an objectively bad film either. It does what it set out to do in fine fashion, stayed true to the source material and gave fans a true silver screen adaptation of a video game they loved.

So a very, very belated congratulations to everyone involved. You did what is still largely considered to still be un-achieved even now by making a fantastic video game movie!

Flawless Victory

Y’know, mostly.

If you stuck around this far, thank you for reading! Took a lot longer than I thought it would to put this together but I like the result. Learned a lot about video capturing, editing, FX and a bunch of other things. Let me know what you did and didn’t like as it’ll help me decide how to improve and how much work I should put into these in the future!

Also feel free to let me know if there is a specific movie you’d like me to do next!

I’ll be back soon.

  • Non-Washable

Friday Update and Housekeeping

Hello everyone! I hope you’ve had a good Friday and are excited for the weekend to begin! I know not everyones week works the same and if you aren’t starting yours right now rest assured this message is meant for you as well, I hope your weekend arrives quickly and lasts for what feels like a lifetime.

So what is going on this week? Not a whole lot, I’ve been on vacation in Florida which means a lot of sun, socializing and eating out. I didn’t set aside quite as much time to write as I would have liked but I think I did okay with a couple of posts, I don’t think I’m really counting this housekeeping posts though as this is mostly going to be akin to my visit to a non-denominational confessional. A personal way to be accountable for the things I’ve said I would do and  for whatever reason have yet to get to, I was always taught the value of redundancy so theres no reason to quit now.

First thing thats up is the podcast which was supposed to go up yesterday, unfortunately where I am staying has surprisingly awful internet that seems to seize up midway through trying to upload almost anything. Even something as simple as getting pictures off my phone and onto my Google drive has me staring at progress bars with a level of skepticism I haven’t felt since the early 90s. So I’ve resolved to just stop fighting it and I’ll upload episode four when I’m safe back at home on Saturday evening, apologies for that but I swear to god it’ll be up on time next Thursday come hell or Floridian internet.

I am excited to sit down and watch my first video game movie to start off my retrospective on the industries history with the silver screen which requires me to choose what I’m watching first. Fortunately as always the Hollywood rumor mill is there for me and after reading this I’d say the decision has been made so I’ll be starting with Dwayne Johnson’s 2005 masterpiece, DOOM. It sort of makes sense since I was a huge fan of the most recent entry in the DOOM series from 2016 and am anxious to hear about the inevitable sequel which will hopefully be announced in some fashion at E3 this year.

Naturally being out of state meant that I wasn’t able to do even a little bit of painting this week so I’m also really antsy to get back to that, I should have an update or two to post by Tuesday or Wednesday after I get back. On the subject of minis and painting I also came across something called Fallout: Wasteland Warfare which I think is based on a mildly popular video game IP. I’m not sure I could have envisioned of a worse thing that could have released so close to Star Wars: Legion if I had tried. I have no clue about the system the game operates on or anything beyond the fact that the minis themselves look fucking awesome. I’m doing my best but I’d be lying if I didn’t say you could probably be fairly sure those will show up mixed in with my Star Wars minis at some point in the future.

Moving on!

You know whats better than one of my favorite genres and getting stuff for free? When you can get something in the Cyberpunk vein for absolutely free via the fantastic folks over at Humble Bundle. I haven’t played it yet so I can’t give it any level of a recommendation beyond the most important: FREE. Satellite Reign is a Cyberpunk themed RTS that if for nothing else has at least piqued my interest, if it does the same for you then go grab it and while you’re there maybe look around and spend a few bucks… for charity. If you’re human and despise cancer, especially the kind children have, you may also want to check out a game called I, Hope the proceeds from which Kenny Roy the developer is donating to Game Changer Charity. Something I think we can all agree is a worthy cause especially when we also get a fun little game out of it for our ever expanding backlog. Lastly if managing a cemetery or at least the very least simulating that experience has ever been on your list of life goals have I got just the thing for you, Graveyard Keeper. Lazy Bear Games has seen fit to devote their time to filling this until now under-served demographic of gamers and while it isn’t out yet I think it’s definitely something to keep an eye on, it’s due out sometime in 2018.

I also ran across a story about an Ohio College who is offering an e-sports scholarship for Fortnite players. Weird as it seems I think that is kind of cool and assuming it doesn’t tumble into the same shady exploitation schemes of other collegiate leagues, which I’m sure it will, I can see this being yet another avenue for more kids to get into college to make sure that they have a background they can draw on after their time in e-sports. Either way it goes one of the most interesting things in gaming for the last decade or more has been the evolution and general acceptance of e-sports. Seeing ESPN report on it and this most recent partnership between Kotaku and Deadspin to report on the various e-sport leagues still blows my mind.

I think thats all I’ve really got for this Friday wrap up and I can see the general format of these posts changing a bit from week to week as I sort of figure out how exactly I want them to be. I hadn’t intended to do anything like this at the beginning but I’m starting to think it would be helpful as a way to clear out stories and tidbits that don’t really require their own posts but that I still have sitting in my bookmarks.

What say you? Yay or Nay to this being a regular thing?

Till next time, happy gaming!

  • Non-Washable