Lights, Camera, Action Button! March of the Penguins

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 March of the Penguins

This may sound like a really bad idea, but if a documentary film had to be made into a video game, March of the Penguins would probably be the best option. It would be seen in bad taste if documentaries with subject matters such as war, gun control and climate change were made interactive. This game at least has that distinction, even if there is little else going for it.

Luc Jacquet’s 2005 film documenting a flock of penguins’ migration during breeding season was met with critical acclaim and saw box office returns rarely seen by a documentary. Its success was such a surprise a game adaptation was not planned to coincide with the theatrical release, instead coming out on Nintendo DS and Game Boy Advance over a year later, though it did not see a similar response as the film.

“In the Harshest Place on Earth”. 

While not strictly a children’s game, March of the Penguins is clearly made with young players in mind, hence the focus on the informative and educational aspects. For the most part, the role the player takes on is of a naturalist documenting events: across twelve levels, the penguins are followed through different stages of the migration, each one accompanied by diary entry presentation and penguin facts. Introductions to each level genuinely do feel like part of the film’s narration, but, sadly, are not read out in the game by Morgan Freeman.

The bulk of levels follow Lemmings-style gameplay, where the migrating penguins move without stopping from one end of the screen to the other. In their way are obstacles to block them or pitfalls to fall into. (They don’t die, though; they go back to the start) The game provides different shaped ice blocks to help them traverse the terrain, as well as tents they can bounce on to reach high-up places.

In addition, the penguins also have to follow a path that sees them collect the required number of snowflakes that are needed to successfully complete the level, which isn’t always straightforward and can create a lot of frustration after so many failed attempts. Given the game is clearly intended for younger audiences, it is questionable why gameplay is so slow and, at times, overly and unnecessarily complicated to the point where even the most patient child would want to give up.

In its favour is that the game follows the plot (for lack of a better term) of March of the Penguins very closely. The game begins, like the film, with a colony of emperor penguins migrating to the nesting grounds, the first of the game’s Lemmings-style levels, and not too difficult to navigate. Having guided them all to the nesting grounds, the next mission sees you take control of a male penguin and guide them across an icy Chu Chu Rocket-type course to help them get to their mate before time runs out. 

“A Dance As Old As Time”.

When the mate has been found, like in the film, each penguin couple’s egg is laid and left with the males while the females all head to the sea to feed. This first sees another of the Lemmings-style level, followed by a fishing diversion. Once again control shifts over to a penguin, this time one in the water as they dive underwater in search for food in a level somewhat reminiscent of Ecco The Dolphin, if Ecco The Dolphin were much slower and uninteresting.

The film’s penguins face difficulty in catching food as they have to avoid predators, another difficulty the penguins of the game will here face. The difficulty with finding food in the game is that movement underwater is fiddly, it’s too easy to run into enemies and the penguin’s air supply runs out very quickly –further complicated by the only places to go up for air are small and hard to aim for.

Meanwhile, the males are left caring for the egg, which needs to be kept warm. The game’s next mission is to guide a male penguin guarding his egg to the warmest patch of the Antarctic breeding grounds. This sees the penguin having to navigate the obstacles of ice protrusions and other penguins, with the added jeopardy of the temperature constantly dropping and having to reach the goal before it runs all the way out.

At this point the female penguins, having fed themselves, return to the breeding grounds and their mate. This sees another Lemmings penguin migration level followed by a second of the Chu Chu Rocket type courses before the game’s penguin couple are reunited – after which, it’s the males turn to head to the sea and fish. The same sequence of levels follows: leading the penguins there, catching fish, heading back again, reuniting with their mate. It’s nature, but it makes for a dull and repetitive DS game. 

“They Will March, Just As They Have Done, For Centuries”.

When the parents are reunited, the eggs hatch and we get to see the new-born penguin chicks meet their parents and take their first steps. This is the purpose of what the penguins make the journey for, what the filmmakers went to capture and the main objective of the game, but the latter spends no time on the new-borns at all. Instead it skips to the final level, a recreation of the migration home. It couldn’t have come sooner.

At best, March of the Penguins is a faithful adaptation of the filmed events it is based on and it’s hard to think of any better way to make a video game version of the film. If this game had to exist, this is probably the best version possible, but that does not justify how baffling a game it is. It’s baffling that it was made to begin with and baffling to think the slow, uninteresting and repetitive gameplay would be of significant appeal to anyone, let alone children. 

The three level types may have worked on their own as a mobile game, but used at the length they are in this final version, end up being frustrating. The clear technical skill and craft that has gone into this game could have been better applied, but presumably having to rush the game out before the film faded from memory, it falls far short of quality. March of the Penguins serves as a prime example of why documentaries aren’t often ported into video games.


Featured Image Credit.

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