And then there’s Star Trek.
We keep saying gaming is taking its rightful place as an entertainment medium, that it’s eclipsing movies and television combined, that the best creative minds of our generation are now working in games and that the best stories are being told there. All of this is true, of course. And then there’s Star Trek.
To date, 66 videogames officially based on the Star Trek license have been published, most of which suck. This shouldn’t be news. After all, licensed games in general are largely immune to what makes gaming fun. “Based on a movie” is the linguistic equivalent to “will probably suck” in the same way that “La Quinta” stands for “next to Denny’s.” But there’s something uniquely depressing about sucky Star Trek games, and something uniquely omnipresent about the level of suck in the franchise’s game offerings as a whole. This is why it’s all the more exciting when a Star Trek game comes along that’s not only “not bad” but also “good.”
In 2000, Raven Software released Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force. It was an ambitious project to say the least. Not only was the veteran developer attempting to mine gold in the long-barren wasteland of the Star Trek franchise, they were doing it with a first-person shooter, at that point as-yet unexplored territory in Trek games. The result was an instant hit. Review scores averaged 86 percent, and one critic called it “simply one of the finest first-person shooters to come out this year.”
The Escapist recently spoke with the developers at Raven about what makes Trek Trek and why their version of it has fared better than most.
“To me, Star Trek was always about the characters and the concepts,” says Raven Software’s Michael Chang Gummelt, who wrote and programmed Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force, the first game to successfully bridge the gap between Trek and first-person shooters and arguably one of the best Star Trek games ever made.
“The original Star Trek had a great sort of ‘triumvirate’ of primary characters with Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Each represented a different sort of philosophy or personality. … The Next Generation continued this trend … that and the whole idea of an organized, well-developed and well-funded space exploration effort. It was like something out of the complete fantasy of pulp sci-fi from the decades before combined with more modern characterization and cutting-edge science-fiction concepts.”
Brian Pelletier, the Project Lead for Elite Force, adds another layer. He says that, in addition to the character dynamics, the essence of Trek is about “the thrill of discovering new alien races and the adventures and dilemmas that arise from the interaction with different cultures.”
“Initially, I was very nervous at the thought of doing an FPS based on a Star Trek license,” says Gummelt. “To me, the two just weren’t compatible. … But as we developed the idea and came up with the idea of the Hazard Team and put the ship in an extremely dangerous situation, it started to gel.”
“We were all so passionate about Trek that creating interesting game ideas that were faithful to the Star Trek Universe wasn’t the challenge,” says Les Dorscheid, Art Lead. “Choosing a right direction that would allow everything to flow together in the story was more difficult.”
The “right direction” for Raven involved taking the new (at the time) incarnation of the Trek franchise, Star Trek Voyager, and putting the player in the uniform of a member of Voyager’s “Hazard Team,” Ensign Munro, whose job it is to leave the ship wearing a “red shirt” on all of those “away missions” where things typically go horribly awry, often ending in phaser fire, confusion and death. The player’s job: Keep the red shirt alive.
“In the context of the game you needed enemies to fight,” says Pelletier. So Raven created the “Stasis Aliens,” giving the player the opportunity to not only fight against a new alien race, but to actually discover them as well. “The first contacts that Kirk or Picard would make were always great moments, and we wanted the player to experience that.”
“We knew we couldn’t just do an old-school shooter,” says Gummelt. “We knew there needed to be much more in the way of scripting, dialogue and NPC interaction than we had ever done before in a game. Luckily, Half-Life had just come out and shown the way in terms of depth in that area and its success, I feel, gave us the model and the license to really push that as far as we did.”
Pushing, according to Pelletier, meant making it possible for the player to communicate with the other characters: “Instead of the player being the lone gunman out on missions, we created a whole team of characters to interact with during the missions. They all had their own personalities which created some fun dynamics for the player to experience and interact with.
“It was important to me that each member of the Hazard Team had distinct personalities,” says Gummelt, “and filled a role both on the team functionally and in the story as representing a philosophy or personality that would interact in an interesting way, letting the player be the ‘Kirk’ – the one that listened to everyone else’s opinions and then acted.”
“We wanted to jam so many different ideas together,” says Dorscheid. “We wanted to be faithful to each character and give each one a prominent role – Captain Janeway, Tuvok, Seven of Nine, the Doctor. We also wanted to get as many of the adversaries into the story line as possible – Klingons, Romulans, the Borg – plus add a few of our own, like the Stasis creatures.”
In addition to the usual problems facing creators of a licensed game (remaining truthful to the canon and premise, creating a compelling experience based in a rigid world, etc.) Raven, with Elite Force, was working with a relatively new iteration of the existing franchise, one with which audiences were far less familiar.
“Voyager and its universe aren’t as widely known as Next Generation or the Classic series,” says Pelletier. “I felt we needed to … reach a broad spectrum of Star Trek fans. Klingons were not a part of the Voyager show, yet they are such a staple of Star Trek aliens. We found a way to put Klingons in the Voyager Universe. We also found a way to put a Classic series Star Trek ship in the game. It was so important to give the player all the bits of Star Trek they know and love all wrapped up in one game.
