A Review of Peter Jackson’s King Kong
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The first thing you see in Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of The Movie, is not its first cutscene, or its opening stage, but a quick series of cuts of the actual film it is trying to represent — the 2005 reboot of King Kong, The Official Movie directed by Peter Jackson. In the cut, we find Carl Denham played by Jack Black, who is dismissing his assistant's warnings over the radical film project he's about to undertake. "What are they gonna do, sue me? They can get in line!"
We also learn what Carl is really intending to do: to shoot a monster movie on the infamous and mysterious "Skull Island," a place isolated in the middle of the Indian Ocean, said to be filled with monstrous creatures and fantastical wonders. To do it, he needs a "leading lady" in a city full of out-of-work actors and actresses, so he finds Ann Darrow, a young and blonde white woman played by Naomi Watts, and brought with her is Jack, Jack Driscoll, Carl's screenwriter, the movie's protagonist, and the man you play as throughout most of the game. Here he's represented as Adrian Brody, looking pretty by the boat side as he and Ann exchange thirsty glances.
Why would King Kong, the videogame feel the need to introduce itself through a movie clip? While King Kong: The Movie is a sprawling $200M blockbuster feature, Peter Jackson's King Kong is a quiet and moody piece. King Kong needs to be described through film because it isn't capable of describing itself. Its power comes specifically through its vagueness, in places that are sudden and unexplained. It's a game that tells its story not through the aura of its celebrity actors, but through its setting, and the bodies that struggle through it.
Peter Jackson's King Kong is particular in how in transforms its actors into bodies, how it both dehumanizes its characters, and turns them primal. In the case of Jack Driscoll, 's opening clip is the first and only time we see any representation of what Jack is supposed to look like, how we as players are meant to view him as a human, before we turn him into an object. On page 10 of the game's manual, where all of the main characters are accompanied by their respective in-game models, Jack is only shown to be a pair of first person hands holding a Tommy gun. "This is you," the manual claims. "You have been taken on by Carl Denham as a scriptwriter for his next film. You are a fairly well-known playwright in New York, but on Skull Island you will have to prove yourself." In many ways, Jack is the essential first person character. Where we look onto the faces, expressions, and attire of the other characters, and assess them as people, Jack is only to be understood as parts of A Body.
And it's through his body that Jack expresses himself, but he does so in harsh, physical, and visceral ways. One of the game's constants is that we're almost always hearing Jack's loud, heavy breathing; not just when he's moving, but often when he's standing still. Sometimes it seems as if he's catching his breath after a run, but it mostly comes from nowhere, it's hard to tell what specific condition brings it on. King Kong forces us to hear it not for any affectation of realism, but to instill Jack's presence. His breathing is how King Kong is constantly reminding us of Jack's body, and the struggle it undertakes. And King Kong needs to remind us of Jack's body, because it's the only way for us to remember that Jack is human, in a context where we never see anything but a pair of arms.
Jack's arms do a lot of work though, including killing lots of monsters, as first person characters tend to do. Jack is a pretty damn good shot for a screenwriter but he never once feels like a soldier. Or a super soldier, or a weird videogame-y character. It's always very clear to us that Jack is struggling and that he's putting a lot of effort, that he's trying very hard to do what this place demands of him. Moreover, there are only three weapons we use in King Kong: a shotgun, a Tommy gun, and a revolver, but they all look and feel aged and rusted. In military shooters like Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Battlefield 4, our weapons shine under the world lighting to represent them as precision tools rather than tools of violence. The cleanliness of the guns, and the clean, staccato sound of their shots suggest the impartiality of their existence, and therefore the amorality of our actions as players. Here, our shooting is not tactical, but blunt and unsophisticated. Our weapons are loud, compressed and dirty, and the sounds of gun blasts are couched under hellish monster screams, and Jack's own yelps of pain. In King Kong, guns aren't a tool we can use to distance ourselves from our actions and the people whom we act upon but a catalyst that brings us closer to the brutality of our actions, and the world around us.
