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'The Great Gatsby' video game: not so great

July 28, 2010 |  7:00 am

Gatsby_videogame

If you read F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" and decided you'd really like to enter Gatsby's world, a video game might just do the trick. Sadly, the PC-based video game "Classic Adventures: The Great Gatsby" from I-play, despite having a feel for the texture of the world and a swingy Jazz Age soundtrack, falls short.

Here's how it works: You are introduced to the main players at the beginning: Jordan and Daisy and Tom and Jay Gatsby. You will be Nick Caraway, of course, just like in the book.

What's different from the book is how your character can act. In Fitzgerald's novel, Nick drinks and flirts and moves around in the world. Although you have his literal point of view in the game's scenes, the camera -- or his vision -- never budges. It's simply a fixed perspective looking onto a static tableau. Your task as Nick is not to drink or any of the rest of it, but to click on a number of items hidden in the background. Umbrella, mask, pineapple -- click, click, click! When you've clicked on them all, the scene dissolves into a transition or the next scene.

In the more dynamic scenes, two or three characters might talk to each other for a few seconds. That's how the story advances -- you're a bystander, with nothing to do but listen to the jazzy score and point and click, point and click.

All this pointing and clicking gives you points, which can be spent to decorate a library. There isn't any payoff other than the points and the well-appointed library: no sitting by the fire in that chair you purchased, no petting the dog you just bought, no reading any of the books you've gleaned from earlier scenes. Just decorating. Sure, Nick had house envy, but given a fancy library, wouldn't he want to enjoy it, to pour himself a martini and relax?

Once in a while, the game mixes it up by giving you a new task, such as clicking on items in a transition scene as a storytelling voice-over plays. In one, you actually do mix a martini (by clicking on the shaker).  In a few, you are asked to type words that float down the screen; when the words are completed, they appear in a block of text and become more voice-over narration. This might be a nice meta-touch, but you're not put in Fitzgerald's seat -- instead of typing a sentence or two, you type a scattering of words from an excerpt, like a jumble. 

Yet the typing is the closest you get to moving the story along. This points to the problem with making a video game from a novel: Novels are linear. You already know how "The Great Gatsby" ends, and how you get to that ending.

But in case you don't, further discussion is hidden after the jump.

The narrative of "The Great Gatsby" is constructed to have one piece fit into another, until the sections fit together and poor Myrtle and murderous Mr. Wilson and ultimately unlucky Gatsby are all dead.

Understanding how the puzzle fits can only happen if Nick goes along with Tom to New York; if Nick learns what he does about Gatsby's past; if Nick allows Gatsby and Daisy to connect at his bungalow; if Gatsby and Tom trade cars; and so on and so on.

Nick has to be in the right place at the right time for all of these things. Given the choices available in a more robust video game, like Grand Theft Auto, Nick could wander off, be annoyed by Jordan rather than grow close to her, play poker with Mr. Wilson and try to cheer him up, steal liquor from Gatsby's party and be banned, rather than welcomed, into his home. I'm the rankest video game amateur, but it seems to me that exploring a world -- being able to walk into the next room, or try to play the piano, is a lot of the fun.

Which is why this game, with its pointing and clicking on hidden objects, seems to miss the point.

Although it does get you to the end of the story -- after several game-play hours, in which that jazzy soundtrack eventually seems to be on too short a loop. The challenge in making a video game based on a book is figuring out how to push that narrative forward while allowing the player to explore in ways that make the game fun and still let the story reach its conclusion.

If someone has done that with classic literature, I'd love to give it a try.

-- Carolyn Kellogg
twitter.com/paperhaus

Image: Daisy and Gatsby in a happy moment in I-play's PC game Classic Adventures: The Great Gatsby.


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