In October 2015, I was awarded a Research Fellowship from The Strong. I had access to the library, the archives, the museum itself, and the seemingly endless rows of shelves full of playthings of the past. Both my 14-year-old self and my current 30-something researcher self were in a happy place. My job is to study video games and teach about them—not a bad gig at all, I must admit—and I have been interested in the history and theory of digital and non-digital play for some time. Since I have a background in film history, I find myself particularly drawn to games that have something to do with cinema. At The Strong, I started looking into early film-to-game adaptations—tie-in games developed between 1982 and 1994—and, to the archivists and librarians, I immediately became the guy playing bad games on a CRT television.
Sure, the arcade tie-in for Star Wars developed by Atari in 1983 is a masterpiece and Batman Returns on the SNES is an unsung brawler classic, but most of the tie-ins of the time are not all that great. They might bring up good memories from your childhood, but I’ve gone through most of them and I can assure you, I cannot see how being stuck with Total Recall for the NES may count as a good time. If you think I am being mean, ask the Electronic Gaming Monthly reviewer who defined it as “a bad dream, with hardly any fun to be found.”
Why study these unaccomplished, disappointing, and often unfinished games then? I did it for two reasons. One: the history of video games that we all know is really, for the most part, a history of good video games, a canon of authors and masterpieces, of beloved classics and hidden gems. I was interested in the other histories that could be found in The Strong’s collection—histories of insane deadlines and questionable licensing deals, histories of toy companies such as LJN testing the waters of the video game market with a series of quirky ideas for movie tie-ins, histories of game designers trying to solve the issue of representing Arnold Schwarzenegger in 8-bit. Two: the history of film-to-game adaptations is also a history of media. In the late 1970s and early 1980s new consumer technologies such as the VCR promised to bring cinema to the television screen, allowing viewers to own movies and watch them in their living rooms at their convenience. Cinema, an experience that had always been remote and public, was becoming familiar, even personal. Film tie-ins contributed to this domestication, made cinema icons all the more accessible and allowed players to interact with the grandiose set-pieces of the Hollywood blockbusters of the 1980s.
For these reasons and many others (for example, did you know that there’s a game based on The Three Stooges?) I find early tie-ins fascinating and worthy of attention. This mixed bag of largely mediocre games, despised by players and derided by critics, may be one of the pieces of the complex puzzle of video game and media history that is still missing. And my three weeks at The Strong allowed me to delve into that missing history and begin rounding out one of the many stories of video games.