Why do good films make such bad games, and vice-versa? Tom Standage, business editor of The Economist, considers this strange paradox ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2009

The Chronicles of Riddick”, a dodgy sci-fi flick from 2004 starring Vin Diesel, was not a high point in film history. But it is held in high esteem by video-gamers. Its spin-off game, one of the best on the old Xbox, made pioneering use of whizzy graphical tricks, such as simulated depth of field. It had a strong plot and voice acting, and a cinematic quality far ahead of its time. It was re-released in March, updated for the latest consoles, as a bonus with a fervently awaited new “Riddick” game, “Assault on Dark Athena”.

Most spin-off games, alas, are dire, but they sell anyway, often to parents of young children, who assume that if Little Johnny liked the film, he’ll like the game, too. This is a trap set for the non-gaming adult. Pay no attention to the recognisable characters and reassuring packaging: the chances are that a dud game lurks inside.

Why? Spin-off games are often rushed, to be ready in time for the film release. They are often produced by a separate company that is simply given a script and a load of artwork and told to make a game, pronto—hardly a recipe for quality.

The best games draw you in with a blend of satisfying gameplay, carefully calibrated difficulty, an attractive game world and a compelling plot. Movie tie-ins are absolved from these requirements. They are often made by taking an existing game and re-skinning it with details from a film, forcing them into a particular genre and stifling innovation. So you find yourself fighting off endless streams of baddies, and collecting glowing rings or orbs, whether or not these things figured in the film. Judging by its tie-in game, Narnia is overrun by an infinite supply of wolves that must be beaten to death with sticks.

The film’s plot provides the game’s structure, and you are expected to plod your way through it, no matter how dull or confusing its presentation. In “Harry Potter”, Hogwarts is a school filled with wonders; play the latest video game and it becomes a prison, filled with menial tasks.

Spin-off games get away with being so bad by exploiting the buzz around a film. The “Riddick” game, by contrast, had to overcome anti-buzz. It did so with new twists in both gameplay and graphics, transcending its film rather than being hemmed in by it. The same is true of the “Lego Star Wars” games and other titles in which franchises (“Indiana Jones”, “Batman”) are re-enacted in plastic bricks. The Lego games add playful humour and gentle but satisfying puzzle-solving to a film’s existing world. Tellingly, they are not direct spin-offs and are not tied to particular films, but are based on franchises with enduring popularity. And just as films usually make bad games, games invariably make bad films. What works in one medium rarely works in the other.

Richard Rockwood

(Tom Standage is the gaming columnist for Intelligent Life and business editor for The Economist. His last column was on addictive games.)