Video Killed the Movie Star

Skip the Harry Potter movie, and play the game instead.

Like the movie it’s been timed to launch with, the new Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets video game faithfully follows the J.K. Rowling book it’s based on, scene for scene. And like the movie, the game brings the book’s story to life through the work of a team of computer programmers. Given that either way you’ll be watching digital animation, buy the game instead of lugging your kids to the theater. The film will be done in two hours, but the game will shut your kids up for weeks on end.

It’s probably better for them, too. The film stomps right on your child’s imagination—replacing the pictures she made in her head with new ones from the director of Stepmom. At least the game returns her some autonomy, surrounding her with the wild world of Hogwarts and letting her make her own way within it. There are complex puzzles to solve and tricky hand-eye moves to master. The richly realized school grounds are ripe for self-guided exploration. There are secret passageways everywhere and fun little tricks to play. Your kid will love sneaking about at night, avoiding post-bedtime capture by Hogwarts prefects—you can throw stink pellets at them to make them cough and distract them by launching noisy, luminous balloons. In all, it’s a far more enriching experience than letting movie CGI wash over you.

The game isn’t groundbreaking, but parents will likely be thankful for that. Given the way Grand Theft Auto and other X-rated games have rampaged across the video-gaming world, you half-expect even a Harry Potter game to steal a page from GTA’s raunchy playbook: Maybe Ron and Harry’s flying car would stop to pick up a couple of whores. But Electronic Arts plays it safe with a Legend of Zelda-style quest, in which you collect trinkets and powers to pass each successive level. At the end of each episode, in accordance with video game conventions, you confront a big baddie—including a fun duel with Draco Malfoy.

The worst pandering to kiddies—but one that will probably make parents happy, too—occurs when Harry gets “killed.” He doesn’t die—he “faints,” according to the instruction booklet. This leads to Harry, say, getting brutally crushed to death by a giant spider and reacting by lying down, putting his hand to his forehead, and sighing like he’s just plum knackered after a cracking good workout.

In addition, the game’s a tad repetitive, especially for grown-up players. Each level poses a new puzzle, but they all start to run together. Once you’ve turned a rock into a bird to find a book to cast a spell so you can battle a giant gargoyle, it can be boring to do it all over again with slightly different enemies, spells, and surroundings. Worse, the Quidditch game disappoints. You just fly through a series of rings in the air. It’s nothing like the game described in the book. Wait for Madden Quidditch 2003.

But overall, compared with this weekend’s film release, the game may be the grander artistic achievement. The graphics are gorgeous and detailed: Harry’s forelock bobs up and down as he runs, but not when he tiptoes to be quiet. When he miscasts Incendio, the fire spell, his robe briefly smokes and tatters a bit. But the impressive thing is the way the player feels like he’s really at Hogwarts. You wake up each morning in the sleeping quarters, with free rein of the massive tower. The grand staircase is a delight to run up and down, and it leads to endless hallways and adventures. There’s far more art in this interactive reimagining of Harry’s world than in a straightforward cinematic rendering of the written page.

And who knows, the game might be the better business venture, too. Remember, the Goldeneye video game more than doubled the gross of the Bond film with the same name. And it cost less to make, too. Given the brewing Pottermania surrounding this film, it’s unlikely EA will outgross Warner Bros. But it should.