Early in its development, Ghostbusters was about Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi traveling through time and multiple dimensions, fighting not just ghosts but also demons and other monsters. The way it was written and planned, the film would have been weird as hell, a far cry from the movie that was ultimately made. And Ghostbusters continued to evolve on the set—in fact, it works in large part because of the cast’s chemistry and improvisational talent. Glorious bits like Bill Murray yanking a tablecloth in the Sedgwick Hotel ballroom and yelling, “The flowers are still standing!” were entirely improvised on set. Spontaneity is what made Ghostbusters magic, and the absence of spontaneity was the ultimate downfall of the 2009 adaptation Ghostbusters: The Video Game.
Since the actors had aged considerably since their heyday—the game’s development started 23 years after the movie came out—a game seemed like the best possible approach for a proverbial Ghostbusters 3. The developer, Terminal Reality almost got the entire principal cast back together, including Bill Murray, who is notoriously contemptuous of anyone who wanted to work on the series again. (The only notable absence was Rick Moranis, whose character, Louis Tully, was a vital dope in the movie’s comedic mix.)
The script, which was reworked by Aykroyd and Harold Ramis to strike the right tone, even followed the golden rule of all trilogies with a maligned middle chapter: It returned to the themes and settings of the beloved first entry. The Ghostbusters team is once again forced to work with Walter Peck, an Environmental Protection Agency jerkwad, to fight off the worshippers of evil Babylonian gods. Casting the player as one of the classic ’busters would effectively remove that character from the comedy equation—Ray couldn’t be a bumbling klutz, for instance, if you were trying to steer him perfectly through every level—so you play as a voiceless rookie. That practical choice works out well, as it leaves the familiar characters to be themselves while still letting you play around with the Ghostbusters’ gadgets.
The characterization is complemented by great art direction. The game’s new ghosts, like a bulbous sea captain covered with barnacles, are expertly rendered, as are the team’s famous tools of the trade, like Proton Packs and the PK-E Meter. Those gizmos feel right at home as video game toys. Terminal Reality thought of everything. Nothing was out of place.
And that’s the problem. Ghostbusters: The Video Game is a video game, and a story-based video game at that. All of it needed to be pre-planned and accounted for ahead of time. Every time you press a button to capture a ghost, it has to do the same thing. On every playthrough, Ray Stantz needs to spout the same line when you go into the firehouse basement for the first time. The rules of story-centric games, which typically have a rigid structure so the player can move the plot along on its predetermined path, are in direct opposition to the chaos that produces great filmed comedy. There are no multiple takes in video game cutscenes and no opportunity for the “actors” to experiment. Since a game like this relies on repetition until you get things right, the lack of improvisation is comedy killer. In the case of Ghostbusters, you’ll go into a library storage room, try to capture a ghost, die, and do it again until you succeed. The jokes are rarely funny a second time, let alone the third or fourth.
The dialogue is especially problematic in Ghostbusters: The Video Game because there was no opportunity to build chemistry between the actors. Murray was excited about playing the character again—so excited that he was caught singing the theme song on the street after recording lines—but he was delivering his lines in a vacuum, separated from Ramis, Aykroyd, and Ernie Hudson. With no live back-and-forth, every line in the game sounds inhuman. How could Terminal Reality capture a moment like, “The flowers are still standing!” when all of Murray’s dialogue was read in one studio and all of Ramis’ in another studio on the other side of the country? And none of the actors could alter what happens in a given moment, lest the programmers be forced to scrap a painstakingly programmed level or cutscene. It’s not that the script was especially bad—it just couldn’t meet its potential as produced.
A Ghostbusters video game was and is a great idea. Where Terminal Reality and everyone else involved dropped the ball was in thinking that a Ghostbusters game could be made following the same rules as the movie. Acerbic dialogue, weird characters, and the intrusion of the fantastic into the mundane are great for a motion picture, but an action game like Ghostbusters: The Video Game works differently. The player’s interaction with the environment has to produce the bulk of the comedy while dialogue acts as a supplement. Take Tim Schafer’s cult classic Psychonauts. With levels like Lungfishopolis, Psychonauts casts the player as a Godzilla stand-in who decimates a city full of sentient lungfish. Lungfishopolis draws on the absurdity of the situation and allows it to speak for itself. That’s the template that Ghostbusters: The Video Game needed to emulate.
If Aykroyd wants to try again to make Ghostbusters 3—and by all accounts, he wants to—there’s still potential in video games. A story-centric and less action-packed adventure in the vein of Telltale’s The Walking Deadand The Wolf Among Us could certainly work better than the more traditional Ghostbusters: The Video Game. Even then, though, those moments of spontaneity like Murray’s “The flowers are still standing!” are unlikely to ever happen. Unless you built a game after getting all of the principal actors in a room together—letting them play off one another and creating comedy on the fly—that improvisational fire that burned inside Ghostbusters is unattainable. And until someone takes that step to make a game work around talented performers rather than the other way around, Ghostbusters: The Video Game remains a cautionary tale.