Most Movie Tie-In Games Kind of Stink. I Hope This One Won't.

Last week, during Gamescom, the folks behind the new Star Trek game put out a good-looking trailer and some nifty screenshots. On the heels of that trailer, IGN has an interview with Paramount Pictures' SVP of games, Brian Miller, explaining why, in his opinion, movie tie-in games usually suck, and how Star Trek plans to avoid those pitfalls.

If any tie-in stands a chance, it seems to be Star Trek. The E3 demo really did look like loads of fun. And it's true that the game's production doesn't look to suffer from what Miller claims are the two biggest killers of tie-ins: insufficient lead time, and insufficient budget.

But there's more to the perennial problem of how badly games made of movies tend to suck than just time and money. All the time in the world can't make a game that has no reason for being into a game that players have a reason for buying, playing, and loving. Though not giving developers enough time to make a good game, on its own merits, certainly hampers the final product, tie-ins often go wrong at the concept level, long before crunch time enters into it.

Many a franchise has, over the years, spent the money on a big-budget, triple-A console tie-in because it's what you do. The ideas, though, are changing. Two recent mega-blockbuster films have taken different routes: The Hunger Games playable tie-ins are a Facebook game and an iOS side-scroller, and The Dark Knight Rises got an iPad game. And yet, while these games neither cost developers untold millions, nor cost players $60 or more up front, they suffer from the same core problem as many of their 3D brethren: they have no particular reason to exist.

A major video game production usually has a reason for being. The reasons vary pretty widely, from a specific artistic vision that a team wants to communicate, to the competitive mastery of a single skill like driving or shooting. Sometimes it's supposed to be an emotional narrative, or an epic story. Sometimes it's even just for titillation. Not all games succeed at their objectives, but there's at least a goal behind them.

In an ideal world, a game designed to tie in to a movie would always start from the core reason it would be a worthwhile experience for the player. And a movie game has different reasons than a stand-alone game. Any kind of tie-in has to face the fact that the player already has a big pile of knowledge. The game's job, then, should be to add to the player's existing knowledge, not to repeat that knowledge. So what elements does a game have to work with—or around?

  • Plot. The player, presumably, already knows what happened in the movie. A play-by-play rehash, that just makes the player protagonist perform the same actions he or she did in the film, for the same reasons, is boring. A game that fills in the gaps, by showing events that take place "offscreen," either before or after the film's plot or implied to take place during it, has a story to tell.
  • Characters. If a movie is all about developing a character or small group of characters, then the game doesn't need to be going over that same territory. A game can succeed by filling in the gaps, by taking new perspectives on characters established on-screen, or by using secondary characters to get a better look at the world the movie established. I know the arc of Michael Corleone's rise to power from his perspective, but what if a Godfather game told the story exclusively from the women's point of view?
  • Place. Whether it's a cabin in the woods, an alien planet, or Middle-Earth, players will have seen the basic building blocks of the game's world in the film. What a player wants is the ability to explore the world in detail: to poke into every room and every cranny of that cabin, or to be able to roam that planet and discover its secrets. Just showing locations the player already saw from a distance in a movie just keeps the player exactly where they already were: distanced.

There are franchises out there that have, in the past, done excellent work tying in to established films or franchises. I already know what happens in Star Wars. I don't need to play a game about Luke Skywalker meeting Han and Leia and shooting the Death Star. On the other hand, Lego Star Wars reinterpreted the world and the plot points into a new approach. Games like X-Wing and TIE Fighter focused on specific elements of the world, and fleshed them out. And so some Star Wars games, at least, become more than just rehashes of films we've seen before. They take a license, and become games.

Games are an amazing way to explore what doesn't happen in a movie. Although we tend to use the same cinematic language and contrivances to tell our games, even in the framework of cut-scenes and camera placement games can offer a much richer, longer, more detailed experience. The story a talented director can tell in two or three hours can be full of detail and meaning, but twenty or forty hours of a game can surely say even more.

And so we come back around to Star Trek, and me keeping my fingers crossed that Brian Miller is right about it having overcome the challenges. If I've seen the 2009 Star Trek and plan to see its sequel in May (as I do), then (years of nerdery aside) I already know a great deal about this game's world. I've seen its characters, its locations, and its scope. I know what Kirk, Spock, and the rest do when confronted with the destruction of a noted Federation world.

But I don't know what the Enterprise's crew will do with the Gorn, and I don't know what it's like to explore the ship for myself. So the game, at least, has the room to explore a new plot, and to let me see at least one known location (the Enterprise) for myself. Will the story it tells, one that I won't see repeated for me at my local multiplex, be any good?

Well, that's a separate issue. But by taking the ideas of its source and using them as building blocks, instead of as the end goal, the game at least has a reason to exist. Its reinterpretation may still fail, but that its trying at all is a good first step.