The Warriors Game Breathes New Life into the Movie’s Story
Late to the Game is a bi-weekly column dedicated to exploring games of the relative and extreme past, deem if there’s something problematic or worth celebration within them and serves as a damn fine excuse to finish exploring the depths of my backlog.
Spoilers: The Warriors book has been around since 1965, the film since 1979, and the game since 2005. You’ve had time to experience it and you still can across three mediums before reading this!
The Warriors is one of the strangest adaptations because of how much it squanders the story it chooses to tell. The opening two-thirds of the game are entirely made up for the sake of making content for the game, with only the last bit being canonical in any sense. The Warriors, if you didn’t know, has to do with a version of New York City rife and comically oversaturated with gangs, who decide one night to come together. The gist of this gathering: they outnumber the police, so they should be one huge gang and take control. The Warriors are one of the freshest gangs on the scene, the underdog everyone loves to hate and the collective protagonists of the story. They also get framed for the murder of Cyrus, the leader who calls the meeting, who has a vision of a utopian society under gang control. What ensues is a night of narrow escapes as every gang in the city comes together to “keep the peace” and avenge Cyrus, resulting in all hell breaking loose.
Almost everything about the video game adaptation of the property works directly in contrast to whatever that vision of unity could’ve been. What you get instead is a romp through New York City centered on senseless violence and excessive machismo, a point that fails to stand out as sorely in the film. Mercy, the love interest of the film, calls out The Warriors machismo in a moment that feels unearned: for refusing to take off their identifying jackets in another gangs territory. In the game, this feeling is demonstrably more pronounced in its earlier appearance in the fictional portion of the game, coming near the end of a rampage through the same gangs territory when the leaders angry girlfriend sardonically calls out your senseless beatdown, saying, “Good job. You guys are real tough, real big shots.” In a manner I’ve never seen before, the video game attempts to shed a light on the characters that was denied to them in the film but ends up re-contextualizing them as the villainous people they ultimately are, mechanically and narratively. The Warriors, by way of Rockstar Games, ends up feeling like more of a parody of its source material rather than a faithful retelling.
The Warriors film is all about the titular gang escaping from their pursuers, charting a path from Pelham Park in The Bronx all the way back to “the ass-end of Brooklyn” or as we know it, Coney Island, the neighborhood The Warriors call home. In that sense, they’re almost pitiable as a band of nine guys against every gang in New York. In the film, Cleon, the warlord or leader, doesn’t throw a swing until provoked and the rest of the night proceeds as such. They’re almost dangerously pacifistic in their approach thanks to the leadership of Swan, their second-in-command, though naysayers like Ajax would much rather “waste” their way through everyone. The only fights they play into are the ones against the Furies who they can’t outrun, the Lizzies who seduce three of them into their hideout and the Punks who pin them down in the bathroom of a train station. Besides that, their first instinct is to run because as Swan is well aware, cool heads prevail. The tight wire act of these fights balanced against outright trying to escape is what makes the film as thrilling as it is and latter portion of the game so much more mechanically solid than its beginning.
That portion of the game opens up with a tutorial that has you beating on homeless people who were promised booze just so that you can learn how to brutalize your opponents. The missions take you all over New York City, fighting gang after gang trying to assert your dominance in what’s ultimately the most extreme and puerile version of a dick measuring contest. The third mission of the game literally throws you into a mostly aimless riot scene made up just to give you the pretext to wail away with reckless abandon. Make no mistake, eight year old and twenty year old me enjoyed the hell out of this though the latter definitely had more than a few questions as to the point of all this.
The mechanics that drive the opening segments include brawling, which gives the game reason enough to give you combos and super moves that land with a satisfying and gruesome thud, boosting stereos, robbing stores, and mugging innocent bystanders and while certain other games by the studio have definitely gone further than this(like GTA III‘s “Dead Skunk in the Trunk” mission or all of Manhunt), it never felt more malicious than getting an up close shot of a person pinned into submission while executing a mini game to get what could be $3. While a mythology surrounding gangs likes to paint them as patron saints of their communities, the game The Warriors is unmistakable in its rhetoric: these guys are no saviors, they aren’t even modestly decent.
It’s a shame then that while the translation to video game spins our protagonists as villainous, the unfaithful adherence drops some of the nuance of the film. Mercy’s callout being so early before her real appearance allows the audience to forget she did anything like that, and makes her look like an idiot and a girl with a knack for dangerous men, instead of the fiercely independent and combative woman she is in the film. Meanwhile, an entire fight against The Orphans happens before the actual encounter that happened in the film, which was very specifically non-violent(towards humans at least).
The resulting product is one of the most fascinating, malicious and still unabashedly fun games of my childhood. While The Warriors issues, like everything related to the misogynistic and rapey Ajax, carry over from the film, the game isn’t as reluctant to shy away from the idea that these guys aren’t entirely undeserving of what’s coming to them. More interesting than that, for a whole segment of people like me, this became the story of The Warriors. It’s interesting looking back on it now how much I defined the property by aspects of it that, within the reality of its source material, are entirely fictitious. The movie itself is a distorted version of its own source material and what becomes entirely evident is that adaptations always have and always will come part and parcel with a level of authorship that allows the creators the reframe fascinating stories in novel ways to shed a light on what had gone unseen.