Sometimes, it’s difficult to take a videogame on its own terms.
Given the price of a newly released videogame at retail, the gap between what you want a game to be and what it ends up being can be terminal. Indeed, this is one of the most frequently-cited reasons for the videogames industry’s inherent conservatism. It is unfortunate, round-about logic, but often, the only group of players who can afford to let a game take them by surprise is a small and privileged circle: the money rich, the time rich, or those with just the right circumstances. Otherwise, expectations factor.
Given this, there are fewer games as difficult to take on their own terms than the film tie-in. While adaptation functions as a process in other media, in videogames, it has come to most closely resemble a genre, and a poor genre at that. A huge percentage of film tie-in videogames could be classed as something at the bottom of the pool of the action-adventure genre – they feature the same tropes, the same simplistic design, all wrapped up in the sheep’s skin of the latest blockbuster.
Frequently, tie-ins are given a standard makeover – some collectables, some light platforming, small swarms of evil minions to defeat. The list of this type of game runs long: the Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda games, Pirates of the Carribean: At World’s End, the Chronicles of Narnia games and the Harry Potter games, and even the games made from the more successful Pixar films, like Up and Ratatouille. The hallmarks are all there: collect some things, speak to a character from the film in a non-interactive cutscene, jump on some things, defeat an enemy.
This is why Ubisoft Montpellier’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, the adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s film based on three albums of Hergé’s famous cartoons, is so surprising.
Despite being yet another action-adventure film adaptation, Tintin is something different. It is neither a by-the-numbers genre tie-in nor a cynical hulk of a game, masquerading as afterthought merchandise. There is real love here.
Like all film tie-ins, Tintin is rough, and in some places, it is very nearly terrible (and the less said about the vehicle and sword-fighting mini-games, the better). But taken on its own terms, Tintin is also adventurous, and it is charming. Not only is it interesting as a videogame, it is also a sweet tribute to Hergé’s world of Tintin.
To play Tintin is to see shadows of some of the most unlikely videogame matches possible.
There is a lot of the stealth of Arkham Asylum here – one of the central gameplay patterns places Tintin in a room of villains that must be knocked out individually, and if possible, silently. The boy reporter was never one for out-and-out fighting (despite what Spielberg’s film would have you believe), so much of these combat sections involve using the scenery to Tintin’s advantage.
Like Batman, Tintin hides in the walls and in the vents, ready to launch at the right moment. Like Batman, he uses items in the environment to his advantage – suits of armour, beach balls, banana peels. They may be less cool than Batman’s wonderful toys, but the design works in similar ways. Like Batman, Tintin uses the environment to create distractions, and to launch surprise attacks. Tintin was always smarter than his enemies, and not more powerful, and the design reflects that. There may be more violence in a single level of this game than there is in an entire album of Herge’s comics, but it’s a light, comical kind of combat that often relies on your brain as much as your ability to smash buttons.
It also works because it allows Tintin a kind of acrobatic grace, forcing Tintin to climb, roll, crawl and jump more than he needs to punch or kick. While not overtly present in the comic books, this acrobatic tendency is not new in the Tintin universe – as Crikey’s Luke Buckmaster noted, in the 1960s French live-action Tintin film, Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece, the reporter was played by the very acrobatic Jean-Pierre Talbot. This kind of grace of movement seemed a natural segue from the implied fluidity of the comics, and it works well here, too.
On the subject of movement and fighting, there is also a lot of Nintendo’s brawling series, Super Smash Bros. here too. The side-on, two-dimensional style is common to both games, while the animated movement of the characters seems equally similar. Haddock has the heavy grace of a Captain Falcon, while Castafiore shares the aerial mobility of a Princess Peach or Zelda.
Something about the way both games frame their spaces also tallies. Tintin moves between square and rectangular rooms with multiple levels – for all they could be any prototypical two-dimensional platforming game, they have a certain rigidness about them that speaks to Smash Bros.’s design.
Yet for Tintin, there is also a more obvious forebear. Tintin’s flat and square arenas become the flat and square frames of Hergé’s comics, while the gutter between comic images becomes the movement between each area. The concept art available as an added extra for the game makes this clear: the spatial structures of the game are the spatial structures of the comic books.
Finally, there is also Ubisoft Montpellier’s other famous creation, Rayman Origins, here. Playing the two games side-by-side is like playing two parts of a single design process. They share the same energy and creativity of design, the same liveliness of their worlds, the same hooklines to slide down and the same underwater sequences. What Tintin lacks, however, is Rayman’s same committed visual style. Perhaps Ubisoft Montpellier were tied to the visuals of Spielberg’s film, though the boldness of Spielberg’s opening credits or even a return to Hergé’s own ligne claire style would have been more interesting than the wan, semi-three-dimensional Tintin we get here.
Where Tintin excels is in the creation of its own style, respectful of both Spielberg’s film and Hergé’s comics, but not slavish to either. Tintin’s bravest choice, then, is clearly the cooperative mode, which despite its name, can be played by either one or two players. The cooperative sequences occur outside of the central storyline and inside the accidentally concussed mind of Captain Haddock. This again has its own Arkham Asylum-like logic, likely inspired by the Scarecrow sequences of that game, but it works on its own terms, with giant, hallucinatory Tintins stalking Haddock, shrieking Castafiore heads for bosses, and bottle-bodied enemies. The characters are self-aware in these hallucinations, and in a nice touch, often try to persuade Haddock to wake up.
Hergé always left room for Tintin to retreat into surrealism, as he did in albums like The Shooting Star (published under German occupation of Belgium in 1941), so it is a relief to see both sides of the character featured in the videogame, and for it not to simply be what American audiences unfamiliar with the comic seemingly expected it as: Indiana Jones-lite. These sequences are a reminder of Captain Haddock’s attempts to uncork Tintin in Hergé’s The Crab with the Golden Claws, Tintin’s drug-induced hallucinations in Cigars of the Pharaoh, or Haddock’s dream of sitting nude in an auditorium of parrots in The Castafiore Emerald.
The co-op sequences also tap into Hergé’s fascination with art: the Thompson twins can become René Magritte’s famous self-portrait, The Son of Man (and it’s worth noting that Margritte was a fellow Belgian artist) while bonus levels involve platforming across paintings of Hergé’s extensive collection of secondary Tintin characters.
The game’s own style is also helped by Christophe Héral’s excellent musical score, which holds its own in the John Williams swashbuckling adventure stakes, while still adding some perfectly pitched jazz that was too absent from William’s cinematic score. The Django Reinhardt-esque theme for Snowy is excellent, as is the more comical work for Captain Haddock’s hallucinations.
The game also crafts a marginally more satisfying finale than the film, wisely taking a detour to an interesting Black Island-like area before reverting to Hergé’s own (and the film’s) anticlimax at Marlinspike Hall. Strangely, this Scottish detour (though the game places the island near Brittany) adds to the distinctively European feel of the game. As the language selection of French, Swedish, German, Italian, Danish and more at the game’s beginning suggests, Tintin is a distinctively European creation. Even with English dialogue, Tintin still sounds like he grunts ‘Oui’ when jumping. Australians, as English-speaking antipodeans, are only ever partial outsiders in this unusual element of global culture.
Ultimately, Tintin is a game that takes on the typical troubles of film tie-ins, including a cheap, rushed feeling, but somehow maintains an individuality above it all. It is a game that pushes against the player’s expectations as much as it also plays into them. At a glance, critics can be forgiven for thinking that the game is just another example of the sub-standard film tie-in genre, an inadequate game produced by marketers and deadlines.
Yet taken on its own terms, it’s something else entirely.