It sounds ludicrous, doesn't it. You mention the phrase "licensed game" or, worse still, "tie-in" and a deathly pallor comes across the faces of everyone in the near vicinity as they contemplate the swathes of interactive mediocrity that have been commissioned and published under such loose genre umbrellas. Reviewers grin gleefully and ready their knives for yet another hatchet job, preparing to fillet what is likely to be a boring, repetitive trudge, filled with well-worn mechanics, brainless button mashing, QTEs, endless fetch quests. That's if it works in the first place, of course.
It's not exactly news that games spun out from pre-existing, popular IPs are generally rubbish. For every KOTOR or TIE Fighter or Jedi Knight II, there are reams of opportunistic bilge produced in the name of Star Wars like Super Star Wars, Masters of Teras Kasi, and the dreadful Rebel Assault. Marvel characters have had good outings on occasion -- hello Spider-man 2 -- but then there are the swathes of mediocrity like Thor and Hulk and Iron Man and Avengers: Battle for Earth. So many of these games showcase a lack of ambition, a desire to make a quick buck (particularly in the case of tie-ins), with developers caught in a system that is neither interested in, nor allows for, leveraging the unique capabilities that this medium offers.
But it doesn't have to be that way. In short, because of the interactive nature of gaming, there's a capacity for gaming adaptations to be better and to mean more than their source material.
Consider The Walking Dead, for a moment. Robert Kirkman's series is fantastic in its own right -- rife with moral quandaries and the horrors that men and women face as they battle (often against one another) in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by the undead. It's a fantastic study in psychological pressure and human horror, and one that often poses direct questions to the readers. The game, though, takes that one step further. It does everything that the graphic novels does, but it adds on an extra layer to the relationship between creator and consumer by giving players the means to answer the question underpinning everything: what would you do?
It's important to note that this takes nothing away from Kirkman's original IP, in fact it enhances it by means of association, but one of the criticisms levelled at Telltale was that they'd had the hard work done for them, and that's simply unfair. There are too many examples of mediocre games being spun out of IP gold for that criticism to stand -- just consider Fight Club or Ghostbusters or sodding E.T. Adaptation is a fine art, and Telltale themselves haven't always hit the mark; to try and diminish their achievement when they did would be fundamentally wrong.
It works the other way, though, as well. Pitch Black was a cracking little film, but the subsequent Riddick movies weren't exactly brilliant. Then, however, along came Starbreeze with an opportunity for us to step into the shoes of the character, with the Scanadavian studio leveraging stealthy trappings to bring Riddick to life in far more interesting fashion than his Chronicles ever did. Starbreeze took the best of what Riddick had to offer as a character, incorporating his eyeshine into proceedings, and then surrounding him with a fantastically grim setting. Butcher Bay was a cesspool of iniquity floating in space, and it gave us a shadowy playground into which we could escape and live out a brilliantly written slice of Riddick's life.
To return to Star Wars for a moment, there's another example of this alchemical process -- leveraging a mediocre IP in one medium into something far more enjoyable in the another. The Phantom Menace is pretty balls for the most part, but it did get two things right: outstanding lightsaber fight choreography (we love you Ray Park!) and pod racing. Sadly, the former never really stood a chance, and the official movie tie-in was a steaming pile of bantha fodder. But the latter gave rise to what is arguably one of the best racers to grace the N64, and what is certainly one of the finest, most overblown pieces of arcade brilliance. Sometimes I'd just sit in that pod as a kid, close my eyes and pretend. Usually because I'd already spent all of my money. It was a cracking game, and one that I went back to time and time again.
The biggest licensed game of all, though, and we have to give it some love here, is unarguably GoldenEye 007. Like The Walking Dead, here was an IP shining with quality, but James Bond games had been done before, and not enormously well (save for the Game Boy classic). GoldenEye as a film is probably the best in the series since From Russia With Love, and after Roger Moore descended into eyebrow ham and freakin' Octopussy, and Timothy Dalton split opinion with his take on the character (The Living Daylights -- crap, Licence to Kill -- YES!), it was nice to see a robust return for Bond in a film that had it all. But the game was nothing short of a entertainment phenomenon. We were Bond -- stealthy when we needed to be, powerful when we wanted -- the thrill of jumping off that dam at the end of the first level, or rolling that tank down the streets of St. Petersburg, or the tension of trying to fry the plates off of that hatch in the floor of Trevelyan's train, or the nervous exhilaration of stalking a rifle-toting Xenia through the jungle. We weren't just watching Pierce Brosnan doing all of this cool stuff, we were doing it ourselves as that brass theme celebrated our awesomeness. And it felt wonderful.
That's something that no other medium can give you. The very nature of putting a controller in someone's hands, or placing them in front of a motion control device creates the possibility for interactive agency. We are no longer passive observers or narrative sponges, rather we become puppeteers and performers and decision makers. The best licensed games strike a balance between an inspirational IP and the best that this medium can afford, and seek to explore and play with that relationship between creator and consumer, making the most of that interactive element. Hell, the best games full stop do that.
That's why we're so excited for South Park next week. For starters, the collaboration between Parker and Stone and the developers at Obsidian has been in place from the beginning, and that ticks off that first box. The fact that LARPing is already a theme underpinning several episodes of the show, and the fact that such a setup lends itself so well to the framework of an RPG makes it a perfect match, one that's constantly mocking the traditions of its own genre. We can't talk about the final game, but what little we've played of it before feels right -- like stepping into an extended episode that places you, a new character, at the forefront. Games involve us as players, inviting us into new, fresh, and exciting worlds -- often worlds we've seen in books or on TV or at the cinema, our noses pushed up to the windows of the page or screen. Games break down those barriers and invite us to live out those stories ourselves; to make ourselves part of that narrative. And as brilliant as South Park the TV series is, that's something it can never do.