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Game On: Adventure games are stale, and ‘Indiana Jones’ can save them

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 14, 2021

The “Indiana Jones” game teaser released Tuesday depicts the cluttered desk of the iconic fictional archaeologist whose hand reaches for his trademark fedora and whip before cutting to black.  (Bethesda Softworks)
The “Indiana Jones” game teaser released Tuesday depicts the cluttered desk of the iconic fictional archaeologist whose hand reaches for his trademark fedora and whip before cutting to black. (Bethesda Softworks)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

Once a bastion of inspiration and imagination, the action/adventure genre in video games has become complacent over the years. I won’t lie and tell you the annual “Assassin’s Creed” releases are bad or that the dramatic set pieces of the “Uncharted” series aren’t impressive. But even avid fans of the genre will admit the games have become increasingly formulaic, relying on initial shock value more than engaging gameplay.

“Assassin’s Creed” shook the genre – and arguably the entire gaming industry – to its core in 2007, and it cemented its lasting impact with an even more polished and stylish sequel in 2009. It encompassed all the usual tropes such as historical fiction, treasure hunts, conspiracies, ancient artifacts and exploration while adding stealth and postmodernism to the mix.

It was unique until it was done to death: There are 12 mainline titles in the franchise today, not including a handful of spinoffs. And while almost every “Assassin’s Creed” is incredibly polished and visually stunning, they feel terribly predictable because Ubisoft stopped innovating after the fourth installment. “Uncharted” and the rebooted “Tomb Raider” are fun, but their linear storytelling and gameplay leave ironically little room to actually explore.

The answer to the action/adventure genre’s complacency may have just stepped up to the plate: On Tuesday, publisher Bethesda Softworks teased the development of an “Indiana Jones” game, the first video game adaptation of the iconic adventurer since 2009. It’s being developed by Machine Games in collaboration with Lucasfilm Games, the former of which is best-known for its work with the “Wolfenstein” series.

It’s an interesting fit: Canonically, Indiana Jones is no stranger to shooting Nazis, but he hardly does so on the scale presented in the first-person shooter saga “Wolfenstein.” The teaser leaves a lot to speculation: It depicts the cluttered desk of the world’s favorite fictional archaeologist whose hand reaches for his trademark fedora and whip before cutting to black.

But while teasers never show real gameplay, they often set a clear tone, and this one sets the stage for something grandiose and epic. From there, of course, the gaming community is left to speculate and channel much of the hype. The predominant theory is that we should expect a bombastic adventure in a similar vein to the “Uncharted” series, and while that’s a reasonable guess, I’m hoping for something more groundbreaking.

See, Lara Croft of “Tomb Raider” and Nathan Drake of “Uncharted” were created in 1996 and 2007, respectively, as homages to Indiana Jones – all three are confident, learned treasure hunters who happen to also be good in a fist fight. Nathan Drake received a proper sendoff with the aptly named “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End,” and while Lara Croft’s redesign was mostly for the best, she doesn’t exude the same confidence and charm she used to.

Thus, the stage is set for Indiana Jones to make a triumphant return and break new ground in the action/adventure genre, retaking his place as the proper king of the roguish archaeologist archetype. There’s only so many ways to reskin a linear storyline with handfuls of nail-biting QuickTime events. These games can be fun on the first playthrough but immediately lose much of their charm once you notice how little your button inputs actually affect the narrative.

It’s difficult to feel like you’re embarking on a grand adventure when you can’t stray very far off the beaten path, and, for that reason, I hope the impending Indiana Jones game is set in something more akin to an open world. Being the publisher of “Fallout” and “The Elder Scrolls,” Bethesda is well-known for publishing plenty of open-world games, and with Todd Howard at the helm as executive producer, that might be exactly what we get.

It’s rather poetic that Bethesda is publishing an Indiana Jones game after it knowingly placed a reference to his ventures in “Fallout: New Vegas.” In that title, players can find the archaeologist’s skeletal remains, fedora and all, inside a lead fridge just outside a nuclear testing site in a clear nod to a rather memorable scene in the otherwise mediocre “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

At the very least, Bethesda is no stranger to the iconic and legendary Indiana Jones. Countless questions remain – will Harrison Ford voice his character? What all can you do with his whip? However it all shakes out, I’m optimistic.

The product is in the safe hands of competent developers and publishers, with Lucasfilm Games aiding development likely to ensure a certain degree of loyalty to the source material.

It’s the perfect time for a fresh new action/adventure title, and Indie’s just the archaeologist for the job.

Riordan Zentler can be reached at riordanzentler@gmail.com.

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