Now Playing: Why They’re Mining Old Movies for New Games

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I’m so over Star Wars. And not just because the last three movies were horrible, but also because I’ve had every conceivable Star Wars game-related experience I could ever hope to have. I’ve done the trench run on the Death Star (the 1983 arcade machine), sliced up Stormtroopers with a lightsaber (Jedi Outcast), mastered the ways of the Force (Jedi Knight), piloted the Millennium Falcon (X-Wing Alliance), flown for the Empire (TIE Fighter), recreated the famous swamp jumping puzzles of Dagobah (Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike), explored ancient history (Knights of the Old Republic), and prepared Beru Stew for a cantina on Tatooine (Star Wars Galaxies).

And Hoth. There’s a Hoth everywhere. Hoth levels are as ubiquitous as Starbucks. It is the Grand Central Station of Star Wars games. It’s the videogame expression of the theory of eternal recurrence. I’ve been part of the battle of Hoth from every perspective, flying snowspeeders (Rogue Squadron), on foot (Battlefront), hovering overhead (Force Commander), and even from orbit around the planet (Rebellion). The only thing left is playing the guy who had to clean up after the tauntauns, although I’m pretty sure that’s one of the classes you can choose in Star Wars Galaxies – at least as a pet.

I’m also pretty much over Lord of the Rings and The Matrix, not to mention anything to do with comics: Spider-Man, X-Men, Hulk, Batman, Fantastic Four; all the subject of games of varying quality. Then you have the games that are developed in tandem with movies: Madagascar, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Herbie: Fully Loaded, and pretty much everything kid- or geek-friendly. I’m even sick of the King Kong game based on Peter Jackson’s movie, which doesn’t even come out until mid-December.

These days, a movie tie-in videogame is as sure a thing as a branded Happy Meal. If there’s any marketing synergy to be had, or if there’s a potentially recognizable brand to slap over a game design, it makes sense to try to cash in. Not that there’s anything wrong with this, if you’re running a company. But if you’re a gamer, it’s often all too predictable.

Then Showing, Now Playing
In a way, it’s kind of nice to see news releases from publishers announcing games based on The Warriors, Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Jaws, Scarface, and Reservoir Dogs, all of which are blissfully free of X-Wings, hobbits, Johnny Depp, superheroes or anything else I’ve seen in a movie theatre in the last ten years. It easy to snicker at these announcements – SimTravis! Ear dismemberment physics! Finger bottles! – but why are there so many of them and what do they mean? Is this a new wave of innovation or just a grab at whatever old IPs are cheap and unbought?

Until the games come out, no one knows the answer for sure. But the informed/jaded gamer should suspect these are just shallow licensing ploys, especially when you consider how games without brands die sad lonely deaths on the bottom of NPD lists. A beast, the primal fear of being eaten alive, and three well-written characters. Exactly none of that is going to make it into a game from developers whose previous experience consists mainly of Ecco the Dolphin. I do expect, however, another serviceable aquatic platformer. Similarly, I can’t imagine any of the essence of Reservoir Dogs will make it into a videogame adaptation. Quentin Tarantino’s seminal movie may as well have been a stage play for all its reliance on dialogue and character interaction. Am I the only goddamn professional here thinking this is probably the most ill-advised old movie branding of the lot?

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The Warriors is probably the most videogame-friendly choice among these unlikely game IPs. The movie was a tightly focused story about a gang of guys just trying to get home before dawn by fighting their way through themed territories. This gamey simplicity, from a time before computer games, is partly what makes it attractive. Consider, too, the dark, vaguely post-apocalyptic production design, the barely post-disco “worse” part involves the lack of willingness (or inability) to take risks, boards of directors and investors who need to be appeased, the supremacy of marketing, and the other elements of success that lead to games with numbers after their titles and movie tie-ins. A scant few years ago, Will Wright had a hard time getting Electronic Arts to see The Sims through to completion. He probably wouldn’t be able to get it made today.

Now, the deck is stacked against original IPs, but astute companies will still need to cultivate their own, partly because they’re cheaper to build from the ground up rather than buying them from someone else after they’ve become valuable. This is what’s happened in the last five years in enough to know that the cachet of a fifteen-plus-year-old, critically acclaimed or fondly recalled movie has nothing to do with the game that bears its name. Joe likes The Godfather; ergo, Joe will like this game. See Joe buy. “Go, Joe, go,” says EA.

As for the rest of us, we’re left on the sidelines to watch and remember the good old days when Star Wars games were so awesome. We’ll always have Hoth. Sometimes, we’re not so much gamers anymore as we are spectators. Break out the popcorn.

Tom Chick’s articles have appeared in several gaming publications. He also provides commentary at his website, Quarter to Three.

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