Last year the people making the TV show and video game that are both called Defiance performed a distracting magic trick.
In an enclosed booth at the massive E3 gaming show they connected an Xbox 360 and a PlayStation 3 to each other via a network connection and let players on the rival machines play alongside each other in the same video game world.
That feat was the gaming equivalent of letting citizens of China and America vote in the same election and turns out to have just as much a chance of happening, considering that Microsoft and Sony won't play nice together.
The trick was a distraction from the extraordinary feat that the Defiance people do have a chance of accomplishing: creating a massively multiplayer online game whose players affect a weekly sci-fi TV show that in turn affects the game—a sci-fi sci-fi concept, as it were.
There is, however, some real trouble with this fantastic idea, so 10 months out from launch we've got a dream I see with my eyes and have now played. And I have doubts I can't shake from my head.
Defiance the game and the TV show are two parts of a larger fiction. They involve the aftermath of an alien civilization's collision with Earth 35 years from now and what happens when they, their plants and animals crash into our world and our lives. The TV show will take place in St. Louis; the video game in San Francisco. The TV show, which is created by people who've had a hand in Battlestar Galactica, Farscape, and Desperate Housewives, will air on SyFy. The game, a massively multiplayer third-person shooter, will be playable on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 (which, adding another stretch of ambition to this, will make the game only about the third active MMO on all of the PS3 and essentially the first on the 360). The show and the game are both scheduled to debut in April, 2013.
Any ordinary huckster can try to sell you the boast that their game connects to a TV show, maybe because it has the same writers or fills in the gaps between seasons. Fewer fast-talkers have tried to say their TV show connects to games, because those impossible dreamers are busy exploring the concept of whether they can make profitable movies that tie into games. TV shows that touch games? It barely comes up.
The Defiance folks say they can make this work. They have facts on their side to show that they're making a show and game that do have meaningful connections. But their facts blur with their hype; their dreams collide with common sense.
Let's start with what they probably can deliver and see how cool it sounds: At an event in Santa Monica' the game and show's creators described a mission in the game that would involve two characters who, at mission's end would leave the game. They would next appear on the show. "They do that whole transition from video game character to live actor," Defiance game designer Nick Beliaeff told me.
Sure, but that sounds really basic, I told him.
"I think as a crossover that's nice and adds to the immersion, but we're also talking about deeper stuff," he said. "We're talking about introducing, later in the arc of the first season [of the TV show], a mysterious illness that is sweeping the land. The storyline will be introduced in the show and then, within the game, the players have missions to try and find the cure. Later in that episode arc, we'll actually name the player character name that brought the cure to life."
That example sounded cooler, but it also was hard to believe. An actor will actually say the player-character's name in the show? "Yes," Beliaeff replied. "We're four years into this project and so the maturation of coordination we have at this point is incredible. The key thing is it is so carefully planned to a T so that we can take care of all the contingencies and can execute at a really high level."
Beliaeff thankfully acknowledges why this is so hard to believe. The game and show might not launch until April 2013, but the shooting of the premiere episode is already complete. That's a big challenge! The episodes that would involve this plague scene would be shot well before any missions in the game involving the plague were introduced. All true, but, Beliaeff said, careful planning lets the show creators drop in a shot that names the player. He posed his way through the possible scene, showing how the right cutaway shot, dropped into the otherwise-completed show, could produce the desired effect.
"We're trying to have one overt act every week going from the game to the show or from the show to the game or both," Beliaeff said. "Every time there is an episode there is going to be something. Sometimes it's going to be a really big thing like we're moving characters from one medium to the other—and it's going to go both ways—or it's smaller and more subtle things like an introduction to the storyline." Another example: "the show will introduce the idea that the Hellbugs are going crazy… and at the same time the hellbugs are going crazy in the game."
The TV show Defiance will move at its own pace, and it's not clear how swiftly that will be. The game is a persistent world, steadily advancing forward with new quests. It's ultimately a "third-person shooter before it's an MMO," Beliaeff told me, saying all the right things about how gameplay comes first. "If having a controller in your hand-or playing with a mouse and keyboard-isn't compelling, we've wasted a lot of people's time."
Who wants to believe? Who thinks that this can actually work?
The connections between TV show and game need to be meaningful for this to be as cool as it sounds, and the hype can't prove to be all there is. Beliaeff speaks well about the project, but at Defiance's presentation in Santa Monica, he was accompanied by his bosses at game company Trion Worlds and their partners at SyFy. These folks don't talk about the nitty-gritty of how a show that's done shooting before a game launches can meaningfully adapt to an MMO that is being played and tweaked and patched live day after day, throughout the spring of 2013. They instead, to quote Trion boss Lars Butler, promise "possibly one of the biggest media events of 2013," something that is "hyper-exciting", a "live world and an epic television show."
Just deliver something that works, I think we'd all reply. We can imagine a TV show and a game that affect each other. The question is whether in April of 2013 we'll actually get to experience such a thing.