Lights, Camera, Action Button! A Series of Unfortunate Events
Lights, Camera, Action Button! is a series exploring film-to-game adaptations in regard to their faithfulness, quality and value long after the original film may have passed into nostalgia. In this edition Jack Ford looks at Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
If you are wanting to hear about a classic video game then this article is not for you. However, if you would like to know more about an adaptation of a 2004 offbeat dark comedy film that features multiple playable characters, stylish graphics, side-scrolling sub-missions and Levitating Loafers, then read on, but you have been warned.
The Burdensome Backstory
The film Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is an interesting curio: based on a series of books by Daniel Handler under the name Lemony Snicket, Paramount had positioned it obviously in the hope of emulating the success of the Harry Potter film series, on the basis they were both based on books written for the same age range.
When the film, with Jim Carrey leading an all-star cast, finally made it to the big screen audiences did not seem sure what to make of it and, while it is not a bad film at all, it proved too esoteric to take the world by storm. Unfortunate for the studio, who hoping it would strike the same chord, had sank a lot of money into the merchandising, including an obligatory video game.
Published by Activision and developed by Adrenium Games, the version reviewed here was released for PS2 and Gamecube in December 2004. Primarily a platformer with some puzzle, stealth and third-person shooter sections thrown in, it does well to keep events varied while the graphics – still looking good albeit with some blocky character models – do well to emulate the film’s aesthetic. Additionally, Jim Carrey reprises his role as Count Olaf for the game, as do Emily Browning and Liam Aiken respectively for Violet and Klaus Baudelaire, with narration provided by veteran character actor Tim Curry.
The Confounding Comparison
Both film and game begin with the Baudelaire children, Violet, Klaus and Sunny, orphaned after their parents are killed in a mysterious house fire. They are sent to live with their closest relative (geographically speaking), the scheming Count Olaf.
It’s at Olaf’s house where gameplay begins and the first missions serving as introductions on how to control the playable characters Violet and Klaus, who can be switched between any time. (Baby Sunny is only playable in certain sections, where gameplay switches to side-scrolling sub missions.) In addition to main missions, each level also has collectable jigsaw pieces to find, which can unlock extras including concept art and Count Olaf out takes.
The first mission of the game recreates the Baudelaires completing chores for their new guardian, to help them the children make use of Violet’s ability to invent weapons and gadgets out of scavenged items. Here she creates The Brilliant Bopper and The Fruit Flinger to clear out clutter and pests, as well as subdue Olaf’s theatre troupe.
Then set the task of making dinner for Count Olaf and his theatre troupe, the children are in need of a cookbook and make a brief diversion to his next door neighbour, Justice Strauss, who puts them to work by re-organising some of the misplaced books in her vast library. Even more artistic license is then taken, with the children then having to navigate a flooded basement and making an attempt to escape the house Metal Gear-style, neither which they do on screen.
The Disturbing Developments
The plot gets back on rails with a mini-game based on the sequence where the children attempt to escape from Olaf’s car, which has been parked on railroad tracks as a train approaches. Following this, events move to the home of the Baudelaire’s new guardian, herpetologist Uncle Monty, hence known as The Reptile Room. Both Billy Connolly and his virtual counterpart intend to take the children to Peru on a research trip, but rather than the game having players research and cut lengths of rope, they are set tasks to prove they are ready for the expedition.
The film only shows the inside of Uncle Monty’s residence while the game expands that to the entire grounds, which are ever-expanding and labyrinthine, filled with all manner of obstacles and a menagerie of monsters and sentient, attacking plants. For this, Klaus makes use of Violet’s new invention, the Levitating Loafers, to cross all treacherous terrain, with upgrades to existing weapons also helping in missions to retrieve escaped snakes, solve puzzles and battle a suspicious snake charmer.
Though a complete diversion from the source material, it is a very nice environment to explore, unfortunately the story takes a turn when Count Olaf turns up posing as Monty’s new assistant Stephano. The game poses missions in which the Baudelaires gather evidence to expose Stephano, but before they can he murders their uncle in an attempt to regain custody of the children. Monty’s newest discovery, The Incredibly Deadly Viper, is blamed for his death, until Sunny proves the name is in fact a misnomer, in the game done through one of her side-scrolling missions.
At this point in the story, Olaf escapes and the children leave the Reptile Room for their next home, Lake Lachrymose, to live with their Aunt Josephine. While the film spends more time in setting up her character, played with comedic perfection by Meryl Streep, gameplay re-starts once the Baudelaires have met Captain Sham, the new persona of Count Olaf.
Tasked with gathering supplies for an approaching hurricane, game Violet makes use of her new construction, the Peppermint Popper, (a reference to the books left out of the film) to fend off foes – sea creatures and Olaf’s acting troupe. Having completed this section, like in the film, they find Aunt Josephine has seemingly thrown herself into the sea, but Klaus deduces clues left in a note she left behind to where she has gone into hiding from Olaf.
The next level is a simulacrum of the scene where the children escape the collapsing house, then meet Aunt Josephine at her hiding place at Curdled Cave. This is the setting for the last main level, though with only one short mission to complete it feels tacked-on. The game then wraps up by recreating the final events of the film, with first-person sections with the Baudelaires have to fight off a cuck of deadly Lachrymose Leeches, then thwart Olaf’s last attempt to steal the Baudelaire fortune for himself, in a very underwhelming ending to proceedings.
The Unsettling Summation
In trying to follow the plot of A Series of Unfortunate Events as closely as possible, the games does end up feeling somewhat disjointed. This results in some pacing problems, particularly at the end where shifts in the narrative and gameplay feel very sudden and disjointed. It is not a huge flaw but played out as part of a story it can feel quite long-winded.
What the game does best is re-create the unique look and eerie atmosphere of the film, and while some license is taken in order to add more gameplay section, the game remains faithful as it can to the film in terms of aesthetics, tone and storytelling. To play, ASoEU is almost exactly what you would expect from a tie-in: it is not out to revolutionise, only provide an experience.
While everything – controls, graphics and mechanics – works well and there’s a lot going on to keep the game interesting, there isn’t anything here that hasn’t been seen somewhere before. As well, it will not take long to complete and once finished there is virtually no reply value. That said it is fun while it lasts and while not an exact simulacrum of the film it based on, it is a challenging enough genre mix that is consistently lovely to look at that recaptures the tone and feel of the source material.