Dramatic Labs' Star Trek: Resurgence lands at an interesting time for the video game industry. There's newfound interest in partnerships between broader entertainment conglomerates and the world of video game development. Popular characters make guest appearances in live platform games, and companies like Ubisoft and MachineGames are making renewed pushes to adapt films like Avatar and the Indiana Jones series to the video game medium.
Star Trek: Resurgence is an echo of a recent attempt at that process. It's an interactive narrative video game produced by a team that's had experience working on interactive narrative video games based on licensed stories at Telltale Games. Dramatic Labs itself was co-founded by Kevin Bruner, who led Telltale during a period where it partnered with HBO, Marvel, DC Comics, and more.
Bruner (who architected Telltale's proprietary tools) found himself dismissed from the company a year before it collapsed in 2018. The technical and creative DNA of Telltale lives on in Resurgence, as players are invited to once again guide a cast of new characters through dramatic stories inspired by the show.
How well will that type of story work in a modern, more ambitious era of Hollywood crossovers? There are still some old tricks in the developers' toolbag, and we learned some of them during a trip to Summer Game Fest Play Days last week.
Bridge crew brouhaha
For the team at Dramatic Labs, the development of Star Trek: Resurgence has been a long time coming. Many Dramatic Labs employees are veterans of Telltale Games, the narrative game studio behind games like Telltale's The Walking Dead and Tales from the Borderlands. As lead writer Dan Martin explained, the Telltale writing team has been using Star Trek as a writing reference point for some time.
"We would talk about the triumvirate of decision-making between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy," Martin said, referencing the three heroes of the original show that began airing on NBC in 1966. He praised the way that the original show balanced the choices each character proposed in solving the various spacefaring problems that crossed their path. "Those shows do such a great job of...making you feel like that they're each right in their own way."
At Telltale, that dynamic of the hothead, the logical thinker, and the captain seeking the best option was a frequent reference point on titles like Telltale's Batman, The Wolf Among Us, and Game of Thrones: A Telltale Series. Now he says it's like "coming full circle" to do a Star Trek game with those choices.
In our preview Resurgence, this dynamic manifested in a series of A, B, and C plots where the crew of the U.S.S. Resolute navigated dueling conflicts: a subspace distortion that is preventing the ship from going to warp speed, and a diplomatic crisis between a pair of non-Federation societies: the Hotari and the Alydians.
The latter conflict embodies much more of the classic Star Trek dynamic Martin described. As Commander Jara Rydek, players are asked to weigh in on an early view of the conflict, which has to do with the Hotari overthrowing their Alydian overseers at a mine containing precious fuel for the galaxy.
A hotheaded Captain Solano makes comments antagonistic of the Hotari's stubbornness, while the guest-starring Ambassador Spock (casually introduced without much fanfare for the returning fan favorite), pleads for caution and compromise.
Meanwhile back on the ship, solving the science fiction anomaly is only half the battle. Petty Officer Carter Diaz is tangled in the political factions between bridge crew officers and the lower decks. Players are given chances to snark back at their superiors, fall in line, or do some in-between verbal jousting. (Silence wasn't a possible choice in our demo).
Including characters like Spock brought us to ask Martin about the team's interaction with new voice actors. Actors who play Star Trek characters often wind up with a strong amount of influence on the character's portrayal, as Leonard Nimoy himself would document in his autobiography.
Martin pointed out that in choice-driven game production, there's a bit more nuance than in the world of television. Whether the character is playable or not, actors need to react to a number of different in-game possibilities that might present dramatically different outcomes. "I think we are guiding them through the various quantum realities that they're inhabiting in one way or another," he mused.
"Quantum realities" was a phrase Martin picked after seeming to realize "permutations" wasn't a broad enough word for a Star Trek script.
Describing the camerawork of a game like Star Trek: Resurgence "cinematic" is an amusing turn of phrase because...much of Star Trek isn't cinematic, it's on TV. And different iterations of Trek have reflected different production methods from the history of television. Modern Trek shows may go for flashier, higher budget production, but '60s and '90s Trek was an exercise in efficiency.
Sets and stages were re-used, with repeating camera setups on hand to manage production costs. Cinematic director Kent Mudle actually made an apt comparison to narrative video games, saying that he tried to avoid "video game angles" you might have seen in older Telltale Games titles.
These shots tend to be procedurally-executed three-quarter angles that can easily flip to a reverse angle between a handful of characters that were "probably set up by a programmer," Mudle said. In other genres, he pointed out that shots that center the gameplay objective or stare down at the floor are "very common."
For Resurgence, Mudle said he was mostly inspired by the cinematography of Star Trek: First Contact, which was the second film featuring The Next Generation cast but the first where they were portrayed with a wider cinematic toolkit. (Star Trek: Generations, the preceding film, was deliberately designed to look closer to the TV show's look). Sweeping shots and long camera pans take precedence over hard camera cuts and simple dialogue shot/reverse shot sequences.
Mudle pointed out that part of his work involves updating the classic "Telltale choices" interface you might remember being consistently applied to that studio's games. In older Telltale games, player choices lived in four boxes aligned toward the bottom of the screen. In Star Trek: Resurgence, Mudle has to frame shots that accommodate the choices living inside the game environment.
"It's more of an art than a science," Mudle said, explaining that scenes come together when the cinematic and narrative teams work together to identify how the design and storytelling objectives of a scene come together.
A license to make games
When we brought up the recent interest in Hollywood game adaptations, Mudle looked somewhat perplexed. Then he reminded us that he's been working in licensed games for over a decade. Telltale's licensing-focused development process meant he's worked on games inspired by Jurassic Park, The Walking Dead, Back to the Future, and even Law & Order.
"That makes sense," he said, when we discussed how investor interest in licensed intellectual property in video games has been a recent trend. "There's so much money in games, of course Hollywood would want to get in on it."
On further reflection, Mudle did call out that various game developers are embracing different approaches to working with Hollywood adaptations, and that it's worth categorizing different methods for making those experiences work. "These games are platforms now, where you can add your IP to [the existing game]," he said as we discussed Microsoft's Top Gun: Maverick promotion in Microsoft Flight Simulator.
"You don't have to make the whole game; making a whole game is much harder."
Mudle said that Dramatic Labs' goal is to make a proper entry in the series it's working in. Here it's Star Trek. When players sit down with Resurgence and have to weigh the fate of entire civilizations with Spock's advice ringing in their ears, it seems the team wants players to engage with the game just as they would one of the recent Trek shows on Paramount Plus.
There's always a small level of cynicism that can creep into your mind when one is writing about licensed games. The process is a slightly more bare-faced exercise in money-making. Paramount makes more money from Star Trek if longtime fans keep paying to come back and see beloved characters and settings.
Star Trek is one of those franchises that (when done well) tries to make the most of that cynicism. I remember watching the Next Generation episode Silicon Avatar, which ends with the unexpected revenge killing of a Crystalline Entity that the crew is attempting to communicate with.
As the episode ended with Ellen Geer wallowing in the horror of her crime, I turned to see most of my mom and brother (neither of whom watched the show with me regularly) gathered behind the couch. Both were silent, sucked in by the surprise death of a character that was originally portrayed as a monster.
If developers like Dramatic Labs are going to make the most out of these licenses, hopefully they do so by swinging for those big, unexpected moments all over again.