There's no love lost between King Kong and this TRex.
By Columnist
updated 11/11/2005 7:37:31 AM ET 2005-11-11T12:37:31

Ubisoft game producer Xavier Poix is hoping for a certain response from gamers when they play the video game based on Peter Jackson’s eagerly awaited film remake of “King Kong.”

Well, two responses, actually. Poix certainly wants gamers to scream “Whoa!” when the ape first thunders across the screen. The other one he's looking for, however, is a doozee: “I’m hoping that when they finish the game the players will cry.”

King Kong boasts dinosaurs, angry natives and the wanton destruction of Depression-era Manhattan, all grist for standard holiday movie fare. But the story is peppered with more emotional fare than an Afterschool Special. Stuff like the confusion of being misunderstood and a final message of who is more beastly: The giant ape or the men who capture him and put him on display?  

Jackson, according to Poix, didn't want the video game adaptation of the film to sacrifice the story for action. "Jackson is an avid gamer," Poix said, and wanted the game to carry the emotional resonance of the film he directed.

That led to what Poix described to MSNBC.com as unprecedented cooperation between Jackson and Poix's game studio in Montpellier, France. In the short, often bitter, history of film-to-game adaptations the results are more often noted for the resulting bargain-bin-headed interactive offal.

“This story is very special to Peter,” Poix said.  “He told us that it is the reason he went into film.”

And so "Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie" — or PJKKTOGOTM for short — is not your typical movie-based game.

How they did it
An early game scene revealed to the press does resonate with a particular emotion — fear.

You are looking through the eyes of one of the explorer-adventurers sent to Skull Island in search of Kong. You are in the jungle, wading through waist-high elephant grass and past old stone ruins when a Tyrannosaurus rex — head down, mouth open, eyes beady — comes charging right at you. Aiiiieeee!

It takes a moment to realize how this scene differs from the tens of thousands of similar scenes of horror in first-person perspective games: The screen is free of data icons typically used to note player health or weapons at hand.

The effect is more cinematic, but with no icons or on-screen hints to serve as a crutch, it can be a little disconcerting. Which is exactly what the game makers want you to feel.

“What you see is what you get,” said Poix.  “Some don’t even notice that there’s nothing there; we had to tell them. Others get a little confused, and to them we say, take a chance, play with it.”

Poix is hoping that wiping the interface clean of clutter will help foster the illusion that the player is literally walking in the shoes of the onscreen character.

Many games use cut-scenes to establish emotion. Cut-scenes are non-interactive cinematic interstitials that allow character voice actors to really ham it up and establish some sort of emotional resonance before the shooting commences.

“We do have cut-scenes, but we try to give the player some control,” Poix said.

Poix described a scene where blonde-in-distress Ann Darrow is brought to Kong as a sacrifice. The player, in the role of the adventurer trying to save Darrow, is tied up but can still look around. Allowing just this limited movement, said Poix, reinforces the feeling of helplessness in the player.

Play the ape or the man
"King Kong's" approach comes courtesy of Poix's co-worker, game designer Michel Ancel, whose work on the critically acclaimed "Beyond Good and Evil" first caught Jackson's attention.

"Beyond Good and Evil," which debuted in 2003, follows a young "action reporter" trying to figure out who to trust on a planet under attack from aliens. It offered a good storyline, lush and fantastical settings and characters that even the most jaded game player could care about. Jackson enjoyed the game so much that he contacted its maker, Ubisoft, about doing the "King Kong" adaptation.

Starting in December 2003, Poix's team made regular trips to Weta Studio, Jackson’s New Zealand-based film-making complex, where they had access to the world and the multitudes of creatures Jackson's creative team had developed.

“There was this huge room covered with two-dimensional artwork of creatures and these massive jungle sets," recalled Poix.

Jackson had early ideas on how how he wanted the game to play, according to Poix. First, he insisted that the game not be a straightforward adaptation, but a companion piece. 

“He wanted the game to exist by itself,” Poix said, "like a brother or sister to the movie."

Jackson also told Poix that he wanted the player to experience the game from the perspective of two characters competing for the affection of Ann Darrow: Jack Driscoll, adventurer, and King Kong, giant ape.

That decision put pressure on the game development team, which essentially had to create two different games: one scaled to humans, the other to an eight-meter-high beast. But by giving players the chance to be the ape, the game makers hoped that players would get a better chance of understanding King Kong's motivations.

It's also an interesting twist on one of the complaints made by watchdog groups about first-person shooters: That players over-empathize with the character they are playing. Well, this time you can play the person — er, ape — being shot.

The game makers hope that playing from Kong's perspective will also help players understand better the ape's affection for damsel-in-distress Darrow. After protecting her from dinosaurs and natives and angry New Yorkers, "you get to know her and care," Poix said.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that Darrow is based on actress Naomi Watts.

Still, crying in a dark theater is one thing. But after playing a game? We'll see.

The game makes its North American debut on Nov. 22 with a suggested retail price of $49.99. It's rated "T" for Teen. The movie hits screens nearly a month later, on Dec. 12.

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