If Star Wars has always been a travelogue of places, introducing new plot as a contingency of a new place, Star Trek has always been about people. The former has so dominated the interactive realm that even hated malignancies of the medium the likes of Battlefront II still outsell everything else by virtue of its name. Meanwhile, Star Trek can’t get it right, splicing its influences across genres and generations and never making a good game, or even one that feels authentic to its material. Why, when so many elements are similar on-paper, are the two franchises so disparate in the realm of video games?
Storytelling in Star Wars often amounts to choosing where we’re going and who will get shot there, a structure that serves as an ideal broth for all the video game solids – the starchy spectacle and leafy exposition. Star Wars games are so starchy just by nature of being a video game that they not only taste authentic, but the interactive simulation of the films can become as relevant to the canon as the very stories of the main instalments on which they’re based. Republic Commando, a Star Wars-themed FPS, would be as relevant to canon in most people’s minds as the much-maligned The Phantom Menace. Knights of the Old Republic is even considered more relevant as a prequel than the official film prequels made and delivered by the creator of Star Wars himself. No matter how superficial, any game with enough stuff blowing up is officially Star Wars, even if that stuff is made of LEGOs.
Star Trek conversely crafts its story on a stage – various incarnations show more action by virtue of progressions in technology, but its essential stories could all be told with cloth backdrops and dusky monologues. The human race learns lessons as Star Trek deals with issues and edicts of conscience in realms of uncharted philosophy. The Klingon War doesn’t perpetuate to infinity, story-endowed good guys locked in eternal conflict with inexplicably powerful bad guys. The war ends, treaties are written, new problems arise from peace, such as how to live with former enemies and use their unique worldview as ammunition against new threats, or most difficult of all, how to coexist.
While Star Wars perpetuates the status quo of simple black and white morals, making it ideal to be told through the end of a rifle barrel, the element of change makes Star Trek complex and fluid, perhaps too much so to adapt to a video game.
There is no “default” state in the Star Trek universe, no state of rest, as Star Wars always has the same war to re-name and repeat through make-believe consequences. The action/ stealth/ co-op standard would require amendments to fit into the story-drive of a true Star Trek game, which development teams of licensed games are so rarely equipped to make.
A real Star Trek game might be like FTL – a game of circumstantial morality, decision-making, intellectual timing. Star Trek is a universe full of engagement and indecision. Mass Effect may be the most Star Trek-like mainstream game, though its parts are divided down the middle between driving refined dialogue through preset eventualities and driving a motorized bouncy castle over an empty desert. Mass Effect is dressed like an elegy to methodical space fiction, but succumbs too often to the easy pleasures of cover-based combat.
The question is not why even professed adaptations of Star Trek have trouble translating the material to video games, but why the video game as a medium for which anything is possible has a chronic inability to use its tools to portray emotionally complex situations through interaction.
For instance, you are the captain of a ship in Mass Effect, a ship that contains a few NPCs and a destination map – it’s an interactable mission select screen, no more like the bridge of Star Trek than the hub world in Crash Bandicoot. It contains nothing that makes space exploration exciting and unpredictable, to which Elite Dangerous comes much closer with far fewer pretensions. Character interactions in Mass Effect and in games like it wallow in the uncanny valley while offering no incentive to climb out, and feel like optional indulgences rather than motivated structures of storytelling, like we’re all just blowing smoke up EA’s puckered little money hole. Its need to habitually make it back around to stock third-person shooter combat and DLC purchases negates its claim for grander intentions: it would love to portray philosophy, while simultaneously having no need for it.
In this way, Bioshock provides a model for how action may demonstrate conflicts of thought, pitting a preordained objective against a player’s sense of self. Star Trek on television is actually full of cover-based shooting, but it is always dramatic – as in Bioshock and Spec Ops: The Line, even action scenes always do thematic work. Video games often have a problem with this kind of thematic integration, opting instead to create boundaries between different thematic parts, as Metal Gear Solid so stubbornly separates its story from its levels, and as Final Fantasy characters exist as drastically different beings in cutscenes and in battle animations.
Even in the films, Star Wars integrates action and character only occasionally (Luke’s fight against Darth Vader has a presence of history and emotion while his fight against Boba Fett and the Emperor demonstrate very little; Obi-Wan versus Anakin bristles with outrage while Anakin’s fight against Dooku is limpid). Like a video game, Star Wars has reconcilable genres mixed within it and so it’s easy to adapt – often a game will be all popcorn-popping action like Battlefront or Rogue Squadron and it still feels like Star Wars since the story excised from the body isn’t that important. Battles against Vader and Dooku feel the same in a video game.
But Star Trek is not divisible – its philosophy introduces action and deconstructs the emotions that are reactions to it. It had no action for its own sake until the new films made it a norm, and just like a video game, they threw in obligatory co-op, dispensing action in the place of thinking as a solution to every scenario. Why the game based on the 2009 reboot film could not manage to be even passably fun is a testament to the development mechanics of movie tie-in games. There’s a reason that we don’t make Star Wars: The Last Jedi official the movie the game.
Elite Dangerous proves that integration is possible in the genre – it manages to combine its mechanics as a free-form simulation of the desire of space fans to explore new worlds with combat objectives that belong in a video game. Star Trek itself has been left in the lurch even of these small accomplishments, brandishing an occasional new release that could not make more mockery of its source if it was a parody.
But someday we may see a game that instills duty as much as others propagate a lust for blood, or render the fondness and sensitivity of human interaction as readily as GTA revels in killing coppers. We may see it, but it will take a paradigm shift in how we perceive games and what we want from them. Captain Kirk shot bad guys but he never once took a life without considering the consequences, and was often called upon to show mercy where action might have been cleaner and easier. In how many games have you ever spared someone’s life, by choice, without being rewarded? How many of those games have “Star Wars” in the title?
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org