'Star Trek: The Video Game'
It’s the kind of paradox that Mr. Spock finds fascinating — and the type of unmet challenge that Capt. James T. Kirk can’t resist: No franchise has a longer history with video game fans than Star Trek, but to today’s Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 audiences it’s a brand that might as well be lost in space.
That may change with the April 23 release of Star Trek: The Video Game (available for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 as well as a Microsoft Windows PC version), which seeks a new commercial frontier for a brand that is heavy on heritage but light on contemporary credibility. The project also represents a traditional Hollywood power boldly going where it has never gone before: Star Trek: The Video Game represents the first major console game ever financed and released by Paramount Pictures, a historic studio that had licensed properties out in the burgeoning marketplace.
“For us it represents a huge investment in Star Trek,” says Brian Miller, Paramount’s senior vice president of brand marketing and the executive producer of the game. “We’re all gamers and we wanted to make sure the game was a triple-A game, something Star Trek deserves and frankly may not have gotten for the last several decades.”
During a limited test session on the Paramount lot, the game (which was developed by Digital Extremes of Unreal and Bioshock fame) was dynamic and engaging and as aesthetically satisfying as the 2009 film that provides its foundation. That film, directed by J.J. Abrams, presented (for the first time on screen) a new ensemble in the classic roles introduced by the 1966-69 television series. That new crew — led by Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), Zoe Saldana (Lt. Nyota Uhura), Karl Urban (Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy), John Cho (Lt. Hikaru Sulu), Anton Yelchin (Ensign Pavel Chekov), and Simon Pegg (Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott) – all lend their voices to the game.
This crew ensemble is the first Trek crew to grow up in the full-swing video game era and they were engaged in a big way by the possibilities of the project. Some, such as the irrepressible Pegg, were eager to come to recording sessions with improv and extra energy. It had been watching Abrams and the cast at work on the 2009 film, in fact, that inspired Paramount to set a new course into the video game universe.
“The inception of this game was during the production of the last film, when we [could see] what J.J. was doing with the film, when we started realizing that the movie was going to do what it did … What J.J. did far exceeded even all of our expectations and we didn’t want to just do another quick, movie-based game that was going to disappoint a lot of fans,” Miller says. “The film crew are all big gamers, we’re big gamers, all of us, and we said, ‘Listen we should really make — finally — a great one, the ultimate Star Trek game. For us [the challenge] was: How do we make a game that is truly worthy of the new reboot and the new interest in the franchise? For us it was doing it ourselves, making sure we funded it correctly, making sure that we worked with the right people — and the right people were the creative people who worked on the movie.”
And the film’s creative team did beam in as frequent consultants on the game creation, despite having their hands full with Star Trek Into Darkness, the Abrams-directed sequel that arrives May 17 as one of the most-anticipated films of 2013. No one consulted with more vigor than Roberto Orci, a key member of the writing team for both Trek films and the most devout Trekkie among the Abrams brain trust. He says the goal was to make a sort of mind-meld between cinema and game — the game was viewed is an additional chapter, not a separate book.
“It is as close to canon as any Star Trek game will ever come because it was deliberately designed within the continuity of this new universe,” Orci says. “It’s intended to be a mission that could happen between the 2009 film and 2013 film. It’s a big universe so finding a cool story that could fit in between wasn’t too difficult, but the challenge was we didn’t want it to be just a stand-alone that felt tacked-on. We really wanted it to be relevant and to be a continuation of the events of the opening film and to track with the 2013 Trek.”
The game also reaches back to the original Trek for key moments and characters. There’s a key sequence, for instance, that pits Spock versus Kirk in mortal combat and finds its rhythms in the classic episode Amok Time, the show’s season 2 premiere and the only episode to visit Spock’s home world. That April 1968 episode celebrates its 45th anniversary just three days after the game’s release, a reminder that the show’s legacy that has already lived long and prospered to an extent that few television creations ever do.
NEXT: Enter… the Gorn!
Fans of the 1960s television series will also be reintroduced to the raspy, brutish reptilian race called the Gorn from Arena, the classic episode that first aired in January 1967, the same month a band called the Doors released their debut album and a film called A Fistful of Dollars opened in the U.S. Arena memorably pitted Kirk against the implacable commander of a Gorn ship but the game will go far beyond one lone lizard — a fuller view of the Gorn species and its varieties await players who sign up for this mission.
