Monday, December 1, 2008

Cha$e combines Manhunt & Running Man

A review of the “real life videogame reality TV show”

Welcome to a reality show that is a cross between real life pac-man, metal gear solid, laser tag and capture the flag rolled into one. I was playing basketball the other day, and a childhood friend told me I had to watch this new reality TV show on Sci-Fi called 'Cha$e'. I was also advised emphatically that the 's' in Cha$e was a dollar sign, to make sure my google search would be successful. My friend, thinking I would make a great contestant on the show, also knew me well enough to know the concept of this show was going to get me excited. And it did; and I do think I would do very well as a runner in the game. But I digress...

The reality TV/game show, Cha$e, boasts being the “first real life video game”, in which 10 selected runners are put onto a real life game field (like a Universal Studios, abandoned Harbor or Garden) where Hunters are periodically released to tag out and eliminate players. The hunters follow certain video game-like rules during their hunt, like being released from spawn points, walking in pre-planned patterns, and not pursuing a runner once they lose sight of them. The runner can also perform odd and often pointlessly random games to earn themselves weapons which can deter Hunters (like freeze guns, invisible glasses, and deflectors) and help them last the alloted 60 minutes. The players surviving until the end, then must find a secret exit to win 25 thousand dollar plus additional money that was hidden around the game board.

The most amazing thing about this show to me, is how similar it is to ideas that I have sketched down in the last ten years for ideas of my own reality/game shows. I think the concept has some potential, however, it fails on many levels: and I will tell you why. First let me tell you what makes the game cool.

The Hunters are Bad Ass
You can see the show on the SciFi channel and also free on-line. If you have the time when you are done reading this go watch the first batch of episodes (at The game has a very neat survival concept, it has a semi military feel to it, but looks more like the Matrix. It is easy to imagine yourself inside the game playing, being chased by some very cool looking hunters. The hunters are always dressed in suits, and always very athletic. Some guys, who look relatively plain, in the basic black suit can sprint like Olympic runners. One guy featured an ability to jump incredible heights, which did not come into play (besides some staged intro videos), and one African American women looked like a lightening bolt when she chased down some slow middle aged runner. The bad guys....are awesome. I would compare them to Battle Dome characters minus the wrestling gimmicks. In fact on Cha$e the Hunters never talk, except for a few of the guest hunters, who are minor celebrities that factor into the uniqueness of each particular episode. The actual game boards are quite fun to see players explore, and strategically agonize over. The actual runners vary like any reality TV show (attractive dumb blond/ jock/ african american/ computer geek/ middle aged mom). Given the aspect of the game, this allows certain players in Cha$e to really shine. It is similar to Gladiators, when you get a chance to see a 5 foot nothing science teacher really kick the crap out of a 7 foot-tall man named Thunder, although usually its the opposite. Cha$e highlights the quick and crafty player, more so than the strong or brave, which is a refreshing switch (especially since I take pride in my quick and craftyness). Although the best players in Cha$e never seem to ever win, which brings me to the first of a list of big problems with Cha$e.

Cha$ing a plethora of problems
I want to bring up the obvious correlation between this game and Manhunt, a reality TV that bombed on UPN a few years ago. Manhunt was the same premise, only more along the lines of a real life Predator than a video game. Manhunt featuring military hunters equipped with paint ball weaponry, hunting down a group of runners whose only objective was to survive. I was quite excited about this concept too, but the over the top wrestling theatrics of the hunters was lame, and the show was quickly dropped due to bad ratings and later on lawsuits followed, since it turned out the show was being filmed on a hollywood studio instead of Hawaii like it claimed. The show was a big fake.

Like ManHunt, Cha$e comes across as a fake and scripted game, even though I do not think it is. I say that it seems scripted, not because I think the outcome is scripted down to every last detail, but because the way they have set up the game and the storytelling, that it all seems more oriented towards production value than it does oriented towards a compelling game. Each episode you have a runner ducking into hiding spots, only to see two camera men running after them in plain view.....i think that is dead give away for the hunters, who pretend not to see them (which I assume is one of their rules as hunters). Or you see a runner ducking in the woods, whispering to the camera man about how good his hiding spot is and his strategy, as the hunter can obviously see the camera man standing there with his big camera. The sheer bad planning when it comes to the specifics of recording the action, makes the game seem very artificial. I do admit, they do manage to capture some cool shots by doing this, but those nice promo shots are not worth diminishing the genuine game play, which feels very fabricated.

Secondly, creating a game where hunters are supposed to act like artificial intelligence (AI), instead of real intelligence is like trying to eat cereal off the picture on the box of the cereal, it is just dumb. Video games are always attempting to create the most advanced AI as possible for their games; you want to feel like you are playing against a human being. Meanwhile the game Cha$e actually dumbs down their hunters, in order to call the game “the first live action videogame”, which is a nice tag line, but in fact quite a stupid concept. If Cha$e was smart they would drop the hunters' rules and allow them to roam freely. In fact, based on some of the ideas I had years ago, I think it would be a lot more fun to watch hunters try to amass points, while the runners try to earn their own points by surviving. This would give the viewer two games to watch, both the almost super human hunters, versus the hand picked Joe the Plumbers of the world. You could root for both, and find yourself interested in the drama that would unfold in the statistics week by week.