What makes Jack so endearing through all of this is how he expresses himself through his voice. Jack doesn't speak very often in King Kong, his dialogue is often short and sparse, but when he does speak, he comes across as perceptive and empathetic. It's a testament to Brody that it's immediately understood Jack has deep feelings for Ann, when he merely shouts her name in the moment of her capture by "Kong". And his brief remark upon seeing one of the dead rowers washed on the sea, "Oh God, we can't just leave him there," establishes early on that Jack has concerns and interests that run against the players' impulse of always moving forward towards a goal, oblivious to any moral situation that's occurring. It's clear throughout King Kong that Jack isn't merely a vessel, or a means, but a character in whom you invest a genuine faith. He isn't the loudest in the room, or the most experienced, but when any character is being attacked, or grabbed or eaten, whether it's the loud and arrogant Carl Denham, the experienced gunman Hayes, the impressionable young man Jimmy, or the Actress Ann, they will all yell Jack's name in desperation. Jack is the reliable one, he is the relatable one, he both a man and a white man. Like the pretty-boy Adrian Brody, the actor who is always Too-Cute-To-Die in all the monster remakes he stars in, Jack Driscoll is The One Who Lives. Not because he's actually the only one who lives, but in that Jack is the only character who is allowed to return with his integrity intact. Unlike nearly every first person shooter protagonist, Jack isn't just a responding virtual body, but our emotional and moral anchor throughout the game's story. And throughout King Kong, we slowly view how Jack navigates and exists in the game's structure.
Released in 2005, King Kong helped establish a new approach for "event-driven" first person games that minimized the use of cutscenes, preferring instead to set events and set pieces around you as they happen in real time. I guess it was a way to make the games feel more "cinematic," or make you feel like you're ~really there~, but either way, minimizing the cutscene was an important step for first person games to better establish you and your body into the setting. King Kong's opening, where you and several rowboats make their way towards Skull Island during a thunderous rainstorm in the middle of the ocean, came years before Bioshock's "I Chose Rapture" scene, in which you're sitting in a pod viewing the underwater city of Rapture for the first time, or "The Coup" level in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, where we're kidnapped and dragged into a car, forced to watch the events of a violent, bustling middle eastern neighbourhood. Even further before Homefront's Bus Driver scene, and the "execution wagon" opening of The Elder Scrolls V, both released four years later in 2011. Aside from the general a-cutscene approach of the Half-Life games, King Kong didn't have a lot of reference for forcing you to observe the setting, before allowing you to move in it. And what still makes it different from the games it would eventually, if indirectly, inform is that we are not opening into a city, or a town, but an empty sea. We aren't taking in plot information or observing character traits, and no one is explaining lore to us. All we do is soak in the sounds of heavy rain, harsh waves, and distant, shouting voices. Emptiness, struggle, and a blunt humanness is the thesis statement of King Kong.
The crew eventually reaches the island, but not without causality. Jimmy is separated from the group, and Jack finds himself conveniently washed onto the store with Carl, Heyes, and Ann. The first thing we see when we are allowed to move, is the shoreline and the sea horizon. The shoreline is an important symbolic space that bookends King Kong, a space we only come across twice in the game. At the beginning, we see a horizon that reflects Jack's despair, the isolation of Skull Island, and the sense of endlessness we will soon be feeling trekking through it. By the game's near end, we see Carl perched on another one the island's shores at Sunrise in front of a captured Kong: his knee outward, his arms on his hips, his head tiled upwards, taking in the new horizon that now contains his future: Fame, Wealth, Power, and the Respect he so works so obsessively to attain. The infinite space of the shoreline represents both our past, and our future.
Before we truly enter Skull Island, the first piece of geometry we encounter is a long, upward stair climb. The 'stairs' themselves are very small in width, so the group walks in a line, and because there is no wall on our right side, we have a final close, intimate view of the raging ocean sea. The upward incline is a spacial tool that pushes the weight of entering a new, and unfamiliar place — it establishes how vulnerable the group is, how vulnerable you are and will be throughout the game. The message is clear: we are not entering our own home but someone else's, we're intruding on a space that isn't ours, and we don't belong here.
It feels overwrought to call Skull Island "beautiful" but I can't deny how much it awed me, how powerful of a setting it is, the difficulty of finding another first person game that measures up to it. It's very clear that King Kong was made on a low budget; it is very much the definition of AA if there ever was one, but the game makes use of its small scope to give its setting power and focus.