The game is co-op play — it’s geared for two players, one to control Kirk and Spock, the central figures in the mythology that spins on the axis of their friendship. There is an A.I. function that has been tricked out to make things as lively as possible for Trek fans who play by themselves. The characters differ in specialities, uniforms, weaponry, and game-play ethos — but that’s sort of been the point since the beginning of Gene Roddenberry’s future tale, hasn’t it? “Kirk is this brash cowboy character, whereas Spock is the exact opposite — and when you break down Star Trek to those elements, you had to make a co-op game,” Miller says. “There was no other game we could possibly make.”
Through the years, three key elements remain as the very center of Federation space: a noble, gleaming starship named Enterprise; the plot promise of strange encounters with new life and new civilizations; and the loyal but fitful friendship between the fiery Kirk and the frosty Spock. To Miller, those three things transcend the decades even when the rubber lizard suits don’t age nearly as well.
“It’s a credit to all of those geniuses that put Star Trek out there to begin with and did it when they didn’t have maybe the resources they would have liked,” Miller says. “The Gorn episode Arena is a great example and it’s really why we based our game on that. That Gorn costume, as much as we love it, is not the most amazing rubber make-up ever done. The fight scenes between Kirk and the Gorn has been mocked for many a decade. But what makes that thing work so well is the incredible writing and creative team behind it … that’s the reason those sets and the show hold up even now.”
If Trek creators had to make due with limited budgets and diminishing resources, the history of Starfleet games seems to be similarly defined by fans wanting more than they got but making the most of what they had. Fans, in fact, started the ongoing mission themselves; the first Trek games arrived during the NBC television show’s original run (1966-1969) and were made and traded by after-hours programmers and college students explored a Federation space that was “homemade.” The fan appetite only grew — a text-based Starfleet game called Super Star Trek pushed the 1970s softcover BASIC Computer Games to become the first computer book to sell more than a million copies — a then-startling success that would be remembered in the 1980s as the video game marketplace became more mainstream and structured.
NEXT: Reviews in the Neutral Zone
Since 1983, if you average it out, a new Trek game title has hit shelves every five months. With a persistent emphasis on strategy, the strongest Trek game successes were with PC games even as the console era took hold. Still, no matter the format, Starfleet games have never delivered a break-out commercial success, much less any era-defining game. Look at the 55 games that IGN put into its Video Game Hall of Fame, for instance, and you’ll see four Super Mario titles, three Legend of Zelda games and two for Star Wars — but not a single Trek title. In 2010, Star Trek Online debuted as a massively multiplayer online role-playing game and the reviews were mixed, suggesting the game was respected more than it was enjoyed.
For Trek fans, who were geeky when geeky wasn’t cool, the games still provided plenty of shining moments that transported them to the universe they loved. One of those diehard fans is Roberto Orci, a key member of the writing team for both the 2009 Trek film and its upcoming sequel, a true believer who says titles such as Star Trek: Bridge Commander from 2002 deserved a wider audience than they got.
“I have played many Trek games over the years and enjoyed some of them quite a lot and didn’t always understand why other people and the mainstream video-game audience didn’t enjoy them more,” Orci says. “I was enough of a nerd that I really got into them. But the hope is that with this one we have the best of both worlds.”
Perhaps, but Paramount will have to show it’s capable of warp speed on its first mission with a major console game. It’s not that easy to do — rival Universal made a similar bid a few years ago with a tie-in game title for Wanted and has never tried again. Also, in 2009, Paramount released a downloadable game along with the first Abrams movie and was met with shrugs or jeers, but that undertaking was a far less concerted effort than this new bid.
“It’s the same challenge we faced as a studio when we were rebooting the franchise,” Miller says. “And that challenge was: How do you appeal to a very broad audience but also at the same time satisfy the Star Trek fan and the Trekkie who has really supported us for the last 40-plus years as well? You watch the movie and see that it’s a really broad action and adventure and narrative and great comedy — we took the same approach to the game. We wanted to make it a great game period … let’s make sure it’s authentic, let’s make sure that gamers just enjoy playing the game, but also let’s make sure that the Star Trek fan who is [playing] gets the little extra hints that show we’re passionate about the brand and we care about it just as much as they do.”