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The Universal Reset
Wednesday, 22 June 2011
Star Trek -- a great television programme, not a great game series

Star Trek is ostensibly the most influential piece of work in science-fiction, if not television, history. Everyone knows the phrase, "Live long and prosper," and the Vulcan salute. Everyone knows that Scotty keeps the Enterprise together with the 22nd-century equivalents of baling-wire and duct tape. Everyone knows that the Pontiac logo is a vertical inversion of the Starfleet insignia. Everyone knows Alexander Courage's Star Trek theme enough to whistle the first ten notes. Star Trek has inspired philosophers, physicists, computer developers, linguists, and composers. Suffice it to say, there's nary a part of modern society that hasn't been positively affected by Star Trek in some way... except one...

For reasons unknown, the videogame industry doesn't seem to know what to do with Star Trek. Certainly, there were games for arcade and home computer that were based on Trek films and episodes, Super NES versions of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, and even an MMOG based in the 24th century. However, in relation to Mario, Zelda, and Halo, Trek is as unknown as the areas which the Enterprise has set out to explore. Only a very small group of Trekker/gamers seem to take any notice of Trek games at all. Your stereotype gamernerd won't pay much if any attention, being too busy with World of Warcraft, Halo: Origins, and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Why do you suppose this is? How can it be that the most influential piece of work in the history of modern society epically fails when it comes to videogaming?

The first possibility is in the name. People who are not "fans" in the strictest sense will often stigmatise the name, "Star Trek", by associating it with the most nerdly of nerds. These people have visions of nerds with pocket-protectors and TNG combadges having a philosophical discussion in Klingon. Oftentimes, these nerds are also overweight, wearing Original Series-type uniforms, and living in their parents' basement, surrounded by Star Trek paraphernalia. Aren't they? Eh? Did I not just describe your thoughts when you hear "Star Trek"? If not, then good on you for not propagating a cliché. However, the fact of the matter is, when it comes right down to it, there are two factions of nerds (heavily generalised in this case, of course): the fanboys and the gamers. The fanboys are the comic book and sci-fi convention attendees, the gamers are the MMOG players who wear out their chairs and their controllers playing World of Warcraft and Halo. Whilst there is frequently some degree of overlap, for the most part these two factions don't care about the pursuits of the other. A fanboy will dress in a Starfleet uniform to attend a Trek film premiere, a gamer will play until they crash. That's one problem with Trek games -- with malice aforethought, it purposely attempts to unite the factions. Star Trek Online seems to be doing rather well in this area, fortunately, but it doesn't come even nearly as close in total playership to other similar MMOGs. A World of Warcraft sequel would be advertised at E3, but a Trek game probably wouldn't.

The second possibility is that something has been lost in translation. Trek episodes and films are usually open-ended -- though the action of the plotline concludes at the end, the adventure does not. At the end of nearly every Next Generation episode, Picard sits in his chair on the bridge and orders a course to be set, then the Enterprise jumps to warp and the show is over, allowing the viewer to think about what could possibly happen during the interval between episodes. A videogame is very cut-and-dry, however. Here's the action, here's what you do, keep doing stuff until you can't advance any further, the end. Unlike television, they can't release a new Trek game every week -- you may have to wait months or even years before the next installment.

The third possibility is in guilt by association. There have been some really bad Trek games. Not "bad" like "bad", but "bad" like "real bad". These were the types of things that really demonstrated the limitations of computers and consoles, or had mercifully-released final drafts of the plotline, or had bad graphics, or what-have-you. For one of these reasons, most Trek games at this point have failed more epically than auxiliary power to the shields during a Borg attack. From experience with other bad games, not related to Trek, I've noticed that one or more of four things causes them to be bad: bad voice-acting, bad plotline, bad graphics, and bad music. Somehow, Trek on television and in film managed to amass some really good screenwriters: Samuel A. Peeples, Harve Bennett, Brannon Braga, Ronald D. Moore, and Mike Sussman, for example. It has also managed to get some of the best composers in the industry, such as Jerry Goldsmith, Dennis McCarthy, James Horner, and Jay Chattaway. No one can dispute the polished acting skills of Leonard Nimoy, Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, Rene Auberjonois, Kate Mulgrew, or Scott Bakula, either. Add to that the best visual-effects and CGI effects teams in the world, such as Industrial Light & Magic, and you've got a solid piece of work. Trek games, on the other hand, often have very low budgets for voice-acting, music, or complex animation. Plus, the hardware, itself, becomes an obstacle when dealing with draw-distance, particle effects, and shading. Whilst all of these elements came together on a million-dollar budget to create unforgettable viewing experiences, they all appear to clash on a thousand-dollar budget to make for a terrible gaming encounter.

Perhaps it could be something else or a combination of one or more factors, but for some reason, Trek games just don't work. You'd think they would, but they don't. I'm not sure if this is something that can be overcome or not, mostly because of the first possibility. Calling something "Star Trek" brings to mind a lot of clichés about Trek nerds.

If it were up to me, the next Trek game would be a composite of Star Trek, SimCity, and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. A game based within the Star Trek universe, which allows for customisation in the ship and its crew, and is based around a central plotline but also allows for exploration. Since Star Trek is primarily about exploration in the first place, it logically follows that a successful Trek game would incorporate exploration as well.

But, I'm just a guy with a blog.

Posted by theniftyperson at 1:54 AM CDT
Updated: Wednesday, 22 June 2011 3:50 AM CDT

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