Hard Projects: Star Trek
There’s no way I could convince anyone reading this that I don’t love Star Trek Online. I wrote a whole piece about it. And it’s all true, Your Honor, I think it’s a great game that comes as close as any game has to capturing the spirit of the series. In fact, it might even seem unfair to list Star Trek here at all, seeing as we’ve been nearly buried under a variety of Star Trek games with varying critical reception. Some are seen as particularly good, some are seen as middling, but very few houses get the license and turn out something execrable.
Yet it’s always a tricky prospect. Star Trek Online languished in development hell for an extended period of time, killing the first studio working on it. Many of the games languish in that impermanent hell toward the bottom of the “acceptable” scale when they hit review time, many of them sliding below that. And nearly every single one faces criticism about its use of the license, with people hand-wringing and asking whether or not the game really fits in with the ethos of Star Trek as a whole.
So what makes this so hard to adapt?
A cast of many
One of the things that’s oddly limiting about Star Trek is the fact that there are characters people fall in love with. Some of them are main characters, some of them supporting cast members, some even minor characters in the grand scheme of things. But it’s almost impossible to avoid becoming enraptured by the cast as you watch a series. Furthermore, there are also an endless number of other starships out there, other crews, complete with their own stories to tell. It would seem to be the best of both worlds. You can set a game with a known crew, or you can set it with someone else, and both are equally legitimate!
Except that both have problems. In the former case, you’re by necessity filling in the margins. In the latter, you’re being asked to care about something you might not.
The known crew’s adventures are, well, known. Sure, character arcs aren’t the most happening thing on Star Trek – as has been pointed out, Jean-Luc Picard is not making any decisions at the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation that he wouldn’t make at the beginning of the series – but the point is that there’s still an overarching narrative. Whatever you see will be necessity be relegated to “the further adventures of” with a small caveat that there’s no real reason to worry or invest too deeply in any of this, it’s all secondary. It also means that you know that nothing too serious will happen in the long run. “Will the crew avert this menace? Well, this game was released in season 4, and there were three more seasons, so…”
On the other hand, the obvious solution to that problem is to focus on another crew. That produces other problems, because your other crews aren’t the ones that the players signed up to see. One of the big issues that Star Trek: The Next Generation and every subsequent Star Trek spinoff faced was the simple reality that people were more prepared to see more adventures with the crews they already loved, not the unexpected adventures of Captain Whoever and the Nobody Squad. Basing yourself as part of a totally different crew makes logical sense, but it also runs the risk of alienating the people who care more about the cast than the universe.
Speaking of that universe…
Here’s your gun, never use it
As a vehicle for telling stories, Star Trek features a robust universe partly because its central idea is so charmingly different than a lot of fiction, and an even larger amount of television science fiction. Here, your goal isn’t to beat your enemies, it’s to understand them.
Seriously. There has been one long-running on-screen war in the entire franchise, and that was specifically characterized as a difference in ideas so severe that it could be reconciled no other ways. Starfleet’s victory at the end was primarily a diplomatic one, at that. They happily stepped away from the conflict, asking no concessions, seeking only peace between both sides. Every single franchise with recurring alien enemies features numerous episodes showing the audience that these enemies are not a field of black hats, they are people, even if they might be misguided or hurting or shallow or wrong.
But not all of your enemies are even villainous. A lot of the best episodes of the series feature a complex problem that requires the crew out-thinking the problem in a creative way, or overcoming some long-held personal fear to embrace otherwise frightening methods. “Cause and Effect” is one of my personal favorite episodes, but there’s no violence, just a steady working through the logic of the problem. “Progress” is all about the complex interplay of tradition and modernizing. “Ex Post Facto” is a murder mystery. “In the Pale Moonlight” covers the idea of betraying one ideal for another.
These ideas don’t translate well into video games. Some of the themes map over just fine, don’t get me wrong, and Star Trek is also very comfortable slipping into space opera at many points. “The Best of Both Worlds” is on a lot of lists about best episodes, and it sure as heck deserves it despite any cheese in the action sequences. But a lot of the best episodes work in ways that are completely incompatible with the rest of a given video game. While it might be neat to design a game that shifts genre and focus every time you get to a new episode, it’d get awkward and irritating pretty fast, especially if one part was more developed than the other.
Which is part of the problem right there, since…
So much to fit in
A good Star Trek game needs to let you control the ships. It also needs to let you do things on foot. It needs to cover the same breadth of issues as the fiction. It needs complex puzzles. It needs to cover a lot of genres. A game that allows you to play through all of Deep Space Nine would require it to include third-person shooting, space combat, tactical space combat a la RTS games, adventure gameplay, puzzle mechanics, an entire baseball game, managing resistance fighters, tower defense, Sims-style social interaction…
It’s no wonder that most games stick to either shooting in space or on the ground, because it’s almost impossible to cram all of these things into a single game and have them be equally developed. Even the most basic element — ground and space gameplay — tripped up Star Trek Online‘s development many times, because the two need to play entirely different. And one of the recurring complaints that has been present since the game launched is that the ground game is much weaker than the space game. Designing two entirely different engines for one game is kind of difficult.
This is what’s most likely to kill the game during development, in fact. We’ve all played games that try to blend mechanics unsuccessfully to some degree; the best part of Mass Effect 3‘s take on vehicular combat is that it didn’t include it, unlike its predecessors. Trying to cover too much ground can easily result in escalating budgets and an unsatisfying experience all around. Equally unfortunately, though, leaving some of this out leaves the game feeling somehow stymied, because the Star Trek universe places so much emphasis on both ships and people.
What you have, in every case, is a universe that’s amazingly broad while at the same time being very unfriendly to develop for. You have an huge focus that gives you two obvious routes which won’t work, a fundamental philosophy that plays poorly with games, and a game that demands you build at least two separate games while being judged for both. All of that is combined with the pressure from the license holders, and the long silence of Star Trek games since ’01 or so starts to make a lot more sense.