More than 10 million people tuned in to watch the series finale of Breaking Bad, which is some kind of insane record for a premium cable broadcast. But long before it burst into the mainstream, the show already held a profound fascination for us nerd types.
Every Monday morning at the office for years, I found myself surrounded by vague, excited, inscrutable conversations between fans of the series. "Did you see?" "Oh my god!" "And that one part!" "Oh man, Gus...!" "I can't believe it!" Eventually, I gave the series a try and found myself swept into those conversations as well.
And yet, despite the tremendous overlap between gamers and Breaking Bad, we've yet to see a Breaking Bad video game. Rockstar bought a ton of Grand Theft Auto V ad time during the finale (which makes me idly wonder if they deliberately timed the game's release around the show's schedule, or if they just lucked into some extraordinary kismet), and one of the most goofily memorable moments in the show involved Jesse Pinkman playing id's Rage with some kind of elaborate Kinect-like motion setup. But Breaking Bad: The Video Game is nowhere to be seen.
Note: Breaking Bad and Grand Theft Auto V spoilers ahead.
I suppose you could see this as a bizarre oversight -- a missed opportunity -- but honestly I think it's more of a dodged bullet. To some degree, Breaking Bad's acclaim and appeal both stemmed from the fascinating charisma of its antiheroic protagonist Walter White (acted to utter perfection by Bryan Cranston), and certainly a number of fans were happy to absorb his exploits with the same uncritical enthusiasm for bad behavior that has turned Scarface into a cultural icon. But really, the show wasn't about nerd-turned-badass wish fulfillment, and for those interested in a deeper reading the substance was there: The personal sacrifices and moral desolation that come with such a transformation. Walt's descent into being Heisenberg wasn't meant to be aspirational but rather offered a case study in casting the villain of a story as its protagonist.
Nowhere was that clearer than in the show's finale, as Walt broke into the home of his former (legitimate) business associates, lurking quietly in the background of their mansion before strongarming them to do his bidding upon pain of death. Never mind that it was a bluff, and his scheme ultimately involved providing for his children. The way he went about it was twisted and evil. In any other tale, Walt would have been the bad guy, terrorizing innocents and orchestrating murders in order to secure his drug empire. Somehow, though, showrunner Vince Gilligan and his team of writers, directors, and actors managed to take a monstrous human being and turn him into a sympathetic character, one you rooted for despite your revulsion at the depths to which he could sink.
Could a video game at a budgetary level sufficient to justify a license like Breaking Bad pull that off? I have my doubts. Small games can reflect personal and artistic visions, but once the cost of development climbs above a certain level the demands of publishers (and licensors) start whittling away at creative integrity. But even more than that, I honestly don't think the industry has the stomach to put serious budget and promotion behind a story- and action-driven game that doesn't use violence as its primary vocabulary.
And let's face it, while Breaking Bad didn't flinch from depicting violence, the show used killing and physical conflict as punctuation. Entire episodes would pass without so much as a raised voice; when things finally boiled over and at last came to blows, the long periods of quiet made the brutality that much more affecting. Death mattered in Breaking Bad. Walt spent the entire second episode working up the nerve to let violent drug pusher Krazy 8 go free; he only resorted to murder in the end after realizing that letting his captive go would be suicide. Young Drew Sharp's murder haunted Walt's partner Jesse Pinkman for months. Hank Schrader's death irrevocably shattered the White family in a way that Walt's double life alone never could have. And even non-fatal violence had lasting ramifications, as seen in the fallout of Hank's brutal beating of Jesse, or the agonizingly real fistfight between Walt and Jesse that sounded the death knell of their partnership.
Triple-A video games don't grant anywhere near that much gravity to violence, because violence is all they can offer. It loses impact through repetition. It's a commodity in games, not a valuable. They use shooting, punching, slashing, and stabbing as their basic vocabulary, not as punctuation. As a video game, Breaking Bad would never have been allowed to let the climactic shootout happen as an entirely one-sided and wholly automated act. It would have placed that massive M62 into the player's hands and expected them to take out an army of thugs with headshots and blind fire, occasionally retreating behind cover to let Walt's injuries auto-heal. The famous methylamine train heist surely would have played out as a pastiche of Uncharted 2's train level. There probably would have been a mini-game where you dodge bits of debris falling from the Wayfarer 515 collision. And so on, and so forth.
Am I being unfair to the games industry? Maybe, but it hasn't done much to inspire my faith lately. Look at this spring's big games: BioShock Infinite, Tomb Raider, and The Last of Us. Of the three, only The Last of Us seemed to make any headway in legitimately justifying its constant stream of shooting and violence. It did so by making the stakes for conflict dangerously high, placing harsh scarcity on combat resources, and giving enemies respectably sharp artificial intelligence. While not perfect, it created a real sense of tension while encouraging players to actively avoid combat. Violence served a meaningful and consistent story purpose.
On the other hand, Tomb Raider desperately wanted its violence to have meaning. Lara Croft wept and retched after her first couple of kills... but mere moments later she was gunning down people left and right without so much as flinching. And BioShock Infinite presented players with a beautifully imagined world that could only be interacted with by means of guns and an all-purpose "use" key. Both games aspired to tell meaningful stories, yet a great deal of their running time was spend controlling characters who amounted to ruthless killing machines. BioShock producer Ken Levine shrugged this off as an unfortunate consequence of the nature of the medium... which is precisely the problem.