Skull Island is eerie and darkly lit, it's tight and intimidating, and it's often very quiet. It has few light sources to draw from — the central source is the sun itself, lighting the outer walls and creating rays of light that penetrate cracks inside the inner caves. The cave texturing itself is bland and desaturated; it carries a blueish colour temperature that complements its cloudy atmosphere, and makes its rock geometry cold and alienating, gives it weight. Light penetration is a big part of King Kong's visual composition, and it's juxtaposed onto mushy texturing and cavernous, concaved architecture. King Kong does a good job oscillating between tight spaces, closed rooms, and large open areas. We move quickly between fighting giant centipedes in rooms, squeezing through tight cracks, and moving under large set pieces and in front of expansive vistas. But in its first several chapters, King Kong mostly relies on what I enjoy calling a "room-to-room" structure. That doesn't mean it goes from one closed room to another like Metroid Prime, but like Metroid Prime, the space and architecture of King Kong is structured in a way that isolates its different spatial compositions, set pieces, and 'game' sections in order to better pace the game. It's not just about spacing different combat moments, but communicating what Skull Island is, piece by piece. Every 'room' you go through in King Kong shows you something new to engage with. Every space feels crafted, purposeful and deliberate because they're all created on their own terms.
Despite it's structure, King Kong always feels continuous, always keeps pace. The game has cutscenes, but they're weird: poorly lighted, un-aliased in-game video, shown on a centred horizontal strip on black ground, a series of brief cuts into a small length that very quickly contextualizes your new situation. And once you're back, you're moving again. In King Kong, we fight monsters, and solve soft-puzzles, but we spend most of our time travelling. People don't speak often, so when a character does speak, they speak volumes, regardless of how dull or typical the line is. One of my favourites is Jack's blunt response to Denham, right after our first encounter with Raptors:
"Ladies and Gentleman, JACK DRISCOLLLLL"
"I thought those things were supposed to be extinct!"
"Well, they are now."
This is Jack's reply, spoken coldly and with deep vocal tone, with lots of bass in the vocal mix. It's a line that almost seems to echo through the quiet jungle. Unlike the silent Gordon Freeman that came before him, and the first person characters who would come after him, Mason, Faith, Booker Dewitt, AAA characters who also speak for their bodies to be heard, when Jack chooses to and not to speak becomes the key to his character.
King Kong is a videogame adaption of a movie in which a group of filmmakers attempt to shoot the movie the videogame is a depiction of. Carl is literally chasing 'Kong' so he can create the monster movie that King Kong, the videogame, actually is. King Kong is about a man trying to shoot a movie, but it is also simultaneously The Movie itself. In the vein of my opening question, "Why would King Kong: The Videogame, feel the need to introduce itself through a movie clip?" we can say that King Kong is sort of about movies, and what makes videogames movie-like. But unlike every AAA game that is "movie-like" nowadays, King Kong isn't actually trying to emulate movies, or late 20th Century blockbuster film. What it does emulate, through its own devices is the grace of film, the attention to image and placement, backed by strong melodramatic orchestral pieces, and the continuous flow and movement of a form that is almost by definition not continuous. But it's also a game that asks what it means to be contextualized within a movie, to be stringed along by a narrative and have your whole existence be defined through it.
What's important to understand is that King Kong isn't a game that ever really contextualizes us as 'players.' It's so antithetical to contemporary Ubisoft design, barely a design as much as what Chris Franklin once called a “formula” — noisy and cluttered, devoted to meaningless metrics and pointless errand tasks, shamelessly completionist, and more alert-heavy than a cell phone. It's remarkable to think Ubisoft once published, and developed in-house, a game that does away with all of it, not just to make some shallow posture of an "immersive experience", but to communicate actions and contexts that feel authentic and true to the game's style. I've mused before that user interfaces are a means of telling us how we are meant to exist in the world. King Kong has no UI because we're not meant to understand ourselves as merely an avatar, Jack as merely an avatar. Our tools for understanding the world aren't meant to be the bullet count, or a health gauge, or the number of Karma points we gained, or the x radio towers out of 50 we've taken down. Here, our anchor to the world is the world itself, in the sense that we as players are pushed to have a more intimate relationship with our immediate surroundings. This doesn't only place King Kong in lineage to Mirror's Edge, a game that would release three years later, but to the walking sims and first person narrative artgames of 2012- that would remove metrical context, and push you closer to the setting, force you to exist in space in a more conscientious way.
