Session Report is a monthly series that explores the intersection of narrative and broader themes of game design by focusing on a specific tabletop game each month. This month’s game is:
So a Scout, a Synthetic Humanoid, and a Weyland-Yutani Executive walk into an army medical lab operating outside of regulated space. “I got signals,” the Scout says. “I got readings, in front and behind.”
“Forget the signals,” the Executive says. “Where Are the Brothers?” Yeah, a couple of Brothers from the double-Y chromosome correctional facility had gone missing.
The Scout did some Reconnaissance on the Ventilation Shafts. “Uh, guys,” he said. “I mean gal, and thing. We better do this job quick. What I mean is we got No Time to Waste. This thing’s on a collision course with planet Earth! Oh, and there’s a Xenomorph Runner in the Weapons Locker.”
Pretty soon there’s a Runner and a Noxious Xenomorph standing right in front of them. “They’re All Around Us!” the Executive shouts, and the Scout takes that as his cue to kill the Runner. But then he sees another Runner coming out of the vents.
The android knows that the xenos in front of them are bad, but the ones farther are the more important threat; remember, they’re supposed to be finding the Missing Brothers. “Look into my eye,” the Scout says, pulling down his right eyelid. The Synthetic gets the picture.
Then the Scout kills an Acid Spray Xenomorph and a few Specialists die, which is actually a good thing because they were like dead weight at this point.
“Look into my eye,” the Scout says again, then the Executive is like “They’re All Around Us!” and the Scout wastes a Runner that just appeared in front of them.
The Synthetic goes on a Secret Mission to check out the Power Station. There’s a Skittering Xenomorph, and the Synthetic wastes it before it can skitter away. “Prune the Growths,” the android mumbles ominously, and then suddenly the crew don’t feel as pressed for time.
By this point, they’ve found both the Brothers cowering in the Airlock. The Scout is like “Look into my eye” while the Synthetic goes and rescues them. “In space, No One Can Hear You Scream,” he says.
I thank my lucky star (get it!?) that I recently reviewed Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game, the subject of this month’s Session Report, elsewhere. This means that I can simply provide a link to my existing review and waste no more virtual ink on the mundane topic of what the game’s actually like. Instead, I can focus the critical segment of this Session Report on the endlessly fascinating topic of cross-medium adaptation.
Adaptation from one medium to another is always a two-step process of distillation and reconstitution. We can understand this better by actualizing the metaphor implied by the term: the medium of a work of art or entertainment is the medium in which the actual content is suspended in a kind of solution. When you change the medium, the content might remain the same, but the medium itself brings its own specific gravity, pH and reaction temperature to the party. You can’t just dump one solution into the other–to suspend the content in a new medium, you must first separate it from the initial solution (distillation) and then integrate it into the new (reconstitution).
Much of the process of distillation involves figuring out what the content actually is after the medium has been stripped away. Since Marshall McLuhan figured out that “the medium is the message,” this distillation process can yield surprising results. It’s less a matter of porting over the best parts of the original work than it is of salvaging whatever you can, using the new medium to fill the ample holes the process leaves behind. That’s why movies adapted from books inevitably disappoint and alienate their original audience. With few exceptions, the very things that make a good book so good are impossible to translate to the screen. One medium is introspective, conceptual and philosophical, while the other is audiovisual, kinetic and ultimately literal. Masters of the process might turn a great book into an equally great film, but it will be great for entirely different reasons.
In my recent discussion of the Silent Hill movie, I touched on the historically failure-fraught process of adaptation between video games and films. While the two media are superficially similar, both relying on easily decoded visual and auditory cues, the locus of storytelling within the two media presents significant roadblocks. Storytelling in digital games is primarily spatial and objective-driven. The player moves ever forward in search of a distant solution to an always-present problem, and narrative moves forward at the same pace. This Eurogamer review of thatgamecompany’s Journey illustrates this concept better than I could hope to do in a sentence or two. Film storytelling, on the other hand, arises from the process and juxtaposition of details highlighted by camera angle and mise-en-scène, at a calculated rate conceived in the editing booth.
Somewhat surprisingly, tabletop games and electronic games have even less in common–while they are both objective-driven and player-paced, tabletop games lack the motion, sound and sense of immersion so important to video game storytelling. On the other hand, the tabletop medium introduces an (often subtle) element of tactility and interpersonal interaction, an additional degree of separation (from Rock Band to Rock Band Manager), and an even less linear structure.
There’s another Runner. The Scout’s like, “People Are Disappearing,” and everybody feels really bummed out about that. Doing some Recon on the Vents, the Scout pops another Skittering Xeno, then applies the Vent Seal to keep the creatures from getting around that way. “Well that was easy,” he says. “Look into my eye.”
They kill some more aliens, and then the Scout is all suddenly like “We Have to Work Together.” To which the Synthetic replies, “I can perform the work of exactly five specialized individuals at once.”
“You and your Versatile Programming,” the Scout mutters. “No need to go showboating.”
