Movies for Gamers #16: Pirates of the Caribbean, Stranger Tides is maybe better RPG material than it is a movie

Finally we watched the fourth Disney installment of Jack Sparrows Saga. And we concluded what we were already told by many friends: this movie is not very good. It could have been, but it's not. And that may exactly be what makes it interesting for gaming. A game with the given story elements might be better – if these elements are played out better than the movie.

Eh.. haven't seen it?
For those who haven't seen the movie, Pirate Jack Sparrow is caught by the King in London, to make him find the Waters of Life. But because Jack then would have to work for his old enemy …, he escapes and ends up captured by his ex-girlfriend and zombie captain Blackbeard, who also happens to look for the Waters of Life. To make things more complicated, the Spanish are also looking for the same dew – so it's a triple party race.

Why isn't the movie working? Because there are quite a few loose ends, failed jokes, and because the whole movie feels like a railroading adventure. It has to move forward into the action at any cost, in a direction that not always seems to make sense. Jack's father appears out of nowhere for one, and then disappears for the rest of the movie. No conflict, no answers, just an odd way to give plot information. Jack's father! What could you have done with that? Why drop it in and then forget about it?

Directors Cut vs Final Cut
One possibility is that the film was longer before it reached the final cut. That's often the case. The director and writers aim for a complex and interesting story, lasting three hours in screen time. Often such a version is part of the contract, called “director's cut”. Then come in the producers, and they say “great”, but they also decide to cut the film back to a two hour slot. To do so, they have to cut a few scenes – possibly a third of all that's there. Why a two hour slot? Because that way you can have two shows each night instead of one, and rake in more money. That's the idea, at least.

Unfortunately, cutting out scenes might not only mean cutting whole story lines, but also cutting out the logic of the movie. Or at least the sense of depth and meaning. The first Highlander movie is a notorious example, where the American (short) version was a horrible mess of decapitations. The European version actually had drama and philosophy left. Most of Ridley Scott's movies are also cut to pieces like this – but he found a way out: his more meaningful Director's Cuts now typically arrive on DVD half a year later. So watch the Kingdom of Heaven in the long version only, not the cut down one.

Railroading Movie into Sandbox Adventure
Will there be a more sensible version of Pirates IV? I won't hold my breath for it, but I can wonder about what the movie might have been like. And I can turn (parts of it) into an adventure. Blackbeard's ship, with snakelike ropes dancing to the tune of his sword are a wonderful gadget to use. The scorned ex-girlfriend who impersonates one of the heroes, and might still want him is also a great NPC (no, there's no chemistry between Cruz and Depp, so imagine another duo instead). The mermaids are beautiful to use. What kind of world would there be behind those alluring yet deadly creatures?

And best of all, you could leave the players to choose more of their own path. You might make more of a sandbox-like experience of the elements. Of course, you can have a clock ticking, and both Blackbeard and the Spaniards going for the Waters of Life. But you could also allow more freedom in how, when and where the players fit in. On their own ship? On all three ships? With the Spaniards?

And then there's intriguing questions for your adventure to answer. Like... why was the Spanish ship balancing on top of a high cliff? So, if you see the movie, figure how you can chop it up and use it.


  1. You make a good argument. I think lots of films are better RPG fodder than they are movies. Inception and Alien IV are good examples.

  2. What they did was buy the rights to the Tim Powers book On Stranger Tides and then slotted their characters into the story. The book might make more sense.

  3. @Rob: welcome! and thanks again for the reviews :-)

    @Saroe: indeed, the novel might make more sense :-) I also see this novel by Tim Powers was inspiration for the excellent Monkey Island adventure series.