Hard Project: Adventure Time
If you haven’t seen Adventure Time yet, go do that now. The first two seasons are on Netflix, you have no excuse. Do what you have to do. Shove someone down a flight of stairs if you have to! Except probably not that, because that’s kind of an awful thing to do, and Adventure Time is a show that is generally against doing awful things like shoving people down flights of stairs. Unless they really want you to and they’re cool with it.
Where was I? Right, Adventure Time, which is absolutely wonderful. It’s a fun show. It’s got fun comics. It’s got a few games, and only one of those has produced a non-tepid response. That’s a bit weird, seeing as how the show has been running for long enough that there’s lead time for some development and a lot of creative people really like this show. There’s every reason for it to be successful, and yet the games just don’t stand up. So why is that? What’s keeping us from having a totally sweet Adventure Time video game?
Atmosphere and action
There are no hard and fast rules about where an episode of Adventure Time can or will go. Episodes frequently start in the middle of the plot, some of them don’t end so much as they just stop at an arbitrary point, often hinging on sudden reveals that the audience had no reason to expect beforehand which the characters were fully aware of. It’s part of what makes the whole thing such madcap fun; you know that you’re going on a ride, but you have no idea where it’s going to go, and the conclusions may very well wind up dramatically at odds with the tone of the episode to that point.
None of this is a problem when you have an episode that lasts for ten minutes, or when you have a comic that packs in a sudden swerve every few pages. A game is a different matter. Sure, you can have a series of minigames strung together with nothing more than an excuse plot, but that isn’t quite the right fit for the series or the way that storytelling is handled in it. Everything winds up being connected, it’s just frequently reliant upon connections and tonal elements that we as the audience see as shocking swerves. There’s a sort of pre-adolescent logic at work, like playing a tabletop game with your younger sibling. Axe Cop with grounding, perhaps.
This doesn’t make a game impossible, but it does pose a unique set of challenges. It means that rather than just designing a single game with a straightforward feel and thrust, you really have to create a flexible framework, give the game enough space to produce a variety of different feels and pull sudden swerves out of its hat.
Doing that is tricky, especially since there’s a lot of stuff that would sort of require more aggressive exploitation from a video game. In the show, we don’t ask why Finn and Jake regularly leave worthwhile artifacts and the like to one side; it’s the self-contained nature of the beast. In the game, this stuff accumulates. Which leads to the next problem…
A question of genre
Lots of franchises don’t translate purely to a given game genre. The problem with Adventure Time isn’t quite that, though. It does translate quite well to a given genre, except for the fact that the genre in question works against its own premise.
See, in both narrative and structural terms, Adventure Time wants to be an RPG. The problem is that despite all of Finn’s adventures, he never really develops all that much. He doesn’t get stronger in significant ways, despite going through several adventures that logically should be a lot stronger than when the series started. That’s how the whole RPG thing works, you face a whole lot of trials to become stronger in the end. And Finn even treats his various adventures in that light, saying multiple times that this is when he’ll become a real big hero.
He doesn’t. Or, more accurately, he is right from the start of the series. His adventures didn’t really make him substantially bigger or stronger, it was always mostly a matter of him respecting himself as a hero. None of his various heroic upgrades actually change what he’s capable of doing past a single episode, partly because the show runs on his continual quest to be the big hero that the world needs or whatever.
It’s a fine premise, and the show manages itself very well in that regard, but it also means that it runs into some problems when you’re trying to make the show work as a game. Part of the fun of RPGs is that you can learn to do new things, get better over time, and so forth. Adventure Time has good reason to subvert it, but it tends to make the game less satisfying. Similarly, that constant spill is part of what makes the show itself work, so just removing it changes the tone notably.
Aw, does it matter?
I think the biggest problem here is simply that there’s no reason for anyone to be worried about making a great Adventure Time game. All anyone really needs to make is an Adventure Time game that’s good enough and features the voice cast and the usual writers.
I know that there are many people who would love to have a really great game with the characters, actors, and writing you’d expect from the show. But they’ll settle for a mediocre game with all of the show elements. That’ll sell. People will buy it. And even if the game is kind of aimless or uninspiring, well, it’ll be good enough to make it to the end, right? Why fret about the details, dude, the important thing is that the game captures the right spirit and then we can move on.
That’s what it comes down to, ultimately. Making a great game is really hard. Making an all right game is a lot easier, and you can do it a lot more consistently. So spend most of your money on the stuff people will pay to come see, and while it might not make for a great game experience in the long term, it’s going to be enough to sell tickets and get butts in the metaphorical seats, right?
No, I don’t like it, and I’d rather see a really good game based on this franchise instead of yet another Zelda game. But it is what it is.