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How the video game Defiance could change movies and TV for the better

Defiance could change movies and TV for the better
In entertainment, few groups are as desperate and downtrodden as fans of films and TV shows adapted from video games. They are a loyal and passionate bunch who have continually been disappointed, and yet still retain a joyfully naïve optimism based on the recent success of similar source materials, like comic books, as well as the rich and immersive content from the video games themselves that the films are taken from. Perhaps it is the movie industry that doesn’t fully understand video games, or perhaps games themselves are just inherently difficult to adapt. Whatever the excuse for films like Alone in the Dark and Double Dragon is, it seems like a new approach is in order. If nothing else, NBC and Trion’s upcoming game and companion TV show, Defiance, is unique.

There is still a stigma associated with many video game movies (and, by extension, the handful of TV shows also based on games) and it is one that is well deserved. There have been a few that could be considered decent, but from the epically bad Super Mario Bros. movie that ended the career of Rocky Morton (one of the film’s two directors) and did its absolute best to do the same for the entire cast, to the entire library of Uwe Boll’s impressively awful gaming flicks, fans have been burned so often that they are understandably wary of properties adapted from games. And yet again and again, the majority of the fanbase keeps hoping that the next film, the next adapted property, will be the one that gets it right.

But perhaps it isn’t fair to group Defiance in with other adapted video game properties. The definition of an adaptation is changing one thing to make it suitable for something else, and that is not the case with the upcoming Defiance — it is something original.

Defiance TV show

Defiance is the first of its kind, a hybrid property being developed concurrently by both Trion Games and NBC Universal’s SyFy Channel. When it is released in April of 2013, it will be two properties: an MMO third-person shooter for PC, PS3, and Xbox 360, as well as an original, ongoing TV series on the SyFy channel. The two will exist together concurrently in the same universe and attempt to create a larger story.

One of the most important things in creating a good live action adaptation from any source material is simply to make the film with the same level of respect and care that the developers of the original property had while creating it. That was the same problem comics used to face, as filmmakers would create “comic book movies” as opposed to movies that just happened to be sourced from comics. It was an important distinction that has made the difference between films like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin. That is not a problem Defiance will face, and the people behind both the show and the game will approach the property from a uniquely cooperative angle.

“It’s something we’re excited about,” Bill Trost, creative lead for Trion said. “It’s something that hasn’t really been done in that way before.”

Trost is one of several big names in their respective fields to be brought on board. A longtime gaming industry veteran, Trost was instrumental in creating the social gaming juggernaut EverQuest. That level of experience will be vital to the success of Defiance, a game that will need the interaction of fans in order to truly thrive.

To compliment Trost and others, on the TV side the SyFy Channel is bringing in well-known and familiar faces. The show will star Grant Bowler (True Blood, Liz & Dick), who will be joined by Julie Benz (Angel, Dexter), Tony Curran (Doctor Who, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Mia Kershner (The L Word, 24), Oscar-nominated actor Graham Greene (Dances With Wolves, Twilight: New Moon), and many other recognizable actors.

To helm the show, SyFy tapped Rockne S. O’Bannon, a name much beloved among sci-fi aficionados thanks to his work in the genre, most notably with the recent remake of V and the modern cult classic, Farscape. O’Bannon will serve as Executive Producer and also scripted the pilot. SyFy even went so far as to enlist the talents of Bear McCreary (Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead) to serve as music supervisor. Defiance will be, to date, the most ambitious and expensive show produced on the SyFy channel.

Defiance is the biggest show that SyFy has ever done in their 20 years of existence. They are investing more on Defiance than they have on anything, and it’s going to be a big show, and a big event,” said Trost.

defianceDefiance takes place in the near future following a lengthy war that quite literally changed the Earth forever. When an alien race known as the Voltans arrive on Earth and request sanctuary after their own solar system was destroyed, years of negotiations prove fruitless. The refugees become invaders and begin to try to terraform the planet, beginning a catastrophic war. After unimaginable losses on both sides, a ceasefire began, and the two races are forced to live together on a radically altered Earth. 

The development process has been one of a kind, and part of the reason for that is simply that there aren’t many companies with the power to launch both a TV show and publish a game at the same time. It takes reach and money; and beyond that it requires a company that can see the potential of winning over gaming fans to the big and small screens, something that is easier said than done.

