A History of Movie-Based Video Games Through a Transmedia Lens

For over thirty years, video games based on popular Hollywood releases have been used to line the pockets of developers and movie studios. It’s a win-win situation, as both developers and studios receive a cut of the total sales, and the game acts as an advertisement for the movie, and vice-versa. While movie-based video games are not quite as common as in the past, there was a period of time when almost every major Hollywood release came with an accompanying video game. For the most part, however, these games were not particularly well-made, as they typically had rushed production and a limited plot. However, these games’ have a fascinating history through a transmedial lens. These games are almost always paratexts, as they are typically smaller in public consciousness than the film. However, these games’ intertextuality are incredibly varied and fascinating to study. Are they simply a recreation of the film’s plot in video game form? Or are they something entirely new, yet set in the same universe of the film? These video games can be difficult to define. However, their presence is truly a unique form of transmedia properties.

One of the first video games based on a major Hollywood release was E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. E.T. the movie was a huge hit, making loads of money at the box office, along with significant critical acclaim. However, the video game was anything but a hit. Due to licensing issues, the developers of E.T. had just over five weeks to create the game. This wasn’t impossible, due to the technical capabilities of the Atari 2600, the most popular home console in 1982, the year of its release. However, after the game’s release, it was quickly derided by critics as a cheap, incomprehensible game that had very little to do with the accompanying movie. A screenshot of the game can be seen below. While developers couldn’t do much about the poor graphics due to the console’s limited capabilities, it’s storyline and general gameplay were deservingly derided. In order to “win” the game, E.T. simply had to collect three pieces of a telephone by falling into holes. Once the player received all three pieces, the player won, and the game ended. However, the game was mostly a series of trial and error, as the player only fell into holes to see if a telephone was present, and then flew out to check the next hole. Its gameplay, even for the Atari 2600 era, was simple and monotonous.

E.T. was critically derided for its poor graphics and odd, repetitive gameplay.

As a piece of transmedia, however, the game is quite unique. The game is undoubtedly a paratext to the film, as the film was much more well-known amongst the public than the game. However, the game’s intertextuality to the film is particularly interesting as well. This game was released well before Hollywood’s realization that franchises can be transmedial. While the game was almost certainly released as a way to keep E.T. fresh in the minds of audiences (making it an advertising epitext of a sort), the game’s storyline is not lined up with the plot of the movie. This begs the question whether the game takes place in the same universe as the film or an alternate universe. There is no way to definitively prove the game developer’s intent, but the game’s existence itself makes this paratext a large mystery.

On the other side of video games based on movies, GoldenEye 007 was an incredibly successful game, with both commercial and critical acclaim. Up until this point, games based on movies were typically rushed and poorly-received, as they were seen by the gaming community as little more than epitextual advertisements for the main film. However, GoldenEye’s release was immediately well-received, as its gameplay and graphics for first-person shooters at the time was unparalleled, and is still commonly called one of the greatest video games of all time.

In addition to its fascinating commercial history, the game’s paratextual elements are interesting as well. As opposed to E.T., GoldenEye 007’s gameplay is almost identical to the plot of the film. Even architectural elements seen in the film are recreated in the game, as seen in the picture below. Because architectural elements were so similar, and the plot was practically the same as the film, it makes it difficult to define what kind of paratext this game is. It is unlikely to take place in an alternate universe, due to its similar plot structure, but different things can happen in the game than in the film, such as James Bond killing innocent civilians in the game. Ultimately, because this game was still released before a large understanding of transmedia among developers and studios, it makes the game particularly hard to define. However, the game can certainly be classified as an epitext, as its release, interestingly, came just four months before the release of GoldenEye’s sequel, Tomorrow Never Dies. This specific release date certainly was intentional, as it was meant to drum up interest in the James Bond franchise right before the release of the film, which is ultimately the main text.

The city area in the game (above) is modeled after the city seen in the film GoldenEye.

After the enormous success of GoldenEye 007, other developers and studios wanted to cash in on the potential trend of games based on movies. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, nearly every major Hollywood release had an accompanying game. Most of these games were simply playing as the characters, going through the plot of the main film, such as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. These games added very little to the “lore” of the texts, as they did not particularly offer audiences any new information or context within the films. They mainly served as an epitext to further advertise the main film, as well as make a little extra money for both the developers and studios. However, some games found that playing as the main characters was particularly difficult, so developers added new characters in the games that were not present in the film.

