The death of the video game tie-in

ET wasn’t that bad, was it?

How could we forget the days that, whenever we were on the cusp of a major blockbuster movie release, there would always be an accompanying video game tie-in? Over the past several years, video game tie-ins seem to have completely faded away for the most part. It does seem a little strange, considering the amount of billion-dollar movie franchises out there now. It would seem like the natural step to make a tie-in game to capitalise on the popularity of the franchise and IP. But it looks like those days may be coming to an end.

There are so many reasons why video game tie-ins are so few and far between nowadays. Firstly, developers have continued to find fresh and exciting ways to inject new life into established IP to create unique and immersive gaming experiences, displaying far more creative freedom and more scope to develop a sense of identity and personality. Secondly, there seems to have been considerably less interest and demand for them, most likely due to the continuing decline in quality due to rushed development and disappointing sales.

Historically, video game tie-ins have always been a mixed bag and have had varying degrees of quality and success. While there have been some that have some genuine value, there have some that have turned out to be soulless cash grabs – looking at you, PSOne version of Independence Day.  In the 80s, licensed film tie-ins were mostly sidescrollers. The most famous 80s tie-in was E.T on the Atari 2600 which lives in infamy of being one of the worst video games of all time with its poor quality, terrible mechanics, rushed development and, well, the fact that it caused the 1983 video game crash. That’s before you think about all of the copies of ET that got buried in a landfill in New Mexico.

During the 1990s, video game tie-ins became more and more popular and even influential. For example, there were games based on popular Disney animated movies, specifically Aladdin, The Lion King and Hercules to name a few. These games adopted the side-scrolling platformer format with their notorious difficulty and were recently remastered for previous and current generation consoles. There’s still a lot of nostalgia attached to them, just like the movies, as seen from lots of popular content creators and players discovering these games for the first time.

During the transition to 3D, Goldeneye 64 proved to be hugely popular and revolutionised the first-person shooter genre, paving the way for future FPS gaming franchises, such as Call of Duty. It didn’t have many direct references to the movie of the same name that came before it two years prior. But the fact that it came out a couple of years after the release of the movie meant that the developers at Rare had far more time to add polish and ensure that it was of the best quality, particularly when it came to functionality. Die Hard Trilogy, will less enduring, offered up a very loose adaptation of all three films in the trilogy, offering a variety of different experiences as each film was its own game.

The 2000s also provided a lot of tie-in games, a lot of which were based on popular Marvel movies, most notably Spider-Man 2. There were many more tie-in games based on popular movie franchises such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Pixar, Die Hard, The Matrix, Ghostbusters, and Aliens, just to name a few. Spider-Man 2, despite being tied to the canon of Sam Raimi’s 2004 blockbuster of the same name meaning that there were limitations in terms of narrative, revolutionised the web-swinging traversal mechanic and even today, its influence can be felt in Insomniac’s 2018 Spider-Man and Spider-Man: Miles Morales. There was also X-Men Origins: Wolverine, based on the movie of the same name, which many players claim was far more superior to the actual movie. Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay won the character of Riddick a bunch more fans than the film franchise, and is perhaps more enduring than the Vin Diesel vehicles themselves.

As we witnessed the birth of Marvel Cinematic Universe in the late 2000s and early 2010s, there were a lot of tie-in games, including Captain America: Super Soldier, Iron Man, Thor, just to name a few.

Recently though, tie-in games have been developed for mobile since they are much cheaper to create and easier for film fans to access if they don’t have a console. Sadly, for the most part, they have just been reskinning of popular mobile games such as Candy Crush and Bejewelled.

Over the past several years, licensed games have really come into their own with an original narrative specifically crafted for the game and designed specifically for a more visceral, interactive experience, not held back by the movie universe’s canon. In 2009, Rocksteady Studios brought us Batman: Arkham Asylum, the first entry in what would become the critically acclaimed Arkham trilogy, which proved to be a breath of fresh air. It was clear that the series had taken a lot of inspiration from the decades of lore and many movies, shows and comics, such as the Batman Animated series and the Christopher Nolan movie trilogy, to really give players the chance to ‘Be the Batman’.

 

In 2018, Insomniac injected a whole new life into the beloved web-head with Spider-Man, also with an original narrative from renowned comic book writers created specifically for the game, drawing inspiration from Spider-Man games, such as Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man (2000) from Neversoft, that came before it, as well as various Spider-Man movies and comics. There were unlockable suits based on the various movie iterations, but that was about it. It was its own thing.

Since the stratospheric popularity of major franchises, it means that for a lot of people today, seeing development studios using popular IP, such as The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy, has generated a mixed response. The movies have become so instilled in pop culture and in peoples’ minds, that to them, the actors have become synonymous with the characters they’ve portrayed for a decade on the big screen. Robert Downey Jr will always be Iron Man to many people. Seeing the characters in a different light and a different continuity a million miles away from the MCU is jarring to some fans.

There was a ton of backlash to how the characters shared no visual or sounding resemblance to the MCU actors, when the character designs first emerged in trailers and promotional material. Case in point, there were people out there who were critical of the fact that Star Lord didn’t look or sound like Chris Pratt in the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy game and that the Avengers in Marvel’s Avengers had no resemblance to any of the MCU actors who spent over a decade portraying the characters on the big screen. It’s different with Batman and Spider-Man, as there were already so many movie iterations.
The scarceness of video game tie-ins can be seen as a positive thing. When game developers get the rights to use various licensed IPs, it allows them to really take the time to make the best possible game of the highest quality and focus more on the artistry. There isn’t all the added intense pressure of having to meet movie studio deadlines and adhering to movie release dates.

They also don’t have the limitations of having to stick so closely to the same canon as the movie and can come into their own creativity and give the IP a stamp of identity. While tie-in games will never completely go away, we can look forward to experiencing our favourite franchises in a different light. Or watch with gritted teeth as every movie adds a few characters to Fortnite as skins.

With upcoming licensed titles, such as the Indiana Jones game from Bethesda, a James Bond game from IO interactive, Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League from Rocksteady and Gotham Knights from WB Montreal on the horizon, it’s exciting to see how developers will continue to put their own creative spin on these popular IPs. We’ve come a long way indeed.

Laura Francis is a freelance writer and occasional contributor to NME. 

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