So, due to having read some rather poor Aliens novels, I recently watched Alien and Aliens again. And the big thing that I noticed while watching them was that I remembered playing some very good games that I played based on them when I was younger. And then I thought that movie and book and other tie-ins have a very bad reputation in gaming circles, in that in general if the games aren’t complete and utter crap you’re incredibly lucky. And yet, there are three games I remember based only on the Aliens series that I’d say are, in fact, good, as the Alien 3 game is arguably better than the movie itself was.
So, what is it about these games that made them good? I thought about that for a bit, and it turns out that they don’t have a lot in common, at least in their approach to making the game. Alien was essentially an adventure-style game where you had certain items and weapons and had to get off the Nostromo, with a fairly open-ended way of doing things. It essentially took the essence of the movie, the characters, and some plot points and turned that into a game, but it didn’t really try to follow the movie precisely, and in fact actually tried to not do that. Aliens, on the other hand (at least in the version I played) took the key moments in the game and built individual mini-games out of them, often with radically different mechanics in each section (a bit like the “A View to a Kill” game which I enjoyed for a bit but never finished). Alien 3 dispensed with most of this entirely and turned the movie into a platforming shoot-’em-up which was as far as I can recall only a small part of the movie and so didn’t have a strong relation to it. Three different approaches, three different at least good games.
I think the key here when developing a game based on an existing work is to look at the work and ask yourself one question: how can I make a good game out of this? The easiest way to do that is to figure out what would make people want to, in fact, play in this world, and then give them those experiences. I think that’s what Alien did. Aliens took a second approach, which was to look at each section and see what sort of game would work for that section of movie, and then realize that in gameplay. Alien 3 essentially took the lazy way out and took existing fun gameplay and wrapped the theme around it, which means that for a movie that’s good it generally won’t capture what made the movie good and so will be panned, but with an inferior movie made for a better game by ignoring what didn’t work in the movie. The third approach has the problem, then, that it won’t be making a good game out of the source material, because it’s only shallowly interacting with it. The second approach runs into the issue of having to integrate too many game styles and so making the development more difficult and potentially having one specific section of the game bore some players so they stop playing it. The first approach can be hard to do. Alien naturally lent itself to that sort of game style, but Aliens would have been reduced to a simple FPS in most cases which wouldn’t nearly have been as much fun.
Ultimately, though, at the end of the day the key here is to focus your design on making a good game first, and staying true or reflecting the source material second. That does not mean that you ignore the source material until the end and paste it on later. That means that you understand that the source material is not going to make your game fun or entertaining or liked, and so you have to keep in mind that the game design has to do that for you, while keeping in mind that a lot of people are going to buy your game because of the source material but will stay because they had a blast in it. Too much of the time I think that these games are built on the premise that the source material will drive the sales and so that has to be the focus, leaving an inferior game as the result. And some games can’t even manage that.