Then the Synthetic mutters “Prune the Growths” and the Scout is like “Look into my eye” and the Synthetic kills a Shedding-Skin Xenomorph alongside one of the rescued Brothers.
The Executive is like “They’re All Around Us!” and kills another Skittering Xeno, then she says “Look into my eye” and the Scout kills another Acid Spray Xeno in the Airlock. Three Grunts die, which is a pretty favorable outcome.
The Synthetic sees another Shedding Skin Xenomorph in the Airlock but he can’t kill it. He knows that if he lets it finish the whole skin-shedding, it will turn into a pretty bad motherfucker. Then things go from bad to worse as Chief Engineer Parker is taken to The Hatchery.
But then things get better when the Executive find Jonesy in the Medlab. At least the cat’s okay!
To get a full sense of just how well Legendary Encounters manages to distill and reconstitute the stories it’s adapting–the Alien motion picture universe–another example of motion picture-to-tabletop adaptations might be in order. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Game, published by Hasbro/Milton Bradley in 2000, is a fascinating case. For a mass-market game prior to the Eurogame invasion, it’s impressively groundbreaking in its attempts to capture the essence of the popular television series. It’s a team game. One player controls the “Big Bad” (one of four, depending on the scenario–or “season”–the players have chosen), while the rest take the roles of various members of Buffy’s “Scooby Gang.” What makes this game stand out, however, is the particular team dynamic it creates.
You see, not all characters are created equal. As in the TV show, Buffy is clearly the MVP. She hits harder and takes a punch better than any other member of the team, and she is often literally the only important hero in the game–most scenarios end in an automatic loss for the good guys if Buffy is killed or turned vamp. The rest of the Scooby Gang fill various support roles. Willow, captured in her teen witch phase from the show’s middle seasons, is a subpar fighter but excels in research–digging up the artifacts that are often central to winning the scenario–and magick (the other characters can cast spells as well, but Willow’s the only one with a greater than 10% success rate). Oz is the weakest character for most of the game, but during full moons (tracked using the board’s elevated moon phase track), he transforms in a virtually unkillable werewolf who can dash halfway across the board in a single move and lay the smackdown better than Buffy herself. Xander, as in the show, is the team’s butt monkey, mediocre at everything and more a liability than an asset in most situations. His only real use is to serve as a gofer for the more useful characters and fetch allies like Anya and Giles.
Buffy‘s focus on asymmetrical characters creates a team dynamic that brilliantly captures the essence of the show. There is only one Buffy, but she can’t win the game alone. The heroes have to coordinate as a team, recognizing that some of them are less useful and more expendable than others but that they all have a place in the posse. Of course, while is an excellent adaptation, it’s not completely successful as a game. The reality is that everybody wants to be Buffy–even the Big Bad is less fun to play than the Slayer. It takes a serious Buffy fan to really own the fact that you’re playing Xander and you’re probably going to die stupidly within the first five turns.
“But Who’s Laying the Eggs?” the Executive wonders aloud.
The Scout does more Recon on the Weapons Locker and the Power Station, revealing another Skin-Shedder and a Howling Xenomorph. “They’re All Around Us!” the Executive shouts as the Scout totally pwns the nearest Skin-Shedder.
“We’ve got to kill the Queen,” the Synthetic declares while Pruning another Grunt from his personality matrix and blasting the other Skin-Shedder in the face. “Look into my eye,” the Scout and Exec suggest simultaneously, and the Synthetic totally does that.
The Exec checks out the Power Station, revealing another Howler. Its howls alert a nearby Xenomorph Snatcher, which descends from the ceiling, dragging Private Hudson back to the Hatcher to serve as hosts for the Queen’s progeny. But the Exec totally rescues him immediately. He teaches her how to say, “You Want Some of This?”
“Just what is your angle in all this?” the Executive demands of the Scout. “I’m a good guy, but I’m kind of Ruthless when it comes to getting the job done,” he admits. “Cool,” the Executive replies.
But then a Howling Xenomorph closes in! Further Pruning his personality matrix, the Synthetic calls upon the Missing Brothers and the power of the Infinity Gems to stop it in its tracks. But then he goes on a Secret Mission to the Power Station and comes back with some sobering news: “They’re All Dead.”
“Look into my eye,” the Executive says.
“Find It and Kill It,” she says a little bit later. The Synthetic uses another shard of the Infinity Gem to kill a nearby Howler. “Look into my eye,” the Scout suggests. Full of Surprises, the Synthetic patches up one of the Scout’s Flesh Wounds.
While preparing the Session Report portion of this review, I came to the surprising realization that Legendary Encounters isn’t really a very good simulation of the Alien films. While the art and gameplay effects of the cards wonderfully recall the key moments of the films, and the scenarios feel like the movies while you’re playing with, the game relies on some heavy abstractions that obfuscate any 1:1 correlations between the turn-to-turn mechanics and the source material.
