What happened to video game movie tie-ins?

Do games now tell bigger stories than movies ever could?

It’s the mid 90’s. You’ve just finished a tough day at school, and you’re rushing home or to a friend’s house. Almost the second you crash through the door, the Nintendo 64 is fired up, the cartridge for Rare’s Goldeneye 007 inserted and the multiplayer option selected. Arguments soon erupt over whether or not someone could play as Oddjob (as he was more difficult to hit and had a hat as a default weapon), or whether rocket launchers would be the only weapon available. There’s a reason why Goldeneye is still played today, and why there was so much hype when a bootlegged Xbox port leaked online. Despite being almost a quarter of a century old, it’s still just so damn fun. 

Whilst Goldeneye 007 is fondly remembered for its fun local multiplayer and succinct and smooth gameplay; the fact that it is also a video game tie-in to the 1995 movie of the same name is often overlooked. That said, after one simple playthrough of the campaign, this becomes glaringly obvious again. The set pieces from Eon Productions’ Goldeneye are accurately recreated, and in some cases elaborated upon, here. The likenesses of then-James Bond Pierce Brosnan may be 2D, but it’s definitely him. Rare’s co-composer Grant Kirkhope even managed to find movie composer Eric Serra’s synth ‘knocking sound’ that permeates the film’s score, and implanted it all over the game. The composers also managed to hint at nearly every leitmotif that has appeared in a Bond movie that preceded Goldeneye — an impressive feat, given that Serra barely touched even John Barry and Monty Norman’s unforgettable 007 theme in his movie soundtrack. 

Goldeneye N64 remains a classic movie-adjacent game, playing fast and loose with plot

Goldeneye N64 was one of many video-game tie-ins for movie counterparts at that time. During the Sega Mega Drive era,  Disney had released games of Aladdin, The Lion King, Toy Story, even Fantasia got a Sega spin off. When disc-based systems began to be released, Small Soldiers, Antz, The Lord of the Rings and many more got in on the action. Spider-Man 2’s video game incarnation was lauded for introducing swinging mechanics like never before seen, even though Tobey Maguire sounded like he was attending a script readthrough over the phone, rather than recording in-game dialogue. 2005’s Batman Begins tie-in fares a lot better on the voice-over front, but scored a decidedly average set of reviews, (61-66 on Metacritic, depending on your console choice.) 

Yet console-based video game tie-ins are rarely seen today. Yes, there are notable exceptions, if you count the Lego tie-ins, which are still immensely popular. But where it used to be the case that a big picture theatrical release would inevitably entail a video game tie-in, well — that just doesn’t happen these days. Ironically, it’s kinda Batman’s fault.

After the lacklustre performance of the afore-mentioned video game iteration of Batman Begins and the phenomenal hype of the movie’s sequel The Dark Knight, licence holders Elevation Partners employed developers Pandemic Studios and publishers EA to go full tilt into creating an innovative open-world game set in Gotham City. They almost managed, but when they introduced the character models, the game build fell apart. One delay and multiple failures later, EA cancelled Batman: The Dark Knight and, shortly after, closed Pandemic.

When the rights were reverted back to Warner Brothers’ Interactive Entertainment, who then gave a relatively new studio in Rocksteady Incfree reign to make whatever game they wanted with them, the mightily successful Arkham franchise was born. Devoid of any big screen links, the series may have nodded to the 1990’s Batman animated series but the world itself was brand new. Since then, WB have opted against launching any console video game tie-ins for the movies that feature the Caped Crusader. In fact, given the dumpster fire that was Superman Returns, DC’s Big Blue has also received no movie tie-in video game since the early noughties. Nor has Wonder Woman, Aquaman or the Suicide Squad. 

On the Marvel side, Thor and Steve Rogers both received console tie-ins during the early MCU days, since 2012’s Avengers Assemble, but that was that. In fact, it looks like they’ve taken a page out of their rival DC’s book. Crystal Dynamics’ 2020 video game incarnation of The Avengers is linked in name onlythus further separating the Marvel Cinematic Universe from their video game releases completely. 

True, there have been mobile games aplenty — but it’s more than apparent that these are little more than promotional materials. Arguably, the trend has swung much in the other direction, as the Resident Evil, Max Payne and Hitman movie franchises started on consoles. For the most part, the quality hasn’t seemed to follow them into the cinemas, however. That said, I will happily fight anyone who disagrees that Jim Carrey’s performance as Doctor Robotnik was his finest in years.

