The makers of the King Kong video game —excuse me, the makers of Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie— announced this week that, despite what you may have heard, the big gorilla doesn't die in the end. Not the second time through, that is, when players can unlock a special alternate ending. Ann Darrow couldn't save King Kong, but you can. Accumulate 250,000 points, and there he is, alive and well, having turned his back on the Manhattan rat race and retired to his beach house on Skull Island.
That new ending for Kong the Game turns a tragedy into a travesty. The fact that Ubisoft's Kong game ends with the player, as Kong, dying is a big step for video games. After all, death is the traditional game metaphor for "you lose." With the alternate conclusion, Kong gets the conventional end-of-game Happily Ever After treatment, and gamers get the satisfaction of "winning." The difference between the two endings illustrates what's so frustrating about Kong the Game. It's like no game you've ever played. Except when it's like every other game you've ever played.
Ever since Atari's execrable E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (the unsold copies of which the company buried in the New Mexico desert), movie-based games have had a reputation for slapdash shoddiness. But Kong is spectacular, a gorgeous, immersive, exhilarating spectacle. If it's not the best movie adaptation of all time—GoldenEye fans object whenever this claim is made about another game—then it's the game that comes closest to evoking the feelings and sensations you get while watching the movie.
The frequent and involuntary switching of perspective from Jack Driscoll to Kong—similar to the changing point of view from human to alien in Halo 2—increased my empathy for both man and ape. It also made me wish for a few sequences in the role of Ann Darrow. (When you're Kong, Ann alternately seeks your protection, helps you, and flees from you. No wonder the big lug is confused.) Like in the movie, killing the "big boss" isn't always the solution when you're in a fix. Sometimes the only answer is to admit your frailty, run in terror, and hide, such as when you're faced with a marauding T-Rex. When you're wounded, your breathing increases and your heart pounds. And not just through the TV speakers.
Not everything the game shares with the movie is praiseworthy. You linger way too long on Skull Island, you're annoyed by the banter between the supporting characters Jimmy and Mr. Hayes, and you wonder if some of the dinosaur fights are ever going to end. But the similarities are mostly a good thing. Like Jackson's film, Kong the Game—at least the Xbox version I played—is visually stunning. At one point, I stopped to watch a mesmerizing parade of apatosauruses marching through a valley. I'm a firm believer in the importance of game-play over graphics, but no other game has ever persuaded me to stop playing just so I could sit and admire it.
Kong the Game creates an immersive experience by jettisoning a number of video-game conventions. The first-person perspective is not obstructed by a health bar, ammo count, inventory menu, or area map. When you try to shoot something (or hurl a wooden spear at it), you're not given the benefit of a targeting icon. There are also very few static cinematics. You're free to move and look around while other players deliver dialogue or while plot events unfold. Playing as Driscoll, I was tied up and forced to watch Kong's sacrificial kidnapping of Ann Darrow. I wasn't completely immobilized, though, and the fact that I could struggle with the bindings increased my feelings of powerlessness.
Rival developers will crib from this game for years, which makes its occasional usage of first-person-shooter clichés so exasperating. On top of the Happy Ending, the game adds the unnecessary element of "points" the second time through. (Admittedly, the running scoreboard is less offensive given its merciful absence in the first go-round.)
In a more egregious example of a lazy video-game device, Capt. Engelhorn continually circles Skull Island in a plane, dropping standard-issue wooden crates to keep Jack Driscoll stocked with ammo. And rather than starting with a full array of weapons—as any rational person rowing toward a mysterious island would—Driscoll discovers more and more powerful firearms as the game goes on. Forget the pistol, I've got the shotgun! The tommy gun! The sniper rifle! I was shocked not to find a chainsaw, a flamethrower, and a rocket launcher hiding in a cave somewhere.
The game also employs what I call the "Indian and the buffalo" rule of games, which holds that no object can be wasted. Everything that can be picked up will get used eventually. See that larva crawling on the ground? Poke it with your stick, as spiders are surely around the corner, and they can be distracted with bait. See that flame? Better grab another stick and light it on fire, as you'll probably need to clear some thorny brush soon. The inevitable utility of everything you run across turns every puzzle into a mystery without red herrings. It's like reading an Agatha Christie novel in which there is only one suspect.
I wish these flaws made the beauty of Kong the Game stand out, in a mole-on-Cindy Crawford or Billy Zane-in-Titanic kind of way. Instead, they demonstrate how games are still evolving, still groping toward their Citizen Kane. That being said, if I had an HDTV, I'd buy an Xbox 360 just to play King Kong on it. (Though 360 owners with analog TVs should beware.)
But Kong's imperfections have nothing to do with its plot or its finale. I haven't fixated on how a video game ends since junior high, when I completed Metroid five times to see if Samus Aron ever took off more than her spacesuit. Even games with great plots—like Jade Empire or Knights of the Old Republic—have anticlimactic endings. Guess what happens: You win!
Kong's fateful rumble through the streets of New York City is unsatisfying, but only because it's too short. Here's how discouraging I found the tragic ending: As soon as the game was over, I started playing it again.