Into the Danger Zone with Licensed Games

Under the governance of a model like synergy, media conglomerates could get away with treating a game adaptation and a plastic Burger King cup as two spokes of the same promotional wheel. No more. Synergy is (in theory) politically dead; its replacement, transmedia, is interested not simply in the transmission and sale of images but in gaining an invitation to the world of creating unique content.

Top Gun

Publisher: Paramount Digital Entertainment
Genres: Flight Action, Flight Simulator
Platforms: PS3, PC, Macintosh
Number of players: 1-16
ESRB Rating: Teen
Developer: Paramount Digital Entertainment
Release Date: 2010-08-17

It was just a couple months ago, in one of my school's many theaters, that someone announced that a member of our screenwriting faculty, none other than Jack "Top Gun" Epps, Jr. himself, had recently penned a video game adaptation of his popular 1986 film. Our faculty were clearly proud, congratulatory as they might be over a coworker's newborn son, but something was off about the incident. Namely, that I myself got caught up in the enthusiasm.

"Oh, I should check that out when I get home," I thought.

"Wait," I said a second later. "Why?"

With all due respect to Mr. Epps, the new Top Gun game on PSN is patently terrible and that is being rather generous to it. It doesn't, quite frankly, need to exist. As an adaptation -- one which comes at the heels of a half-dozen other fairly forgettable flight games based on the same property -- it is nothing more or less than another notch in the over-marked belt of bad, misbegotten Hollywood games, for which we have more examples than exceptions. It's a lazy afterthought, self-aggrandizing for all the wrong reasons, and poorly constructed like an early-season Project Runway dress.

It did, however, get me thinking rather strongly about the increasing interrelationship of Hollywood and the games industry. You gotta have a transmedia strategy, you know. There was a time, early on in the recession, when games seemed largely unaffected by the financial crisis. They were growing, while even movies seemed to be shrinking. The obvious solution, as had been going on quite steadily before 2008, was increased convergence.

Convergence refers to two processes: the consolidation of what once was handled by separate delivery technologies on one device (like smartphones doing both banking and games) and the dispersal of media across multiple platforms (like Sonic 4 releasing simultaneously on iPhone and consoles). As a marketing strategy for conglomerates, it's also about multimedia -- the movie, the soundtrack on iTunes, the DVD, the game tie-in, the fast food toy, and the Facebook app -- in something we might industrially conceptualize as a "long train" called synergy. Even after the franchise train for a movie has come and gone, conglomerates will use multimedia to revitalize or maintain consumer interest in the market. Such as making another video game based on Top Gun. In this case, badly.

You have already played Top Gun (2010). Many times, and with nicer graphics. I feel genuinely embarrassed for caring enough about this game to actually download it because, honestly, our mutual affiliation with a certain graduate school is all that the title has going for me, a tangential association at best. Why did I think that this was a good idea? Realistically, for the same reason that most licensed games seem like a good idea: that same tangential relationship, something that synergy absolutely depends on.

As Baudrillard is famed for popularizing, we're no longer consumers of things, we're consumers of images -- brands, relationships, identities. Yet growing up as a gamer, I knew (as I knew Sonic was blue and Mario was his mortal enemy) that licensed games were terrible and people who played them were suckers. That isn't strictly the case, but had I researched this particular adaptation at all beforehand, I could have saved myself several hours of my life.

Again, the game's failure is not really Mr. Epps' fault, just as it isn't the fault of any misguided medium specificity argument, which may insist on never crossing the streams of film and the interactive. It is not that different media have nothing to learn from each other, especially as games are still young enough to need all the help they can get. But Top Gun is a lesson we've already learned many times.

Under the governance of a model like synergy, media conglomerates could get away with treating a game adaptation and a plastic Burger King cup as two spokes of the same promotional wheel. No more. Synergy is (in theory) politically dead; its replacement, transmedia, is interested not simply in the transmission and sale of images but in gaining an invitation to the world of creating unique content. The best game adaptations (because short of them just going away, as we know will never happen, but we can at least focus on making them better) are those that use the unique ludic properties of the medium to draw upon the right elements of a linear source material and enrich them.

