At E3 2019, Lionsgate and bithell (the studio behind fascinating projects such as Thomas Was Alone and Volume) revealed John Wick Hex. This upcoming title is based on the explosive film franchise that debuted in 2014 and already has two sequels out and a third on the way. John Wick re-elevated Keanu Reeves’ career and now has a chance to elevate bithell as a developer of renown. Now, while John Wick is a series about nonstop action sequences and brutal violence, John Wick Hex is a tactical strategy RPG. You’d think the IP would debut in video games as a high-octane first-person shooter, but the reality is that this turn-based, cerebral genre is much more fitting for the John Wick universe.
The John Wick film series is a collection of fantastically choreographed shootout action sequences. Wick is a legendary assassin who is dragged out of retirement and gets caught in a seemingly endless chain of revenge. Considering how common a narrative device revenge is in video games, it’s no wonder we’re seeing a video game adaptation on the way. But the thing about John Wick is it isn’t just a cool action flick; that isn’t enough for a series like this to make the impact on pop culture it has so far. John Wick is bizarrely heavy on lore, using its action setpieces to drive forward a story about an underworld of assassins that ignores the rules of us normies. Instead, it operates on a code of its own, with a currency system, governing bodies, and international branches. Wick isn’t just a guy who shoots other guys, he’s a legend in a space that shouldn’t exist, and in being drawn back in, the audience is drip-fed world-building elements as Wick must retrace various steps of his mythological career.
Not only is the John Wick series more story-driven than you might think, but the action sequences are also driven by narrative mythology. The higher powers in this universe, Wick and the peers at his level (or worse), operate on a level that’s almost inhuman. They kill with precision, knowledge, and spacial awareness that seems impossible. When multiple high-level assassins engage each other, it’s almost like two gods are clashing on mortal terrain.
Therein lies my thought that a first-person, or even a third-person, shooter is not enough to capture the essence of what John Wick really is. Sure, there are games like Control or Max Payne that test or surpass human limits in the context of shooting people. But those are largely external powers or abilities.
John Wick is a sort of externalization of internal superpowers. That’s a weird collection of words but ultimately, the superhuman assassins in the John Wick universe aren’t actually superhuman in any way. They have normal human limits, die from being shot and stabbed, and not every fist fight is a graceful display of martial arts. By the end of the third movie, Wick himself is battered and broken, barely clinging to life after a gauntlet of impossible challenges. It’s the way that these characters digest their surroundings, react to violence, and choose their own offense that makes them special. Otherwise they’re just fighting and shooting normal guns. It’s all about tactical prowess.
Hence, John Wick Hex being a turn-based, choice-driven tactical strategy game. As John Wick, the player plans their moves ahead of time, and the action goes on to resemble the movies only after the player plots out their course of action. In the real world, the player sits and considers their options and makes decisions. But in the game world, Wick does what he always does: makes split-second decisions fueled by genius killing intellect. It doesn’t emulate the pace or moment to moment brutality of the films, but it does capture the tone and mythology, which is what truly makes this property special.