The Golden Compass [video game] (2007)

They’re uncommon now, but tie-in video games used to be very common. A blockbuster movie would get an accompanying video game, usually on near every video game platform available at the time, even when that led to functionally very different versions of the game depending on the platform (i.e., in this case, the Nintendo DS version is quite different to the more 3D versions on every other platform). THE GOLDEN COMPASS was a failed 2007 blockbuster, a choppy adaption of the first of Philip Pullman’s celebrated HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy, a collision of New Line Cinema’s attempt to emulate the fantasy success of their THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy with the general young adult trend that had been seeing success with the HARRY POTTER series. Tie-in games were typically cheap affairs, janky and rushed, coasting off the brand recognition. Rarely were they much good, or rarely were they given much in the way of time, resources, and freedom that might enable them to be much good.

What’s interesting with this case, however, is the film underwent a lot of controversies that saw it hastily re-edited for the umpteenth time at the eleventh hour, which saw basically its entire ending get cut. But the game released before the film did, and the workflow of the various companies at play saw the game preserve some of that original ending filmgoers never got to see.

These ending segments are largely compressed to a cut-down FMV – full-motion video, prerecorded video segments sometimes used in games – but are fascinating, nonetheless. Bits and pieces of the film’s original ending have seeped out through odd channels like this, but the actual thing itself never got to be seen, and has since been superseded by the television adaption of the same novels that begun in 2019.

(spoilers for the video game, and thus the film and book they’re both based on, below)

For all that, the game shares that unfortunate quality of the film in having a laughably abrupt ending – just set slightly later in the story. The credits start rolling after protagonist Lyra and her armoured bear companion Iorek start setting out for her father and his actions that make up the climax of the book. Interestingly, the flow of the third act in general is improved – or at least follows the original novel – in the game, as it lacks the switcharound the film made to a battle at Bolvangar, and Iorek claiming his kingship.

The biggest change the game makes structurally is that it opens in media res, with Iorek and Lyra on a mission taking place in the third act of the overall story. This makes sense, as the actual beginning of the story is filled with words, musings, a slow flow of information reveals – things hard to gamify. Cutting ahead to an action-packed sequence, then pulling back in the classic ‘oh, where was I?’ fashion works well enough. It’s stitched together by the witch Serafina’s narration, which strains to try and pull together the game’s haphazard adaption of the story, which was criticised back upon release for being incomprehensible without having read the novel, or seen the film (which came out after the game!).

Really, the biggest flaw with the game isn’t the oft-infuriating level design (so finicky to control, so prone to repetition via doubling back), or the dispassionate voice acting, the lack of cohesion across all levels of the gameplay and design…it’s that this story just really does not lend itself to gamification, at least in the way these developers attempted it. Take deception, a mechanic proudly touted in the marketing leading up to the game. Lyra’s nature is as a liar, and much of the novel focuses on her struggles but typical canny successes to deceive and manipulate others. The game employs verbal ‘battles’ to try and emulate this. That makes sense, loads of games do similarly, like role-playing games that make choosing certain responses (or only having certain responses available, depending on how the player has developed their character) a choice mechanic for the player to interact with. This game doesn’t give dialogue choices, or anything like that. At critical junctures in conversations, it just pulls up a completely unrelated minigame, and if one succeeds at that, one ‘wins’ that exchange. The minigames are completely random abstractions, with nothing to do with the story, the world, the characters, let alone the actual dialogue.

It’s frustrating, though not nearly as frustrating as the wonky level design. The game generally works as a puzzle/platforming game playing in three-dimensional zones, with occasional conversational events like those, or combat events that are formed up of button-mashing and quick-time-events (where players just press the button indicated on-screen when it appears – ever the sign of developers struggling to inject gameplay into their video game). The other big shiny mechanic of the game is the Alethiometer, Lyra’s magical device that lets her divine the answers to all sorts of questions.

The developers make a brave effort to actually make such a thing interactive, but it basically comes down to random collectibles hidden in the game zones giving the player the ability to identify symbols on the Alethiometer, and either the railroaded plot giving the player questions to then ask it, or lore-related questions appearing depending on a player’s exploration of the gameworld and their dialogues with characters. Some of the symbols can be intuited without actually finding the relevant collectible or dialogue path, and that’s fun and affirming and a kind of emulation of the actual practice of using the device in-story…but Lyra doesn’t retain the memory or knowledge of those symbol associations, infuriatingly forcing players to have to find the collectibles for those associations to stick. This actively kicks back a player’s investment in the minigame, their critical thinking to interact with it.

The game’s struggles to find areas of the story to inject gameplay into see it adapt some sections of the novel that the film didn’t, but these are all fairly minor. Occasional first-person point-of-view sequences are interesting in the in-engine cutscenes (especially one from a flying witch’s point of view, towards the end – quite thrilling!), but the framing of the cutscenes is typically flat, just adhering to basic cinematic language bare the rare ostentatious character introduction shot. Iorek is introduced in a drunken dream that intercuts between the events that led to him sleeping in Trollesund, and him just sleeping at Trollesund, and that’s fairly well-executed. Iorek gets more focus in the game, as a big violent bear is easier to gamify than a rambunctious young girl, but his sequences tend to be even more repetitive gameplay-wise than Lyra’s.

It’s all rather a mess, overall. There’s a thrill to seeing parts of the cut ending of the film, and video games (three-dimensional ones, at the very least) embody the physical spaces of areas in memorable ways very pleasing to the mind, so some of the exploration is enjoyable. But it’s all quite the struggle, though I’m sure my struggle to play it (and even greater struggle to enjoy it) pales in comparison to the struggle of the developers to make and release the thing in the first place. One and a half bits of bloodmoss, and a headless bug.

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