Game 2 – Back To The Future – Review

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It is a universally acknowledged truth that a single game in possession of a movie license must be terrible.  As long as video games have been in existence, there have been a great deal of licensed games, and a great deal of shit. Take E.T. for Atari, the story goes that  the little guy nearly killed the game industry in 1983.  I’ve never played the game, so I can’t say for certain, however any time 728,000 copies of a game end up buried in a landfill, chances are its not a masterpiece.

I have played countless other licensed games however – here’s a lightning round review session:

  • Time Cop – Licensed game based on the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie – Jean-Claude Van Dammeless, and shit.
  • The First Ninja Turtles for the NES – Impossible, infuriating, shit.
  • Street Fighter The Movie The Video Game – Digitized shit.
  • Batman Forever – Hockey pad wearin’ shit.

The inverse is true as well.  In fact while there are exceptional games based on movie licenses –  Golden Eye, 16-bit Disney games, countless Star Wars titles – there’s not a single movie based on a game that transcends “Ok”.  The best game based on a movie I can think of is Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie – Mortal Kombat gets a pass because while it’s a crap movie, it’s soundtrack is aural manna.

Games based on movies suck because they are rushed out to market so their release coincides with the film. Surprising no one, you can’t rush a half-finished product out to the market and have it turn out well.  As for why films video games have been so bad – there are a multitude of reasons, but I believe it boils down to one reason: Movies and games are radically different mediums.  What makes for a great film, and what makes for a great movie are two separate things.

I know that this is a shocking and controversial statement, but hold on, let me explain:

Movies – owing to their shorter running times, have to be more concise with their storytelling, scenes in (good) movies that don’t serve a greater purpose end up on the cutting room floor.  Effective character development has to be squeezed into that time frame as well, film presents the most important facts of a character upfront. The cracks, the little details and intricacies that make up a person, are either mentioned briefly, or alluded to.  Even indie films that are character pieces can’t show you every facet of a characters life – they are still only making skillful mid-sized strokes, where the main studios are painting their characters with much larger brushes. 

A lot of game writers and developers don’t go in for concise storytelling – partly because it’s a young medium, but also because one of the strengths of game storytelling is the ability to place a surplus of information at the player’s fingertips, and let them decide how much they want to explore.

Sometimes this gets out of hand – you only need to take a look at the overwhelming amounts of lore included in an Elder Scrolls game – so much of it window dressing, and so little of it interesting – to see what happens when a designer over-stuffs their game with details.

However, in a game like The Witcher 3, optional conversations and sidequests lead to a fuller understanding of the characters. It’s completely optional to take on the quest that provides small details about Yennifer and Geralt’s past relationship – a player choosing to skip the quest will still fight the Wild Hunt, and will still understand the plot of the game – but for the other player, those small details can change the entire experience.

In a movie version of the Witcher we’d get the basic gist of Geralt, but we wouldn’t get all the little details of his world, of his personality and relationships.  A movie would have to remove so many of the ephemera that on their own are insignificant, but when pulled together make a breathing living world.

(As a side note, fans of popular novels always mention that a single movie cannot hope to include all the details that a novel brings to the table, which is true – but imagine trying to fit all the lore of the Elder Scrolls into a movie while still telling a coherent story. )

Games based on a movie have the exact opposite problem, they have so much space and so little to use from the source material to fill it. When ever a preview of a game promises to re-tell the plot of a movie, you can guarantee that the game is ass.  Tie-in games also have to contend with basic game mechanics – what makes a game fun versus what makes a movie enjoyable. Spiderman can’t just fight Doctor Octopus like he does in the movie, you need lesser goons for the player to practice their web combos and snappy patter on – and because you’re rarely going to see just one boss in an action game, other villains are brought in to take up slack.  If you don’t want Spidey to fight suped up generic thugs in battle armor, those villains have to be established, and they can’t just be tossed in, they have to be tied into the overall plot of the movie, a plot that was never meant to support extra villains.  What you’re left with is a clear graft job, the additional plot elements standing out next to the original movie story line.

