Why are so many movies made into videogames? Although both transport us briefly into someone else's life, they do so in very different ways. We may identify with a movie's hero but we can't influence him; his story unfolds without any help from us. Yet when we play a game, our actions are essential to the story. Sometimes, in a game like Pac-Man, our actions are the story. The truth is that videogames and movies require very different kinds of audience participation. Adapting one into the other is a delicate procedure, one that must be done very carefully. Otherwise, the project turns into Frankenstein's monster: inhabiting two worlds, but at home in neither.
That's the case with Van Helsing. The game, like the film it's based on, centers around an amnesiac monster-killer on the hunt for such creatures with expired copyrights as Count Dracula and the Wolfman. It's not the greatest movie ever made, but as a game, it seems even emptier. Sure, Van Helsing does some things well. The opening movie is gorgeous, and the game's score sounds identical to the film's. Its game elements are decent enough, from simple puzzles to an array of weapons to K.O. canisters. (Players collect a "K.O. canister" for every five monsters they've killed; a single one can destroy a tough enemy in a purple explosion). These things are derivative, but they're enjoyable enough. No, Van Helsing's problem runs deeper than mediocrity. Its problem is that it doesn't know how to be a game.
That's because Van Helsing is structured like a movie. All of its plot twists and dialogue are taken directly from the film. Its gritty Gothic world is stripped of all back roads and shortcuts, so players can concentrate on clearing one screen after another. Killed monsters explode into green and red "glyphs" that can be used to buy Life Replenishers, Speed Boosts and even new moves. Buying moves does give the player some choice, as does the unlockable alternate universe where anything from new outfits for Van Helsing to new enemy skins can be obtained. But these things are, somehow, separate from the actual game. Any shopping is done between levels, unless the "armory anytime" cheat is unlocked. And the alternate universe is just that-somewhere entirely different from where the game's action takes place. There's no room to explore Van Helsing's world at all. Instead, players are driven like cattle toward the next plot point.
Driving the audience forward is a good thing for a movie or a book—how often have bestsellers been described as "compelling?"—but in a game, such propulsion can be intrusive. We players are the co-authors of the story. If the game does all the work, where's the fun? Van Helsing does far too much work for me to immerse myself in it. Its auto-save feature saves the game after every few screens. In fact, saving happens so often and it's so out of my control that it makes the past something inferior, an embarrassment on the way to the present. "Explore?" the game seemed to asked me. "What for? Go forward!" Even when I had to return to a puzzle later because I didn't have the item needed to solve it, the game didn't let me come back to that puzzle when I wanted. I'd have to wait for a new mission when Van Helsing would drop me in the area again, or I'd have to go through the game a second time.
About the only time the player is free from Van Helsing's prodding is during the boss battles. Perhaps that's why I liked them so much. In particular, the reprised forms of Igor and Prince Velkan take strategy and good timing to defeat. Fights like these would be refreshing if it weren't for the game's shoddy camera. It often loses track of enemies (particularly if there's only one enemy to keep track of) and there's no way to manually change it. Players are left to wander aimlessly and hope that the camera decides to reset itself soon. These problems serve the same function as the game's relentless cattle-driving: to keep us within a very particular space.
Even the game's missions box us in. The beauty of mission-based games like Grand Theft Auto is that players don't have to complete the missions in any particular order. Such freedom gives us a sense of control; it lets us make the game story into anything we want. But Van Helsing's missions are all means to an end, which is to rehash the film's plot in a videogame.
At its heart, Van Helsing the game repackages Van Helsing the movie. But videogames are supposed to be interactive, and a huge chunk of that interactivity is lost when we can't make our own stories. Then again, this is a game based on a film based on a character created more than 100 years ago. If Van Helsing's own writers didn't get to make the story, why should we?