How to Make a Good Firefly Video Game

So, after years in and out of development hell, a Firefly video game might exist.

Announced under the radar of Comic-Con, this Firefly game will be a “Social-MMO” for Android and iOS.

I’m as much a fan of Joss Whedon’s work as anyone else, and I’d jump at the opportunity to spend more time with the oft-dysfunctional crew of the Serenity, but count me surprised and somewhat cynical of the game. Right now, news of this project is yet another reminder of the main problem I have with licensed games: the mechanics of these games aren’t designed to promote the same aesthetics as that of the source material. Games are systems of rules and mechanics designed to create a certain emotional state, and distilling Firefly’s complex core appeal to a game system is very difficult. Even if the Firefly game looks and sounds like Firefly, it’ll utterly fail its audience if it doesn’t feel like Firefly. 

Many of the licensed games that fail do so because they are dishonest to the source material from a mechanical standpoint. Consider the awful Harry Potter shooter: the Harry Potter books and films were about the Campbellian Hero’s Journey and a child’s coming of age in an increasingly dark world. While Harry does indeed fight Death Eaters in the source material, the series is fundamentally not about fighting, Harry Potter is about growing up, and the shooter’s mechanics do nothing to promote that core theme. While some superficial worldbuilding elements do exist, like wands, apparition, and expelliarmus, misinterpreting Harry Potter as a high-octane action game exemplifies ludonarrative dissonance.

No matter how much it looks like Harry Potter, this isn’t Harry Potter.

Same goes with Ghostbusters, while the game’s sound and graphics were honest to the original film, the game’s design wasn’t. Ghostbusters was about a group of academic expatriates going into business; a goofy rags-to-riches story, the Ghostbusters start from nothing and eventually grow to become  nationally famous and save the world, all whilst fighting off clumsy government regulation. Ghostbusters the game forgoes the film’s core theme of small-time entrepreneurship to focus solely on the singular act of wrangling down and capturing a ghost. While this is definitely something the Ghostbusters do, it is absolutely not the reason why people love Ghostbusters. People love Ghostbusters for its situational comedy, goofy characters, and charming narrative about small-business, not for the heart-pounding excitement of wrangling down a poltergeist.

Which brings us to the Firefly MMO. When pitching the show, Joss Whedon described it as “nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things”. That focus on characterization and relationships comprises the entirety of the show’s appeal, while the universe is imaginative and the battles exciting, worldbuilding and action aren’t the reasons people love Firefly, Firefly owes its popularity to the intense drama and cathartic comedy coming out of a near-dysfunctional crew of radically different and lovable characters. Fans treasure moments like Kaylee’s giddy excitement at the ball, or Jayne’s discovery that he has somehow become a legend amongst the people of Canton, not the intermittent shootouts that happen in each show. To adapt Firefly to a system of game mechanics and rules would necessitate replicating the same charming characterization and interpersonal relationships that make the show so appealing.

Man, these people were awesome.

This particular Firefly game is a “Social MMO” for Smartphones. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but I’ve had experience with both Social Facebook games and MMORPGs. “Social games” utilize Skinner-box design to facilitate social interaction in the form of using other people as a means to achieve personal progress in your farm or city. MMORPGs conversely reflect a narrative of capitalistic growth as players start from nothing and work up to great heights. Neither of these mechanics communicate what makes Firefly so appealing.

I don’t know what mechanics would effectively translate Firefly‘s core appeals to an interactive format. Maybe an Inara Ren’py dating simulator? A FTL-like management sim for Wash and Kaylee? Maybe if we were to go nondigital, a Firefly-inspired tabletop RPG would work to systemize that great characterization and relationships, after all, Serenity’s crew is about as functional as my own Dungeons & Dragons group, right down to the crazy psychic whose antics endanger everyone (me). Perhaps a version of a game like Mass Effect 2 with more non-combat things to do for characters like Book or Simon, after all, the game’s episodic, television-like structure allowed for a very deep level of characterization, the conversation system allowing for relationship-building to be systemized effectively.

Ultimately, whether or not the Firefly MMO is real, I take the news with trepidation. There is a lot of potential innovation out there in taking the diverse range of emotional experiences that film, literature, and television provides and translating them into game mechanics, heck, I secretly yearn for a Legend of Korra open-world RPG, the ethical implications of that show would make for an awesome morality-game. But when I see so many of these projects wind up terrible, I begin to think its something more than rushed production schedules and sparse budgeting, I think its a problem in the way studios approach game design.

Thoughts on Saints Row: The Third and Ludonarrative Dissonance

In the initial moments of Saints Row: The Third, irrelavant backstory is introduced with the Star Wars Title Crawl to the tune of the 2001: A Space Odyssey. The game then cuts to a gang assault in an urban basketball court, which turns out to be a Japanese energy-drink commercial, being watched on a character’s cell phone as they prepare to rob a bank. The bank-robbery turns out to be a film shoot. One of the gangsters remarks, “ultra-postmodernism, I love it”, dons a giant mask of himself, and begins shooting up the building.

aww yiss…

Ludonarrative Dissonance: I Promise this is Relevant

One problem I have with sandboxy-action games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, is that they suffer, more than any other genre, from ludonarrative dissonance. Simply put, ludonarrative dissonance is a problematic phenomenon in video games when a game’s mechanics thematically contradict the game’s narrative. This is mostly caused when game developers try to tell a specific story using the wrong genre.