As a result, successful movie tie-ins either succeed in spite of their plot – I don’t think anyone playing  Golden Eye in 1997 found themselves glued to the screen as a result of its storytelling prowess – or they cherry pick the best elements of the license they are working with in service of an entirely new story.

Back To The Future the Game is an entirely new story. While it does successfully tie into the plot line of the first three movies, it still stands on its own. Hell, I honestly think it’s a better Back to The Future story than the two original sequels. Telltale Games are some of the strongest writers in the medium, but the success of the game isn’t entirely their own.  Bob Hale contributed as well, the original co-writer of all three Back To The Future films ( w/ Robert Zemeckis) –  he also rescued some of the ideas from Part II’s cutting room floor – Prohibition Hill Valley, and exploring Doc’s youth, were originally intended for the second film.

As a Back to The Future story it shines – there are enough ties to the previous movies, including call back jokes, score, and plot points, to satisfy. It’s not all fan service either,  the story takes interesting turns, and plays with expectations. As a semi sequel to Back to The Future, the game succeeds wildly.

But… as a game, it’s not bad, but there’s very little here that plays to the strengths of the medium.  Back to The Future is an adventure game, a genre which relies on puzzles for game-play – but the puzzles are boring – the majority are too obvious, they lack the challenge, the moment of satisfaction when you realize the solution.  The only puzzles that aren’t easy, are only difficult because you have to walk through a series of long steps well after you’ve already grokked the answer.  Besides these puzzles, there is little here that wouldn’t be as effective (or more so) in a movie. 

True, you are able to delve into far greater detail through conversation then you would be able to in a film, which is unique to gaming, and as a result the primary antagonist Edna Strickland develops from what could be a one note character, to someone extremely sympathetic and likable. Conversation depth also allows the writers to tie up any lingering questions fans might have regarding characters missing from the game (Doc’s wife and kids for instance). Dialogue plays out by offering a number of options per conversation, which leads to usually witty, and sometimes quite funny, lines – but, as this is a Telltale game Pre-Walking Dead, nothing you say or do changes anything.  

So… everything that makes the game shines occurs in cut scenes, conversations, which you have no real control over, and presentation.  Transplant the script from game to movie, edit it a bit, and you’d have Back to The Future 4.

Except there is one more thing Video-games can do that a live action film cannot.  Games use graphic representations to tell a story, not live actors.  This is an obvious statement, I know, but it’s important for Back to The Future The Game because Michael J Fox is too old to play Marty McFly, and he is sadly suffering from Parkinson’s to the extent that he has basically retired from acting. Unless a hypothetical fourth movie was recast – which I would argue kills the appeal of the franchise, although I’m sure Hollywood is planning a reboot soon – another Live Action Movie couldn’t have been made. Hell, J. Fox really can’t even voice Marty, as he shows up to voice a few cameo’s in the game, but his voice is clearly much different then it was in his youth. A voice, however, is much easier to replicate – and for that the producers of the game found A.J. Locascio, whose turn as Marty starts a little shaky, but ends up being an unbelievable approximation by the end of the game.

Sure, it’s possible the same could be done in an Animated movie – but assuming that option wasn’t on the table, either from lack of interest or funding, Back To The Future The Game was really the only way the story could be told, and it’s a story that deserves telling. 

Because Back to The Future The Game is missing so many of the attributes that make for a compelling video game, it’s difficult to write about it further – even though I enjoyed it more than Aarklash Legacy, the latter gave me much more to work with precisely because it is so much a game.  I recommend it, but only if you are a fan of the series, otherwise I don’t think it works – as a result I really shouldn’t give a high rating to a game that only succeeds as an extension of a movie, and a game that doesn’t even truly perform well as a game.  But fuck it, these are entirely subjective reviews, and my scale has no integrity anyways.



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