Video game remakes and reboots have been pouring out in recent years and, for the most part, these visits to the classics of gaming past have been well-received. Yet one of the greatest video games has been left behind: The Operative: No One Lives Forever. Despite the wild, eccentric and memorable moments that this game offered players back in the day, it has gone without a remake or reboot in the 20 years since its release, because 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. and Activision have been sitting on it, unsure of what to do with this gem of a game.
No One Lives Forever was set in the 1960s and introduced Cate Archer, a former thief trying to find greater purpose as an agent of UNITY, a secret organization based in England. Despite her superiors’ relative lack of faith in the organization’s first female operative, Archer proved herself, saved the world and put an end to the threat of the evil terrorist organization known as H.A.R.M.
If some of the elements in that description sound like the stuff of parody, it was meant to be. While it had its dramatic moments, the game contained an abundance of moments created just to make gamers laugh. To that end, NOLF included a host of visual gags, inappropriately philosophical moments and content designed specifically to satirize the spy genre, often in the most outrageous ways. It was a comedy game, and an exceedingly well-written one at that, resulting in critical-acclaim upon release. This led to a second game, aptly titled No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.’s Way, released in 2002. Much like its predecessor, the sequel also received almost nothing but great reviews. The series’ only low point was the spinoff game, Contract J.A.C.K., released the following year.
So with a surprisingly stellar track record, why hasn’t Cate Archer reappeared in the last 20 years? It’s certainly not for lack of trying. In 2014, Nightdive Studios (Night Dive Studios at the time) attempted to update and re-release both No One Lives Forever and A Spy in H.A.R.M.’s Way. It filed for a trademark — which sparked rumors and excited fans — and even went so far as to create new marketing material, but in the end, no game was re-released.
Before delving into the why, it’s important to know that No One Lives Forever and its sequel were developed by Monolith Productions and published by Fox Interactive and Sierra Entertainment. Monolith was acquired by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment in 2004, while Sierra was ultimately absorbed into Vivendi Games, which in turn merged with Activision in 2008.
Nightdive Studios founder Stephen Kick explained that the company had acquired the source code for both games and reached out to Warner Bros., Activision and 20th Century Fox in the hope of arranging some kind of publishing deal. What Nightdive found was that, while Warner Bros. was seemingly more certain of its rights over the game, neither Activision nor 20th Century Fox knew where the legal documentation pertaining to the games were stored, or, more confusingly, if they existed and they even had rights over the games at all. It should be noted that Activision community manager Dan Amrich once seemed to confirm in 2013 that Activision no longer had those rights.
The reason for the uncertainty is that any records of ownership would have been kept on paper, and none of the three major video game companies were at all interested in trying to dig them up. Nightdive Studios was left without options and eventually gave in.
As disappointing as it might be for fans of the series, the lack of interest when it comes to revisiting the No One Lives Forever games is understandable. Despite their undeniable critical success, the first installment grossed a little over $1.2 million in the U.S. and sold approximately 350,000 copies worldwide. Those aren’t exactly enticing figures.
That being said, those figures represent an older industry that, since the early 2000s, has completely transformed. Video games enjoy a substantially wider audience now. Where the video game industry took in a little over $48 billion (adjusted for inflation) in revenue worldwide in 2000, the industry recently generated over $120 billion worldwide in 2019. This isn’t to say that the sales figures behind No One Lives Forever should be at all impressive, but it does show that a re-release or a revival of some kind is, at the very least, worth considering.
Even today, the game series continues to see new retrospectives, and new, curious gamers are discussing it and reminiscing. It might not have been the most popular game back then, but today — when a number of cult classics and remakes are being re-released or remade — there is little doubt that it would find an decent audience if only Disney, who acquired 20th Century Fox in 2019; Activision Blizzard and Warner Bros. made a real attempt to bring the game back in some fashion.
That’s just a fantasy right now, far too much to actually expect. No One Lives Forever and its sequel offered a lot that was and continues to be either rare or wholly unique among video games, but sometimes that’s not enough. So, at least for now, the most longtime fans can do is look back and appreciate what the game was: an eccentric, hilarious spy adventure, with one hell of a soundtrack, that managed to balance humor and drama while harboring an odd fascination with goats.
Two decades ago, No One Lives Forever was released, a video game gem caught between Disney, Warner Bros. and Activision.