Movie Tie-In Games Don’t Always Suck

┬áHoly crap! I just found out there’s a video game based on 2008′s dismal vanish-a-thon Jumper! How could I have missed this? Possibly because neither developer behind it (Red Tribe and Brash Entertainment, you shy little devils!) lists it on their websites as one of their major life accomplishments. Still, in fairness, Brash went under shortly after the release of Jumper: Griffin’s Tale, but Red Tribe’s still out there and boldly pimping Space Chimps: The Game of the Movie Everybody Hated.

It used to be lunchboxes and glasses and Happy Meal toys. Now video games are the mandatory cheap marketing tie-in every big-budget summer blockbuster or sappy kid flick needs. That’s progress for you. Sure, there’s a bunch of great Star Wars games and plenty of classic arcade exceptions, but it’s pretty much taken as a given these days that any tie-in game will absolutely suck. What’s surprising is how uniform the low quality is. You’d think at some point the law of averages would kick in and a decent-to-good game would accidentally sneak through production.

On the plus side, it was better than the book.
Unfortunately, few things on Earth are so consistent. Even the sun doesn’t rise at the exact same time every day. But a video game based on a movie or television show will always be bad, every time, without fail. One even famously helped crater the entire home video game industry back in the early 80′s. Such is the way of things.

True, they don’t get the same resources as an A-list title might. Time, for starters. Most summer blockbusters are in the pipeline for two or three years, about the same length Bungie spends on a Halo. Nobody gets that long to work up a movie game. Hell, contracts could be signed and checks cashed for years before one line of code is written. Why? Because the movie’s look, design, actors (and/or licenses for their likenesses), even the script might not be fully locked down until it’s all well into post-production. And after the late start, developers get nailed with an artificial deadline – on or near the film’s release date – that can’t be slipped if testing shows a level or two needs work.

Not that most devs or publishers necessarily put extra effort into these titles. It’s ingrained that these aren’t million-sellers, so budgets are comparatively low. Games go Gold by way of Green. If the dollars are lacking, so too is the work. Even when interesting ideas enter the mix, which I’ve actually seen happen, they’re the first elements cut when time and money runs thin. I’ve seen that, too.

The focus is on delivering a broad-strokes product that works. Any appeal these games have is based on the franchises they represents, so they’re largely inoffensive, basic-play, risk-free affairs to prevent alienating any potential buyers. Aside from the whole “it sucks” thing alienating them, of course. That’s why most tie-in games are aimed directly at younger, less discerning players (typically in the 6-12 range) with parents who buy what the kids point at without asking too many questions. Irresponsible? Possibly. But even something like Alien vs. Predator: Requiem is rated T for Teen.

At the risk of a slight understatement, that’s not the best foundation to build on. But it’s the formula that really kills them.

Tie-in games either mimic the movie’s storyline, or present a side-story leading up to and/or paralleling events in the film. Bad move, either way. I once wrote a deep, scientific dissertation on why there’s not a single video game movie scoring above 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. Short version: so far, nobody’s successfully translated a game’s core interactive elements into a movie’s core interactive elements… namely, emotional involvement. Even if the emotion in question is as simple as, say, fear, every movie trades on making you feel something. Moving in the film-to-game direction, the same problem occurs, but the result is much worse.
What makes a movie cool? Interesting characters, good performances, snappy dialogue, dazzling special effects, amazing action, involving plot, a smart resolution… all of which are generally absent from a movie game. Basic game design requires an objective-problem-solution setup. At its most basic, that’s all you get, and then those events repeat themselves. A lot. They leave out everything that makes a movie work (always assuming the source material did indeed work), then replace your emotional response to the film with boredom. Ironic, since re-creating that emotional response is the only reason anyone buys these games. If it’s a side-story, you might not even have the movie’s original characters to latch onto.

Small wonder games based on Friday the 13th, The Ring, Ju-On: The Grudge and Saw just weren’t as frightening as something along the lines of a Silent Hill. Or even a Super Mario Bros. Minus the scares, what’s left? Sportswear, puppetry, and emo girls who need to comb their hair.

I should stress this isn’t always the developer’s fault. They’re slaved into whatever the movie is, and that’s a box they simply aren’t allowed to think outside of. But it’s okay, friend. It’s okay. For one thing, nobody’s made a game based on Twilight yet. For another, we now know beyond all doubt that you can pull off a great film-to-game transition, and do it with style.

Here’s the secret: make the game after the movie.