Video games - Want to catch Marlon Brando's last performance? Iain Simons explains how
I think video games are important. Having spent nearly three decades in a cultural quarantine, kept safely away from discussions of "proper" entertainment, the video game has only recently emerged as something that might just be worthy of consideration. And yet, while we are happy to spend time discussing the most facile of television shows from a considered critical perspective, games are still seen as trivial - at best a distraction, at worst dangerous.
However, if video games are culturally irrelevant, then the movie tie-in is the awkward, underachieving child of the family. It's the kind of game that even the gamers are embarrassed to admit liking, reserved for the kind of movie that is promoted by giving away plastic toys of its cast in fast-food restaurants. It's custom-designed to raise visibility and maximise revenue for a short window of time, and then to be disposed of, ready for the next licensing opportunity to emerge. Or for the sequel.
Phillip Campbell also thinks video games are important. He sees them as a key part of the wider cultural land- scape. To talk to him about games is to talk about literature, art, film, music . . . These connections aren't forced; they're obvious, inevitable. Campbell, a trained architect, was head-hunted by the games industry after spending years in London as a successful concept designer (he was the senior designer of Legoland, Windsor). He designs software for a company called Electronic Arts (EA), which is the biggest publisher of interactive entertainment in the world today.
In 2003-04, EA recorded just under $3bn in global turnover. For the first time, $1bn of that was in Europe. EA is important to video games. It has a repu-tation for publishing some of the most popular, and populist, games ever. It was therefore surprising when, earlier this year, EA announced that it was making Francis Ford Coppola's classic Oscar-winning epic The Godfather into a video game. One could be forgiven for thinking that redemption, family and respect are not obvious source material for a video game. We have clearly travelled some way since Pong.
Campbell is the creative director of the project, with the staggeringly ambitious task of creating the narrative world of Mario Puzo/Coppola for the 21st-century player. "World" is the operative word. Campbell's approach is not to recreate the narrative of The Godfather, but to place players inside a cohesive 1930s New York, where they create their own stories alongside that of the Corleone family. "We're creating a living world. The story of The Godfather exists within our world as a straight line from the wedding to the closing door. Our game, your experience, is a line that snakes around the movie and intersects with what we think are all the best parts. You're telling your own story; it just so happens that the Corleone family are playing out theirs, too."
Unsurprisingly, Campbell thinks and designs like an architect. "The way I work is very analytical. I take a scene and look at it not just from its narrative, but from its spatial sense. To take a scene and freeze it - spin it through 360 degrees and investigate other ways into it." Coppola gave us his cinematic vision of the narrative, but in the game you are the camera, finding yourself suddenly participating in classic scenes from a unique point of view both visually and emotionally. Yours.
You're in conversation with Sonny and he suddenly gets that phone call and rushes out. Tom Hagen urges you to follow him (both James Caan and Robert Duvall recorded new dialogue for the game) and you leap into a car in pursuit. Chasing after him, you witness his car pull into that toll booth, but you are powerless to intervene. "Sonny has to die. My challenge is to create a game where you don't play a mission called 'Sonny dies today!' but stumble into these classic scenes and suddenly recognise where you are." Drawing heavily on the original novel, Campbell plays around the existing story - but never with it. He won't allow you to interfere with the time-space continuum. "Destiny is important to me as a designer. It doesn't matter that the player is headed towards a destiny that they are aware of; what's essential is their freedom to choose their own path in getting there."
This feels like an important moment for games. However the final product emerges, the process is ferociously intelligent and considered. Two hundred developers and more than two years of development are invested in this audacious project, looking the untouchable American classic movie in the eye and not being bullied by its gravitas.
By Campbell's own admission, though, there have been moments in the development process that were awe-inspiring. In early 2004, Campbell sat with Marlon Brando at his home in LA recording new dialogue for the game. While he did not possess an intimate knowledge of Donkey Kong or Lara Croft, Brando had a real understanding for the form of video games. "In much the same way that he felt the audience creates the actor's performance, he saw that the player created the experience in the interactive game," explains Campbell. "He was excited at the possi-bility of that interaction reaching new audiences, of him - of Don Vito - being embedded for ever in this new world."
A few months later, he died. The greatest actor of the last century gave his final performance to this most sneered-upon form of media. Apparently, Marlon Brando thought video games were important.
The Godfather will be published globally by Electronic Arts this autumn
Iain Simons, a writer and critic, is currently directing the National Film Theatre's first video-game culture weekend