Top Gun may have awesome aerial dogfights, I don't know. It has been many years since I've seen it, but the action sequences are definitely not what I remember -- it's the characters. In the film, we follow characters into action sequences and care about whether they come out of them. By comparison, the new flight sim adaptation by Paramount Digital Entertainment is just based on the flight portions of the movie, which really could have been represented as space age fighter planes pulled from anime and not have affected the core of the story. Even video cutscenes of clips from the movie might have been nice to contextualize the ellipses in the plot that the game leaves, but instead, we receive very little.

Compare this with Sidhe Interactive's Speed Racer (2008) for the Wii. It makes no attempt to follow the movie's plot or offer an alternative one in its place. The game consists of car battles in awesome loop-de-loop race tracks. Period. The fact that it's missing a story isn't really a problem because what it does offer is a strong connection to the movie's characters, who are all visible and playable, linked to their source material by returning voices and near approximation of character art. The gameplay's relationship to the movie and the original cartoon is firmly rooted in the ludic aspects of the franchise: car attributes, gadgets, battle techniques. It also captures the visual looks and even the aesthetic experience of the movie's race sequences in a very interesting way.

It's still far from an award winning play experience to be sure, but by contrast, Top Gun for PSN makes no attempt to capture either the aesthetic or the dynamism of its source film. They're just aerial battles. Boring, sterile, poorly controlled aerial battles.

Even as a piece of pure synergy (the game even came with tickets to see the movie in theaters -- not that it worked), the Speed Racer game is more or less successful as a transmedia expansion of a Hollywood product. It offers something that the film does not in a way that fully exploits both the generic conventions of the racing game genre and the Wii's technological specificity. (It also apparently had a PS2 version, but let us not speak of it). The PSN release of Top Gun, as a game that arrives 24 years after its film and only seems to exist to appeal to the very small niche market that cares that Jack Epps, Jr. wrote the script (apparently, grad students), offers nothing to really enhance the story or our relationship to the characters. It's a rehash with the interesting bits cut out rather than emphasized.

In a recent interview with Develop, Ken Levine spoke out against what he considers a "too welcoming" attitude on the part of the games industry to let in filmmaking interests, calling this tendency a way of transforming games into Hollywood's "junior varsity" (Rob Crossley, "We're too star-struck by Hollywood, says Levine", Develop, 6 October 2010). At the heart of Levine's objection is that old medium specificity argument, the idea that games have already figured out how to make the best use of their attributes, and it isn't likely that an outsider from another medium will have much to contribute:

And of course film directors can jump through the game industry's open doors. Guillermo del Toro -- who by the way is an amazing film director -- recently signed a deal with THQ to make videogames.

And I'm thinking . . . he's never made a videogame.

Maybe he's got a genius for it. But games are really, really hard to make well.

No one could say that Levine doesn't know how make a good game, but the commercial and critical success of his releases depend as much on non-interactive and contextual elements (like, say, advertising and positive press) as they do medium specific craftsmanship. And BioShock, ultimately, is a rather linear and (dare it be said) cinematic experience as games go.

What the industry should be on the lookout for isn't the looming threat of colonization from Hollywood, like some descending force of Hawaiian-shirted settlers with studio system infested blankets but a much broader problem of bad corporate strategy, which treats the blockbuster film as a pillar of commercial and artistic achievement, after which everything from cell phone games to peel-and-win fast food cups are simply an afterthought support to the more "essential" medium. Treating a long dead property, like poor Top Gun, as if was poised for some sterile and half-assed revitalization with both fanfare and Guitar Hero downloadable track tie-ins.

These are not medium specific things, these sentiments. They are marketing models. They're largely the reason that bad Hollywood games exist and why we need to move away from being star-struck. Or, in my case, conflating my school pride with my gaming habits. It's all a consumption of images, in the end.





The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.