Dammit, Jim! I'm A Gamer, Not A Doctor! What Star Trek Teaches Us About Video-Game Tie-Ins

Star Trek -- video game history
'Star Trek' video game history

I spent many hours on this game − and regret none of them.

Star Trek  has always been about exploring the universe, finding out most of it wants to kill us — and then trying to do better. Most video games are about exactly the same thing.

It's one reason the multimedia franchise that Gene Roddenberry created in the 1960s has spawned almost as many video games as Mario.  Another is that Star Trek's geek appeal pre-dates the advent of mainstream gaming. Back in 1971, fans were using their keyboards to blow up Klingon warbirds  in a Star Trek text game before the graphics existed to actually depict them. 

'Star Trek' video game history

Riker has "fun time" with his joystick.

When that technology did finally emerge, well, no nerd has ever seen the Starship Enterprise without wanting to steer it himself. It's an urge so strong that Paramount, the studio behind the franchise, even incorporated it into one of the Star Trek: The Next Generation movies — no matter how stupid it looked.

That was then. Now, Namco Bandai is pushing the latest Star Trek game, on course for an early 2013 release, and it’s teaching us how the art of video-game tie-ins has changed over the last four decades.

1. The Past: Brand Desecration And Nerd Betrayal: The words Star Trek in the title of a game used to be a guarantee that the experience would suck like a black hole. Game developers didn’t buy the license to craft an immersive and awe-inspiring Starfleet experience. They bought it as a license to steal money from  Trekkies who wanted that kind of game play.  It was just another sad example of nerds getting bullied — made sadder by the fact that these game publishers employed small armies of nerds to build these games and betray their own kind. There was simply no point in wasting money making a good game when, thanks to the Star Trek affiliation, it was essentially guaranteed to sell.

'Star Trek' video game history

Proof.

Whereas the Star Trek TV series and movies were celebrated for their ability to turn abstract and thorny scientific, philosophic and moral concepts into gripping stories, early Star Trek video games had the dubious distinction of embodying laziness. The 2001 game Star Trek: Deep Space Nine — Dominion Wars was a strategic starship game with a strategy that could best be described as “Make money as quickly as possible.”  It was literally unplayably bad — not because it was boring but because the code was broken and the game wouldn’t run. The publisher would have been more honest if  it had just sent notes to fans’ houses using letters cut out from magazine and newspaper headlines that said:  “We have your beloved franchise. Send us money. No police.

The other end of the laziness spectrum was the 1994 game Star Trek: Deep Space — Crossroads of Time, which technically worked but needn’t have bothered. This was a licensed game in the '90s so some readers already know what ‘s wrong: it was a platformer: you were the commander of a deep-space station in a war zone and the game consisted largely of running around the ship's corridors and jumping. The publisher couldn't have missed the potential of the license more than if it had made an Inception game about counting sheep to fall asleep.

'Star Trek' video game history

Then again, this would make a fantastic game version of The Office.

2. The Present: Games Are Now a Rightful Part Of The Franchise:  We'd love to claim that games are better because they’re more respected, but let’s be honest: they make truckloads more money now. A popular tie-in is a profit turbocharger, adding a whole new revenue stream to the same source material. Fortunately, some companies are trying to do it right. We still have abysmal cash-ins like Iron Man  — which really should be the best game ever made — but Namco Bandai is pushing its 2013 Star Trek title like a real game that stands on its own, not an accessory to a movie.

This doesn’t just mean better graphics and an actual effort to make a good game, though those aspects certainly help.  It also means getting the game and the Star Trek universe right. In the past, fans were horrified by games getting the most basic facts of the canon flat out wrong, and the entire plot would be written around whichever franchise cast members had time to do voiceovers. Now,  the actors aren't just contracted to appear before the cameras. Their involvement in the film extends to their involvement in the game. And the fans are down with that.

Also, when it came to early Star Trek games, the only “scripting” the game developer cared about was the bit that displayed the Enterprise and did a very, very bad job of playing the theme music. The story was something squatted out by someone who wasn’t busy coding graphics. Now the games get real writing, with a plot properly placed between the two J. J. Abrams movies.

'Star Trek' video game history

“Captain, the ship has been utterly destroyed. But we’ll have her up and running by next week.”

3.  And Yet...Game Tie-Ins Still Aren't Treated As Equals To Their Cinematic Brethren: They're allowed into the room, but they mustn't disturb anything. This means you’ll play through a plot which isn’t allowed to make anything happen or develop any characters. The first movie stunned longtime fans by detonating the planet Vulcan. The game won’t even be allowed to leave up the seat on the Enterprise’s non-existent toilets. Everything has to end exactly how it started, no matter how many amazing or serious things happen in between. Luckily, the Star Trek series has given fans plenty of practice with that.

4. They’re Also At The Mercy Of Popularity: The downside of big budget is that you have to be mass market, and the Star Trek game is the best and worst example of that. The spirit of Star Trek is exploration, the intelligent investigation of  unexplainable phenomena, diplomatic pressure and moral lessons. But the game will be a third-person cover-shooter because third0-person cover-shooters sell well these days.

'Star Trek' video game history

Boldly going where no man has gone before - to take cover like everyone has done before.