Thematically, it's probably Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series that comes closest to embodying the essence of Breaking Bad. Over the past two weeks, GTA V has earned quite a few headlines for the frankness of its M-rated content. The torture sequence in particular seems to be the breaking point for many players, as they're forced to take an active role in the vicious physical abuse of another character.
The problem with GTA V, as many have pointed out, is that these harsh scenes contrast jarringly with so much other content in the game. As always, GTA's backgrounds are drenched in juvenile puns that give the entire game world an impression that it was doodled in the margins of a notebook by a 12-year-old whose friends just taught him a dozen euphemisms for anal sex and who thinks they're extraordinarily clever. It's hard to pull off that sort of duality -- shocking realism in the context of a near-cartoon universe only works if the creators manage to create a consistency of tone, and that's never been GTA's forte. A TV show like South Park can get away with mixing pointed commentary with potty humor, because it's all coming out of the mouths of ridiculous-looking paper cutout people; here, where the actors are all motion-captured puppets flip-flopping between serious crime drama and pre-adolescent tittering about sex, it rings false.
Tangentially, I'd suggest an even bigger failing in GTA V's Breaking Bad aspirations is that it effectively breaks the equivalent of Walter White -- the hard-put-upon family man who wears a criminal alias for his underground schemes -- into two characters. The duality of Walt and Heisenberg was always an important element of the show, but the idea of them as separate entities was strictly figurative rather than literal. When you actually do separate them, it becomes much harder to sympathize with the sociopathic side -- in this case, Trevor -- because the grounded, moral component of the personality -- Michael -- exists externally. This reduces the former aspect to nothing more than an unfeeling murder machine, which robs key scenes (like that torture sequence) of an important element of empathy.
Then again, GTA IV attempted to explore the concept of a more complex character in the form of Nico Bellic, but that too turned out to be unconvincing as well. Nico, who came to America to put his past of killing and crime behind him, quickly became embroiled in shady pursuits in the U.S. as well. Despite his expressed reluctance to kill again, the near-entirety of GTA IV's missions consisted of sequences in which Nico gunned down dozens, even hundreds, of other men with no remorse. And yet we were meant to believe that at a few key moments -- when the plot called for it -- Nico and the player were making important moral choices by electing to kill or spare a handful of enemies. All those other dead people, though? Who cares! As with so many games with "serious" stories, the actual substance of the game felt completely at odds with the narrative.
But that sort of thing wouldn't work with a Breaking Bad game. To maintain consistency with the source material, whoever developed the game would have to find a way to create an intense, crime-driven experience in which there's very little direct conflict to speak of. Despite having hundreds of deaths on his hands (not to mention the countless unseen lives destroyed as a result of his meth business), Walt only directly killed a handful of people in the course of the show. In the fashion of a true villain, he was responsible for far more deaths than that through his manipulations, arrangements, or inaction. Most of Walt's "heroic" actions -- that is, the sort of impressive set piece feats that provide the visceral thrill required for a triple-A video game -- involved desperate improvisation or careful chemical or engineering chicanery, not wading into a firefight.
All of this isn't to say a Breaking Bad game would be impossible to do right, simply that such a thing seems unlikely to come to pass. I could see the show working in the hands of Telltale, who have done a bang-up job with another AMC property, The Walking Dead. Despite that show's theme of desperate survival in a zombie apocalypse, the game generally is regarded as being vastly better than the show that helped inspire it -- and it doesn't focus on combat, just dialogue and tough choices. A similar treatment of Breaking Bad -- with alternate plot outcomes depending on the player's decisions -- could be truly spectacular. Sure, you could play through and make the canonical choices and experience the same exact story as in the TV show... but what if you chose to make Walt prevent Jane from choking to death on her own vomit? What if you did set Krazy 8 free? Every one of Walt's panicked bluffs just beg to be turned into dynamic dialogue trees. Every one of his schemes or mechanisms would leave the door open for interesting alternatives.
On a similar note, I could see Obsidian doing an equally interesting turn by converting Breaking Bad into a Planescape: Torment-style isometric RPG, a la Project Eternity. Once upon a time, BioWare probably could have done a bang-up job, too, but their games have increasingly leaned toward combat and action since moving over to Electronic Arts. How would Breaking Bad work as an RPG? Combat would be minimized, but your intelligence and charisma stats would become vitally important as you try to talk Gus Fring into not having you killed.
In other words, if a show like Breaking Bad were to become a game, it would have to exist at the fringes of the industry at a small publisher, or even with a self-funded venture. To be fair, Breaking Bad itself was niche television; the numbers it typically pulled down for a normal episode (roughly two million viewers) would have gotten a show on a larger network canned halfway through the first season. But it ultimately worked its way into the mainstream through word-of-mouth excitement precipitated by its excellent writing, direction, and acting -- something that has yet to happen with a game that aspires to be "Hollywood" without falling back on a constant churn of gunplay and quick-time events.
Maybe we'll get there eventually. But until a game as comfortable with itself and its narrative as Breaking Bad was pulls down the numbers Breaking Bad did, the improbability of a big-budget game of that dramatic caliber stands as a reminder of how much growing up the medium has yet to do