Friday, February 6, 2015

It Should Have Been A Game

Usually when I do these movies-that-would-have-been-better-as-games blog posts I select three titles for the sake of variety.  This time though, I want to focus on a single film (which is actually based on a book), Ender's Game.  It's got the word "Game" in the title!  On a more serious note though, I think it deserves more attention than I have given other movies because I want to emphasize a concept that I've alluded to in the past know as storytelling decompression.

Back in the early days of comic books the amount of real estate one could use to tell a story in was about two dozen pages. This was because collecting hadn't really caught on yet so readers tended to throw out older monthly issues of whatever series they were subscribed to.  The result was every story arch had to begin and conclude expeditiously.  Not necessarily a bad thing, but the problem is what if you want to create a work of fiction that doesn't fit within that framework?  Well, some things get cut or padded and the overall tale suffers as a result.  This especially applies to books and film.  I can think of a lot of door stopper novels that would have been much more enjoyable had they been short stories.  Conversely, movies can feel rushed when they try to cover to much ground.  Video games, on the other hand, can be as long or short as needed.

Enter Ender's Game, a sci-fi version of Harry Potter wherein Hogwarts is replaced with Battle School and Quidditch with the Battle Room.  Unlike Harry Potter's four houses though there are twenty-two "armies" that compete against one another.  In the film we only ever see eight displayed on leader boards and watch a few fights.  In a video game though this kind of thing could easily be the backbone of gameplay.  Players could spend hours learning the tactics of various army commanders and competing for top spot.  After all a huge theme of Ender's Game is the notion of being empathetic enough to understand your enemy yet sociopathic enough to exploit that understanding.  Granted it's bit much to expect the player to be a tactical genius, but once the mechaincs have been introduced in this hypothetical version of Video Ender's Game (get it?) things could be simplified to this commander likes to X while that commander always does Y.  Between battles time can be spent on fleshing out characters and exploring the setting in more detail.  Again, the events in the Ender's Game novel take place over a five year period (age 6 to 11) while in the film it's only a small fraction of that time (with Ender starting off much older to boot).

Now, before anyone starts talking about how ridiculous the premise of this story is remember that Ender, and pretty much all other kids at Battle School are the product of ad hoc eugenics.  Think of it as the Olympics except the events are stuff like Starcraft and Zero-G laser tag.  Children tend to excel at these kinds of things because unlike adults, they have less to unlearn.  Sort of like Halo except with  inspiration coming from the air force and navy rather than the army or marine corps.  Another important point of distinction to make is the universe of Ender's Game doesn't have FTL travel, although there are some sci-fi bits of technology mostly reversed engineered from captured Formic ships like artificial gravity, engines capable of interstellar travel and instantaneous communication via the "Ansible" (derived from the Formic's telepathic form of communication).  Then there's the Molecular Detachment Device or "Little Doctor" which creates an interesting dynamic between tight effective formations highly vulnerable to this super weapon versus loose ineffective, but safe fighter arrangements.

All this might sound a bit complicated, but in a video game there's plenty of time to work with.  After all, it's ostensibly a school so it would be easy to ween players on the intricacies of warfare in space.  Start off with players only controlling themselves as a "launchy" then bump them up to "toon leader" with a squad under their supervision.  After that it's full on army commander and once they graduate from Battle School it's time be shipped to Eros for simulator training.  Again, begin with individual drones, then squadrons with support ships, and eventually all the way up to whole fleets.  Both novel and movie skip over a lot of Ender's battles, but in a game players could command each and every engagement.  There could even be the option for co-op multiplayer here in the form of detaching battle groups to sub-commanders, much like Ender did with his former schoolmates.  Alternatively, managing your team of personality driven A.I. assistants could also be interesting.  Sort of like fighting against different army commanders in Battle School except in reverse.  Players would have to maximize the strengths of their subordinates in order to succeed.

I should conclude this by saying I've never read any of Orson Scott Card's other works aside from Ender's Shadow (which mostly covers the same events in Ender's Game but from a different perspective).  My understanding is he's a nutcase and bigot, but I don't see any of his reprehensible views on display in Ender's Game specifically.  If anything the overall vibe in Ender's Game is cosmopolitan (it's called International Fleet after all) with the Formic Wars being the result of misunderstandings rather than ingrained malice.  That said, I never much cared for the direction the series took after the first book.  In my mind it would have been far more interesting had Ender defected, taking the last Formic queen and raising her, instilling her with his tactical skill, then after the untimely death of his sister (his last connection to humanity) have him go off the deep end and charge his adopted "daughter" with getting revenge on his own species for all the injustices done to him in the past.  It would be a case of the series taking a radically different direction than it ultimately went, with abused becoming the worst kind of abuser, but I really just want to see the Human/Formic conflict continue.  Granted, this idea would never fly because it strongly implies the road to hell is paved with good intentions and I don't think that's something the author believes to be true.

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