Why Star Trek deserves a Telltale-style narrative game

By Spencer Furniss

During the two and a half months I spent at home through this pandemic, I came to learn two things about myself. First, I genuinely love video games that can make a game work with minimal conflict. Second, that I love Star Trek: The Next Generation. 

I’ve had a lot of exposure to Star Trek throughout my lifetime, but I never truly understood what the franchise was actually about until now. Thinking back on it, I had always thought it was a campy franchise that was about fighting a new alien every episode.

I actually like the reboot movies quite a bit, but I never really gave the television series a chance due to all of the parodies I had encountered over my lifetime. I mean, how many times have you seen William Shatner or Leonard Nimoy guest star in a show just to make jokes on the hammy nature of Star Trek: The Original Series?

But right now, I’m not here to talk about The Original Series, and I’m not here to talk about parodies. I am also not going to write about Star Trek games in depth. I just want to put out my dream of the perfect Star Trek game into the world, in the hopes that one day it finds its way into development.

“I am Jean Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise.”

Star Trek: The Next Generation has possibly become my favorite television show. Wesley Crusher (played by Wil Wheaton) aside, the characters are all fully realized, continue to grow through every season, and have qualities you come to love. 

Captain Picard goes from having a personality that can be best described as “yelling” in the first few episodes. He turns into a humble man in power who extends respect to all of those around him, bringing them up to their highest potential by being a genuinely great captain and friend. William Riker is a badass who can hold his own in any conflict that comes his way, but would probably prefer to play some trombone and lay down with some curvy alien female. Deanna Troi, the non-rotation female character of the cast, is more than the sex symbol many fans saw in her at first. She is one of the few crew-members who can stand up and make even Picard realize that he’s going about something wrong or simply needs to relax.

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Every episode I watched continued to show me that all of my preconceptions were wrong. From what I had seen in the JJ Abrams movies, I thought that the series was just a cheesier version of Star Wars, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, The Next Generation showed me exactly why I’ve come to strongly dislike Star Wars.

Where Star Wars is set in a bleak, constantly warring galaxy far far away, TNG is set in an only slightly distant future where we’ve finally achieved moving past war, famine, racism, poverty, and so much more. The conflict in TNG generally stems from not understanding something or someone, and the episodes spend their time taking a deep look into the differences people have and how we might come to an understanding. Yes, there are still armed conflicts, but rather than having drama placed solely on our heroes being killed or killing the enemy, TNG makes a point that we don’t always need to kill each other to settle our conflicts. 

With all of that said, I also came to realize that Star Trek games have rarely been decent. While playing through The Wolf Among Us again I thought that this would be an absolutely perfect formula for The Next Generation.

Engage

An episode of The Next Generation follows a basic structure. The crew of the USS Enterprise faces a challenge, a wrench is thrown into the works, and then they figure the most peaceful resolution possible. This isn’t to say that there aren’t episodes where violence is the only answer. There are enemies in the universe like the Borg, who have the sole purpose of bringing other species into their hivemind, cyborg collective, but the crew of the Enterprise comes to learn that even they can be shown the importance of independence.

Playing through Telltale games while simultaneously watching TNG, I realized that the way I played through these games was the exact same way an episode of TNG progressed. 

In fact, two episodes of TNG play out similarly to a season of a Telltale game. The main conflict may ramp up throughout, but you still have sequences to work through that may not matter in any way more than just making you feel a certain way or learn more about the characters involved. 

Because of this, when I would see the camera in TNG focus on Picard’s face in deep thought, I started to imagine the choice menu pop up with decisions on how he should progress through a conversation with a possible enemy. Could it be that the situation you were in was just a misunderstanding that could be solved by asking questions? Could a crew member of the ship speak up courageously due to the way you treated them earlier? Or perhaps the only answer is to raise the shields and fire photon torpedoes?

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When it comes to choice, Telltale-style games generally end up taking you down a nearly singular path with only the illusion of actual choice.  Now that the company has gone under, I can only hope that the next company to take up the narrative game mantle will take the player’s choice into account. 

