Into the Danger Zone with Licensed Games

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.