John Wick Hex preview and interview – the best movie tie-in ever?

Keanu Reeves managed to star in not one but two of the best games at E3 2019, but the John Wick tie-in is not what you’d expect…

If this was the 90s then there’d already be a bunch of John Wick games, all of which would be mediocre action platformers with only a passing resemblance to the movies and almost indistinguishable from any other film tie-in. That’s how things worked back then, but as the public slowly grew to realise that licensed games were almost always terrible (and publishers realised they made much more profit from a property they owned) the whole concept of movie tie-ins almost entirely died out.

In the modern era licensed tie-ins are almost exclusively cheaply made mobile apps. Except, there has been some sign of improvement in just the last few years, with concerted, if not always successful, attempts to make high quality, big budget games based on properties such as Star Wars, Alien, and Marvel. But they’ve all been by established, mainstream developers owned by the publishers themselves. John Wick Hex though is a bit different. And by a bit we mean a lot.

John Wick Hex is being made by British indie developer Mike Bithell, who’s best known for avant-garde puzzle platformer Thomas Was Alone and the abstract, Metal Gear-inspired Volume. He is, almost literally, the last person you’d expect to find making a video game adaptation of John Wick. Especially given that, instead of the third person action game you might expect, he’s making the game as what he calls a ‘timeline strategy’.

Even the cartoonish visuals are a bold choice, but according to Bithell film company Lionsgate approached him about making the game with the open assumption that he’d want to do something unusual and original. That’s a high encouraging attitude to see from a film company, especially as Bithell was then granted extensive access to the director and stunt team.

Whether Keanu Reeves himself is involved remains a mystery and while the initial press release mentioned Ian McShane (Winston) and Lance Reddick (Charon, the concierge), Bithell isn’t even allowed to confirm their involvement anymore. Although the fact that he doesn’t simply say that Reeves isn’t involved presumably means that he still might be.

We’ll allow him to explain the unexpectedly strange story of how the game came to be in his own words but thankfully the game is just as interesting. In fact, it’s probably the best game we played at E3 last week (which is admittedly not the compliment it should be, given how relatively few games are ever playable).

The idea is that you’re playing as John Wick himself in a prequel story, in what at first appears to be a turn-based strategy. It’s not turn-based though and instead time is paused until you choose an action, with everything that John Wick and his enemies are doing occurring at the same time. A timeline, similar to the sort used in video editing software, shows exactly what’s going on – and will go on – at the top of the screen and so you have to carefully plan out where you’ll be at any given moment.

With enemies shrouded by the fog of war you have to bear in mind whether you’re in cover, your stance, your ammunition level (reloading wastes all the bullets in your current magazine), your health, and your focus – a measure of John Wick’s disorientation, which increases the more he rolls or is injured. Perhaps the closest gameplay comparison is Into The Breach, in that a single bad decision can have disastrous consequences no matter how well you were doing before.

Despite what it might sound like the basics are very easy to pick up, even if it takes a few minutes to get your head around the fact that everything is happening at once. Despite its relative simplicity the system is hugely flexible, as you’re also able to use judo moves, throw guns at people, and chain attacks into fluid combos that really do look like the movie (we noticed a Watch Replay option in the game, but weren’t allowed to press it).

According to Bithell the gameplay is reversed engineered from watching the films and talking to the stunt team, allowing him to construct rules and gameplay based on what you can see on screen. That’s a fascinating way to make a game and so far the end result is hugely engrossing and extremely authentic to the movie universe. If this becomes the future of film tie-ins then we’re about to enter a new golden age of interactive cinema.

Formats: PC and consoles
Publisher: Good Shepherd Entertainment
Developer: Bithell Games
Release Date: TBA

GC: So who approached who for this?

MB: They approached me. Which is weird, still, to me.

GC: Really? Based on what?

MB: [laughs] Cheers mate!

GC: [laughs] You know what I mean. Your back catalogue… it doesn’t exactly scream John Wick tie-in.

MB: [laughs] I know, I know. Basically, their producer knew me from way back. He produced Volume for PlayStation. He’s now a freelancer producer so Good Shepard and Lionsgate went to him and said, ‘Find us someone who’s going to make something interesting for John Wick’. Because they see it as a franchise that’s about finding weird and creative solutions. They wanted someone who could come in and do something odd.

GC: I’ve never heard of that happening before.

MB: That’s Lionsgate, they’re used to having these massive hits with odd ideas, like John Wick, Hunger Games, and Twilight. But I’m starting to get a sense that more and more film studios are starting to think that way.

GC: There does seem to be a small renaissance going on in terms of quality video game tie-ins at the moment.

MB: They’re being taken seriously and it’s partly a generational thing. People are always saying, ‘When will games be seen as being as important as film and TV?’ Well, the same way it happened with them. Film wasn’t accepted as an art form until the people who didn’t think it was died, right? It took a generation to happen and I think it’s the same with games.