TNG is a series where choices always have consequences, whether you can foresee them or not. I think it would be so exciting to experience a Star Trek journey from the bridge of the ship where the decisions you make actually matter. Imagining a Star Trek game that changes drastically depending on your decisions could be incredible for the replayability of the narrative game genre. 

As an example, say early into a journey to check on a human colony, you come across a ship that you and your crew have never seen before. It looks like it could be hostile, so you are given the choice to:

  1. Engage and fire on the ship
  2. Try to talk to those aboard 
  3. Simply continue on to your destination

If this were to play out like a normal TellTale game, your choice would either not really matter or only serve to hurt your character later (looking at you, every character in the Walking Dead who betrayed Clementine, ya assholes). But in the game I dream of for TNG, every choice would matter and send you down a different road. 

If you engage and try to destroy the ship, you could be attacked later on by the allies of the ship you blew up, possibly ruining the colony you were sent to check on. If you try to hail the ship, maybe you are given a task to help an alien species who needs your assistance more than the colonists, taking you down an entirely different story path than you expected. Finally, if you choose to just keep flying off towards your mission, you land on the colonized planet and have to work through a conflict there, but this time you aren’t interrupted by another grouping raining fire on the planet in revenge.

Options 2 and 3 might not sound as action-packed as option 1, but it’s important to remember that armed conflict isn’t the point of Star Trek. It is often shown that interpersonal conflict is much more difficult than just blowing something up. Characters will struggle and fight with what they perceive, but the end result is always worth it. That’s why options 2 and 3 will always sound better to me than just violence.

However, that also brings up what I think will be the hardest part of creating a true TNG narrative based game – the writing and acting.

The success of games and television depend on writing and acting. You could have a beautifully written show, but have it fall apart due to poor acting. The same is true with great actors not being able to make up for bad writing. The acting and writing in TNG is generally excellent, with some of the best and most important episodes of television coming from this series. 

Because of this, inherent to the success of a game based on this franchise, it would be very important to bring together much of the old cast and crew to reprise their roles. Luckily, many of them have come together recently for the new Star Trek series, Picard, which is a sequel series of sorts to TNG. Knowing that many of the cast has seen each other recently (including a heartwarming moment between Patrick Stewart and Whoopi Goldberg on The View), I have some hope that this could be done.

As for the writing, there were more than 100 writers that worked on TNG. I would hope that any company that decided to work on the franchise would seek out a writer (or five) of the show to help work through a script. In fact, without someone who has worked on the show or someone who has truly devoted themselves to their love of the franchise, I don’t think that a game like this could work. 

Star Trek is not Star Wars, it is not the Walking Dead, and it is not Batman. Like I’ve iterated a few times now, it is not a series with drama derived from pure violence and rarely ever has a physical villain. Rather, the drama comes from the moments and struggles between characters. That’s why hiring a writer from the show who knows how to fully realize these characters is so important.

The Final Frontier

I know that Star Trek isn’t the most-watched franchise in the world, but it is something I feel that, if given this treatment, a new fan base could be created. In fact, it was The Wolf Among Us that brought me into reading over 100 issues of Fables, which I consider one of the best comics that I’ve ever read.

That just goes to show how important first impressions are. I feel like video games have the ability to tell a story in such a way that other media just will never be able to reach, doubly so for narrative driven games. 

While you are being taken through a (hopefully) well-crafted story, you are given the chance to alter the narrative based on your decisions in the moment, and that allows you to personally feel the consequences of those actions alongside the characters. 

It is a testament to TNG’s acting and writing that I often find myself smiling and getting excited with characters through their successes, or getting nervous and afraid for the same characters when everything is falling apart. It was the same type of writing and acting in the Walking Dead Season 1 that had me smiling with Lee and Clementine when they finally had some time to talk and learn about each other, and had me absolutely sobbing when you lose control of Lee and play as Clementine for the last few minutes of the game. 

If that level of craftsmanship could come together with more meaningful options throughout, I feel like a Star Trek game could become the greatest Telltale-style game ever created, because simply put, there is not a single franchise better suited for or more deserving of it.

Live long and prosper, and hopefully one day we’ll find ourselves together amongst the stars.

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