Friday, October 11, 2013

Gaming Retro Review: Beowulf (2007)

This is my first year teaching twelfth grade literature and as such my first pass through a number of selections as a teacher, rather than for purely entertainment purposes. I am so pleased to write that much of the literature I've reread has been both educational and entertaining, something which does not always seem to be the case. First up was the classic epic poem Beowulf.

Using the popular Seamus Heaney translation as the source document for our analysis was a plus, given its accessibility to the modern reader. One other unusual benefit was the both the fairly recent 2007 Beowulf film adaptation and the recent success of A Game of Thrones television show, both providing some initial context.

Just as Ecgtheow beget Beowulf, so did the film adaptation, directed by Robert Zemeckis (Forest Gump, Cast Away), beget a video game for the most popular gaming consoles of the time, including the XBOX 360. Both the movie and video game received generally poor reviews (and neither has characterization that--for my tastes--reflect that offered in Heaney's, or nay, translation), but this fact hasn't stopped many an English teacher from showing clips of the beautifully rendered Heorot Hall and Hrothgar's kingdom to assist in establishing the poem's setting for students.

The overall quality of the game, a used copy of which I purchased for $4.99 at a local video game store, is really not that open to debate, certainly not in the eyes of the market--it was much derided and inspired little support from gamers. Those students of mine who recall having received it at the tender age of ten years-old hold no fond memories of it, telling me simply, "it sucked." This did not stop me, however, from giving it a look-see to judge what, if anything, it brought to the "original" story, much as Zemeckis'  film played with quite a few accepted plot points. As well as altering enough of the character dynamics to make my showing it in class (beyond the ten minutes at the start), unnecessary and even counter-productive to an analysis of the themes and archetypes.
Beowulf: The Game's "chant challenges" are unique,
though ultimately frustrating.

Despite a fair degree of clunky game play which made even the most basic level of difficulty frustrating, to the game designer Ubisoft's credit, there is an attempt to utilize the full spectrum of X-BOX 360's controllers in a number of unique ways, most notably to "chant challenges" which require punching in long and short "tones" in rapid succession to prompt characters to a variety of actions such as moving barriers or rowing galleys.

Just as the movie fleshed out elements of the story in the interest of shaping the narrative to modern sensibilities, The Game takes advantage of the additional time to fill in spaces in certain key character relationships rather than simply retelling the story as paced in the the movie. In the game, Breca becomes much more of a foil early on and the challenges he and Beowulf face together increase. (Unfortunately, the actualization of these challenges--"giant" sand crabs the size of small dogs?--does reduce the sense of danger inherent in the the opposition.)

You are Beowulf!
There are also small cosmetic changes to the characters designs as presented in the film The Game was released to support. For example, Beowulf is now clothed while battling Grendel: a concession that would seem to have been made to allow for a broader potential market, though the increased amount of pixellated blood drawn from each sword slash would seem to be counter intuitive to that purpose. Many of Beowulf's "kills" are brutal (in the movie and game), and The Game earns it's M Rating based on those merits alone... which begs the question: why change that aspect of the game except that it might be more marketable to play as a murdering savage warrior who is fully clothed.

Much of my appreciation of Beowulf: The Game comes from both the cost incurred for the copy I bought ($4.99) and my interest in comparing and contrasting filmmaker Zemeckis's extended vision for the character with that of Heaney. Had I plopped down $50, seven years ago, my venom toward the game might be equal to that of reviewers of the day. Now, year's removed from the hype, and neck deep in analysis and class discussion, I can think of many more wasteful ways to drop a few dollars and wile away a few hours, than Beowulf: The Game.

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