One of these games is Beastly. To provide context, Beastly is a relatively unknown film that grossed under $30 million in the United States during its release in 2011, and received poor critical reviews as well. It was never seen as a potential blockbuster, and yet it still received a tie-in game, as this time was the height of the tie-in video game trend. I actually played this game for the Wii, as the game was just ninety-nine cents at my local GameStop, and I was on the hunt for any kind of new game, even though I had never seen the movie. Unsurprisingly, it was a bad game as well. There was a plot that was similar to the movie, but it was filled with odd minigames throughout the game. From an entertainment perspective, this was certainly a boring, forgettable game.

However, from a transmedial perspective, it is a bit more interesting. In the game, the player does not control any of the main characters, but chooses a personalized character that interacts with the film’s main protagonists. Throughout the game, the player interacts with the main characters through conversations and minigames, but, for the most part, does their own side-plot. This presents both positives and negatives for (the very few) fans of Beastly. On the plus side, the game does not rely exclusively on just rehashing the plot of the movie, so the audience may learn more about the “universe” inside the film. They can roam around the high school, converse with other people about the main characters, and go on side quests that are not featured in the movie. On the other side, however, fans may not enjoy that they cannot control the main characters of the film, making them feel as if they are a passive character in the overall story, which, in a way, defeats the purpose of a video game, where the audience is expected to be the main protagonist in a game.

In Beastly, the player controls a side character, and completes tasks that are related to the plot of the film.

Overall, however, I believe that these types of games are more unique from a transmedial perspective, simply because they allow the audience to explore the world that the film is set in as a neutral observer, and they have the ability to interact with every main character. While these games are typically critically panned, and do not particularly sell well either, they give fans of the franchise a new way to explore and experience a media universe that they are invested in.

In recent years, the trend of creating video games based on Hollywood releases has died down. Sales of these games were rarely strong, and the poor quality of the games sometimes took a negative toll on the larger franchise, the film itself. These games dwindled over the years to the point where, today, if one were to step inside a game store, there would be little to no games based on recently released films on the shelves. I believe that there are positives and negatives to this decline of movie-based video games. I do think it is good that it gives more space in game shops and for developers to create more unique, creative games, rather than being contracted by a studio to simply make a game with an incredibly similar plot of the film. 

However, fans of specific franchises do lose the ability to interact with these properties in different ways. This is particularly the case for more unique films, such as The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. While the Narnia films were moderately well-received from critics and audiences, the Narnia books have been commercially popular for decades. Fans of the books may not have been interested in a theatrical re-telling of the story, but a video game based on the series may have interested fans, as it provided a whole new way to experience Narnia. They could explore the world of Narnia in an open-world format, something that is impossible in books and films. This feeling of exploration is something that is only available in video games, so although the game was likely not a high-budget, highly anticipated release, it still provided a way for fans of the franchise to experience it in a different way. And ultimately, I believe that is the goal of transmedial properties. Although, in this case, it may provide the same story, the ability to explore a world on your own time or choose who to talk to ultimately provides players with a unique way to experience a familiar story. Overall, although these games may not be the highest quality, they still allow fans to experience the franchise in a significantly more interactive way.

While I certainly believe these games have artistic merit, as they are created by teams of artistic designers, coders, and programmers who truly care about the quality of their work, I also believe that these games ultimately act as epitexts as well. While they are not explicit advertisements, part of the reason these games exist is to increase interest and recognizance of the main text. If one were to shop at the new releases section of a game store, they would see a game based on a Hollywood film, and be reminded that that movie is playing in theaters. Additionally, the innate replayability of a game allows audiences to interact with that paratext for a longer period of time, keeping their interest in the franchise for longer as well. And if the studio were ever interested in creating sequels to the film, these video games do an admirable job of keeping fans’ interest during this downtime. Overall, these games certainly act as a form of paratext, as they simply would not exist without the main text’s production, and they specifically act as an epitext, in order to keep fans’ interest in the franchise.

Ultimately, video games based on movies have a long, and mostly low-quality, history. From E.T. to Beastly, games based on movies typically have limited time, limited budget, and limited story options. This is why they are typically poorly received both critically and commercially (with the notable exception of GoldenEye 007), potentially leading to the rarity of these games today. However, their transmedial elements give fans of these franchises a whole new way to experience their favorite universes. Although some games simply retell the plot of the film, and give players little chance to search the universe within the franchise, many games allow players to explore the world in which the game, and thus the media franchise as a whole, is set. This interactivity, which is really only present in video games, allows fans to experience franchises in a unique way. So although these games act as shallow epitexts with low budgets and poor quality, they still allow dedicated fans an interactive way to explore their favorite worlds within franchises, which, I believe, ultimately makes these games successful paratexts.

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