Vin Diesel: Rolling the Dungeons & Dragons Dice
On the surface, Vin Diesel looks like the kind of guy who would gleefully terrify a geek. It might be his looks -- that shaved head and scowling face are enough to make the nerdier among us a bit nervous. It could be those huge arms or those "Fast and Furious" flicks, where he drives fantasy cars and scores with gorgeous women with utter confidence.
But books don't always match their covers, and the heart of a true geek beats deep within Diesel's action hero body. True, he guy looks like he could break your neck with a flick of his massive hands, but he's more likely to use those hands on a video game controller -- and he'll probably win. After all, he owns his own video game company. And if you think you'll out-geek him in a friendly game of Dungeons and Dragons, think again. He might be big, but he's certainly no dummy. The actor has played for more than 20 years and he's forgotten more strategies than you've known.
Best of all, Diesel is not the least bit ashamed to flaunt his geeky side -- in fact, in recent years, he's been embracing it and using it to expand his brand into gaming as well as those blockbuster movies.
Growing Up Geeky
Diesel's background isn't as extreme as his reputation. For starters, Diesel's mother didn't name him that. His real name is Mark Vincent, and he changed it to the more action-star friendly name when he was working as a bouncer before his film career took off. Vin, of course, is short for Vincent, and he says he picked Diesel because people said he was always "fueled up." The son of a theater director and a psychologist, he started acting at the age of seven at the Theater for the New City, but as he grew up, he worked as a bouncer at several Manhattan nightspots before studying English at Hunter College in New York.
He dropped out of college to create his first film, "Multi-Facial," about a young, struggling actor willing to play any ethnicity to get jobs. And then his following film "Strays," also self-produced, made it into the Sundance Film Festival. He didn't hit mainstream success until Steven Spielberg noticed Multi-Facial and cast him in "Saving Private Ryan," launching a stream of roles that called for scowling, muscular stars. But during the time he was building a movie career, he had a not-so-secret hobby -- Dungeons and Dragons.
In the 1970s and '80s, growing up in New York City, Diesel said he and his friends played the game intently, creating entire worlds, and even when he became a bouncer, he'd still play.
"Imagine Dungeons and Dragons with a table filled with artists -- they're able to live in this world of imagination," he said, adding that he was into it before video games became popular. In fact, he wrote the foreword to the book "30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons," and taught Dame Judi Dench how to play while filming "The Chronicles of Riddick."
Diesel doesn't often mention his love affair with D&D, but he does have a tattoo of his player name -- "Melkor" -- "somewhere" on his body.
Moving to Video Games
For most, video games are the fantasy outlet of choice, and Diesel's interests extend to the modern landscape as well. In 2002, he started his own game development house, dubbed Tigon Studios, because he was tired of substandard games based on movies. Many, ironically, were based on his movies, which generated huge sales from games and merchandising. So he jumped in the highly competitive video game business during the filming of Saving Private Ryan.
"When I realized Steven Spielberg was entering the game world unabashedly," he said. "Somehow that gave me the 'green card' to launch a video game company that would speak to a favorite pastime -- or one of my favorite pastimes."
Several games are based on his most popular character, Riddick, and critics say they're even better than the movies.
"'The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay' is one of those exceedingly rare types of games that delivers exceptionally high quality through and through and single-handedly ups the ante for all similar games," Gamespot.com said. "The fact that it also happens to be based on a movie franchise -- something that's usually a bad sign for a game -- makes it all the more incredible."
Diesel's performance as Riddick, a villain with a heart of gold buried under a fierce exterior, was a fan favorite, and gamers enjoy "becoming" him to enter his world.
Missing the Technology Curve
But Diesel is having difficulty keeping his video game line afloat. While it enjoyed massive initial success, Tigon has fallen behind when it comes to playable systems. The rise of smartphones has overtaken console gaming, but Tigon hasn't made the transition to mobile devices. In addition, the company hasn't repeated the success of its early games. In 2009, for example, action game "Wheelman" sold poorly, and it hasn't released another title in the four years since -- that's a real problem for a company hoping to gain gamers' loyalty.
Tigon said it's developing three games, including one called "Melkor" after Diesel's character, but it didn't mention when it would be launched, or if it would be available on smartphones.
What the Future Holds
Diesel is in his mid-40s now, so he's taking less action-hero roles than he did in the past. But he still has movies in production, all sequels of long-running franchise films like "xXx," "The Fast and the Furious" and "Chronicles of Riddick." Those films should spawn a spate of games, exposing Diesel and Tigon to another generation of geeks. But meanwhile, despite his muscles and fame, he's a man at a crossroads of his career. He hasn't had any truly new characters in years. And as he ages, younger stars are coming up. So he'll find himself replaced in the types of films that made him famous -- or risk becoming a stereotype.
If he decides to use his geek cred in projects, it's exciting to think about a digital Dungeons and Dragons game, particularly if it's expanded beyond the board and on mobile devices. Oh wait, there's already an app for that.
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Categories: Features | Secret Geeks