In many ways, Netflix’s nostalgia-driven hit Stranger Things is the perfect type of television show to be adapted into a video game. It features a diverse cast that each have different skills and methods to solving puzzles. You’ve got the lovable Steve Harrington with his nail-covered baseball bats, Eleven with her psychic powers, Lucas and his slingshot, and so on. The recently released Stranger Things 3: The Game does a good job of picking up on that and implementing it, but it lacks all of the charm and careful storytelling of the series and that winds up making all of the difference. Note: This article features spoilers for the third season of Stranger Things.
Stranger Things manages to work so well because it doesn’t only dwell on ’80s nostalgia. Sure, it is there and can be laid upon rather thick at times, but it also uses these familiar tropes to tell its own story that is able to work by itself. It is this exact reason that the show has become a hit with children that don’t have a clue about that time period and also the adults that appreciate the throwbacks. Not everyone watching is going to understand the ending sequence with Dustin and his new long-distance girlfriend singing the theme song from The NeverEnding Story but it’s a fun enough scene in and of itself that it doesn’t matter if you remember the 1984 film or not.
Meanwhile, Stranger Things 3: The Game relies wholly on an established connection for the player to get any enjoyment out of it. This isn’t even a nostalgia play, but rather hoping that players care so much about the third season that they pick up the game as well. The game is counting on players to be so enamored with the Stranger Things branding that they’d be willing to play through a game that ruins its story in both terms of structure and character motivation.
The Stranger Things game doesn’t have the big reunion
The third season of Stranger Things is split into four main story arcs. You’ve got Joyce and Hopper trying to figure out what’s going on while also fumbling through their own feelings for each other. Steve and Dustin having the greatest bro hangout session ever that somehow leads to them getting trapped in a Russian base, Nancy and Jonathan struggling to adapt to their jobs at the local newspaper due to casual sexism and jerk bosses discrediting their leads, and then plenty of relationship drama while the rest of the kids attempt to deal with a mind-controlled Billy and the return of the Mind Flayer. All four of these stories provide plenty of intrigue and drama that a whole game could be based upon just going over one of them, and yet the game doesn’t come close to doing a single one justice.
The biggest issue is how the game is structured. Due to it giving each character one ability and then littering levels with boring obstacles that can only be cleared by a specific character (like Dustin being needed to hack into an electronically locked door), all of the characters are always at your disposal. No matter if Eleven just dumped Mike’s ass and is trying to have a girl’s night with Max, the player can pair the two together for the adventure instead. Other times the players are forced to go away from the characters the story is trying to tell in order to progress through a level. Why is Dustin randomly with Nancy and Jonathan as they investigate the case of sick rats? Because the gameplay necessitates it. They sacrificed any semblance of a proper story for boring character specific quick-time events and skills.
Both prior seasons of Stranger Things were quite formulaic and that did not change for the third. Once again, it tied all four of its different subplots together for the finale battle as everything came together and their paths began to intertwine. It gets reused because it works well, and it’s exciting for the viewer to see these separated characters finally interacting with one another. The game could’ve also used this to its advantage as solving some of those character-switching puzzles would have been novel during the later sections, but instead it’s wasted throughout and it becomes yet another section of the game that feels like a chore.
The Stranger Things game plays poorly, even if you liked the show
As mentioned earlier, Stranger Things has become a phenomenon because it doesn’t require an attachment to the ’80s for someone to enjoy it. If the Stranger Things game followed suit and worked well as a standalone product, then it would have avoided a lot of the pitfalls that make it downright annoying if you’re a fan and irredeemable if you aren’t one. When divorced from its poorly handled story implementation, all players have is a retro-looking game with overly simple gameplay and little in terms of charm or fun.
Most of the game is spent fighting enemies that shouldn’t really be in the areas that they are and making show subplots more complicated than they should be. Simply sneaking into a movie turns into the kids battling security guards that all happen to be Russian and killing rats with a bat. The additions make everyone look quite stupid as they act surprised about the secret Russian base despite having fought random Russian dudes for the majority of the game in its stiff combat encounters. It’s a conceit that a video game would have and its “video gameyness” is one of its worst qualities.
Even if you loved Stranger Things 3, there is no reason to pick up the game. It has core structural issues due to its developer adding unnecessary combat exchanges to early portions and not actually following how the season plays out. While Stranger Things might be a celebration of everything great about the ’80s, this game is not a celebration of everything great about Stranger Things. It lacks its charm, the story arcs that make every character feel real, and all we’re left with are the product placements for New Coke.