Screenshot: Why can’t there be a good Star Trek game?

Star Trek
Star Trek seems like it should be one of the exceptions to the unspoken “licensed games are bad” rule.

To accompany May’s release of Star Trek: Into Darkness, Paramount released a Star Trek video game as well, developed by Digital Extremes. While the critical reaction to the film sequel was middling (as a lifelong Trekkie, I thought it was just fine, but then these new movies are barely Star Trek at all), the critical reaction to the game has been pretty much unanimously negative. Like the films, the point of the game seems to be to make the Star Trek universe a little bit sexier, which in gaming means making it a shooter.

The game’s story takes place between those of the two films. The Vulcans, in trying to replace their planet (Eric Bana blew up their homeworld in Star Trek [2009]), have accidentally ripped a hole in the universe, or something. And through this hole in the universe comes an aggressive, monstrous species Kirk and Spock must defeat to save New Vulcan—no, fellow Trekkies, it’s not Species 8472, it’s the Gorn. The Gorn, of course, are enormous lizard-like beings, one of whom Captain Kirk famously faced off against in the classic Original Series episode “Arena.” There, Kirk, unable to defeat the Gorn in hand-to-hand, constructs a rudimentary bazooka out of a hollowed tree trunk, some sulfur and a rock. Yes, it’s one of the silly episodes, but one of the most fun silly episodes.

I suppose it’s appropriate, considering the silly machismo of the original episode, that a game featuring the Gorn would be an equally silly shoot-em-up. The Gorn are eight-foot reptiles in short shorts, after all. But the game has been criticized for being poorly paced, buggy, short, uneven, unoriginal—just all-around bad. It’s hardly surprising that yet another game licensed from a popular film franchise is bad: Almost all licensed games are made in a hurry, have storylines derived from and dependent on the films, and rely on simply being tie-ins for their massive sales numbers, rather than by offering original gameplay. But this is just another in a long line of disappointing Star Trek games.

Star Trek seems like it should be one of the exceptions to the unspoken “licensed games are bad” rule: It’s an immersive and expansive universe with a dedicated but occasionally picky fan base who, we can assume, overlap a fair amount with those who play video games—especially PC games. Star Wars, after all, has a dozen classic games (but then, LucasArts was one of the best early video game developers even outside of the Star Wars franchise). Both Star Wars and Star Trek have expansive enough universes that games needn’t be tied to individual films, which can mean no arbitrary studio release date for developers to meet and no pre-existing script, written for a different medium, to conform to. Yet the new Star Trek game is not alone: For years, Star Trek games have been disappointments—even Star Trek Online (2010), the MMO (massively multiplayer online) game disappointed fans, and it wasn’t tied to any current television or film iteration of the franchise.

Why can’t Star Trek have a good game? Well, actually, it can: 1995’s Star Trek: The Next Generation: A Final Unity is a fantastic game. It was a big-budget game with good (for the time) graphics and animation as well as the voices of the entire cast of the hit TV show from 1987-1994. It features an original plot involving a dispute between the Federation and the Romulan Empire. These things don’t hurt, but they alone are not what makes the game good.

Instead, the 1995 game’s genre is what makes it a good Star Trek game: It’s a graphic adventure. Much of the gameplay consists of strategically choosing actions and controlling verbal interactions by choosing options from a list. As Captain of the USS Enterprise, you must make measured decisions in order to keep a political conflagration from turning into all-out war. Avoiding war, fixing problems with words: These things are anathema to contemporary big-budget video gaming and to the contemporary iteration of the Star Trek movie franchise.

There’s an episode of the original Star Trek series (“Errand of Mercy”) in which both Starfleet and their enemies the Klingons are vying for political alliance with a comparatively weak planet that lies between the Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire. At the end of the episode, both forces are surprised to learn that the meek, humanoid inhabitants of the country are actually something like powerful energy fields who kick both the Klingons and the mostly-human Federation off the planet. Kirk and crew are left to face the fact of their equivalence with their supposedly barbaric enemy in the eyes of these peaceful beings.

Beyond the obvious Vietnam War allegory, this episode communicates ideas that are at the heart of Star Trek: ideas about the responsibilities of utopia, the complexities and importance of ethical interaction with other cultures and the possibility of mutual recognition between alien races. Not all episodes, even the good ones, always get these ideas straight, or explore them without falling into the usual ideological traps of mainstream media, but there’s a constant striving toward and revision of these ideas for all 716 television episodes of the franchise across 40 years. Occasionally, episodes like “Arena” give us villains that are only giant monsters, but more often, Star Trek is about learning how to communicate, not how to build a bazooka.

Unfortunately, these ideas are not well-suited to current video game tie-ins meant to feed off the consumer frenzy of multi-million dollar film franchises. I suspect the problem with Star Trek games, really, is that the universe of Star Trek clashes at its core with the current world of blockbuster gaming.

Pat Brown is a graduate student in Film Studies at the University of Iowa. No, that doesn’t mean he makes movies; he just likes them a lot.

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