Thirdly, the ending is always a buzz kill and the best players never win. As the game progresses, more hunters are added to make it increasingly difficult, which makes for a tension building finale, only to find the winner usually determined by the sheer randomness of where the secret door is to be revealed. Sometimes verbal clues are revealed through the in-game cell phones for runner to decipher, but the clues are seriously lame and purposely vague. Other times it is just announced and players just hope to be nearest, and run for the location according to their map. Having a game, which takes skill to endure, be ultimately decided by a random draw is a very quick way to lose credibility and viewership. It is also quite painful to see the lack of creativity in designing these SECRET exits. Exits are sometimes plain looking loading dock doors, or a simple flag hanging on a landmark (ala Amazing Race), or some other run of the mill spot. If the producers would simply take a little time to think of more exciting exit spots each episode, the show would end a lot more thematically and result in the audience craving more, instead of feeling somewhat cheated. I shrugged my shoulders in indifference at the end of the first two episodes, because I was very unimpressed. Making the exit cleverly camouflaged, or located underneath a landmark through a tunnel, or up in a very difficult to reach location (that players may have walked by numerous times during the game) would end the show with a bang, instead of a fizzle.

The final problem with Sci-Fi's reality game show Cha$e, is the lack in storyline. Yes, the concept is good enough to be interesting for 60 minutes, and the variants in each episode will keep people around for 5 or 6 shows, but what is the reasons to continue watching after the concept wears off? There is no reason to keep watching. Once you understand how the game works, and see a few episodes the mystery is gone. I am not saying their needs to be a love story, or soap opera like story arcs here. It would be smart to have returning characters. Winners from previous episodes should be allowed to Jeopardy, or Family Feud. In fact, all surviving runners should advance to the next show, the winners that take home 25 grand could be granted a spot in a super round, filled with all the winners. This way, you reward the best players another chance to win, and let the audience build a relationship with their favorite runners. I also like the idea of keeping performance statistics for the hunters. Although quickly, the game is starting to remind me of the Sci-Fi movie featuring Arnold Swarzeneggar's called 'Running Man' (1987).

Running Man a Reality?
I am of the minority of people that watched, and loved Running Man. The futuristic movie, based on a book by Stephen King, predicted Reality TV, and hypothesized a society that would take its convicted felons and enter them into a deadly reality TV show where the helpless criminals called “runners” would navigate through a series of levels or mazes (much like Cha$e) and be hunted in unfair scenarios by very decorated “stalkers”, who kept statistics on who made the most KILLS, while the whole ordeal was televised for the world to see. The staging of the fictional 'Running Man' show seems eerily similar to reality TV of our day. The conspiracy concept in Running Man also seems to predict our own future of the demise of Reality TV, as reality show producers in the movie, use edited footage and fear to goad the society into accepting and approving of the violence and death of the supposed sport of Running Man. Thanks to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the corrupt TV corporations, in the end, get their payback and perish on televised TV, and all is good. However, the ease to turn the televised medium of pseudo sports into a vehicle for control and corruption has always been on the forefront of my mind when watching any violent based game show or reality TV episodes. The idiotic formula that America, and the World, endure by watching reality TV is excruciating. It is all so brain numbingly repetitious. I think Cha$e has the ability to break free from this mold, but to do so would mean to convince the executives that following the age old pattern that dominates Reality TV today, needs to be changed, and drastically.

The End of Reality TV
Ever since it became inexpensive to record digitally, Reality TV took off. You can do amazing things in the world of Reality TV when you can afford to record EVERYTHING. I honestly love this fact, when it comes to informative documentaries, but in Reality TV.... it seems to be only taking new pictures to tell the same stories. The reality TV producers record everything, with dozens of cameras and pick out the best 10 moments, and weave them into a storyline dripping with whatever stereotypical message they want to cram down your throats. This is why there is no reality TV that will ever match up to a live game of football. This is also why, Reality TV's long enduring fad, will soon come to an end. Although, that is assuming that the audience demands something more intelligent, which given the ratings of American Idol and Look Who's Dancing Now (or whatever its called) seems like an unlikely scenario.

Once again, I have turned what was going to be a review of a new TV show, into a critique on the American culture and the intelligence of my people. Leaving my original talking points abandoned in paragraphs above. Only to attempt to drag them here to the end of my review, in some sort of half-assed semblance of a conclusion. Cha$e, the first live action video game, is a Reality TV show with a million problems, and a hint of real potential. I predict the game will be short lived, but provide another stepping stone in the groundworks for a really good capture the flag type show which embraces the actual sport of surviving, instead of the simply production value of people running in fear. It is another Reality TV flash in the pan, that is forcing a good idea into the awkward marketing bottle; which will ironically produce a very good promo reel, but also sentence the show to a very short life. As viewers, we need to demand more intelligent shows, based more on the actual ability of the contestants and less on the ability of the video editors; demand shows that challenge our minds, not dumbs us down; shows that are actually engaging, and not just the same tired formula with a new name and a new look. Yet, I forget, Amercian culture does not make progress, or make changes if there is money to be made. Money first, future second.

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