'John Wick Hex' Isn't An Obvious Game Adaptation, And That's Why It's Great
by Mike Diver
Hands up: I've only watched the first John Wick. I wasn't blown away like some, but I sure admired its choreography, its sharp style and slick action. In the past, anyone adapting such a movie - such a franchise, nowadays - for a video game would likely look to the shooter genre. After all, John Wick uses guns, lots of them, to kill his enemies. A first- or third-person shooter in that world would meet expectations, and likely not exceed them.
John Wick Hex, the first video game based on the Keanu Reeves-starring series (discounting the VR experience of John Wick Chronicles, which is a very average first-person shooter), really isn't that game - and it's all the better for it. Which isn't to say that it's an easy sell, despite its high-profile license.
Hex's makers at UK indie studio Bithell Games, headed by Thomas Was Alone and Volume designer Mike Bithell, have a challenge on their hands. They have to communicate that their innovative strategy game captures the spirit of the movies it's based on, and - as Bithell tells me - one of the core characteristics of its leading protagonist.
"John is meant to be the most competent person ever," Mike explains, "and you want to feel that competence in the moment. Doing a real-time action game didn't make me think I could pull that off. As much as a shooter would ask you to play a certain way, I'm more likely to just hide behind a box. Like, you can make a trailer that says: play it this way. But the average player experience probably wouldn't be like that.
"A good example is something like Vanquish, where it's designed with a lot of the same goals we have - keep the player moving, mixing things up. But when it came out, people tried to play it like a cover shooter, and it took people a while to work out how clever and brilliant that game is."
"Throughout this whole process, I've kept on coming back to the word competence," Mike continues. "John's power isn't that he absorbs bullets - his power is that he's clever. And that's how the team on the movies talk about the character, too - how the martial artists and the stunt directors talk about him. I've had conversations with them, about when they've been designing these fight sequences, and that's their thinking."
Bithell has spent the past year, prior to the announcement of Hex, flying back and forth between Britain and Los Angeles, working closely with John Wick director Chad Staheleski, sometimes literally sitting side by side with him as one worked on the third movie, 2019's John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, and the other Hex.
Having the game revealed, in May 2019, represented a massive weight lifting from Bithell's shoulders: "It's been the hardest secret to keep," he says, before stopping himself potentially spilling any beans on casting in Hex. "I can't talk about it," he smiles - but given that Keanu Reeves is in one video game already, what are the odds that he's in this one, too?
But what is John Wick Hex? In a nutshell: it's hard to explain in a nutshell. It's a timeline-based strategy game of choreographed combat, where the title character moves through (hexagonal) grid-like levels on a selected path, acquiring and using items on the way from A to B to take out enemies or overcome obstacles. Enemies also follow timelines, and these all move in tandem, the trick being how to act, or how to have prepared for, the moment when these lines meet. It's all about the back and forth between hero and villain. Commands are front-loaded into the process, but the whole level isn't visible from the beginning, so there will be an element of trial and error to completing each challenge. Or, if you prefer: risk and reward.
Look, it's not as simple as saying: it's a first-person shooter. This is gun-fu, as you can see in the featurette below; not *guns*, fool. John Wick Hex is, quite deliberately, not an easy game to immediately get a handle on, and Bithell is revelling in that.
"There are a lot of gamers out there who we have to explain this to," he says. "We're sure they're going to like it, and we want to tell them about it. We're doing something that I think is better than the obvious thing, and it's our job to convince people. And that's not going to happen overnight. I want to convert some hearts and souls."
"I'm not trying to be clever with Hex," he continues, revealing that the game design basically started as a pub conversation that got out of hand. "I genuinely thought this kind of game is the best solution to the problem. It's not the most obvious solution, and that might make people sceptical. People might wonder why we're doing John Wick as a strategy game, but as we saw at E3, when they play it, they get it. And then they're telling anecdotes about how they strung all these moves together."
E3 was a great success for John Wick Hex - it won a number of awards at the annual industry showcase, and countless articles and videos celebrating its individuality and uncommon originality were published in the following days (including one from our pals at UNILAD Gaming). And Bithell puts its incredible impact down to something he'd not really done before: pre-preview playtesting, and plenty of it.
"This was the most positive reaction we've ever had, in person and in the articles that followed. And I think a lot of the credit for that goes to playtesting - we did a month or two of serious playtesting before E3 to figure out what was working and what wasn't.
"When I was doing an indie production in the past, I almost treated events like playtesting. You're looking over journalists' shoulders and seeing what does and doesn't work. But months before E3, we set about seeing what was working with Hex. And by doing that playtesting, we could then fix what we needed to before showing the game off, and learn other things that we need to fix before launch."
When it does launch - release date to be confirmed, but it'll be before the fourth John Wick movie comes out - Hex is guaranteed turn heads for its boldness of design, its confidence at trying something that flies in the face of the predictable, and for not being a generic shooter.
"It's not true to say we've invented a genre here," Bithell says, "but we've definitely got a lot of new mechanics in there, which are original. There's stuff in this game that genuinely hasn't been done before. We've done something really interesting that captures the movie really well. We're in a good place."
And, hands down, you never know: it might even be good enough to make me want to watch the other movies.