From the start NBC Universal (who owns SyFy and is an investor in Trion) wanted something that would be built from the ground up as a collaborative effort. The gaming and TV sides were then brought together to discuss what they wanted to create and what options they had, including an examination of the NBC library, most of which was available to them.

“Very early on we started thinking about what we could do together and whether it was [to] take one of their licensed properties or create something new,” Trost said. “And the option that we all got excited about was creating something new with SyFy.”

From the start both the TV show — which will air as a 13-hour series broken into 12 episodes with a two hour pilot — and the MMO that will feature numerous missions set in a third-person shooter world, were created hand in hand. Due to the time needed to create a game versus the time needed to produce a TV show, the developers at Trion went to work first, but did so with the conceptual help of those who would eventually break off to create the TV series.

Grant Bowler as Jeb Nolan

“A lot of the initial work was done here at Trion before SyFy was really ramped up, but we had a lot of initial discussion to set the boundaries of what they were looking for as far as what would make compelling television, and we laid on the table what we thought would make a good AAA MMO,” Trost said. “So we’ve been guiding the development of the IP of what Defiance is, to those two goals.”

Jeb Nolan in the gameIt is a difficult — and expensive — proposition for all involved. An exact price tag hasn’t been mentioned, but it is clearly a massive undertaking for both SyFy and Trion. And once the game is released and the show is airing in spring of next year, the work is still just beginning.

“It’s totally ongoing, that’s the plan, that’s the whole idea behind Defiance is that its these two things that are constantly playing off of each other and developed together, and react to each other,” Trost told us. “Around here, and within our talks with SyFy, we all know that it all really starts once April 2013 hits. That’s when the job really starts.”

To further that idea of integration, when the game is released, it will start with a mission featuring the character Jeb Nolan, the star of the TV show played by Bowler. Once the mission is complete, the character will then leave behind the game’s digital setting of the Bay Area and head east towards the remains of St. Louis where his story will continue on TV. You could therefore justifiably claim that the mission in question is a prequel to the TV show, but that understates the integration between the two.

Defiance's take on the Bay Area

Make no mistake, Defiance is a risky proposition. The more moving parts something has, the more potential for disaster. The TV show and the game both need to capture fans, a goal that is difficult for any game or TV show to achieve under the best of circumstances. And even if it is a success, that doesn’t guarantee that the formula is going to work for other properties.

“It’s challenging, turning games into movies, because movies are so different,” director and producer Bryan Singer recently told us. “A game is all about playing, and a movie is all about being played. One has to find the essence of the game and the essence of the character in the game, and then create a journey and a story that caters to a movie and a controlled, defined experience.”

Regardless of whether or not Defiance is a success, there is a definite move to transform video game material into quality live action adaptations. The highest profile property at the moment is the announced Assassin’s Creed film, which has attracted Michael Fassbender to both star and produce. Closely behind that is the Uncharted film, which has experienced some issues and already lost two writer/directors after both Oscar winner David O. Russell and then Neil Burger dropped out. Despite the delay, the film seems to still be a priority for Sony.

In both cases, the properties are being handled by groups that have an invested interested in seeing them succeed — beyond just the obvious commercial reasons. Assassin’s Creed is being developed by Ubisoft itself, who recently created its own film division to adapt some of its properties after it was unhappy with Disney’s commercially successful, but critically panned, adaptation of Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Likewise, the Uncharted game was developed by Sony’s SCEA division, and will be produced by Sony’s film department. Both properties are being developed into film by the companies that helped create them, which should give hope to fans waiting to see their favorite games turned to films.

But before either of those films hits the screen, Defiance will be available to play and to watch. It is a bold experiment, and one that is being created by people that know both industries and are hoping to break new ground. If it works, it may be the first in a salvo of upcoming game related films and TV shows that are developed with respect for the source material.

All it will take is one property to show others that gaming can be a profitable and reliable source of material for film and TV developers constantly on the lookout for the next big trend. Maybe that property will arrive in April 2013 when Defiance is released on PC, PS3, and Xbox 360, and hits SyFy Chanel at the same time.