Left 4 Dead 2 doesn’t try to touch the same emotions as The Walking Dead

Game genre is more than a box of mechanics and design decisions used to codify a game, game genre also determines the type of behaviors and emotional responses that designers want to promote in their game worlds. A slow, graphic-adventure game like The Walking Dead promotes a wildly different set of behaviors and emotions than a cooperative first-person shooter like Left 4 Dead. While both games deal with surviving in a zombie apocalypse, their respective genres each promote the telling of radically different types of stories. The Walking Dead‘s slow, methodical mechanics are intended to promote a melodramatic and introspective narrative, while Left 4 Dead‘s mechanics are intended to promote frenetic excitement and panic.

Which brings me to what frustrates me about sandbox games in general: the types of behavior that the genre promotes fundamentally contradicts the types of stories that developers attempt to tell with them.

Genre Confusion in Sandbox Games

Red Dead Redemption is the story of reformed outlaw John Marston’s attempt to come clean with his past, his quest to bring his former gang members to justice, and his salvation in the love of his family. Over the course of his adventure, he will kidnap maidens and strap them to railroad tracks, rob banks, and shoot up entire towns before riding off into the sunset on a stolen bronco.

If this seems confusing or problematic at all, blame Red Dead Redemption‘s confused choice of genre. Red Dead Redemptions somber character drama of salvation, inner-turmoil, and the quest to find peace clashes violently with its genre, making it perhaps the single most frustrating example of ludonarrative dissonance in recent memory.

Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston: evidently a family man.

The sandbox genre promotes a very specific set of player behaviors and emotions. As an open space for freely constructed play, the sandbox-game lends itself to the creation of freely-formed challenges. Powerslide for a hundred meters, jump 200 feet into the water, collect three diamonds to build a pickaxe, run over as many pedestrians as possible, survive as long as you can as cops pursue you. Simply put, the sandbox game promotes spontaneous, free-form play in the form that Callois would call “paida”.

The playful behavior that the sandbox game promotes is fundamentally incompatible with the deep character dramas that games like Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV try to tell. This owes itself to the fact that said playful behavior mostly manifests itself as attempting to drive muscle cars into incoming pedestrians. But if John Marston is really trying to redeem himself and Niko Bellic is trying to escape the demons of his past, why is it that their respective games promote behavior such as driving stagecoaches off cliffs? If Wei-Shen from Sleeping Dogs is an undercover cop, why does he take pleasure in slamming civilian’s heads into car doors? The silliness that these sandbox-games encourage is contradictory to the serious stories that these games have.

Ultra-postmodernism

Which (finally) takes us back to Saints Row: The Third. Here, narrative and genre exist in perfect harmony. Unique amongst contemporary sandbox games, ludonarrative dissonance is not a problem to Saints Row. The game’s world, characters, visuals, and narrative operate with the game’s mechanics as a cohesive whole. While Red Dead Redemption‘s world was populated with incidental collectibles, minigames, and animals meant for hunting, Saints Row‘s world is populated with spontaneous challenges such as hidden ramps, wide-open roads for powersliding, and narrow alleys for running pedestrians over.

The Opening of Saints Row 3
The Opening of Saints Row 3

Its also fitting that Saints Row is juvenile, filthy, and ridiculous. Gang leaders are worshipped like celebrities, criminal organizations operate like record labels, and the civilians of Steelport live in a strange mix of veneration and fear of the Third Street Saints, as quick to run away from the player as to beg for an autograph. Phallic imagery bounces about from weaponry to in-world advertisements. Minigames range from throwing oneself into incoming traffic to collect insurance money to riding about in a flaming ATV trying to set pedestrians ablaze. Intertextual references are too numerous to count. Everything about Saints Row’s fixed narrative frames the player’s behavior in Steelport’s sandbox in an appropriate manner.

All this extends to the game’s mechanics, which both expect and reward free-form, “paida”-type play. “Respect”, which amounts to experience points, is rewarded for successfully completing the spontaneous challenges that players may set for themselves, such as bowling over pedestrians with power-slides, surfing atop moving vehicles, and dodging between incoming traffic, leading to character upgrades and other extrinsic rewards. Saints Row is cognizant that players are going to behave in violent and silly ways, and thus structures itself to reward such behavior.

All that I’m saying here is that Saints Row provides a rare example of an open-world crime game actually making sense narratively. Perhaps this owes itself to the game’s self-proclaimed “ultra-postmodernism”, which becomes particularly blatant after the “http://deckers.die” mission. Ultimately, the silly, self-aware humor of the game creates the only kind of narrative appropriate for the sandbox genre. In retrospect, perhaps games like Red Dead Redemption and Sleeping Dogs would have benefitted narratively by limiting player freedom or picking out a more fitting genre for the kind of story that they try to tell.