Breaking Bad is Over. So Where's the Video Game?

Despite its emphasis on crime, conflict, and violent means to ends, television's most critically acclaimed show doesn't lend itself to a game adaptation.

Article by Jeremy Parish, .

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.

Another video game connection: Walt often dressed like most gamers do during a weekend MMO binge.

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.

While Walt was responsible for hundreds of deaths, the vast majority of them resulted indirectly from his actions and negligence rather than being dealt directly by his own hand -- not exactly gripping video game action.

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.

All it took was one kill for Lara Croft to go from timid grad student to blood-soaked murderer. James Bond was right -- the second one really is considerably easier. [Source: Stick Twiddlers]

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.

More people have suggested that GTA V's torture sequence would have been more palatable if it were the act of a sympathetic character rather than a dead-eyed sociopath. [Source: Ars Technica]

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.

DECISION POINT: Should Heisenberg wear (1) a porkpie? (2) a top hat? (3) a balloon animal hat?

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.

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Comments 11

  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #1 Kuni-Nino 4 years ago
    Don't we have games like this already in the visual novels being made in Japan? I've only played 999 and Virtue's Last Reward and those games' powerful moments rivaled anything Breaking Bad produced.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #2 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    "Mainstream games" being the operative term here. The producer of 999/VLR told me at TGS that even his publisher has stepped away from visual novels because they sell like crap.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #3 Kuni-Nino 4 years ago
    Sad to hear, but not surprising. It's a shame that what so many people want out of the medium -- a game focused on a telling a story with little to no violence -- goes largely ignored.

    Thinking about this article a little more, I'm reminded of Heavy Rain. Whether you like its story or not, I think most people would agree that its mechanics are to be lauded because they served to further reinforce the story. The scene where the dad cuts off his own finger to further his chances of saving his son is one of the most intense and disturbing in all of gaming. Heavy Rain sold well too. It may be an exception but it does exist as an example of hope.

    Anyways, I'm not tying to dispute your article since I agree with the bulk of it. In fact, I think it's impossible to tell a story the caliber of Breaking Bad within your typical AAA game framework. The Last of Us is cited as the best, yet the story is still within the realm of schlocky zombie fiction. On the other hand, there are game that are trying to expand the medium beyond "shoot-shoot, bang-bang" and they're never covered by the press. It's a symptom of the audience being in awe of the AAA spectacle and wanting to read more of it. I'm certainly guilty of it too.

    I don't know. I guess I should be rooting for Beyond: Two Souls to sell 7 million copies even though I'm not a fan of Cage.Edited October 2013 by Kuni-Nino
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  • Avatar for Fresh_Paprika #4 Fresh_Paprika 4 years ago
    This a very important discussion to have, it's important to realize what aspects of storytelling this medium is good at and which it isn't. After I saw There Will Be Blood in late 2008 I had a similar thought: can a video game that needs to deliver interaction, goals and problems to its players tell a complex story like this one, or will the fact that the players have to participate and have the main character act as their pawn ruin the narrative? Is a playable character in a game really a character or just an avatar? When a choice is being made in a game it's made by the player, after all, not the protagonist. This isn't a discussion about if video games can tell stories. This medium has proved plenty of times that it can, there are plenty of games throughout the years that have fantastic narratives that are told in ways that other mediums can't deliver, (for my taste, most of them were made in the mid-'90 through the early '00s, before these discussions even began). This is about what games are good at and what they aren't, and why we need to accept their flaws.

    I'm very picky with which films I like - more so than video games, even - but I love There Will Be Blood, I really do, every frame, every line. It's my favorite live-action film of the last couple of decades. (Though it is subjective - like everything else - I feel that American movies peaked at the 1950s-'70s and gradually went down from there.) It's Daniel Plainview's bitterness and inner-ugliness that fascinated me most. I felt a strong relation to Plainview's character, I can relate to that bitter ugliness. Though many people deemed the character as a despicable man, he wasn't completely a bad man, at least not in the conventional sense.

    He adopted a deceased employee's child and he loved that boy, but he used him as a sales pitch to towns sitting on oil: a facade of a family man. He brought wealth and prosperity to a miserable little town, but it was just a side-effect of his own greed and competitiveness with Standard Oil. He saved a little girl from being punished by her father with violence, but by the reaction of most people to his character, it's as if he'd done nothing at all. And his relationship with religion and hatred for Eli Sunday, though it was Plainview who brought money into a poor town, it was Eli Sunday who was loved and praised by the town, acting as a vessel for a God who answered their prayers, gaining on a thing he had nothing to do with, but his brother did have something to do with it and wanted to have no part in it.

