In 2016, the Star Trek franchise celebrated its 50th anniversary, with over 700 episodes and thirteen films. A cult following has grown steadily throughout that time, and the franchise is now more in vogue than ever, which can perhaps be traced to the recent reboot of the series with the film Star Trek in 2009 starring Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto.
Even though the franchise exists in television and film media across several series, most fans have an appreciation for almost everything that has been made to varying degrees. We may consider some campy and different from the most popular, like The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, but for the most part, everything has its own unique story to tell and fans who love them. So, why are video games so hard to do properly?
Most Star Trek Games Are Terrible
Video games for the franchise go back decades, with one of the earliest being simply titled, Star Trek, a text-based strategy game from 1971. Since then, no less than 90 unique games have released across a variety of platforms. Among all of these games, one of the highest-rated, according to Metacritic, is Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force, receiving a rating of 86/100. Most tend to gravitate towards scores that are far lower, with Star Trek: The Shattered Universe taking the lowest score at 41/100.
Despite the best efforts of many developers, it seems almost impossible to make a great game. Though when one examines the core of what the show embodies, it is not difficult to understand why.
Where Is All The Action Coming From?
A quick peek at most of the trailers for Star Trek video games tends to showcase a similar theme of non-stop action, brawling officers, phaser shoot outs, and space combat between ships. In most shows and films however, combat was not the focus of the show at all.
Creator Gene Roddenberry was well-known for his optimism in the future of humanity. No matter what problems we face today, he believed that we as a species will overcome them and grow together. In the show, this translates to characters discussing what life was like 300 years ago, in our present time. The video below offers a brief example of Captain Jean-Luc Picard explaining to a man from our time that humanity has outgrown the infantile delusions of capitalism, and everyone is better off as a result.
Episodes focused on philosophical questions that plague us today, and no doubt will remain far into the future. “The Measure of a Man” episode posits to the crew of the Enterprise the question of when does Artificial Intelligence become a life worthy of protection, and no longer merely a tool for our use? “The Inner Light” episode explores the meaning of life, “Q Who” explores power, “Thine Own Self” explores themes of reason, and there are many more.
Lost In Translation
Attempting to translate these deep and broad-ranging philosophical questions to the medium of video games is thus quite challenging, and for the most part, ignored by video game developers. Instead, too many games focus on action, which are spurred forward by the recent Star Trek films with Chris Pine, where this interpretation of Captain Kirk always seeks answers with his fists well before considering using his mind.
The video below offers a brief look at some of the more well-known Star Trek games since 1971. As technology and graphics improve, the emphasis on actions seems to take hold.
Given that the main driver for the popularity of the show has been its exploration of thematic elements, along with pondering the potential for new technology, action comes off as feeling out of place when it takes the main stage in a game.
Perhaps having too much combat feels out of place because in most Star Trek shows or films, space combat was often barely survived. It was the climax and end of some episodes or films, and in the latter, the Enterprise would need substantial repairs, or be destroyed entirely. To be constantly fighting other ships and winning encounter after encounter feels overpowered, and completely disingenuous to what we have seen for years on the screen.
In other cases, the Federation found itself ridiculously overpowered. In every single encounter with the Borg for example, with the exception of one storyline in Voyager, humans have virtually no defense against the technological superiority of the collective. Even in Star Trek: First Contact, humanity defeats the Borg invasion through a bit of hand waving and telling the audience that Picard, while now free of their grasp, still can hear, or understand them, or something we are not explained in much detail. Playing a first-person shooter where the main character is gunning down Borg drones with a phaser is not only underwhelming, it's completely inaccurate.
The Future Lies In The Narrative, Not The Action
Although graphics for gaming have improved tremendously over the years, we have still seen that there is room in the market for well-written games with a focus on building a strong narrative. Life is Strange, Quantic Dream, or a blend of storytelling and with toned-down action in something like what Telltale Games offered might be the key to a successful Star Trek video game in the future.
Whatever lies ahead for video game adaptations of the franchise, it is wonderful to see more stories coming through new and ongoing series. With Star Trek: Picard traveling at Warp Nine to be here for its formal launch in 2020, we have only a while to wait before seeing what lies ahead for the iconic show. For now, and always, live long and prosper.