GameSpite Journal 9 | "I Feel... Young" : What Video Games can Learn from Star Trek II

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is that rarest of pop-culture gems: A franchise work that transcends its property. Khan isn’t simply a brilliant Star Trek film, it’s exceptional science fiction, period. It’s an excellent film by any standard. Yes, there are bird-like ships flying around in space shooting glowing torpedos at one another over the possession of a magical piece of super-technology, but those elements are window dressing for what is ultimately a universal tale. Look beyond its roots in a kitschy 1960s television show and you’ll find the tale of a man coming to grips with mortality, middle age, a lifetime of reckless decisions, and the fallout of his indiscretions.

The “Star Trek” part of Star Trek II is in some ways almost immaterial to the work; yet in others it’s the very crux of the film. While the movie would be entertaining regardless of the cast, it’s the self-awareness of the venture that elevates it to greatness. Khan is on many levels a reaction to the legacy of Star Trek itself, and the questions its characters ask about their own mortality are as much reflections on the franchise itself as they are the more obvious musings of middle-aged men.

The world had changed in the nearly two decades between Trek’s 1963 television debut and Khan’s 1982 theatrical debut. The idea of men traveling into space, even standing on the moon, was no longer fantasy but scientific reality. Computers had evolved from vast analog monstrosities to compact, digital devices that the average person could own and run on their office desk. America had suffered its first post-WWII defeats militarily (as the U.S. war machine was unable to earn a decisive victory over North Vietnam’s ragtag excuse for an army), politically (Richard Nixon resigned in shame), and economically (the late ’70s were dominated by energy, oil, and meat shortages). The brave feats of discovery dreamed by Trek creator Gene Roddenberry had taken shape in ways he could never have predicted; yet far from transforming the world into a prosperous utopia, they instead seemed to usher in further conflict and hardship.

Meanwhile, Trek itself had helped to birth a new generation of science fiction in the theatres. Stanley Kubrick brought the ’60s to a profound (if occasionally ponderous) conclusion with 2001, a far more nuanced study on the nature of life, evolution, and conflict than anything Trek had managed to generate within the creative and budgetary confines of a mid-century network television show. Several years after that, George Lucas recontextualized his favorite Kurosawa and WWII films into Star Wars’ sci-fi world, convincing in both its presentation and its lived-in feel. This in turn finally convinced Paramount to revive Star Trek in the form of a movie; yet right around the same time that first Trek movie was hitting theatres, Ridley Scott used the same basic premise as The Motion Picture -- first contact with a threatening, unknown life form -- to create Alien, a film as suspenseful as Trek was plodding, as natural as Trek was stilted, as claustrophobic as Trek was antiseptic.

Star Trek II was a reaction to all of these things. It was also a recognition of the fact that by 1982 its cast -- already edging toward the first signs of middle age during the show’s initial run -- had begun to grow much older than is fashionable for stars of action films. To the cast and crew’s credit, Khan doesn’t shy away from the question of whether or not Trek was still relevant; on the contrary, that existential dilemma is at the heart of the movie. By confronting the series’ challenges -- its aging cast and the quaintness of its approach to science fiction and social politics -- Khan was able to state, quite convincingly, that both Star Trek and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise were, in fact, perfectly relevant even in Reagan’s America.

Central to the entire venture is the Enterprise’s captain, James T. Kirk. Of course, as commander of the starship that served as the primary setting for the entire series, Kirk had always been the series’ central figure, but his time in the spotlight was generally split somewhat evenly with his command staff. Khan, however, is first and foremost Kirk’s story.

Kirk -- and his actor, William Shatner -- was essential to Trek’s enduring popularity a decade or more after the network had prematurely cancelled the series. Shatner was a hammy actor, but he possessed undeniable charisma and boyish good looks even in his 30s. He still looked fairly young and fit as recently as The Motion Picture, where he amusingly sported a tight short-sleeve tunic for much of the film in order to show off the impressive physique he’d adopted for his role as television cop T.J. Hooker. Just a few years later, though, age had finally begun to catch up to him -- he was thicker in the middle, a bit wearier in the face. And as the movie begins, he actually isn’t captain of the Enterprise; he’s deskbound, restless, miserable.