That's not Star Trek, that's a Mass Effect of War hybrid with a few new costumes. And they turned the Lancer Chainsaw close-range attack into a Vulcan Nerve Pinch, thereby creating the only time in science fiction where Vulcan Nerve Pinch is the less-badass option. The story looks even worse, with the Gorn attacking en masse.

The Gorn are mentioned in the original Star Trek series, once, as race of lizard-y monsters. Now they've evolved into a whole race of various inhuman-looking enemies that just happen to have the same name — which makes them indistinguishable from the Locust or the Covenant or any other gun-fodder enemy you care to name. They’ll turn up, they’ll be gone by the end of the game, and there will be at least one reference to killing them with diamonds.

'Star Trek' video game history

Kirk used to talk to aliens before shooting, if only to learn how to ID the females.

Think about it: you call in a space strike from the Enterprise, which sounds cool until you realize that means you’re not firing it yourself.  This is a Star Trek game where you get to steer a stupid little human instead of a Starship.

Which would you rather control: the most famous starship in history, or some dude in tight sci-fi pants or a space suit?  That should tell you what they think of the player.

Luke McKinney loves the real world, but only because it has movies and video games in it. He responds to every tweet.

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Comments

  • Jake says:

    Unrelated, but Frank, ST, Jen etc. I wanted to give feedback about the touch version of the website. I know we commenters can be pretty negative, but I'm a much bigger fan of the more traditional mobile site, and not the touch version. The touch/swipe version just doesn't provide enough information in a single view. I love your site. The writing is great without being too snarky and without being too tame. So I hope you can handle this critique. I'm sure you spent some decent cash developing the swipe version, but it's just an extra step I have to go through to change it back to the version with more info.

    Any other fans of the site feel the same way? Just curious.

  • MegaBearsFan says:

    There actually WAS a really good Star Trek game released for Windows 95/98. It was called "Birth of the Federation", and it was a turn-based 4X strategy game based on the "Master of Orion II" engine. It suffered from some annoying memory leak issues that slowed the game down to a snail's pace after an hour or so of playing, and the AI was questionable and needed to cheat to win. But the game had a lot of depth and exploring and colonizing the galaxy was almost as addicting as playing "Sid Meier's Civilization".

  • Steven says:

    While I tend to agree with the fact that the majority of Star Trek games just sacked, there are a few exceptions. Klingon Academy for the pc for starters wasn't a bad game if you could get past the bugs. Star Trek Legacy for the Xbox 360 was a very good game, I eventually beat the game on the Admiral difficulty setting which was no small feat, at least not for me. If you are a trekkie and you haven't played ST Legacy, I would recommend it to you. It's voice acting is poor at times, but it does have all the original captain's voices, it also has a very steep learning curve, but if you take the time to become proficient with controller layout any trekkie would enjoy this game.

  • maggie says:

    The touch/swipe version just doesn't provide enough information in a single view. I love your site. The writing is great without being too snarky and without being too tame. I am beautiful woman and I love good man…..inter racial romance is my dream… so I joined —blackwhitеPlanet.С0M—–it's where to- connect with beautiful and excellent people!So I hope you can handle this critique. I'm sure you spent some decent cash developing the swipe version, but it's just an extra step I have to go through to change it back to the version with more info.

  • Manning says:

    I did enjoy this article, although it is slightly depressing to hear the probability that the developer will waste the potential of the franchise.
    Slightly related: If you want to try a good Star Trek game, or at least one that attempts for the potential of the show, check out Artemis: Starship Bridge Simulator.

  • JustPassingThrough says:

    Good article! I can't resist weighing in on two Star Trek games that consumed way too much of my time, and even still look decent by today's standard:

    1. Star Trek: Bridge Commander. Does a great job of simulating commanding a starship--you can either give orders through your bridge crew and watch it play out, or go into a 3rd person mode where you directly control the ship in combat. A bit of an oldie so not the easiest to find these days, but it's out there. The single player campaign feels credibly like a series of Star Trek episodes, and the random battles are fun.

    There's an absurdly big mod, Kobayasha Maru, that adds just about any ship in the canon to either control or battle against. I spent hours doing theoretical fights and seeing how long I could last against a borg cube in a Galaxy class.

    2. Sins of a Solar Empire: the mod Sacrifice of Angels 2 replaces all the stock alien races in this RTS/4X hybrid with Star Trek races and ships, and is insanely addictive. I can't play stock Sins after putting so much time in on the mod. It's a worthy modern successor to Birth of the Federation, and is easily available on Steam.

  • KevinM says:

    I think honestly that as far as liscenced games go Lucasarts had the right idea with Knights of the Old Republic and The Old Republic. Pick a time far away from established continuity where you kill whoever you want and not have to worry about screwing with established storylines. In ST terms (and forgive me I'm not a trekkie so if there are books or something that already do this I didn't know) why not do a game a couple of decades after Enterprise. Either after the show's crew retires or with a different ship entirely. Heck pick a cannon time period and just do a different ship. Yeah a lot of fans will undoubtably want it to be THE Enterpirse with Kirk, Spock, etc but personally I think theres merit in exploring the rest of the sand box as it were.

  • Tracy says:

    For a while, in land primarily based casinos, slots had been predominantly played by girls, whilst nearly all gamers around the casino floor had been males.

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