Thursday, April 28, 2011

Keep on Trekkin'

Okay, full disclosure: I'm writing this post mostly to have an excuse to share this image.

It doesn't take much to get me to extol the virtues of Star Trek, as certain people named after certain starship captains can attest. Buy me a couple Racer 5's and I'll happily expound upon the psychologically symbolic triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and Bones, or describe in minute detail my childhood epiphany at Sir Patrick Stewart's famous "There are four lights!"

I blame my father and syndication, in that order.

It's worth noting that the only branches of the franchise I followed were the original series, The Next Generation, and their associated movies. (I'm not sure if that makes me an elitist or a plebeian. Frankly, I don't want to even try to navigate the treacherous waters of Star Trek fandom's politics.)

The primary reason I never got into Deep Space Nine, Voyager, or Enterprise, I think, is that the Star Trek mythology was never remotely as interesting as the characters. And the performances of that original cast and the Next Generation actors, in their earnestness, humor, and occasional subtlety, realized the sense of romance, adventure, and promise Gene Roddenberry's "Western in Space" premise afforded. Due respect to the spin-off series, but their lack of compelling characters and emphasis on mythology left me cold. Star Trek just wasn't Star Trek without Kirk and Spock or Picard and Riker.

It's unfortunate that Star Trek has had such similarly mixed success in videogames. I still think my favorite entry to date is the NES version of Star Trek: 25th Anniversary. An adventure game with light (and kind of odd) space combat, it featured a linear story with some neat illusions of choice. For away missions, you could choose two companions from your crew to accompany Captain Kirk. Spock and Bones were my defaults most of the time, but you would also need to take along specialists (a geologist to study rock formations, a redshirt for extra firepower) to solve certain puzzles. Familiar faces like Harry Mudd and settings like the 1920s Chicago planet even made appearances. The experience was very much like playing through an episode of the show, albeit with some fetch-and-assemble quests shoehorned in.

Revealed a WHAT, Spock? Spit it out, you green-blooded Vulcan!

The other Star Trek game I have fond memories of is the Next Generation title for the SNES, Future's Past. The setup was similar to 25th Anniversary, but with more variety and some pseudo-open-endedness. Rotating through the bridge stations would allow you to warp to any location in the galaxy (although, to my knowledge, the only gameplay content was found on the story-related planets), browse dozens of entries in the library computer, or call a briefing in the conference room. You had many options for away team personnel and equipment, and the top-down space combat, viewed on Worf's tactical screen, was oddly satisfying—even if it was essentially flying in circles while spraying & praying. In retrospect, it probably wasn't that great of a game, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

The majority of the entries in the Star Trek videogame roster are, from what I can discern, a distinctly mediocre lot. The best of the rest, in my experience, was Elite Force, a solid FPS with a good amount of variety in environments and some surprisingly interesting character development. Of the several Star Trek RTS games released in the last two decades, the only one I tried was New Worlds, which was decidedly clunky and largely incongruous with my experience of the franchise. Shattered Universe on Xbox was abysmal, and the demo of Legacy I downloaded or the 360 was nigh-unplayable. The incomprehensibly titled shoot-em-up Star Trek: D-A-C, a tie-in to the 2009 J.J. Abrams movie, was only tangentially related to the franchise and barely worth the half hour I sunk into its demo. Finally, although I don't play MMOs, I can say with some confidence that Star Trek Online has not exactly lit the galaxy on fire.

And that makes perfect sense to me. Again: the characters, not the universe, are the draw. A Star Wars MMO might stand a better chance of success, given the wide variety of powers and abilities for the player to draw upon. But the Star Trek fiction doesn't really allow for much of that. And even if it did, there seems much less flexibility in the franchise canon for players to create their own stories. Star Trek has always felt more stiff-collared than the wanton playground of the Star Wars universe.

Computers? Worf got MAD computers in this bitch, son.

It's a shame we haven't gotten stronger efforts lately in the Star Trek game, um, space. In fact, I think now is an opportune time to reinvigorate the franchise in the adventure genre, for a number of reasons:
  • Episodic game storytelling works. Telltale has proven again and again that it can be not only a viable business model, but also an engaging format. Star Trek was at its best when it was episodic, letting the mythology serve as a backdrop for character development, not the other way around. Building a sprawling game world around its arcane lore seems backward to me.
  • Optimism is welcome. One of my favorite things about Roddenberry's vision of the future is that we didn't fuck it up. Intelligence, innovation, and compassion won out, all but eliminating hunger, poverty, and intra-species war. How many games do you know that present the exact opposite outlook? Aren't we all a bit apocalypsed-out by now?
  • The uncanny valley is narrowing. Advances in technology and designer skill have rewarded players with more photorealism than ever before. This is particularly useful in character-focused game narratives, which convey increasing levels of subtlety and nuance in performance. Imagine L.A. Noire's technology applied to a Star Trek game. It'd really be something to see that paired with voice performances by the actors we know and love. (And not to be too morbid, but, uh, Shatner, Nimoy & Co. ain't getting any younger—so sooner would be better than later.)
  • The adventure game is making a comeback. The buzz around L.A. Noire is due in part, I think, to the experimentation of titles like Heavy Rain and Deadly Premonition, and perhaps even the retro appeal of indie gems like Gemini Rue. There's a demand for this kind of game experience, which seems perfectly suited to Star Trek's strengths.
  • Marketing opportunities abound. Naturally, Abrams will have a sequel in theatres soon enough, and an attractive young cast can't hurt any potential tie-in. But in the 45 (!!) years since it first debuted, Star Trek has continually demonstrated its lasting appeal. There's a built-in fan base that will automatically snap up anything Star Trek-related, sure. But I think the makers of Star Trek Online may have counted a little too heavily on that. Again: characters. Telltale's Back to the Future game would not have sold nearly as well had they not gotten Christopher Lloyd and a remarkably good Michael J. Fox impersonator to do the voice acting. Nobody gives a crap about Ghostbusters: Sanctum of Slime not just because it's a dumb twin-stick shooter, but because it doesn't star the original Ghostbusters. Of course, getting some names attached is only the first step: Several of the mediocre Star Trek games featured recognizable talent. But pairing that talent with the appropriate game format and some of the series' experienced writers could be a huge draw.
Obviously, it would take a massive amount of investment, coordination, and skill to pull off a satisfying Star Trek adventure game. But as Spock might say, it's only logical.

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