Gaming's Brief Love Affair With Prestige Television

By Andy Kelly on at

There's no denying television's prominence in our cultural discourse. What was once seen as the junk food of moving pictures is now considered by many to be as vital and worthy an artform as film. When filmmaker David Lynch revealed his supernatural soap opera Twin Peaks in the 1990s, his involvement was a genuine shock to the system. Now, it's the norm. Acclaimed directors including David Fincher, Spike Lee, Susanne Bier, and Steven Soderbergh have all dabbled in so-called prestige TV in recent years, cementing its reputation as a medium to be reckoned with.

So Hollywood loves television, but what about the games industry? Video games based on TV shows are few and far between, with Telltale's Game of Thrones the most recent high-profile example, part of a wider drift away from the various licensed games that once filled the shelves. But it wasn't always like this. For a brief period in the early 2000s, major publishers including Ubisoft, Sony, Vivendi, and THQ were spending millions on lavish TV spin-offs.

The history of TV games goes back further than that, of course. In 1995 an FMV game based on ill-fated Hulk Hogan vehicle Thunder in Paradise was released for the Philips CD-i. Fox Interactive published an X-Files PC game in 1998, released at the height of the show's popularity, which came on a staggering eight CD-ROMs. And there were countless side-scrolling beat-'em-ups based on Saturday morning cartoons on the SNES and Mega Drive.

But in the first decade of the new millennium, the concept of a TV spin-off was taken to the next level. These games weren't just set in the same universe as the shows they were based on: they were a canonical part of them, with storylines that intertwined with events on the small screen. They often featured most, if not all, of the original cast. And in many cases the creators of the shows were directly involved in the production and writing of the games. An enormous amount of money was sunk into these projects, not to mention the drawn-out negotiations with networks about what the developers could and couldn't do with the IP.

The Sopranos: Road to Respect is one such example of a critically acclaimed TV show making the transition to videogames. Released in 2006, the game is set between seasons 5 and 6 of David Chase's mob masterpiece. You play as Joey LaRocca, the illegitimate son of Sal 'Big Pussy' Bonpensiero, a major character in the first two seasons of the show. The titular 'road to respect' is Joey's rise from street thug to card-carrying member of the DiMeo crime family, and the late, great James Gandolfini puts in a strong performance as the organisation's troubled patriarch, Tony Soprano.

As a fan of the show, the opportunity to hang out with characters like Chris Moltisanti, Paulie Walnuts, and Silvio Dante (all voiced by their respective actors), and explore faithfully recreated locations including the Bada Bing and Satriale's, was a thrill. And that's where the appeal of these spin-offs lies for me. Not in the games themselves, which are average at best, but in the chance to inhabit worlds you usually view passively on a TV screen.

Although not nearly as celebrated as The Sopranos, Lost was, for a while, one of the most talked-about shows on television – and, naturally, it got its own videogame spin-off in the shape of 2008's Lost: Via Domus. Although a lot of the script was written by Ubisoft scribe Kevin Shortt the game's seven chapters, presented as episodes, were plotted by Lost showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. This, along with an original score by composer Michael Giacchino, gives Lost: Via Domus an undeniable authenticity.

Well, at least until some of the characters open their mouths. It's great to hear the likes of Yunjin Kim, Michael Emerson, and M.C. Gainey in Lost: Via Domus, reprising their roles from the show. But major characters including, notably, Jack Shephard and John Locke are voiced by soundalikes, which is pretty distracting. It might seem surprising that even a company with Ubisoft's clout couldn't get the whole cast together but, having heard horror stories about the contract wrangling involved in getting TV and film actors into videogames, I'm not surprised.

In Lost: Via Domus you play as Elliott Maslow, one of the survivors of Flight 815, who was invented for the game and never appears in the show. A recurring theme in TV spin-offs from this era is playing as a character that's on the periphery of the events of the series, so their story doesn't interfere with anything the TV writers have planned. As such you never feel fully involved in the lives of the show's characters; more like a bit-player in their bigger, more exciting story.

However, 2006's 24: The Game bucked the trend by letting you play as hero Jack Bauer, portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland. Penned by Duppy Demetrius, a writer and producer on the series, this was a very decent attempt by Sony to capture the urgency and drama of the show. Although the appearance of UK radio DJ Chris Moyles as a terrorist cell leader is as baffling now as it was back then.

Other spin-offs from this era include Prison Break: The Conspiracy, released in 2010, which saw you reliving the events of the first season from the perspective of a new character. The Shield got the videogame treatment in 2007, with Michael Chiklis playing dirty cop Vic Mackey in a terrifically bad thirdperson brawler / shooter. And there was 2004's The X-Files: Resist or Serve, a Silent Hill-inspired survival horror game featuring the voices of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as Mulder and Scully. Hell, there was even a game based on medical drama ER released in 2005.

Yet despite the vast sums of money spent on these games, and the enduring popularity of the shows, the world has largely forgotten about them. When was the last time you thought about Lost: Via Domus or Prison Break: The Conspiracy? People are still writing think-pieces about The Sopranos today, but The Sopranos: Road to Respect is a distant memory at best. Of course, the main reason for this is that the games simply weren't very good. It's perhaps unfair to compare a landmark television series to a 6/10 videogame, but the sad truth is that these spin-offs had little chance of living up to their source material.

And so the curse of this era of TV games – even the best ones – was that they were not as good as the shows they were based on. And I don't think they were ever meant to be. When Ubisoft released its Lost game, I don't think it wanted to make something that would stand the test of time; it wanted to get a Lost game on the shelves because it was then the hottest show around. That's not to dismiss the craft, love, or thought put into these games, because even the worst can have their moments. But fundamentally these games existed largely, if not entirely, to ride a wave of popularity - and when it subsided, they were nowhere to be seen.