When you wash up on the shore, it isn't actually the shoreline you see first, but the face of Ann Darrow, the out of work actress, who wakes you and pulls you up. "Hey Jack, you gave us a fright" she says with a soft tone, her face in the centre, well lighted and taking up almost all of the 4:3 screen. It's clear to us very early on that Ann is meant to be understood through her beauty and through her whiteness. In King Kong's opening clip, it is Carl who finds Ann surveying an apple in a fruit market, his eyes glowing in awe and admiration. He looks upon her in a way we can imagine Jack did when he saw her up close for the first time on the shore, in a way that perhaps we are also meant to see her in the game's first major visual construction of her.
If you know the story of King Kong, first realized in the 1933 feature film by Merian C. Cooper, and endlessly re-adapted and referenced throughout western pop culture, it doesn't take a social theorist to posture that it's a story informed by a fear of black masculinity. About a third way through the game, Ann is captured by the "Skull Islanders," a term Carl uses to reference the island's human inhabitants. While Jack and Carl are tied up, Ann, tied to some levered stick construction, is raised into the air and offered to Kong as sacrifice, and we spend a large chunk of the game searching for Kong to save her. It's a really powerful scene, just remarkably put together, but what's important to understand is that Kong doesn't come to Ann to take her until Ann starts to scream. It's the scream of Ann that brings 'Kong' to her. It's her innocence, her performed victimhood that attracts Kong, an innocence that can only be embodied in white womanhood. It's what Carl sees when he sees Ann in the fruit market, what Jack sees when he sees her at the shore, and what Kong is presumably trying to protect. Ann quickly becomes, to put it cynically, the playing ball in King Kong's racial dynamics, and Jack's search for Ann, a venture that is both pragmatic (he really should save her else she'll die otherwise), and personal (he kind of likes her too), can also be seen a means for Jack to preserve his masculinity, his white masculinity, when it is most under threat.
It's worth remembering that King Kong was a product of the 30's, the very early 20th Century, when civilian violence against blacks was on its dramatic rise. Race riots incited by whites were frequent occurrence, and the lynching of blacks, in which they were tortured, mutilated, and hung to death as public entertainment, was a common ritual in the American South. During and after the reconstruction era, following the defeat of The Confederacy, and situated in the struggle for a new black middle class, the white American man can be understood as struggling to reclaim a new sense of identity, and a sense of authority that was perceived to have been lost. Or, as described by Elizabeth Grace Hale, “the rise of political and economic conflicts on the heels of war, emancipation, the Reconstruction amendments, and the fight for women’s rights — sent many across the nation backward into imaginary pasts for the regrounding of authority” (p. 43). And white violence and terrorism was a means to that reclamation. W.J Cash, an author and journalist, aptly explained the axes of gender and race within white violence, in his 1941 book The Mind of The South:
“For the abolition of slavery, in destroying the rigid fixity of the black at the bottom of the scale, in throwing open to him at least the legal opportunity to advance, had inevitably opened to the mind of every [white] Southerner a vista at the end of which stood the overthrow of this taboo. If it was given to the black man to advance at all, who could say (once more the logic of the doctrine of his inherent inferiority would not hold) that he would not one day advance the whole say and lay claim to complete equality, including, specifically, the ever crucial right of marriage What [white] Southerners felt, therefore, was that any assertion of any kind on the part of the Negro constituted in a perfectly real manner an attack on the southern [white] woman.”
Neither Jack nor Ann express any explicit feelings or ideas regarding race and politics. In fact, despite all of this, Ann manages to be a great character, one of my favourite women videogame characters I can think of. She's perceptive and witty, she's assertive, and she's interesting and not corny, which can't be said for many women characters in videogames, who are often created under the desires and perspectives of men. But it's important to understand why Ann exists, what role she plays in King Kong's experience of violence and conflict. Skull Island may be an imaginary place, mysterious and unexplained, but that only means it's an open box of interpretation, a reflection of projected ideals and perceptions of the world.
And speaking of perceptions of the world, it's worth briefly discussing the "Skull Islanders," Skull Island's only human population. They're a very dark-skinned people, marked by white 'tribal' paint, who use spears as their primary weapon and live in what I could only make out as a reference to ancient African Berber houses... so it isn't exactly subtle. There are several implications made throughout the game that the Skull Islanders are a violent and hostile group, and kill perceived outsiders on sight. The Skull Islanders are essentially Black Africans, and it's peculiar that they live on an island understood as being inhabited by pre-historic creatures. Perhaps King Kong does too good of a job realizing the original vision of Skull Island, because it seems the game brought the movie's neo-colonial anxieties along with it.
