There are a lot of things about the Indiana Jones movies that make for good video game fodder: a hero who occasionally cracks wise, fascinating historical settings, Nazis and other evildoers to fight, and big action set pieces in which the heroic Indy takes on a tank or escapes ancient traps. Indiana Jones translates so well into video game form that a few other franchises, most notably Uncharted and Tomb Raider, have already more or less lifted key elements from the iconic movies.
That leaves the upcoming Indiana Jones title from current Wolfenstein developer MachineGames facing an uphill battle. One of its bigger challenges is distinguishing itself from the games that have already riffed on some of the essential elements of the Indiana Jones formula. Nathan Drake and Lara Croft are archaeological killing machines and treasure hunters, gunning down whole armies of mercenaries as they fight to keep lost cities and powerful relics out of the hands of bad guys. Some online reactions have already suggested any Indiana Jones game might wind up being an “Uncharted clone” on account of the ideas being so similar.
So how do you make an Indiana Jones game that doesn’t feel like it’s borrowing from the games that have borrowed from Indiana Jones? It might actually not be as difficult as it sounds, at least conceptually. The key is creating a game that is more like the movies than slotting the franchise into the Indiana Jones-shaped framework set out by the video games it inspired.
1. Indiana Jones Can’t Be A One-Man Army
First and foremost, you can put a serious amount of distance between Indy and his competitors by thinking about how Indy engages with his enemies. Yes, he carries a gun and a whip and does a fair amount of fistfighting in any given Indiana Jones movie. But where Nate Drake and Lara Croft sneak around breaking necks, shooting rockets at guys carrying miniguns and swinging around battlefields, Indy rarely does those things. He gets into brief fights with random dudes in most of his adventures, and he always gets his ass kicked. I’d say one of the most essential parts of Indy’s character is that he can take a punch as well as give one, but in most fights he’s on his back foot.
A lot of Indy’s adventures, particularly in the first three movies, find him avoiding conflict in situations where he’s vastly outgunned. If you translated Raiders of the Lost Ark into a video game, it would mostly focus on stealth. When Indy does get into fights, they’re often against huge guys who handily beat the hell out of him, and he only just barely makes it through. In most of his movies, Indy spends his time not fighting bad guys, but fleeing from them in dramatic, intense chases.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade has probably the most video game-y combat of any of the films, as he fights Nazis on several occasions, even jumping up on the back of a tank to punch a whole bunch of them. This is the most protracted of Indy’s fights, but what works about it is not that Jones beats up a bunch of guys–it’s that he barely beats up a bunch of guys. Chaos is mostly on Jones’s side, and he spends half that fight trying to save his father from getting pulled under the tank treads and getting absolutely walloped for it.
So don’t give Indiana Jones a Tommy gun and send him against hordes of Nazis, like you might Nathan Drake. An Indiana Jones game should not be mostly a shooter, or even a brawler, and when it does throw its hero into combat, the fights should be intense, protracted, and difficult to win (something MachineGames is admittedly great at in Wolfenstein). Rather than putting Indy up against waves of soldiers, the game would do well to make whatever enemies it includes fewer, but tougher. Jones can handle himself in a fight, but he largely wins through sheer force of will, good luck, and one other key element: intelligence.
2. Indiana Jones Mostly Survives By Being Clever
A lot of Indy’s adventures see him running for his life, outnumbered and outgunned. These are some of the best moments in the Indiana Jones movies because they’re high-stakes and don’t rely on Jones being able to punch good, but on him being a brilliant improviser.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a great template for this. Most of the set pieces in that movie see Jones and his father, Henry Jones Sr., fleeing Nazis in spectacular fashion. One escape sees Indy and Henry jumping onto a motorcycle and its sidecar, and Indy dispatches the motorcyclists that follow not by shooting or whipping them, but with items from the environment, like a well-placed flagpole in a motorcycle’s wheels. Back during the scene on the aforementioned tank, Indy defeats a tank gunner by jamming the barrel of his cannon with a rock. And in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jones distracts a hulking Nazi he’s fighting long enough for an airplane propeller to do the dirty work; in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, when Jones tries to fight two towering hulks, he handles a similarly huge opponent by tangling him up in a rock-crushing conveyor belt.
Mostly, Indy as a character is defined by how he pays attention to everything around him and uses anything at hand in clever ways to outsmart his opponents. That’s what an Indiana Jones game should be about–outthinking enemies, not out-headshotting them or even out-punching them.
3. Indiana Jones Must Be A Massive, Respectful History Nerd
Both the Uncharted and Tomb Raider franchises have taken heat over the years for glorifying the idea of, well, raiding tombs–invading the lands and cultures of other peoples to effectively rip them off. Indiana Jones does his fair share of exploring catacombs and wandering through ancient temples, but when he’s at his best, he’s not hunting treasure.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in particular, has a whole host of problems with colonialism and racism, to be sure. A new game has a chance to improve on those fronts in ways the movies have fallen short, though, by further building on some of the best aspects of Indy’s character in the films. Especially as he develops over the course of The Temple of Doom, Indy shows respect for other people and cultures after winding up in India. He’s pulled into adventure when he finds out that the children of a village have been kidnapped by a nearby cult. Arguably, his arc in that movie comes down to how he describes the Sankara stones to Short Round as offering the potential “fortune and glory.” While he might have been after those things at the start of the film, by the end, he lets two of the powerful stones fall into the river in order to defeat High Priest Mola Ram, and he leaves the final stone with the villagers.
So if you’re going to do an Indiana Jones story, you should lean into the nerdiness and respect he brings to his job. He’s an archaeologist first and foremost, and some of his best moments are when he becomes visibly giddy at the possibility of discovery. Jones spends most of his time not raiding tombs, but rescuing artifacts from the hands of evil-doers.
There’s a whole lot of great material to pull from in the Indiana Jones movies that, while superficially similar to the Uncharted and Tomb Raider series, offer ways to differentiate a Jones adventure. Mostly, though, it comes down to how Jones interacts with the world–sometimes with his whip and his fists, but mostly with his brain. That doesn’t mean taking breaks from shooting guys to solve centuries-old puzzles; it means finding ways to make the player feel like their greatest asset is their brain, as Indy’s arguably is, whether he’s avoiding deadly traps or facing insurmountable odds.
In other words, make an Indiana Jones game that’s true to Indy’s character, and it won’t feel like a clone of anything–even the games Indiana Jones himself has inspired.