There was a sentiment in many game communities in the early 00’s that you just couldn’t make a satisfying shooter game set in the universe of Star Trek. The aspirational sociopolitical commentary of the show with its emphasis on intercultural understanding came across to most as bereft of action potential despite its imaginative settings, fierce naval conflict, factional strife, and well-established arsenal of exciting technology.
The struggle to adapt Star Trek‘s more passive nature into a satisfying action romp was perpetually brought out as an argument against even trying to tackle this fool’s errand whenever there was anticipation of another franchise entry that would seemingly disrupt or misinterpret the storytelling strengths established by The Next Generation. Voyager, however, was a rulebreaking contender, well-known for a fire-tempered might-makes-right captain that made the show uniquely ripe for adaption, culminating in finally pulling off the unthinkable: a fun and gritty Star Trek shooter… the only thing is, it wasn’t the first.
Enter the criminally underrated Klingon Honor Guard– a robust shooter on the Unreal engine busting from the seams with charisma and visceral thrills. Where Elite Force relied on the cosmic horror and creature-feature vibes the show was known for, Klingon answered the call with brutality and gore previously unheard of in association with Trek. Instead of phasers, players would arm themselves with a library of ruthless weapons frequently favored by often villainous characters in the shows and otherwise spoken of in hushed tones in lore encyclopedias as tools forbidden by Federation war crime laws.
Despite their relatively morally grey placement in the show, The Klingon Empire’s hostile contempt for the conventions of warfare is intrinsically expressed in the way that even the aesthetic of their weapon designs exude an implicit thirst for blood. Elite Force‘s application of violent force with Federation technology is framed as a distasteful last resort against an enemy that can’t be reasoned with like the Borg. In much the same way a protagonist in a horror film improvises a shovel or a chainsaw into a weapon against a zombie, the Federation is confronted with a dizzying moral panic every time they engage in warfare. Klingon Honor Guard says “Fuck all that”, diving right into the blood and mayhem, gleefully relishing every vaporized monster, violent disintegration, and explosion bursting enemies of the Empire with extreme delight.
It’s strange that despite this seemingly perfect marriage of Star Trek lore and fast-paced gameplay that Klingon Honor Guard would ultimately have a lukewarm reception, running afoul of the fact that the brand identity of Trek as a passive franchise was simply too crystallized in the mind of prospective audiences. Too niche for those unfamiliar with the setting, too gritty for those who were, it was something about the brand dissonance that simply didn’t click for larger audiences. This may, of course, be a result of a lack of effective marketing or simply the misfortune of landing in a year particularly notable for fierce competition among shooters.
It’s particularly strange given the popularity at the time of Deep Space 9, a show known for the liberal application of guerilla militants and plotlines involving high-tension political flashpoints with far more emphasis on morally grey solutions in an unforgiving stellar frontier. Perhaps in another timeline, we could’ve had a more Call Of Duty-esque title involving Bajoran freedom fighters up against the oppressive Cardassian regime.
While Elite Force would go on to have a sequel and be largely held in high regard with its audience, games like Mass Effect would later count the more passive peaceful exploration and diplomatic resolution facets of Star Trek as a core inspiration for the game’s more political, narrative focus. It’s funny that after so many years attempting to emulate this specific premise of Trek, Mass Effect would eventually abandon this pretext in favor of a more adrenaline-filled juvenile plotline involving a looming galactic threat placed firmly in the trope territory of Star Wars.
Ironically, Federation poster-boy Jean Luc Picard, now the star of his own show, would come to pull influence from Mass Effect plot points and atmosphere in order to stay relevant with a modern audience. World-ending critters from the beyond, menacing ancient robots… stop us if this sounds familiar. In a sense things have come full circle, where games once had to find a way to meaningfully transport Star Trek‘s atmosphere into an engaging vessel for action, now contemporary Trek entries struggle with the inverse.
The under-appreciated Klingon Honor Guard and cherished cult classic Elite Force now hold a place in the hearts of both retro shooter enthusiasts and Star Trek fans. There is a lesson to be had here in knowing how to adapt a property in a way that captures the spirit of the source material, and how not to lose your footing as a deeply beloved franchise in the hearts of your dedicated audience.
May The Prosperity be with you, or whatever. Qapla!
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice