The relationship between video games and film has historically been a complicated one at best. Twenty years ago, games were just something that could further market a movie. Game tie-ins were common and quickly dismissed as what they were – little more than amusing gimmicks. That, of course has changed – at least for video games.
The video game and film industry continue their odd courtship dance that brings them ever closer together. What once was a dumping ground for tie-ins has become a viable outlet to expand narratives that couldn’t otherwise be continued, at least not in the same way. Aliens: Colonial Marines is a perfect example of that marriage between the two industries succeeding.
Under the stewardship of Gearbox Studios, the upcoming game is one that doesn’t just offer a spin-off, or even a recreation of the property. When you play the campaign you won’t just be Private Expendable on Planet X. Instead you take the role of a colonial marine assigned to investigate Planet LV-426 after a previous team is reported as missing.
Fans of the series will likely recognize that Planet classification, as it was the setting of Aliens 2. The game takes place shortly after Ripley has blown most of the facility away and escaped on the Sulaco with the android Bishop, Hicks, and the Newt. It is a direct sequel to that film, and more importantly, 20th Century Fox is considering the game to be canon in the Aliens franchise.
“Part of the thing that’s really cool about our game is that it’s canonical,” Senior Gearbox producer, Brian Burleson, told us. “So in the whole universe its part of the time line. That makes a huge difference when it comes to capturing the feel.”
The origin of Colonial Marines began with an encounter between a well-known member of Gearbox, and a very well-known member of the Hollywood elite that has a bit of history with the Aliens franchise.
“Bryan Martell, the creative director for Gearbox, was talking to Ridley Scott about some stuff,” Burleson explained. “And one of the things they had fun taking about was Aliens – the property Aliens, the really cool universe. They nerded out for a while.”
Scott showed Martell several storyboards for the series, and that inspired him to approach Fox about the licensing opportunities, which are currently under the control of Sega. Sega has not been idle with the property either, releasing Aliens Infestation for the DS in 2011, and the Aliens vs. Predator tie-in in 2010.
Even prior to that, the Aliens property was no stranger to video-game adaptions, with dozens of titles spanning decades. The first game to try to capitalize on the franchise was released in 1982 for the Atari 2600, and was simply titled Alien.
“For Fox and Sega it’s been pretty cool because everyone wants to take this franchise and keep moving forward, and that give a lot of momentum behind it,” Burleson said. “So people are really eager to make something really cool that people remember being as very fun.”
Despite a poor critical reception, Sega’s Aliens vs. Predator sold well. So when Martell approached Sega, everything quickly fell into place as the publisher was eager to continue to capitalize on the brand. Gearbox was then given carte blanche to go through the Aliens library and present Sega with its vision for the franchise.
“When we were talking about what kind of Aliens game we wanted to make, we looked at all the different films, and we went ‘You know what, we have a lot [of experience] making first-person shooters, let’s make a first person shooter,’” Burleson recalled. “And what better movie to start from than Aliens, which is perhaps one of the best action films ever.”
With the renewed interest in the property thanks to Ridley Scott’s return to the franchise with Prometheus, the anticipation has built for the game. Throw in Gearbox’s increased profile thanks to last September’s critical and commercial hit Borderlands 2, as well as several well received demos of the game by fans (including some memorable times with the multiplayer), and the game has garnered plenty of attention recently.
The pressure to make a good Colonial Marines game is something the developers at Gearbox are keenly aware of, and not just because of the professional implications. The team is comprised of people that grew up with the series. They want to make a good sequel to Aliens, because they are fans themselves. Everything else came second.
“We’re not just trying to make a buck,” Burleson stated. “We’re not just licensing something to tie into the film. We’re actually making a sequel.”
That distinction is an important one for the future. The film and gaming industries have been growing closer for years now, and if this game succeeds, and succeeds big, it could pave the way for more like it. Aliens: Colonial Marines isn’t the first game to use a license in order to create an original story that fits within that universe – from The Chronicles of Riddick titles to Enter the Matrix to the countless Star Wars games, it has been done before – but it is one of the most ambitious. It is a direct sequel rather than expansion of the universe, further narrowing the gap between the two industries.
“Ten years ago, want a sequel to a film? You don’t do a video game, you do a film,” Burleson said. “So being able to explore that experiment to make that happen has been a cool journey for everyone involved. It’s a lot of people that care a lot about this franchise.”
But while the industries continue to grow closer together, it has been very much a one-way street. That may be changing as the last year or so has seen several major announcements that could unleash an onslaught of successful movies based on video games. There was a time not long ago that the majority of comic-book adaptions on film were bad, painfully so. Now, many of the highest grossing films of all time feature a superhero, and Marvel seems to have nearly perfected the process. Of course, the comic industry has been around much, much longer than the gaming industry.
The trick with adapted material may be as simple as making sure that those responsible for the film adaptation actually cares about the property and respects the source material. With studios like Ubisoft getting into the film business itself, and others like Valve announcing partnerships with Bad Robot, that seems to be changing. And once it does, expect Hollywood to turn its financial eye to video games as if it were the Eye of Sauron looking for a pair of Hobbits.
“[The] translation between film and video games, both ways, is challenging because it’s a different experience, and when you have a different experience people’s expectations don’t necessarily match up the same way,” Burleson explained. “Depending on what type of game is being converted or vice versa, it might not work at all. I feel that the ones that exist within the same universe but don’t actually try to copy the mechanics are some of the stronger ones.”
More and more filmmakers are turning their attention to video games as well. While Valve is looking to Bad Robot for help adapting its properties to the Big Screen, Bad Robot is relying on Valve to help it with an unnamed gaming project. Director Guillermo del Toro is a long-time gaming fan and has been working on a game titled inSANE that was cancelled by the crumbling THQ, but has since been picked up by an undisclosed publisher.
This Spring the SyFy Channel and Trion Games are even going so far as to attempt a game and a TV series known as Defiance that were developed in tandem and will exist in the same universe. Players will step into the world of Defiance and experience the game’s Bay Area locale, while the show will center around the events in the ruins of St. Louis. Each property will influence the content of the other.
The line between the industries continues to blur, and Aliens: Colonial Marines is shaping up to be one of the best examples of how games and film can be mutually beneficial to each other while respecting the properties they represent. There will, of course, always be an inherent difference between the mediums, but with a bit of luck, and with the right people in charge, they may be able to complement each other and help to open up previously unimagined entertainment avenues.
“When you are the agent doing the action, you have choice,” Burleson said. “That’s very different. Watching something is a great medium. Film is never going to go away. Video games are never going to go away, and that’s awesome. People want different experiences to bring home.”
As the gaming industry continues to mature, the narrative potentials are nearly endless. There is no limit to the stories that can be told. And if Aliens: Colonial Marines is a success, the relationship between gaming and film is likely to narrow even further.