So now we have executives in film studios who grew up playing video games. They get what they are, what they do well, and what they don’t do well. The people we’re working with at Lionsgate are gamers, they had a SNES growing up. That cultural awareness allows us to go into a room with them and have a conversation. And all their kids are playing Fortnite, that’s the other one. I’ve become very good at explaining ideas via the lens of Fortnite. ‘It’s like Fortnite but completely different…’ [laughs]

But there are other film studios, who I’ve had conversations with, who are thinking about doing interesting things as well.

GC: That’s very interesting because previously it seemed like film companies just didn’t care at all. It was just an easy licensing or marketing opportunity to them and nothing more.

MB: People have come to us before and said, ‘Hey, you should do something based on this licence’ or this world. And the first time it happened to me, and the team had a conversation about it, we said, ‘Well, do we want to do this?’ And a lot of us had worked on bad licensed games before and we were like, ‘Well, we only want to do it if we can do original, interesting stuff’.

So we made a company policy that we would never pitch something just to get a gig. We would only pitch the crazy ideas. The pitch based on the licence I’m thinking of, that I can’t tell you what it was, I sent the finished materials to the person that’d asked for them and their only response was an email with ‘LOL’.

So imagine our surprise when we said to Lionsgate that we want to make a fight choreography game that’s about strategy and they say, ‘Yeah, that’s actually an interesting idea’.

But the other thing I think’s really important to say is… because, obviously, I’m a pretentious hipster indie so I’m going to do a weird thing. But also, I do think this is the best version of John Wick. I think a third person action game… I don’t think it’d work as well. There’s no way it’d be as graceful and precise. You’re going to end up making clumsy decisions, because you haven’t got time to think, and John Wick is not clumsy.

GC: So why are the film companies doing this? Do they think they’ll make more money with a better game or is it primarily to increase brand awareness?

MB: I think with John Wick in particular there’s definitely a feeling that there’s – I mean everyone’s thinking expanded universe in the wake of Marvel. I mean, this is only my impression, but it seems to me that they want to build out the universe and find different corners of that John Wick mythos.

In the movies they are building up this kind of world, but they don’t explain everything and there is that mystery there. You don’t want to do the classic prequel of where did Han Solo get his blaster, you know? You don’t want to do that with John Wick. It’s also not my place, I didn’t create this world, but there are corners, there are things we can play with. And what we’re doing with the story, which I’m not allowed to talk about, is interesting and kind of introducing a different element.

GC: Did they help with the story? Did they suggest plot points?

MB: It wasn’t so much plot points as just figuring out with them when it was set, where it was set in the universe. But no, it was my idea.

GC: And they went with that as well? Sorry, I didn’t mean to say that with such incredulity.

MB: [laughs] No, you’re my internal monologue. That’s been the last year of my life: ‘They agreed to that? Really? Okay!’

GC: Well, good for you.

MB: What usually happens with licensed games is you do a prototype, you do a pitch, and they say, ‘Yep, we’re okay with our branding, so here’s a 200-page document that lays out the brand guidelines and the existing story. And we’ll just approve or disapprove of every build you do’. That’s not how this worked. How this worked is they said, ‘Mike, you’re gonna come to LA once a month and you’re gonna be in meetings and you’re gonna be working with the filmmakers’.

And what that does is that it’s not that I’m trying to figure out and unpack what John Wick is, I’m literally sat with Chad, the director, and I’m working on the game with him. And I’m in the gym with the stunt team filming them, after telling them I need a move that does something specific gameplay-wise and they’re making that move up for me. It’s that kind of co-operation.

And what happens when you do that, besides getting a lifetime’s worth of anecdotes in a week, is that it gets you into the mindset so when you’re pitching stuff, because you know what John Wick is and how everyone who works on it thinks about it, you pitch better ideas. Which means that they say no less often.

I don’t think that we’ve ever had a, ‘No, this is the wrong way of going about it, you need to do a 180’. It’s always been, ‘That’s cool but can we add this’. They’ve actually taken me aside at times and said, ‘Be a bit more ambitious, ask us for something weirder.’ It’s been amazing, really amazing.

GC: So how did you come up with the game from a mechanical perspective? Considering you have no experience making strategy games.

MB: We started off looking at a prototype that was basically a one-character XCOM. So you do a turn, they do a turn, you do a turn. The problem is that one-character XCOM sucks, because you’re basically always watching enemies. Because you do your move and your action and then every enemy does theirs, so you’re spending most of your time watching the enemy playing the game.

But showing that to the executive team on John Wick their first question is, ‘Why is John Wick waiting his turn? John Wick doesn’t do that’. And that’s a valid point. So we ended up building a completely new kind of structure, which is this… we’re calling it a timeline strategy.

