REVIEW: Barriers and teasers in The Hunger Games: Girl on Fire
A few weeks ago, speaking about adaptation and videogames, I observed that for videogames, adaptation “has come to most closely resemble a genre, and a poor genre at that.” Each film tie-in videogame follows the same processes, the same rules, resulting in cookie-cutter games all tarred with the same average brush. Imagination need not be applied; the game will sell on tie-in basis alone.
The Hunger Games: Girl on Fire is a deeply significant if not entirely successful exception. To begin with, the game was graced with credibility: it was designed by Adam Saltsman, who created the popular iOS ‘arcade games’ (his term) Gravity Hook and Canabalt. Saltsman has become emblematic, in a way, of the indie game community – not just because of the success of his games, but because of his vocal presence (Saltsman was a keynote speaker for Melbourne’s Freeplay festival in 2010) and support for other developers (his free, open-source game-making library is a popular tool for emerging designers).
Then there’s the game itself. Girl on Fire is not cast from the same mold as the standard film tie-in. It is, as Saltsman describes it, “a teaser game, in the same way there are teaser trailers.” The game is simple, short, and bespoke for the iOS platform: players control the aim and vertical movement of a running Katniss as she evades Hunger Games-themed pursuers.
That it is more than a little similar to Saltsman’s most popular game, Canabalt, has not gone unnoticed. Both games feature running protagonists whose speed is not under the player’s control, yet there are key differences. As Saltsman notes, “the focus of [Girl on Fire] is more on marksmanship and strategy.” Where Canabalt is deeply dependent on the player’s movement through randomly-generated architecture, Girl on Fire is about the careful placement of the player to avoid threats and hit targets. It is kinetic energy and momentum versus tactics and precision.
The game itself plays nicely, and is easy enough to get into an enjoyable rhythm with. Like many iOS games, there’s an inclination towards high-score chasing in Girl on Fire, and the game facilitates this well enough, though there is a general lack of clarity around scoring and how death functions in both of the game’s short sections. Perhaps the biggest criticism of the game is its control system, which can sometimes misinterpret the touch commands for shooting and jumping. At best it’s occasionally sluggish; at worst, it is responsible for player failure.
Girl on Fire’s modest length points towards an awareness of how iOS games work, but also towards its advertising function. Despite Saltsman’s avowal that the game is free and contains “no ads!”, the entire game is, of course, an advertisement for the broader Hunger Games property.
In some sense, then, Girl on Fire is more of a complimentary episode than an adaptation that sheds light on the film or the books. The game is very clearly couched in the language of videogames rather than the language of The Hunger Games or even the language of other film tie-ins or adaptations. As Saltsman told Joystiq in February, “From the get-go my inspiration and motivation for this, aesthetically, has been to just pretend I am making a movie tie-in game for the Super Nintendo, only actually fun to play.” While the game may not illustrate anything new about the character of Katniss, it equally doesn’t graft the setting of the film into an inappropriate or too-easy setting.
As much as Girl on Fire is an intelligent reworking of the expectations of adaptation, it is mostly an exercise in style. These are, after all, not unrelated concepts. The art for the game, lead by Paul Veer (of Super Crate Box and Gun Godz fame), is both deliberately ‘retro’ and also distinctive, playing into the previously established discourses of indie aesthetics.
The use of such a visual style is obviously intended to signal an array of points to different audiences about Girl on Fire: that it is a videogame; that it is a videogame that knows it is a videogame; that it is made by a certain type of ‘indie’ developer, and has some associated creative credibility; and that it is an iOS film tie-in to be taken with more seriousness than one usually affords these things.
The decision to work within such tropes has obvious implications about what kind of a videogame Girl on Fire is, and about what sort of work can be done in the future in the film tie-in or even advergaming space in the future. In many ways, Girl on Fire reminded me of Pachinko Pictures’ Lol-a-Coaster, and most obviously of their central claim that boutique-type work can be done for big businesses within the videogames space.
With Girl on Fire, Saltsman has consciously drawn a line between what occurs in other media forms between small creative groups and large companies, and what is currently standard practice within the videogame industry. As Saltsman told Joystiq, “You don’t hire, I don’t know, some monolithic advertising giant if you want to design a great poster, you hire Saul Bass!”
Girl on Fire pushes against the barriers established by conservative, vertically-integrated entertainment corporations by delivering an imaginative and lean ‘teaser’ videogame. It does not do what film tie-ins are supposed to do, and that is a wonderful thing.
Where Girl on Fire differs from a design icon like Saul Bass, however, is that it is content to work within the boundaries established by videogames – even if those barriers are from a relatively experimental culture like the indie videogames scene.
Girl on Fire may have opened a path for an intervention by the indie games scene and a kind of boutique development in the film tie-in world. But as a videogame, it is only a small step in an interesting direction.