Namely, they are awful.
With rushed, forced dialogue, underdeveloped levels, basic graphics and riddled with glitches, film tie-ins are undoubtedly desperate attempts to cash in on new releases or already money-laden franchises like Harry Potter or Star Wars.
First off, I'm not even going to mention the Atari 2600's infamous E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial game... despite nearly crippling the games industry back in the 80's and having whole land-fill sites dedicated to unwanted cartridges, E.T. scares me, so we'll just ignore the bug-eyed freak.
Movie tie-ins are at best mediocre; they lack decent graphics, suffer from poor voice acting and are unable to deviate from the the film's central plot.
So what we end up with is a hideous game that follows a very simple premise, trying to replicate as much of the on-screen story and action as possible, repeating every catchy line from the film. Anyone who buys the game has probably already seen the film, playing through a rehashed version simply isn't appealing! What video game tie-ins really need is to capture the spirit of the film, honour the characters and find a decent balance between what the fans expect and what will surprise them.
While I appreciate it must be hard for game developers, being restricted by an already complete body of work, it seems bizarre that every existing example suffers severely from basic controls, repetitive objectives and formulaic narratives. I understand game designers, animators and writers have near impossible deadlines, coinciding with the film's release date, but this seems a pretty meagre excuse for churning out an over-priced, wholly flawed, second rate attempt. Is it that they aren't given enough creative freedom or are they simply producing inferior titles solely for financial reasons?
Unfortunately, the industry has slipped into a shockingly bad habit and due to certain film's successes, unsuspecting parents and anyone with too much disposable income, these half-baked titles actually sell rather well. As such, it seems almost acceptable to create a sub-par release solely because nobody knows how to do it differently.
Ultimately, all film-based titles are restricted by the confines of their original medium. What works brilliantly in film doesn't necessarily translate well into a video game. That said, many games utilise techniques from the film industry incredibly well. Take L.A.Noire for example, cinematic cut scenes, phenomenal voice and facial acting and lots of borrowed inspiration. On top of that, the video game environment allows the player to control the pace and in doing so, creates something deep, complex and thoroughly engaging - something films don't have time to establish.
The chance to play as our favourite characters is probably the main reason these titles sell so well. But despite drawing on characters which may have been adapted from multiple mediums, with a wealth of development and backstory to utilise, they fall flat on their face. For example, I have friends that absolutely adore the Harry Potter franchise - the books, the films, the soundtracks, the merchandise - but they thoroughly dislike the games. Why? Because, the characters in the game fail to meet their expectations. The dialogue is poorly written, often irritating and you genuinely don't feel as though you're playing as Harry, rather a cheap imitation that sort of resembles him if you cover your ears, squint and tilt your head left a bit.
Recently, George Miller, the director of Mad Max and owner of KMM Studios (which basically cannibalised Team Bondi), made comments about the similaraties in the skillset of film and game developers:
People can move from a game to a movie and be completely at home, because it's the same skills, process - the same game.My reaction?
Well, I haven't laughed like that in quite some time; thank you, Mr. Miller, how delightfully naive of you. That's like suggesting that a veterinary physian and a brain surgeon can do the same job because they both have a scalpel and a PhD. Granted, they may understand what the other does respectively but ultimately if a surgeon is plonked in front of a bleeding cow, I doubt he'd know where to start... equally, er, trying to think of something funny about brain surgery and udders. I got nothing but you get the idea.
Despite all my complaints, there is one franchise that seems to get it right - probably because they're so tongue-in-cheek - Lego. With an array of titles, with just the right balance of imaginative game play and amusing graphics, the Lego games feel like a subtle nod to the fanbase.
Lego: Star Wars was the first Lego title I sampled and it was instantly apparent, this was going to be drastically different from other tie-ins.
It captured the fun and creativity of Lego and the familiarity of the Star Wars universe; I loved hearing the cantina music, unlocking new characters and experiencing the various unique level designs. The Lego games are themselves a franchise - which in turn takes other successful franchises and somehow transforms them into delightfully enjoyable and engaging challenges.
Ultimately, the thing that makes these games good is that they don't take themselves too seriously. This method doesn't and wouldn't work for all film tie-ins but Lego know where to draw the line... or lay their bricks. Whatever.
However, the last two Batman games from Rocksteady have taken the vast mythology of a well-loved franchise and created stunning gaming experiences, without resorting to cheesy comedy or parody.
A complete amalgamation of the comics, the animated series and the films, Rocksteady borrowed aspects from each and made it their own. Arkham Asylum and Arkham City don't necessarily need to be canon but they have done what others claim to be impossible - allowing the player to fully immerse themselves in a well-known figure and in essence act, think and feel like Batman. At the same time, they have produced a unique interpretation, independent of the other mediums, without messing it around too much and annoying the fans. Playing these games, you can see the time, effort and research put in - it's well written, the graphics are fluid and the gameplay is incredibly fun: you play as the God Damn Batman for crying out loud! But then again, they're not constricted by a deadline, there was no need to get this out in time for The Dark Knight or The Dark Knight Rises, they simply released it when it was ready - and it really paid off.
Perhaps, I'm judging these tie-ins a little too harshly.
Maybe on the horizon is an amazing game based on a film. A few years back I would have told you that the phrase "good comic book film" is an oxymoron but with existing movies like those mentioned above and an upcoming Avengers flick directed by the god that is Joss Whedon, I now know my past self to be totally wrong.
With any luck I'm wrong about film tie-in games too, I really do want to enjoy a well-made, wholly thought out, decent video game based on a movie.
I like films.
I like games.
Is it too much to ask for a hybrid? As I write this, my film critic boyfriend is adament that he will direct an adaptation of BioShock, sick of so many wasted opportunities.
So, who knows? An awesome BioShock film and a badass Avengers game... sounds like a bright future to me.
[Edit - when I originally wrote this article for Forces of Geek I had a comment from someone reminding me of one video game tie-in that is actually worth playing, I was horrified I'd forgotton about it because Enter The Matrix was a thoroughly enjoyable game and was a damn good extension to the franchise!]