Welcome back to Pushing Buttons! This issue is going out on my birthday. Presents would be nice, but what I actually want is a week off to finally play Elden Ring. Only slightly more importantly, today is also when the finale of Better Call Saul airs in the UK, closing out a story that began with Breaking Bad’s first TV episodes in 2008. I will really miss this series – there is nothing in television quite like creator Vince Gilligan’s sumptuous shots and tight dark-comedic writing. I’ve often wondered why there’s been no Breaking Bad video game – especially because Netflix has shown a great deal of interest in the games, from buying studios to bankrolling endless TV adaptations. (Side note: did you know that Netflix subscribers get access to 24 mostly excellent games for free, including the sci-fi masterpiece Into the Breach? I didn’t, until last week.)
I would have expected some drug-empire management game, maybe spliced with scenes from the show, or with scene-setting and dialogue from its writers. Or perhaps an interactive-movie tie-in along the lines of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, where your reactions send the story spinning off in different directions. It would be expensive, sure, but Netflix has never minded spending money.
It turns out, as Gilligan said in this podcast interview, that there have been attempts at Breaking Bad video games – but none have come to fruition. Gilligan is not a gamer himself, but he talks about his vision for a Grand Theft Auto-style adaptation of the show that was pitched but never happened. Immense energy, effort and talent went into writing storylines for potential game projects, he says; at one point something was on the cards for PlayStation VR, but that never materialised, either.
Gilligan has run into a problem that video game creatives know well: making games is absurdly difficult, expensive and time-consuming. I am reminded of a quote from Frank Lantz of the NYU Game Center, which opened a superb video game exhibition at the V&A in 2018: “Making a game combines everything that’s hard about building a bridge with everything that’s hard about composing an opera. Games are basically operas made out of bridges.” Creating something that met the extremely high production standards of Breaking Bad would take years and cost millions. No wonder Gilligan and co couldn’t get anything off the ground.
This is why, historically, games based on movies and TV shows have been as terrible as movies based on games: they have to be made on constrained timescales and budgets, so that they can be released while the TV show or movie in question is still on air. I knew a few people who worked at EA Bright Light, the UK studio tasked with adapting the Harry Potter films into games for the Wii, Xbox 360 and PS3 in the 00s. Although those games sucked, it’s a miracle any of them were finished at all, given the insane pressure and compressed schedule developers had. Getting something remotely playable out the door in 11 months or less was a minor miracle.
Time and money are difficult problems to solve, no matter how much creative talent at your disposal. The most successful game adaptations tend to be the ones that aren’t time-sensitive: ones based on Tolkien, or the Marvel/DC universes, or the 2020 interpretation of Animal Farm. But perhaps TV creators (and fans) are patient. After a few cheap tie-ins in the early 00s, South Park’s creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone refused to license out any more until they could help make a game themselves, and do it properly. It resulted in the well-received South Park: The Stick of Truth in 2014, after 5 years of development.
Vince Gilligan tells us not to hold our breath for a Breaking Bad video game adaptation, but now that TV, books, film and games are getting friendlier with each other, I wonder whether it might happen in another 5 years. We can wait. They’re only finally releasing games based on the Redwall novels this year, for instance, and it’s been 25 years since I read those. (Relatedly: I have a very detailed hand-illustrated design document for an open-world Redwall adventure-RPG that I wrote when I was 11. If any developers fancy starting a bidding war for it, you know where to find me.)
What to play
If you want an example of how to make a game based on a TV series without a casual £10 million and half a decade to spare, look at Reigns: Game of Thrones. Taking on the role of one of the TV show’s leaders – Jon Snow, Cersei, Sansa, so on – you are presented with monarchic conundrums and make snap decisions on them by swiping left or right, like a significantly more consequential version of Tinder. It’s halfway between sequel and fan fiction, feeding your imagination with hundreds of potential futures for Westeros and the characters we know so well. Its makers clearly love Game of Thrones, but are not afraid to take its fiction in their own direction.
Available on: PC, smartphones, Nintendo Switch
Approximate playtime: 2-10 hours
What to read
Microsoft stopped disclosing sales figures for Xbox consoles long ago, but early in the PlayStation 4/Xbox One era it was fairly clear that the PS4 was streets ahead. It comes as no surprise, then, to learn that the PS4 outsold the Xbox One by more than two to one, as revealed by court documents. Is it any wonder that Microsoft prefers to frame the console wars on its own terms and talk about Game Pass subscribers and engagement instead?
The Pokémon world championships are in London this week for the first time. The tournaments will be live-streamed, but Pokémon fans can also pay £10 to go and spectate. I went to this tournament in Washington in 2014 and it’s one of the most wholesome video game events I’ve ever been to – I especially loved all the millennial parents proudly watching their little kids compete.
Lastly, enjoy this footage of a game in which you are a squirrel with a gun, which quite deservedly blew up on Twitter over the weekend.
What to click
Reader Lewis sent in this week’s question: I replayed the wonderful Florence, which was the perfect way to decompress during a hectic week. What other one- or two-hour games would you recommend?
I love all short-form media, from singles to short stories and poems to micro-games, and not just because I’m extremely time-poor: when you only have an hour or two to get your point across, you have to be creative and concise. Florence is a great example of this, an entire young-adult relationship compressed into a sequence of emotionally affecting mini-games. Journey is only a couple of hours long and it’s one of my favourite games of all time. The Stanley Parable is a short, replayable work of comic genius. Queer coming-of-age story If Found… also made an impression on me. I liked Shape of the World, an aesthetically pleasing and calm wander through surreal landscapes. I’ve recommended A Short Hike a few times, because it is just that. Ooh, and Minit – a strange, monochrome Zelda-like adventure where you only have 60 seconds to achieve something on each attempt – had me riveted for the entire 90 minutes it took to complete.