Monday, 2 June 2014

Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse” Should Have Been a Video Game

The notion of adapting works into different media has always been prevalent in popular culture, although this is often a cynical attempt to make money from brand recognition more than anything else. I recently watched a few episodes of the Joss Whedon TV thing, or “program”, if you will, “Dollhouse”, and it inspired me to write an article.

For those of you who don’t know, the “program” is about a company that effectively deals in slaves, or “dolls”, in modern America. The dolls, however, have willingly signed up to have their minds wiped, and then have new personalities inserted to suit the needs of the customers. This can range from fulfilling sexual desires or emotional needs to making them into temporary assassins or spies, depending on the client. After they have done the job, they have their mind wiped and reset back to their default mode. After a few years of servitude they are given their old personality back and sent back out into society. If I explained that badly, feel free to do a quick Wikipedia check.*

Joss Whedon, showing off his new banister.

 Whilst I think the “program” is okay, I couldn’t help thinking it was a missed opportunity. The creators clearly put a lot of time into devising a unique and interesting premise, and then building a world in which this premise can be explored in different ways. I couldn’t help feeling, however, that this premise would have been far better suited to a video game.

There are two good reasons for thinking this. Firstly, the idea of interchangeable personalities within the same character is a brilliant gameplay concept. Not only does it give a narrative explanation for why one person can do so many diverse things (unlike, say “Grand Theft Auto” or “Fallout”, where we just accept that a talented murderer is also brilliant at flying planes or fixing satellite dishes), but it also gives excellent progression and limitations on a character. It can also be used to explain why you lose useful abilities between levels, as your character has been reset and can no longer hack computers or speak French. Compare this to the “Metroid” games, which have to come up with increasingly convoluted ways of explaining why Samus has none of her equipment at the start of each game.

Such as the incident at the start of "Other M", where Samus loses her character traits, empowerment and likability.

The second reason I think the “doll” idea would work so well is the narrative potential. Throughout the course of “Dollhouse” we learn more about the previous life of Echo, the central protagonist and one of the dolls. Whilst I think “Dollhouse” does a decent job of exploring her past and her motivations, I think this could have worked far better in the form of a video game. A confused perspective works to a degree in a television “program”, but when we experience that character’s confusion in an interactive way it becomes far more engaging. There is an episode of “Dollhouse” where Echo has memories of breaking into a laboratory, and these break through her memory loss, helping her artificial personality do it’s job. This is fine to watch, but I feel it would have worked a lot better if we were playing as Echo, and had the choice between relying on her amazing but artificial skills or her personality, something that is a central and seemingly invincible part of her. This tension seems so much more exciting in a video game format.

I think it’s such a shame that there is a perceived cultural hierarchy, that seems to suggest that film and television are always the best formats. It is a simple fact that some ideas suit some media formats better than others. Should fans be constantly pushing for a “Halo” film? Would “Citizen Kane” work as a television series? Could “Watchmen” work the same way as a film?

I'm pretty sure Alan Moore loves it when his deconstruction of an entire medium is reduced to "ooh, look at her bum".

 Well, at least for the last one we know the answer. And it’s no.

*A fun game to play with Wikipedia with a friend or friends is to hit “random article”, read out the title (and nothing else) and then you all have to draw your interpretation of that title in 5 minutes. Jak and I have spent many an evening playing this, and I now have a whole stack of drawings that look like the holy book of the shittest cult ever.


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