And maybe that can also explain the existence of Hayes, the game's only black and original character, who was possibly made to keep the source content within modern sensibilities. But given the racial politics of King Kong, we shouldn't be surprised that Hayes is completely useless to the dynamics of the story. He certainly does lead the group, in fact he consistently acts as Carl Denham's moral challenge, someone who actively questions his selfish obsession with his movie while the crew struggle to survive. But he has no stake, no cause to carry, no good reason for being there. (He also doesn't have a fucking last name, but I digress). And of course Hayes is killed on the island by sacrificing himself. Typically, his final action is to solidify his inferiority to the all-white cast.
I was told by friends and peers that King Kong is a brief experience but it's actually a very long game that goes through several acts. Hayes' death is followed by a difficult and climactic fight through several raptors to reach the riverside, where a rescue bi-plane is waiting. But while Jimmy gets onto the plane, Jack refuses to go, preferring instead to stay on the island to track down and save Ann, starting a whole new, final set of levels in the game. Earlier before the big V-Raptor fight, Carl refuses to go with the group all together. His camera and film stock was lost in a confrontation with Kong, and now he remains demoralized and disenthused, in a really masterful piece of melodrama, where we see Carl sat in the corner, his head down under a ray of light, and, through a small stream of water where we walked from, his camera and film stock hanging from a branch, in a place where Carl can't see it, and when we're not able to tell him that it's there. By this point, sunrise has come onto Skull Island. We do some traveling alone, and find Ann, not being ravaged by the monstrous Kong, but perched on his hand while he sleeps. Jack and Ann leave together, get onto a wood palette riding down a riverside, and they make conversation:
"Not leaving.. for coming to get me. I didn't know writers were so brave."
"Neither did I. You think he'll try to follow us all the way?"
"You can bet your life on it."
"What do you want to do?"
"Let him be. Stop treating him like a monster, stop making him into something that he's not... we should all get off this island as fast as we can, Jack. We don't belong here."
It's this point where Peter Jackson's King Kong comes to its full circle. In an apt expression, the game puts its entire experience into perspective. The game isn't really over though. We eventually find Carl again, who captures Kong through the help of rescue ships that Gas Bomb him, and he is brought to New York City as a living freak show. Playing as Kong, you eventually break out of your chains, ravage NYC, and climb the Empire State Building, in the expected routine of what is still a movie tie-in game of an old story, after all. But Jack's sobering exchange with Ann is where I feel the game really ends for me. Everything else is franchise filler. Skull Island was a concept, a spatial essay and an experience introduced to us, and here the book is closed and we sit in the after-effect of its final page. The central hook of the game lies in our relationship to Skull Island. Throughout King Kong, we understand ourselves as both victims and survivors; victims of a terrible predicament and the worst of luck, and survivors in a place completely antagonistic towards us, like an organism. But Ann's final remark is the hook that subverts how we understood that relationship. King Kong's final moment happened when the game asked not Jack, but us, as players, to reflect on why we made the actions we did, the things we saw, and what they really meant, if the people, the structures and the creature were really what we assumed they were on first glance. Skull Island is clearly a place with a long, visible history it does not tell us. And King Kong ends, 'textually,' by asking us to reflect on what that history was trying to say to us.
So what to make of Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of The Movie? It's probably one of the most important first person games of the 2000s, definitely a title that I would confidently place in lineage to games like Metroid Prime, or Mirror's Edge, or Killer7 and other works that came out in that period. King Kong is a movie tie-in game of a third remake and yet so much of its character comes from how it exists as a videogame. It’s incredibly racist, and yet its subtext involves race more than any other game I can recall. Despite the positive reception it had on release, it hasn’t really found a place in the shrinking collective memory of mainstream videogame discourse. But I think the game a crucial text for thinking about first person games, and what an alternative history of the form really means. King Kong understands first person games so well, it works so deftly within the form that it reminds me more of the first person narrative games of late than any AAA shooter. It's a game that not only feels inspired and informed by the works that came before it, but invested in what will come after.
Author’s Note: I’d like to give a formal thanks to user Constipated Owl, whose quality Longplay of King Kong was used extensively for reference in this piece, and to Stuart Arias, who referred me to the 1997 game Jurrassic Park: Tresspasser, which was an important reference for me approaching this game.
All screenshots were taken using Dolphin Emulator.