As an example, we can look at the concepts of the Complex and the Combat Zone. Most of the time, the cards moving through the Complex represent threats (usually xenomorphs, represented at first by unknown radar blips) that are making their way toward the players. When they reach the combat zone, they begin to attack. At other times, though, the Complex functions as an abstract timer. When searching for the missing Brothers during Objective 1, if you don’t reveal the card while it’s still in the Complex, the Brother is killed instantly–you couldn’t find him in time. The Jonesy card from Objective 2 functions in the same way, and in fact, every scenario has at least one ally card of this type (Newt is another example). When using the Nostromo location card, the third Hazard also acts like a timer for the Self-Destruct Sequence–if you haven’t disarmed it before it reaches the Combat Zone, it damages each player heavily. Most of the time, though, the Event and Hazard cards don’t treat the Complex as either a series of physical locations or a ticking clock–they’re more abstract than that.
Similarly, while the Character cards are fantastic representations of the corresponding characters from the films, it’s not really clear how they’re supposed to function when played. When you “recruit” a character card, it’s more like you’re gaining a personality trait than hiring an ally. If I play Chief Engineer Parker, Private Hudson, and a few grunts to generate the attack needed to kill a xenomorph, I don’t imagine that I’m actually sending a small army after the alien–I’m simply acting as the corresponding characters might have, as represented by the moments captured on the cards in my hand. At other times, though, the character cards clearly are meant to function as individuals. During Objective 3 of this playthrough, the xenomorphs start taking human “captives,” represented by character cards–sometimes, multiple cards depicting the same character, yet intended to represent distinct individuals. The “You’re a Thing, a Construct” objective uses a similar mechanism to depict the failed Ripley clones from Alien: Resurrection. And then there’s the Executive’s “Welcome Aboard” ability, which treats the characters as actual individuals, and the Technician’s “Right Tool for the Job” ability, which treats them more as capabilities.
Ultimately, though, this fluidity of representation is one of the game’s greatest strengths. Without these multiple levels of abstraction in play, it wouldn’t have the flexibility to recreate such diverse moments from the films. Remember, this isn’t a video game, where you’re meant to inhabit the hero of the story; board game adaptations require this degree of separation in order to accomplish the tricky task of reproducing the feel of the original product in an inherently non-immersive format.
But then, out of nowhere, a Meddlesome Xenomorph and an Ambushed Medic (ambushed by a xenomorph, in case it wasn’t clear) appear! The nearby aliens lash out at the android. There’s one Close Call, one Contaminated Gash, and then a Facehugger is latched onto his plasticine mug!
The Executive looks at the struggling android and then at the pack of xenomorphs surrounding her. “Sorry, buddy,” she says, killing the Meddlesome Xeno. Taking a look at the Power Station, another really bad thing is about to happen, but the Executive just covers her ears and is like “This Ain’t Happening, Man!” So everything’s okay, except the Facehugger impregnates the Synthetic with a baby Chestburster. “I’ll just prune it later,” he shrugs.
“Hey look, it’s Jonesy!” the Scout exclaims, as the mangy cat miraculously heals the team’s minor wounds. Some Snatchers take Call and another version of Chief Engineer Parker to the Hatchery.
Then the Chestburster comes out of the android! It’s gory and gruesome and he suffers extreme pain and dies. Another Snatcher grabs Groot! The Scout suffers three Brutal Punctures and dies.
“Well, I guess it’s time to Reveal my Secrets,” the Executive declares, revealing to nobody in particular that she was working for The Company all along, on a secret mission to capture the Xenomorph Queen alive for further study. But there’s some poetic justice in the form of a Facehugger from the darkness. “Somebody Help!” the Executive shouts in a muffled voice, but there’s nobody left alive to help.
I just got back from Day 2 of &NOW 2015: Blast Radius. This morning, I didn’t have a strategy for concluding this essay, but a statement from Laura Vena in the Resonances & Repetitions panel organized by Janice Lee blew it wide open for me. Discussing an individuals place in the environment, the fallacy of “landscape” as something to be observed, to be in and within but not a part of, and the similar treatment of literature from the perspective of the critical reader, Laura compared the process of writing to a willingness to “inhabit other subjectivities.” Just minutes before, I had realized that the narrative suggested by the deck building in Legendary Encounters is exactly one of trying on different personalities for size, testing and blending new ways of being and becoming, and Laura had just handed me the perfect phrase to describe this experience.
That this phrase was appropriated from a panel on writing and the poetics of space (pushing off from Janice Lee’s essay series published here on Entropy) deserves more attention than I can afford it here. Still, it seems significant that this trying on of subjectivities is predominant part of what makes Legendary Encounters feel so successful in terms of distilling and reconstituting the film property into this finicky new medium (a feeling, I’ve discovered, that does not lend itself to transcription). It’s a sort of ritual evocation of memory fused with a childish idolatry. You’re not limited to the viewpoint of a single character from a single moment in time; you’re all your favorite heroes, shifting back and forth between them as you choose. Not only that, but you’re the heroes in only their best moments, a greatest hits reel. It’s a pure, unabashed celebration of your relationship as fan to the original work. It just so happens to also be an excellent game.