    Now, what will happen if this was a game, or better yet, how will you turn this into a game? (Mainstream, indie, or in-between, it doesn't matter.) Will the player even approve of Plainview's (who acts as their eyes and ears to the game's world) actions if it was linear and properly told? Or worse:

    Let's say it'll go with the Choose Your Own Adventure mold and the player can choose to adopt baby HW or leave him in an orphanage, to buy Paul Sunday's info or not, to act in what they think is good, bad or whatever, and so on. Is Daniel Plainview still Daniel Plainview? No, he isn't. What do the players do other than make arbitrary choices that the developers present them and watch the puppet show? What does the player know of Plainview's work or inner demons. He will be a pawn, not a character. The story's points will be lost. When I played through Mass Effect 2 and the Dragon Age 2 demo I felt like my avatar had multiple-personality disorder. One moment he's a perfect captain, the other he's a horrible Eric Idle impersonator for the sake of comic relief. It was terrible.

    Or how about the other side of the film: oil. Now, let's make an early-20th century oil-business simulator, let's call it Sid Meier's Oil. The player hires employees, makes sales pitches to towns sitting on oil begging to be drilled, competes with Standard Oil and any other oil company and so on. Now what about Plainview? Does he still matter? Is there a place for him other than as a side-character (most likely a villain)? Where do the points of the narrative go to?

    And so on and so on. Placing the player as some sort of decision maker for a puppet will kill the narrative. The more choices the player gets the more convoluted the story is. The fact you have a choice doesn't mean something is good or better, if anything, it can be an excuse for a video game to have a large narrative to begin with; you're killing your protagonist with choices. Making a narrative about inner-ugliness and bitterness with statistics is silly. Just because something worked well for one game doesn't mean you can shoehorn any narrative into it.

    How many will act in the name of that bitterness?

    At the time of There Will Be Blood's release, many critics and game developers treated the medium as if the problems that needed fixing were solved - "The golden age has begun" as some game dev. (who's name I didn't bother remembering) at GDC that year put it. Violence was ubiquitous more than ever before, and it didn't even matter if the design matched the narrative as long as the game looked and sounded like a Hollywood movie. GTAIV critical reception was especially irritating, and later Uncharted 2 (which I did enjoy to a degree) and Heavy Rain (which I didn't enjoy, my God, I didn't) only made me feel worse about games. How sad is it that Uncharted 2 is one of the most influential games of the last few years, but didn't have a single new idea? Not one as a game and not one as a story. It's not the story most seem to care about, it's the production. Production rules most mainstream games now, creativity, cohesiveness, saying something different can go suck an egg.

    But do these problems need fixing or is this some sort of false need to be a top artistic medium? Why do video games need a There Will Be Blood, a Breaking Bad? Quality, emotion, it's all subjective. Are we really so desperate for approval from whoever that we're never happy? I have various Zelda games, I have Grim Fandango, I have Shenmue II, I have Vagrant Story, I have Moon: Remix RPG Adventure, there's plenty others. We all have favorites stories told in video games, stories that wouldn't be the same as a novel, a film or a TV series.

    Video games may never have a There Will Be Blood, I accept it. The problem isn't just money, it's the flaws of a medium that can make certain narratives look bad or make interaction feel completely forced. A video game shouldn't exist without a large sum of player intervention, and player intervention can destroy the narrative's protagonist. You need to find a careful balance, not everything is suited.

    I find exploration and/or puzzle solving to be a good solution. Majora's Mask, Shenmue II, Moon RRPGA, and The Last Express didn't ask their players to make choices, they had the player explore and investigate. You had to be in the right place in the right time, and help your protagonist achieve his goals, not yours. That's an important distinction: do you want to control a pawn's life or help a character? (And again, if you want to help a character, would you help a bitter character?) Panzer Dragoon Saga made a small statement about the player's place in video games, Bioshock made a famous one.

    Now my problem isn't why someone didn't adapt and alter Sinclair's Oil into a game before There Will Be Blood, my problem is why are we accepting utter conformity in video games? If we acknowledge there's a problem - a problem that did not exist a decade ago - why aren't more people saying something? People keep wanting things bigger and better, even though that cost will kill creativity. Think of how creative and interesting mainstream video games were 15 years ago and how they are now. Why did a genre-defining creator like Yu Suzuki make something completely unique only to be pushed into exile for more than a decade? (It doesn't matter if you liked Shenmue or not. You have to admit, that's horrible.) Why does Tim Schafer need to ask his fans for money?Edited 4 times. Last edited October 2013 by Fresh_Paprika
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  • Avatar for Fresh_Paprika #5 Fresh_Paprika 4 years ago
    @Kuni-Nino No, no, no. Heavy Rain was lousy not just because of its cliched plot, but because the choices made no sense, and the choices were its whole point. We've seen this story dozens of times before, just not as a video game, which is no excuse. I felt like I was playing twister with my fingers with its deformed use of Simon-Says.

