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March 21, 2011 | by  | in Arts Music |
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Anomalous Materials: Why do Video Games Based on Films Always Suck?

Hello again, readers. I have a simple question this week: why are movie games so consistently terrible?

You know the games of which I speak. The vast majority of blockbuster action films and Disney/Pixar releases in the last few decades have had a video game rushed out with them, adding another aspect to the franchise the studio hopes will provide further fiscal return. This understandably sounds like a good idea at the board meeting of New Line Cinema or whomeverthefuck, and surely there’s potential to make a spectacular, action-packed film into an interactive experience.

Unfortunately, however, the result is almost always a mediocre throwaway title that adds little, if anything, to the movie franchise. As a game, the title is generally so far below the bar of quality for its peers that if it weren’t a movie tie-in, the publisher would scrap the project altogether and move to cover its losses. There are countless examples of this kind—from every superhero movie that has come out since the eighties to every Pixar movie about a goofy, bug-eyed talking animal.

Ultimately, there is one obvious reason for the general lack of quality in these titles: time is money. This applies for just about any and every industry—especially those in media—but it is especially true of modern Triple-A titles, as it takes exorbitant amounts of both time and money to make a viable game. When a film’s publisher licenses a game developer to make a tie-in, the budget and deadline set are almost always non-negotiable. There will likely be a series of standards, advertising placements and criteria the developers have to work by, set by people who have little idea how intensive a process making a video game is. The restrictions imposed on the developer here are much more immediate than when working exclusively under a games publisher.

As a result, many design aspects, gameplay elements and even entire chunks of the script have to be hacked out in order to conform to budgetary and time considerations. This is the case with most games, and can serve as a sort of refining process, but with ‘movie games’ it is usually enormously detrimental. This is not to say it’s entirely the studio system’s fault—game designers can also be blamed on many occasions for simply being lazy with how the game is built and following the corporate logic that because it’s attached to an established license it will sell no matter how crap the game is (which is, unfortunately, still very true).

What really irks me about this affair is that studio heads don’t even realise the potential of this medium. The recent tie-in to Tron: Legacy could have been a visceral, fast-paced and acrobatic game that blends the beauty of its filmic counterpart with the fidelity of modern interactive experiences. Instead it was a linear, repetitive and entirely un-engaging platformer with a coat of neon paint slapped on it that barely even held its weight as a narrative supplement to the Tron universe (seriously, how fucking hard is it to make a video game about a movie about video games?). The Konami-published tie-in to Battle: Los Angeles could recover some lost ground for the sub-genre. Then again, it could crash and burn as usual.

If studios were to truly utilise video games and their potential as a medium to build upon the experience of a film in ways yet unexplored, instead of another guarantee that they’ll break even on their marketing budget, we could see some extremely interesting games coming out in the next few years. Christopher Nolan’s early mutterings regarding the possibility of a game based in the universe of Inception and the subsequent torrent of ideas that flowed from the online community are a beacon of hope to this cause.

Eventually, given the right balance of licensing freedom from studio executives, direct involvement from the film makers (though not too much, if 2003’s Enter the Matrix is anything to go by) and interaction with the gaming community could make for a type of experience completely unprecedented in gaming history.

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