Rocksteady is the undisputed king of Batman games

There are many small reasons why video game tie-ins to movies have devolved into absence, but chief amongst them could be the sheer fact that console gaming has outgrown the big screen. An average movie length tends to sit at the 2 hour mark (or 3, if directed by Zack Snyder or Christopher Nolan). Modern video games tend to have campaigns that are measured in half days, not hours. Once you tell the movie’s story in the game, that’s a lot of time leftover to fill. The medium is now too sophisticated to limit it’s storytelling into smaller doses. True, there are games set in the same worlds as their big screen counterparts, but that is where the ties end. If you were to take the scale of a video game such as Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V or CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 3, then the wealth of difference in timing would be apparent. The latter is renowned for having days worth of playable value. If it was telling a movie’s worth of story through its main campaign, then that leaves a lot of time for side quests… the game makers may as well write the next three films whilst they’re at it.

Plus, these days, video game developers are original story-tellers too, and few really want to transpose someone else’s narratives. Perhaps using Goldeneye 007 as an example of a movie tie-in was a tad unfair, considering how it has stood the test of time as a classic game in its own right. When delivering the narrative from the movie into it, Rare chose to select various plot points to generate player objectives. They recreated and enhanced many of the films locations, but took liberties with how much time was spent in them, often embellishing it to draw a longer experience. Take the Frigate level: in the movie, there are no hostages, and the scene that the level is based on lasts for less than three minutes. Within the game, it’s a lot longer.

Rare’s focus was more on delivering a facsimile of the movie’s locations, and making the gameplay the best that it could be. Movie dialogue is displayed over the game, but there are no cut-scenes to get to and nothing intrudes on the story’s narrative. There’s no voice acting, no original scenes and nothing that requires a player to have a specific knowledge of the movie or its characters. Sure, everyone knows James Bond, but you don’t put down the controller after clocking the game with a sense of knowing who the character is, deep down. 

This is perhaps where the real decline of video-game tie-ins began: when the medium became an artform, and the approach to making them was akin to writing a novel, a screenplay or a TV series. Writers’ rooms are being utilised more and more to ensure that the world of a videogame is stuffed with NPCs that sound intelligent and even entertaining. A video game production team will be led by individual lead writer(s) who are tasked with coming up with both immersive characters and a gripping story. It’s not only part of the job but it’s what they love to do as writers — create; and most are now at the point where they are giving us characters that are as memorable as John Rambo, Captain Jack Sparrow and… well, James Bond. Imagine if someone had asked Max Payne creator Sam Lake if he could write a narrative around someone else’s baby? It’s just not a done thing. 

Max Payne by name, max pain b-... yeah you get it

So, we can add the fact that modern video game producers haven’t the heart nor desire to play with someone else’s intellectual property. Simply put; it is creatively and artistically ungratifying. But there is a huge component that needs to be considered… us. As consumers, we weren’t buying the video-game tie-ins anymore. They weren’t reviewing well against other titles (which were evolving to tell better and more original stories). Rarely could studios afford to hire the original actors quite as much — which told players all they needed to know about how much care went into making a game as movie-like as possible. With other, increasingly cinematic experiences, on the shelf, it begged us to ask ourselves.

We’ve seen the movie, why do we need to watch it again? 

Correction: We’ve paid to see the movie, why do we need to pay for it again.

Yep, bad reviews, less replay value, few original actors and a full pricing roll-out suggested to the general public that video game tie-ins, with their declining quality were little more than cash-grabs for another copyright licence-holder, rather than the creative output of artistic licence holders. The genre of the movie video game tie-in was fatally wounded, and with no continues left: it was game over.

Although news of James Bond appearing in his own video game by Hitman series developers IO Interactive and movie producers Eon Productions suggested that the pendulum was swinging back towards the tie-in again, it actually pointed to there being a paradigm shift instead. The announcements that followed showed that they would not be using a specific actor’s likeness for the role. This means that, through their partnership with Eon, they have access to the music, the novels, the writers and their ideas and everything that’s needed to build the MI6 agent’s world but no particular 007 or canon to worry about. It seems that cinematic universes are appearing in video games again, but not as a tie-in to a particular cinematic release.

Maybe we will see video game tie-ins once more. Perhaps, given the capacity these will be for trilogy sagas, or full TV series. Right now, at best what we have is at least two different incarnations of the same franchise. For every MCU movie, we now have a Marvel’s Avengers DLC. With the appearances of Batman in Batman vs Superman and upcoming Justice League spin-offs, we’ve had the Batfleck suit in Arkham Knight, Injustice 2, and two new games based on the Suicide Squad and the Dark Knight’s proteges respectively. PS4 Spider-Man may wear Tom Holland’s suit, but that is where Sony drew the line. 

It looks like we now get two stories where one was before, and when it’s your favourite character, is that honestly a bad thing?I

Leave a Reply