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The Writer's Job: If Breaking Bad Became a Game...

February 12, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

Experienced game writer Susan O'Connor (Tomb Raider, BioShock 1 & 2, Far Cry 2), explores what a writer brings to the creative process, by analyzing hit TV series Breaking Bad -- as though she were in the kick-off meeting for its game adaptation.

There are only eight episodes of Breaking Bad left. And then the show is over.

That is terrible news for fans, who can't help but wish it could go on forever. (Even show creator Vince Gilligan doesn't want it to end.) It's tempting to wish that someone could carry the IP forward, maybe into a console game...

Sure, the pitch would go: it's got all the elements. It stars an anti-hero; it elevates Walter's puzzle-solving ability to an art form; it's full of unforgettable villains. It could be the next Grand Theft Auto, starring Walter White...

No. That's a terrible idea. Whoever in that back room at AMC that ixnayed that idea did us all a favor. (They went with a graphic-novel game and interactive quizzes instead: good call.) Sky-high audience expectations would hamstring the console game developers into creating a pale imitation of the television experience in a virtual world, but successful IP adaptations smash a concept to bits and then recombine the wreckage into something both recognizable and utterly new.

It's risky. By sacrificing some of the best parts of a show or book or movie, you lose some of the original magic. The good news is that the loss forces developers to create new magic that only an interactive experience could provide. And that's the best reason to turn anything into a game.

Some developers (and IP guardians) are making brilliant choices when they adapt an IP. (Exhibit A: The Walking Dead.) The potential is clearly there -- for the right property, and the right approach.

I've worked as a writer in this industry for 15 years. I've been fortunate enough to be involved with projects from day one, for both original and adapted IP. Those experiences have helped me to develop a set of best practices that teams can use to unlock an IP's potential. In this article, we'll walk through a hypothetical kickoff meeting together, to if this adaptation has potential -- or if it's a disaster waiting to happen.

So: You're about to begin pre-production on a Breaking Bad video game. What do you do?

Break It Down

Step One: Analyze. What makes Breaking Bad so amazing? The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. But as you read Metacritic reviews, trends emerge. Here's what reviewers have called out, time and again, as part of the show's appeal:

Walter White is an everyman. As Stephen King says in his glowing review, "Breaking Bad invites us into another world, just as The Shield and The Sopranos did, but Walt White could be a guy just down the block, the one who tried to teach the periodic table to your kids before he got sick. The swimming pool with the eye in it could be right down the block too. That's exactly what makes it all so funny, so frightening, and so compelling. This is rich stuff."

His problems are real -- and so are the stakes. Walt's initial problem is as real as it gets. He's facing death. How will he provide for his family before he's gone? He faces real challenges in nearly every scene. In the show's second episode, he faces his first impossible choice: "Murder is wrong!" versus "He'll kill your entire family if you let him go." We don't know what he'll do -- or what we would do in a similar situation -- that's what keeps us watching.

The plotting is brilliant. Here's an exercise: watch an episode of the show, one you don't remember well. At the beginning of each scene, stop the playback and ask yourself how you would end it, if you were the writer. Then hit Play and watch what happens. Princess Bride screenwriter William Goldman once said, "Art needs to be both surprising and inevitable." Vince Gilligan's writing team delivers on both counts.

Walt is brilliant, too. He deals with disaster in clever (and often disturbing) ways. As Emily Nussbaum writes in the New Yorker, "Such problem solving has always been one of the show's great satisfactions, allowing Breaking Bad to feel as much like a how-to as a why-not-to... the audience can view events as a type of meta-puzzle: can the stakes rise even higher?"

The criminal underworld feels real. When Walter crosses over into the life of a drug lord, the world doesn't suddenly turn into a Martin Scorcese movie. The writers don't overplay their hand with dramatic lighting and heavy-handed music; they keep the action grounded in the dusty world of Albuquerque. The world has changed, but it's still a world we know.

The villains are unforgettable. Tuco! Hector! Gus! The Oatmeal breaks it down.

Then there's Jesse. There's the relationship between Walt and Jesse. There's the camera work, the comedy... I could go on. I bet you could, too.


Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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