Why Is The Game Never Better?

As technology has allowed for new mediums for storytelling, capitalist structures have consistently sought out new ways to exploit these mediums for maximum profits. Bringing together different forms of media in a synergetic structure of licensing and branding is productive and economically viable for many “franchise”-based intellectual properties. It was only natural, then when video games rose in popularity and accessibility in the 1980’s, they were co-opted into the expanded cross-entertainment universe.

Video games are theoretically the ultimate entertainment medium (Here’s an IGN op-ed about that). It is fundamentally a movie that you control. The potential in video games was very clear from the start, especially once detailed character modeling became feasible, but the potentiality was different for different sectors. While engineers and programmers saw the ability to convey their own story and share a new world with the user, marketers of larger media conglomerates saw the ability to portray pre-existing worlds that the consumer could walk through themselves. At this point, to the larger media stars, video games were treated as supplementary promotional content, rather than a standalone work of interactive art.

Stunning visuals from E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial Video Game (1982)

The pitfalls of the marriage between video games and film franchises were illustrated early with Atari adaptation of E.T.: The Extra TerrestrialRushed by a holiday deadline, and abandoning most elements of the inspirational film, the game is commonly referred to as the worst video game ever made. Ever. So bad in fact that Atari legendarily buried their mass overstock of cartridges in 1983 in the New Mexico desert. Recently in 2013, a team of curious parties (including former Atari exec James Heller), exhumed the landfill to find over 720,000 copies of E.T. While video games did have huge potential for the film industry, they attempted to hop on the band-wagon a few decades too early, creating a massive disconnect between the two industries. Over the years, a stigma has developed for video game aficionados worldwide: No video game based on a movie is going to be good. A subsequent rule exists that no movie based on a video game will be good either, but that’s a topic for a different blog post.

As a video game and film fan, I agreed with these rules for a long time, trying to hedge expectations for any video game that is released to accompany a film as a marketing piece. In recent years, two video game “series” (I avoid the word Franchise on purpose) have been able to successfully thrive and receive critical acclaim. These two examples succeed because they are able to expand upon existing pop-culture iconography for non-promotional reasons, telling new stories in a new way, with all of your favorite characters. The first is the phenomenon of LEGO games. In the past five years, we have seen Lego Harry Potter, Lego Star Wars, Lego Indiana Jones, and many others be pumped out by movie studios (Warner Bros. and Lucasarts taking the cake for most games made) in conjunction with game developer TT Games. These games are popular amongst both kids and older demographics for its ability to take a simple and silly concept (a world in which everything is made of legos) and apply that to various established cinema universes.

A still from Lego: Harry Potter

The second example, which takes a much more detailed and sophisticated approach to the matter, is Tell-Tale Games. Tell-Tale has been making point and click adventure games for over ten years, but has recently hit its stride with a series of impressive games based on existing film and television content. They are actually responsible for many of the CSI games that Johnson discusses in the book. The groundbreaking thing about their strategy, is not replicating a movie’s plot within their narrative, but crafting entire new narratives within an established universe. Starting in 2011 with Jurassic Park, they have gone on to make games based on The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and Back to the Future. Tell-Tale is creating a new model for what a video game based on traditional media content can be. It’s not just promotional material, it allows a user to dive deep into a created fictional world, serving the dual purpose of promoting your brand and still giving the user a meaningful narrative experience.

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