Many games have you play as a character but very few let you inhabit their psyche. That’s the aim behind “John Wick Hex,” a strategy game that puts you inside the scenarios found by the titular movie character. And if a choreographed action sequence is nothing more than a combination of well thought out punches and kicks, then “John Wick Hex” is a deconstruction of that action and tasks players to reconstruct it in the most efficient manner.
At the Figueroa Hotel, two blocks away from the LA Convention Center where E3 was taking place, developer Mike Bithell was showing off “John Wick Hex.” In this game, every step, kick, and gun throw depletes vital seconds. And with every forward motion, enemies too begin to surround Wick. The player must outwit opponents as they come out of hiding, figuring out ways to approach without getting killed in the process. It’s like a game of chess made up of action movie characters.
“The way to make the player feel like John Wick was to think about how I could make a game which has you mirror his actions,” Bithell said. While many games opt to use quicktime events for high octane action sequences, “Hex” would rather have the player systematically choose every step — second by second — to create the perfect action sequence..
The idea to create a strategy game around an action movie may seem completely out of left field, but there’s a logic to it. And it’s this thinking that made Ben Andac seek out Bithell for this project in the first place.
Andac is a freelance producer who was tasked by film studio Lionsgate and publisher Good Shepherd to find a developer to create a “John Wick” game. A few months prior, Andac and Bithell had actually gone to the movies to watch “John Wick.” So Andac decided to meet up with Bithell to watch another movie. As they were walking home Andac asked Bithell what kind of game he would create around “John Wick.” The two had worked on 2015’s “Volume,” so talking game design was something they had done before. Little did Bithell know, it was all a setup.
“This whole thing was a trick. I basically had been auditioned against my will,” Bithell said.
Either way, Bithell quickly dismissed making an obvious action game, because it would immediately become clumsy, with players dodge-rolling and circle strafing incessantly. He landed on wanting to make something tactical. He wanted to create a game that makes the player question each shot that they take.
For example, in the “John Wick” films, Wick will throw his gun at an enemy and use the brief second or disorientation to run up and punch him. There’s an inner split-second contemplation going on inside the mind of Wick, and that’s the experience Bithell is trying to give players.
“That’s how you get into that John Wick mindset and hopefully go back and watch the movie again and now you know why he threw that gun, because you’re thinking the same way,” Bithell said.
Throughout video game history, licensed games had generally been quick cash grabs. Pariahs of even mediocre design meant to milk cash out of unsuspecting consumers. But recently, licensed games have seen a renaissance in quality. Take both the “Batman Arkham” series and last year’s “Marvel’s Spider-Man.” Both are incredibly well thought out and designed to make the player inhabit these classic comic book icons in totally unique ways. It’s one of the few times in video games where the licensed property became an advantage to the design of the final product.
“And [Batman Arkham] is an amazing example of what I’m talking about… because the creators of those games didn’t just say ‘okay, let’s take a third-person action game, let’s put a bat suit in it’… they sat down and said ‘okay, what does Batman do, and I want to do that in a game,’” Bithell said.
It also means the “Batman Arkham” games wouldn’t have had the same emotional resonance if Batman weren’t in it. The same can be applied to “John Wick Hex.” There’s a power to seeing the same character and hearing his voice. (Bithell did not confirm who would be voice acting Wick).
Bithell has been playtesting the game for a while now and has realized that those who are ‘John Wick’ fans tend to play like they saw in the movies. While those who aren’t as hardcore end up playing the game like a defensive cover shooter.
“It’s masked theater essentially. It’s the idea that you start from the external, which is what we have — which [are the] movies — and then work your way towards a character from the acts that person does,” Bithell said.
And that’s why Bithell is putting so much creative work into this project. He understands the responsibility of carrying the ‘John Wick’ license. He openly admits that it’s unlikely “Hex” would have garnered the same press attention if ‘John Wick’ weren’t attached to the front.
“How dare we make a lazy game. How dare we use that opportunity to do something boring. We have to try something interesting. Otherwise, why are we really here?”
A release date for “John Wick Hex” has not been set, but it will be coming to PC and Mac exclusively through the Epic Games Store and to unspecified consoles.