In this sense, Khan isn’t entirely different from The Motion Picture. In both films, Kirk enters the story not as commander of the Enterprise but rather as an estranged outsider who pines for his glory days in the captain’s chair. What sets the two films apart is how he goes about reclaiming that position. In The Motion Picture, he strongarms his way into action, pulling rank and experience to usurp leadership from the ship’s young captain, Will Decker, a man Kirk himself had recommended for the post. He’s arrogant and bullying, forcing a field demotion on Decker despite the fact that he’s dangerously ignorant of the workings of the overhauled ship he commanded so many years before. When people express their distaste for The Motion Picture, it’s probably fueled subconsciously by the fact that the lead character is an unlikable ass who only saves the day despite himself.

In many ways, Kirk’s character arc in The Wrath of Khan feels like a reaction to his presentation in The Motion Picture. He’s pensive rather than pompous, brooding over his slide into old age. When he takes command of the Enterprise from Spock, he pushes back his obvious eagerness to sit in the captain’s chair with a noble (if strained) attempt at deference. Perhaps most importantly, when Kirk tries to play things his way, there are consequences.

Kirk’s blustery command style endangers the Enterprise in both films. But where his flinging the ship into a wormhole is quickly brushed away by more competent crew members in The Motion Picture, his choice to leave the ship unprotected in the face of the hijacked Reliant has consequences that span the entire film -- more than that, actually. That one crucial moment has long-ranging repercussions, ultimately crippling the Enterprise and leading to her retirement and self-destruction in the following film, as well as the death of Kirk’s closest friend. It’s a terrible, sloppy mistake, and he’s immediately chagrined over his error.

And yet, in making this mistake, Kirk redeems himself. For the remainder of The Wrath of Khan, Kirk finally begins to demonstrate the sharp, improvisational thinking that made him so legendary. Faced with a cunning opponent, a man genetically engineered to be hyper-intelligent, Kirk parlays his penchant for unconventional thinking and his decades of experience into canny tactics and, ultimately, victory. Unlike the Kirk of The Motion Picture, whose role in the film appeared to be a passive observer to events, the Kirk of Khan takes charge, developing new tactics on the spot and taunting his opponent despite Khan holding the stronger hand in their encounter.

And therein lay the film’s message: Yes, Star Trek was still relevant, just as Kirk was still relevant. Older doesn’t always mean weaker, and just as Kirk’s long years at the helm of the Enterprise gave him the advantage over a ruthless foe, the Trek series’ legacy allowed director Nicholas Meyer to create a tale that could never have been told in a newer franchise like Star Wars. In doing so, the cast and crew and the film itself helped reinforce the notion of sci-fi as something deeper than mere summer escapism for teens. Sure, The Wrath of Khan was a rollicking action movie in the classic World War II style, but its context and subtext lent it a greater meaning. In a way, it helped validate an entire genre.

All of which begs the question: When will video games finally see their Wrath of Khan?

Games aspire -- often quite nakedly and desperately -- to take a bite from Hollywood. To be movies. But I’ve yet to see a single game presented in the Hollywood style that manages to accomplish anything more meaningful than skim the superficial elements of film. The most immersive and impressive games have usually been the ones that eschew cinematic conventions in favor of focusing on their intrinsic game-ness. Wrath of Khan is hardly a titan of fine cinema, but compared to games that attempt to pass themselves off as interactive movies, it’s a towering work of artistry.

Video games have grown quite adept at miming the superficial elements of blockbuster cinema (critically beloved genre that it is), sometimes memorably so. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s famously brief and agonizing sequence, which places players in the role of a dying man stumbling through the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, is powerful stuff -- but everything surrounding it is your typical Michael Bay-esque OOH RAH military nonsense in which you play a superheroic disembodied gun bobbing its way through deadly battlefields that offer only a single path to progress. Grand Theft Auto IV was memorably praised for its “Oscar-worthy” writing, but that speaks more to the loose standards of the Academy Awards than the high quality of Rockstar’s scripting. The GTA games aspire to reach the lofty heights of films like The Godfather, but they fail to give their characters any real nuance or sympathetic traits. The closest the series has ever come to creating a protagonist with any actual depth was with San Andreas’ Carl Johnson, but even his moments of contemplation and angst were badly undermined by missions that saw him killing a man for the terrible crime of being gay or languidly gunning down weekend reservists so he could steal weapons from the U.S. Army. GTAIV’s Niko Bellic was even worse, moping about his determination to get out of the killing business at tiresome length only to indulge in wanton, casual murder during practically every in-game mission.

