Sunday, 6 November 2011

Game On #1. The City Of Lost Children

Crumb (Judith Vittet) stares down the rabbit hole... The City Of Lost Children (1995)

For almost as long as I've been an ardent film nut (20 years and counting) I've also been an obsessive gamer, and on many an occasion my love for both art forms have suckered me into that most deceptive of traps: the film / videogame tie-in. Hercules (Clements, Musker, 1997) and Small Soldiers (Dante, 1998) were the first culprits. I adored these films at the cinema, and my parents, knowing this, bought me their tie-ins for the Christmas that I recieved my first PS1. I didn't take to gaming naturally (controllers lobbed across living rooms became a frequent house hazard) but my addiction was instant. Since then I've gotten a little better at platforming and shooting (racing, not so much) but I've never quite learned my lesson where it comes to those dreaded tie-ins. There's always been a kind of odd, wallet-sapping curiosity that niggles away in my brain, forcing me to shell out on the latest blockbuster title to waddle its way onto consoles. "This one might be different" I convince myself. It never is. But now, in a new feature for E-Film Blog, I'm going to address the issue. Every week I'll be taking a film along with its accompanying game and landing the verdict on whether this tie-in is box office gold or a lousy, lazy flop. First up we're going retro to focus on The City Of Lost Children...


For those unacquainted, The City Of Lost Children is a 1995 dystopian fantasy directed by visionary French duo Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (Delicatessen, 1991). It's an incredibly underrated film, following resourceful orphan Crumb (Judith Vittet) as she embarks upon a quest with carnival strongman One (Ron Perlman) to save the dozens of children kidnapped by loopy scientist Krank (Daniel Emilfork), who plans to revert his accelerated aging process by stealing their dreams. Yeah, it's pretty darn weird, fusing visual motifs from Dieselpunk and Art Deco to create one kookily askew dystopia, and its influence, on everything from Dark City (Proyas, 1998) to 2K's videogame franchise BioShock, has gone criminally unchecked. The film opens on a young boy's dream of Christmas, which quickly turns into a nightmare as he's kidnapped by a rag-tag group of Santa's and a Buñuelian donkey. Honestly, I never thought I'd write that sentence. Accompanied by a beautiful Angelo Badalamenti score, the film has a sickly green aesthetic which, combined with the 1920's architecture - shadow-laden tunnels and wartime diners - makes for an enveloping world ripe for videogame adaptation. One would assume that this multi-tiered landscape was built for exploration, and would lend itself perfectly to the standard variety of platforming action. And when I learned that Marc Caro had overseen the production and art design of the project my hopes were raised even further. Was I right to expect the best from this tie-in? Time to find out...

The cover art for City Of Lost Children on PS1, developed by Psygnosis...

Honestly, it baffles me that anyone even thought City Of Lost Children was marketable as a videogame, as many tie-ins of the time (Psygnosis' effort was released in 1997) were of Disney movies, Saturday morning cartoons and comic book heroes. The game certainly seems to be aimed toward a niche, perhaps higher-brow crowd, and it's easy now to see why it flopped. Indeed, if it weren't for Caro's obvious supervision over the art design this colorful chore would be entirely unplayable. It basically takes the form of a point n' click adventure, charting Crumb (referred to here as Miette) as she moves through various room and corridors, each conceived within the gaze of three interchangeable cameras, which can be switched between to reveal clues and hidden paths. The main problem is that, due to the sluggish controls, this becomes a boring task rather than an exciting one. Rather than the directional buttons deciding the... y'know... direction of your character, they instead act as a positing tool. Unless you use the left and right buttons to rotate and point Miette in the required direction she will only walk forward, which has none of the fluidity of simply being able to tap a specific button and have it result in one direct movement. The analogue stick is entirely useless and the R1 button, which speeds her up from walking to running speed, results in Miette getting stuck behind glitchy objects. Getting from one side of a level to the other is unreasonably snooze-inducing, and means that eternal boredom sets in after only fifteen minutes of play...

But like I say, City Of Lost Children is a visual feast, and despite some terribly rendered surfaces the game is impressively designed. The colours (rusty greys and those sickly greens) perfectly complement the film's palette, and despite some repetition in the locations (this is PS1 after all) there is a genuine sense of expansive space, and an endless world for Miette to explore. It's such a shame that there's no reason for the player to invest in said world, largely because of the sluggish controls , but also because of the quality of gameplay. Jeunet pinpointed the theme of this film - and it actually applies to all of his work - as being that "tiny things can accomplish great feats". Most of his narratives are built from incidental moments which have a domino-like effect on his characters lives, and there's great potential for this idea to be implemented into a videogame - especially in the way of puzzles. City Of Lost Children has a few, annoyingly varied in difficulty, but they feel so separate from the narrative driven action. Although the world itself is identifiable from the film, and replicated with care, there's nothing in the gameplay that suggests the genius of Jeunet & Caro. It's not a terrible game. Just a deeply misguided and fiddly one (continues after the image).


Hopefully the above image will represent the beauty of Psygnosis' failed attempt, but it also demonstrates the narrow, linear style of gameplay - close-up walkways and the clunky ascent beyond them. If ever there was a game I wanted to see remade, it's this one. Titles like Sly Cooper, Ico and Splinter Cell have recently been remastered in HD for the PS3. I wonder what good it would do to put a request in...

Next week I'll be moving toward TV / videogame tie-ins for the PS1 spin-off of Saturday morning sci-fi Roswell Conspiracies...

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