    The private detective that stormed into a rich man's home for revenge, killed about 20 of his bodyguards (who were only doing their job) then gets into the rich man's room, only to find the rich man having a heart attack. So the player can pick: does he save the rich man who their character just killed 20 men (who were just doing their job) to kill, or does the player let him die from a heart attack. What sense does a choice make? You just killed 20 men to get to him, you're gonna save him? What! And later the twist, dum-dum-dum...

    How about that forced sex scene. Nothing says lovin' like a man covered in blood, puss and vomit, who needs to hurry to find his son, but still has time for a quickie and a nap. But at least you could rotate the stick to take her bra off and fail at it with no consequence to infinity. How about Paco, the stereotypical Mexican who's also a drug lord who the player has to pathetically seduce. There's more and more.

    Heavy Rain felt like it was written by someone who didn't have anything to say, but only knew how to regurgitate what he's seen in movies and lousy thriller novels. If it told something new, something different I'd overlook its flaws, but it's a cliched, convoluted mess. It shows games as film's stupid little cousin and is proud of it.Edited 2 times. Last edited October 2013 by Fresh_Paprika
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  • Avatar for Thusian #6 Thusian 4 years ago
    I always thought Telltale could do a great series using its Walking Dead tech, but with a different setting. Yes you are mostly doing discussion threads, but they lay it out fun.
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  • Avatar for Breadbitten #7 Breadbitten 4 years ago
    Breaking Bad and Grand Theft Auto, two of my obsessions in recent years. While I can see why you'd want to bring up the obvious comparisons between the two I feel like you're doing both an extreme disservice by doing so.

    As a member of the collective audience I expect completely different things, on a fundamental level, from both of these works, despite those things often overlapping between both. With Breaking Bad I was mostly invested in the tension surrounding the characters and events, "how would event X affect character Y?" "how will character Z react to character Y's current situation?", these are the sort of questions I kept asking myself and discussing with others; that the show had some "fun" and lighthearted moments was a used as a tool to further humanize those characters. With GTAV I mostly expected the "fun" parts (which in this case would be the gameplay) to take precedent and the excellent writing and narrative trappings providing context.

    I understand that Rockstar's proclivity towards narrative excellence, not to mention the thematic commonalities in-between, may lead one to compare it to a show like Breaking Bad, but choosing Grand Theft Auto 5 as the example isn't very wise. However, if you really HAD to choose a game to compare it with Breaking Bad I think Red Dead Redemption fits that bill near perfectly. Walter White and John Marston are polar opposites as characters, where one is on a voluntary downward spiral into becoming an utterly despicable individual, one bad decision at a time, the other is trying desperately to escape from a past riddled with bad decisions and their expected consequences. That the endings for both left me clamoring for just one more moment with their respective central characters probably had something to do with it as well.Edited October 2013 by Breadbitten
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #8 Kuni-Nino 4 years ago
    @Fresh_Paprika As I stated before, my admiration for Heavy Rain stems from its mechanics. Regardless of the quality of the written scenario, it's hard for me to deny that the stuff I was doing was affecting me. When you're the agent trying to go up a muddy hill, I could feel the force of every step. When you're the woman trying to escape a burning building, I could feel her suffocating from the smoke. When the Dad is trying maneuver around electrified fences, I could sense the volts emanating from those wires. Games don't often tense me up like that and it wasn't a result of me trying to min/max a system. I think the game was a success in that respect.
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  • Avatar for scuffpuppies #9 scuffpuppies 4 years ago
    The GTAV torture scene is so blown out of proportion by the "treading the fine line so we don't have to form an honest opinion" media.

    The whole sequence is a strong look at the pointlessness of torture. Even Trevor says the victim would've said absolutely anything to make the pain stop. Even implicating some random bearded left-handed guy who smoked.

    So called "Game Journalist" always fail to point this out.
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  • Avatar for DopeBoy3010 #10 DopeBoy3010 4 years ago
    It's better in this way. At least they showed this specific tvshow some respect by not developing a shitty video game after it.
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  • Avatar for Clamstuffer #11 Clamstuffer 4 years ago
    "...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..."

    Blaringly inaccurate. Wow. I'm totally perplexed as to how someone able to write an otherwise competent article could make that statement. My jaw is on the floor.

    I mean saying that is your opinion would be one thing, but when you use the term "generally regarded" that is a patently false statement. The show is "generally regarded" as THE MOST POPULAR SHOW ON CABLE OF ALL TIME. To say the game is "vastly" better than that—there isn't even room for it to be vastly better. Not that it isn't an excellent game, but to even say it was "equal to" or "just as good" would be generous.
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