Gaming’s fractured superficiality comes in large part from the disconnect between the medium’s interactive portions -- which, in almost every big-name title, revolves around violence, destruction, and killing -- and the cinematic aspirations which attempt to humanize the sociopaths you play as. Naughty Dog’s Uncharted is particularly infamous for the lighthearted demeanor of its rumpled hero, Nathan Drake, and the fact that he racks up a body count of hundreds over the course of his adventure. That could never possibly fly in a movie, and not just because of the fussy hand-writing of America’s moral guardians. It’s simply impossible for most people to relate to or care about someone who spends 80% of the movie killing, no matter how affable his grin. On the contrary, the grin just makes it worse, presenting Drake as a wanton psychopath who cracks cheerful jokes as he commits mass murder.

Perhaps an even bigger factor in the medium’s failure to offer up a self-reflective work like Star Trek II, however, is simply the fact that video games lack any real sense of heritage. Few game concepts have the strength to weather the changes and trends that the young medium has experienced over its three decades of commercial viability. The brands of gaming’s earliest years have either faded to irrelevance -- Zork, Wizardry, Ultima -- or else exist as brands that coast entirely on nostalgia and recognition -- Pong, Space Invaders, Pac-Man. And while some of the latter set actually have made some impressive showings over the past few years (notably Space Invaders Extreme and Pac-Man CE), this success has revolved entirely around refreshing play mechanics and presentation rather than any sort of narrative contemplation.

Not that Pac-Man needs a meaningful narrative. In fact, the property is at its best as a simple vehicle for tests of reflexes and skill. Such was the nature of the games that defined the classic arcade. Look at the brands that debuted a few years later, though, and things begin to change. The mid-to-late ’80s offered more depth and substance with series like Super Mario Bros., Dragon Quest, Castlevania, Phantasy Star, Mega Man, and Final Fantasy, all of which remain popular to varying degrees -- and none of which have ever demonstrated any real sense of history beyond the occasional nostalgia trip (see: Final Fantasy IX) or attempt to revitalize itself by casting off the cruft of decades of game evolution (see: Mega Man 9).

But games, for whatever reason, aren’t much for late-life reflection. Maybe it’s because game characters needn’t age; Mario looks younger today than he did in 1981, and in any case his creator (Shigeru Miyamoto) is deeply averse to the concept of intricate narratives in games. Mario’s growth is stunted both in the sense that he’s a timeless creation and in the fact that his designer won’t allow him any more complex character development than being blandly heroic. Similarly, the Dragon Quest series is closely patterned after its NES forebears, and each adventure is set in a different realm or time with a completely different cast; the series is designed to be uncomplicated enough for all ages to enjoy, and as such is shockingly thin on metatextual elements. Even Castlevania, which has long aspired to adhere to a single consistent timeline of events, recently gave up and rebooted itself; the closest the series ever came to any real self-reflection was Dracula’s speech to his son at the end of Symphony of the Night, which was promptly forgotten by every subsequent Castlevania.

So far, gaming’s truest opportunity to come to terms with its maturation came in the Metal Gear Solid series, whose fourth entry -- 2008’s Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots -- aspired to cap a series that had told a continuous, 50-year saga over the course of two real-world decades. Moreover, its hero (Solid Snake, the secret agent who starred in the franchise’s 1987 debut) actually had aged over the years, going into action as a beaten-down old man well aware that he had embarked on his final mission. Disappointingly, though, Metal Gear creator and producer Hideo Kojima poured too much of his energy into choreographing elaborate, drawn-out action scenes and meticulously tying up every single loose end of the narrative to have any energy left over to ensuring the script would express any real heart. As in so many respects, the game began on a promising note, with Snake musing on the evolution of war and whether old soldiers like him had a place on the battlefield, but this narrative thread was eventually lost in a cacophony of posturing, regurgitated content, and dumb plot twists. Self-reflection eventually lost out to self-referentialism.

And yet, gaming isn’t without hope, I think. Works like BioShock aspire to something more intrinsic to the unique attributes of the gaming medium, questioning the morality and even the basic design functionality of games while eschewing the carbon-copy Hollywood approach of bigger, more visible hits. There are also plenty of independently developed games (such as Braid) that tackle the flawed nature of the medium and its heroes, though these works lack their own legacy and as such sometimes come off as the creations of big-headed apprentices decrying the work of the old masters without understanding the heart of the craft they learned through imitation.

No game has yet ended with the same sense of weary optimism as The Wrath of Khan, the sense of loss mingled with hope for all that’s to come as the wounded Enterprise limps its way home. No game has yet concluded with the same sense that a seemingly callow genre or franchise has just stumbled upon its own intrinsic value. But I stress "yet." As they noted in a later Trek film, the future is an undiscovered country.

By Jeremy Parish? | July 26, 2011 | Previous: Demon's Souls | Next: Lighthearted Darkness