So it’s a constant ballet of moves against each other, which is genuinely original and I can’t take credit for it! [laughs] Because essentially it comes from me making a bad XCOM, realising how wrong that was for John Wick, with the help of the filmmakers, and then us figuring out something that’s reflective of how the films work, with their logic.

We’re basically reverse engineering the movies. If we treat the movies as Let’s Plays, how do we make a game where the ultimate strategy is what we’re seeing on screen? And what we learnt from playtesting is the players who love the movies learn the mechanics the quickest, because they’re playing it properly.

GC: Is the idea of a doing a strategy game something you had before getting the licence?

MB: We’ve been thinking about strategy for a while, because it’s a thing I admire but there’s definitely games I love that are strategy and there’s definitely strategy games I don’t love. But it felt like a scenario where we could do something interesting. And also, my co-designer is an obsessive strategy game fan.

The story really was Ben [Andac, the game’s producer] and me went to the cinema to watch another action movie and as we were coming out the conversation turned to John Wick and he said to me, what would you do with John Wick. And I said that I wouldn’t do an action game, I’d probably do a strategy game. And this was not knowing he was taking notes.

Once we realised Ben’s ruse and actually started making something I do remember saying to the team that we’re going to do this because it’s a good excuse to try and make a strategy game. They’re never gonna let us make John Wick as a strategy game, but this is how we’ll justify making a prototype for this idea, to ourselves, and when they say no we’ll either make something that’s a bit John Wick-y, without the licence, or figure out some other way to use it.

So it was almost a way to excuse ourselves for a few months to try and make something that’s so far off what we’ve normally done.

GC: I don’t want to stereotype John Wick fans but I would’ve thought that a strategy game with cartoon graphics is diametrically opposed to what they’d normally be interested in.

MB: [laughs] My feeling is the John Wick audience actually skews fairly old. I think the audience for John Wick, the movies… obviously now they’re massive and everyone watches them but I think at the start the fans of John Wick 1 were probably the people that liked the Die Hard era action movies.

GC: Because there’s no CGI and it’s old school stunt work?

MB: Exactly. So although now it appeals to everyone I think there’s this core audience that’s slightly older and I think that’s the audience that also coincides with the strategic audience who are a bit older and a bit more mature in their tastes.

In terms of the art style, yeah. That’s probably more of an ask. But it’s a level of stylisation that aids the gameplay, helps you to read it and understand exactly what’s going on. And also allows us to make something expressive and interesting without making something that’s trying to be the movie and horribly failing because I’m not as good as that team are at lighting a level.

GC: I have to admit I’m more interested in the films now than I ever was before, just hearing you talk about how you’ve reverse engineered them.

MB: See! Lionsgate will love hearing that! [laughs] I love watching things on two levels. Obviously enjoying the story and the characters and all that, but also I’ve always been impressed by the choreography. That’s the thing I’m watching, so I wanted to make a game about the thing I liked. It’s kind of the same thing with Mission: Impossible, where you’re watching a good spy movie but you’re also… ‘Tom Cruise did what?!’ There’s a second layer there.

GC: So have you started thinking seriously about how to adapt other movies? Because you already seem keen on Die Hard.

MB: An open world Die Hard Nakatomi Tower, that’d be fantastic. It’s almost like a Metroidvania, the way McClane works his way through Nakatomi is amazing. Years ago, I did a talk at a game conference about the game design of Die Hard, it’s genuinely really good level design. For example, there’s a picture of a glamour model stuck to a wall on a specific floor. And every time they want to remind you of where you are in the building they have a character walk past and your eye’s drawn to it. So they’re putting those landmarks in so you understand the geography of it.

GC: That idea of properly showing the space the action is happening in is also very old school, I remember it being explained to me when they’re looking at the map before the finale of Seven Samurai.

MB: Or Jurassic Park and the island and following the characters and knowing where they’re going. All that stuff is amazing. So there’s lots of movies that I love to think about and I’ll continue to do my weird pitches and at some point someone else will want to do one.

GC: This whole thing reminds me of the relatively recent phenomenon of big budget movies taking indie directors and suddenly getting them to do a giant blockbuster. I wonder if, from their point of view, they’ve just started applying that same logic to games.

MB: That may well be it. I’ve not had that conversation, but that would make sense.

Ben Andac (producer): It was certainly my conversation with Good Shepard [the game’s publisher – GC] before Mike came in, that the thing from having dealt with previous licensed games is that the story was always about the IP and that was it. And one thing a film company understands is talent and being talent-oriented in your approach.

So for me it was very much a case of why don’t we apply that with licensed projects? Wouldn’t it be good if we had a great developer, a great director, that you could bring in? Someone that was already established and very accomplished.

MB: It’s just such an interesting starting point for making a game, how do you reverse engineer a movie and adapt a game that way?

GC: It’s fascinating to me and the way the game’s turned out is very encouraging.

MB: Thanks, thanks for coming to see it.

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