“I still remember my pitch to Paramount of why we needed them in the game and how we were going to do it. The response was that we were very clever with the idea and that they would approve it.”
“I wrote 800 pages of dialogue,” says Gummelt. “I’ve always been grateful that everyone at Raven and Paramount were onboard with this very ambitious design. I think if we hadn’t done that, it would have been a generic, forgettable shooter with Star Trek textures.”
In the nearly 20 years since it was founded, Raven Software has carved out its own niche as the go-to developer for reliably excellent licensed shooters, an area where many other developers fear to tread. With a licensee list including Doom, Quake, Star Wars, Soldier of Fortune, Wolfenstein and the Marvel Universe it’s easy to see what led Raven to Trek. Yet it’s easier to forget that what they make look easy, this business of turning an established franchise into a successful game, is enough to make other developers break out into cold sweats.
“With all the franchises we worked on, for sure Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force was the most difficult,” says Pelltier. “It was [the] first franchise licensed game Raven developed; we were treading new territory in franchise games and doing it with Star Trek, one of the most well-known franchises with loyal fans.”
“There was no gameplay model with Star Trek that was applicable to an FPS,” says Gremmelt, comparing developing Elite Force to their work with the Star Wars franchise. “With Star Wars, we already knew that we had lightsabers, blasters and force powers, and that dictated the gameplay. The same is true for Wolverine – from the comics and movies, we knew immediately what the gameplay was going to be like.”
But not with Trek. Prior to Elite Force, there was no road map for Star Trek shooters. Raven was out in the wilderness, the final frontier, some might say, on a “trek” toward a new kind of gameplay, to extend the pun. But all three developers agreed the key lay in the phaser.
“With Star Trek,” says Gremmelt, “we had to figure out what weapons we would have, how to make a phaser look right and feel cool in an FPS, what the right amount of action was, how violent it would be, etc., etc.”
“The feel of the phaser has to be just right and sound like it should,” says Pelletier. “It’s a basic weapon in the context of an FPS game, yet it’s the quintessential Trek weapon, so it has to be fun enough the player wants to use it.”
Yet in spite of the inherent appeal of allowing players to finally fire a phaser, most FPSs have more than one weapon. In the world of Star Trek, where even the ships are mounted with little more than simply bigger phasers, this could be problematic. Says Dorscheid: “FPSs need to have a variety of interesting and different weapons. [In Elite Force] we couldn’t limit the player to a phaser and a phaser rifle. Each weapon needs to be powerful and unique.”
“The main goal in all franchise games is that you want the player to feel like they are in that universe,” says Pelletier, “and what’s difficult with Star Trek is how long the franchise has been around and how many iterations it has gone through. There is a ton of Star Trek fodder to play with, so you have a long rope to hang yourself with.”
For most Trek games, death-by-hanging involves forgetting what makes Trek go. (i.e., the ship). While there have been plenty of games that have glorified the various Enterprises and other Starfleet ships, very few developers have taken note of the fact that, in the TV shows and movies where the ships feature prominently, they’re far more than simply static displays. The ships in Star Trek, if you’ll forgive the romanticism, are alive.
“In all Star Trek shows, the ship is one of the characters,” says Pelletier. “[In Elite Force], Voyager, the ship, had to be prominent in the game, and the player needed to be allowed to explore and see all the locations of the ship they’ve seen in the show. If the ship itself wasn’t an environment to explore it would have been a game killer.
“[But] being on Voyager has to be interesting; the game couldn’t get boring while walking around on the ship exploring, so we planned out when the player would have access to the different areas of the ship, and there was always an objective and motivation for the player to explore. … The player also got the thrill of walking on the bridge or into the Warp Engine room and actually get on to the teleporter pad in virtual reality first person and be beamed away.”
“Living” an experience we could never have in real life is part of the appeal of almost every videogame, which makes it all the more frustrating when playing a Trek game amounts to little more than pushing a button every few minutes while the characters on the screen go through the same old routines they do on the TV as if you’re not even in the room. Elite Force does not suffer from this problem. The player is thrown into the action immediately, going from loading screen to “oh God, Borg!” in a nanosecond.
“I like the whole beginning,” says Gremmelt, “where you’re in a Borg mission right off the bat and it turns out it’s just a holodeck training simulation for the Hazard Team, then Voyager is plunged into real danger and the credits roll. To me, that made it feel exactly like an episode [of the TV show] and set up the main conceit of the game in one neat package.”
To be honest, that’s our favorite part of the game, too. Pelletier’s favorite? “When one of the Hazard Team members mentions something about kicking Borg butt and makes reference to Seven of Nine’s Borg butt.”
Raven’s status as game creation gods may be secure, but they are, after all, still gamers.
Russ Pitts still owns a complete set of “blueprints” for almost every Starfleet vessel ever “constructed.” He does not, however, own a Starfleet uniform.