Whether it’s a hit TV show like HBO’s “The Last of Us” or an interactive theme park like Universal Studios’ Super Nintendo World, video games are ripe for adaptation and reinterpretation.
But what if the game has no IP address? What if the game hasn’t even been released yet?
With “Ashfall,” Liithos Chief Executive and Founder Michael Mumbauer and VP of Creative John Garvin (who wrote and created the game) are confident that their characters and immersive world are strong enough to attract fans before they even play a game. First through a five-episode TikTok show that ends on Sunday, then with a comic book launching in March. All this comes years before the game is finished.
“Ashfall” explores a post-apocalyptic world set in the Pacific Northwest, where Seattle has been submerged in the ocean for hundreds of years. Climate catastrophe has changed the world and civilization has degenerated into factions and enclaves. At the foot of the erupting Mount Rainier, Ash Naranjo is taken in by the Order of Life Science, who give him prosthetic arms and other implants.
“For my last game, I literally wrote about 12,000 script pages,” says Garvin. “That’s about the equivalent of 10 two-hour movies, which is really what you need to fill a game. You need much of the same in every medium: plot, character development, theme. You must have something important to say.”
With themes of climate change, ideological and political strife, the mistreatment of people with disabilities, and the general erosion of society, “Ashfall” touches on contemporary themes that may not be visible on the surface.
“What I really want to do with ‘Ashfall’ is explore things that are important and that are happening right now. It’s set a thousand years in the future so we can take some distance from the things that I see tearing us apart in today’s world. They fight over anything that people can disagree on. Ideological grounds, religious grounds. I see that could be in our future – which scares me.
Mumbauer says he’s invested in exploring new storytelling platforms. A veteran of the video game and film industry, he and his team brought to life popular characters such as Nathan Drake from ‘Uncharted’ and Joel and Ellie from ‘The Last of Us’. Having worked for PlayStation for 13 years, he knows the gaming world and knows how to connect players. The challenge now is to get that done without having to play an actual game.
The first episode of the TikTok series “Ashfall”, starring Michael Le.
“I look at challenges and say, ‘TikTok is such a huge platform and it feels like it’s such an opportunity platform to tell stories,'” says Mumbauer. “What if there was a way to do what Quibi was trying to do, which is tell short stories, on a platform that already has an audience ready for it? And what if we did it with an influencer who already understands how to do it?”
Mumbauer enlisted Michael Le (who goes by the name @justmaiko), a social media influencer, dancer and storyteller with more than 52 million TikTok followers, to help create a five-episode narrative series with Garvin that will debut weekly on the channel of Le. The director of Liithos was already a fan of the TikToker, whose posts have generated millions of views whether through his dance videos with high-quality special effects or his anime-inspired content.
“I think it was experimental and we were already writing the comic book,” says Mumbauer. “It felt like the natural way to put the comic next to it because the game is going to take years. So it felt like, ‘What if we try to build this IP in reverse a little bit? Even though we have a gaming background, what if we didn’t start gaming, but got into it?’”
The experimental gamble seems to have worked. The series has been viewed more than 10 million times so far, before the final chapter comes out on Sunday. When making it for TikTok, Mumbauer softened his traditional movie and video game effects, and Garvin scaled down his drafts to create one and a half page scripts for the episodes.
“My thought process was to give them all the meat and cut out every part of the fat. It’s 15 seconds. It’s fast and snappy. It’s very ‘going straight to the point,’” says Le. “It was really just how I can fit myself into the story. It kind of combines what I normally do on TikTok with the world of Ashfall. I turn into him. … I learn to use these powers that Ash has and then try to find my brother.
Now that Le has set eyes on Ash and his world, the comic book will have to follow suit. Right? With intellectual property, the conventional thinking is to promote anything to establish a visual presence. But even that part of the world-building for “Ashfall” is done in an unconventional way.
“I had to pitch to John: What if you look at this character like it’s been in the world for 75 years? In ‘Batman’, Batman has had many different looks over 75 years. What is the same are the ears, the sigil and the hood. What you see in the TikTok series isn’t necessarily what you see in the comic book series, and that’s not necessarily what you see in the game. There will be subtle nuances, but the core pieces are there, and that’s what I think makes an iconic character,” says Mumbauer.
“Being artistic interpretation and transmedia, I think there is a huge opportunity to reach different audiences. Someone may not have my taste in art. So maybe the TikTok video will actually get them excited about this in a way that the comic won’t or even the game footage.