Where Have All the Bond Games Gone?
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Where Have All the Bond Games Gone?

Everyone’s been thinking about James Bond lately, with the franchise’s latest cinematic release tantalisingly close yet pushed back by the pandemic. It serves as a reminder of the wider obstacles faced by this particular franchise—one that can be nimble, competitive, and invigorating—but yet is a behemoth always struggling against the weight of its reputation in a changing creative landscape.

The video games inspired by these films are a particular testament to those difficulties, considering their trajectory: an early enormous success in GoldenEye, through weakly received adaptations and original stories, to a near-decade of non-existence. Can the newly announced release by IO Interactive, developers of the acclaimed Hitman games, breathe new life into an ailing giant?

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Bond in gaming at one point in time. The adaptation of GoldenEye is universally regarded as the high watermark for the franchise in gaming: released two years after the film, it could have just been a Doom clone, but instead it shifted first-person shooters on console into a new gear. Single player showed great ambitions in an expansive, multiple-objective driven world—a gameplay approach hardly seen in shooters of the time. However, it’s the multiplayer that really shone and cemented the game as a classic, becoming a treasured experience in living rooms around the globe that helped present the potential of consoles as gaming all-rounders.

But that early lead in multiplayer has all but disappeared with new technologies encouraging the development of more elaborate and cinema-inspired narratives. We’ve had both original stories with new heroes and villains, as well as adaptations of old stories that have allowed us to experience classic scenes in fresh forms. It’s a shift that makes sense as an answer to a simple question: if you can be Bond, why wouldn’t you want to be? Agent Under Fire is a brilliantly exciting 2001 attempt to put you inside his mind, not just making you a ruthless killer but a spy with numerous gadgets and ridiculously over-the-top adventures. Great Bond games have the potential to invoke the same childlike joy that some of the films manage to get just right.

Recent games have been stuck in a narrative version of the uncanny valley, aping the films in a way that’s uncomfortable to experience. They’re desperate to fit into the more realistic world of Daniel Craig’s Bond, bringing key actors on board and retaining some aesthetic similarities, yet conscious of the silliness demanded by the unbelievably relentless combat of shooting-oriented games. Naturally, the result is a series of stilted, uncertain releases that jar with the films to which they’re in thrall, and this failure makes itself evident in myriad ways.

One of the greatest failures is that you rarely have the chance to feel like an action hero; the games are constructed to take any sense of volition from you. There are, superficially, plenty of dramatic set pieces and noticeably violent opportunities to defeat enemies. However, you aren’t able to participate in the most memorable scenes, and the takedowns and killings of your foes happen within square, lifeless, and linear environments that feel simply like shooting galleries. You don’t feel like James Bond, the powerful and intelligent secret agent, but an imposter who’s being told in an unconvincing, contrived manner that this is what it means to be him.

Inducement of boredom is the greatest sin committed as a result of this bloodlessness, and the utterly threadbare stories make the films positively epic by comparison. The franchise’s trademark wit isn’t there, for a start, allowing the mechanics of plotting and characterisation to become more prominent. Unfortunately, however, it’s clear that’s there’s little of the latter two, and this isn’t more disappointing or egregious than in Quantum of Solace. That game retells both its source and Casino Royale in short, disconnected chunks, giving little context to each scene so that you’re tediously conscious of interacting with a greatest hits package. There seems to be an assumption that you’ll just be glad to be Bond, which might be the case with more fun games.

Undoubtedly, some people will imagine that things could’ve been better since GoldenEye if the games stuck to a multiplayer focus, but this ignores the real challenges in being a competitor. The track record of Bond’s attempts at multiplayer speak for themselves, with none of the modes making any waves amongst gaming communities—not even the multiplayer element of Quantum of Solace, developed by Call of Duty’s very own studio, Treyarch. That a CoD developer can’t even make something exceptional speaks to the level of competition faced by any challenger, particularly in the oversaturated world of first-person shooters.

There’s a more significant issue underpinning Bond’s gaming problems than quality, however, and it’s that no one knows or understands how to convey what it is to be the character. The Bond we see in the films is intelligent, suave, and, yes, an efficient killer—but the latter is not the defining point of his character. People playing the games, though, will find that he’s not multifaceted and any traits beyond murder are simply padding around the constant shootouts. There isn’t the opportunity to participate in the other aspects of what makes Bond an icon; what remains is a persistent, nagging feeling that you’re playing generic games that their developers have desperately tried to infuse with flavour.

A positive sign that things are changing is the hiring of IO, developers of the acclaimed Hitman games, to create the next Bond-based video game. There’s been little information given as of yet, but we can comfortably assume there’ll be plenty of opportunity to feel intelligent and stylish, with the Hitman series’ main focuses being on player choice and freedom. Hopefully, though, we won’t just see a re-skin that happens to feature James Bond, but something broader—perhaps with the role-playing elements of Deus Ex to make you feel like a smooth spy rather than just a reasonably clever assassin. IO can’t have been brought on board without knowledge of their reputation-cementing skills, and so there should be an opportunity to reinvent for the better what we expect from this particular property.

Undoubtedly, Bond has lost its way amidst the demands of modern day gaming. There have been attempts to mesh it with modern conventions, from contemporary forms of multiplayer like we might see in Call of Duty to the sort of set-piece stuffed narratives we might see in Uncharted. It’s clear that these attempts have failed, and they’ve relegated what was once an important part of gaming to a bit player desperate to keep up without really knowing what it’s doing.

After a disappointing decade it looks, finally, like things might be turning a corner, and if there is the courage to actually forge a unique, character-driven path, we might once more see Bond satisfy fans and gamers at large in a way that has long seemed so distant.

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