The rise and fall of interactive movies

15th Feb 2009 | 11:00

The rise and fall of interactive movies

When games and movies come together, the result ain't good

Where it all began

Like many things, it began with a dream.

The dream was Hollywood; of a world where videogames and their creators would finally take their rightful place in mainstream entertainment, with actors instead of sprites, and crafted cinematic experiences, instead of the clunky old 'gameplay' that players had been forced to sit through.

Why would you waste time shooting at Space Invaders when you could be the star of your own full-on Star Wars experience?

Stupid as it sounds now, at the time it almost made sense. In the early 1990s, the videogame industry was a very different place. Budgets were low and teams were very small.

Early forays into real-time 3D were promising, but far from impressive – blocky characters stumbling around featureless worlds like they'd just crapped themselves, occasionally stopping to nod at each other and exchange dialogue without moving their lips.

The idea of something like Grand Theft Auto 4 or World of Warcraft becoming a worldwide phenomenon in its own right was nothing short of a cruel fantasy. If games got any attention back then, it was via a headline like 'Nintendo Killed My Son' or 'Ban This Sick Filth'.

None of this meant the games were bad. The 1990s were a real golden age for the PC, giving us many of our greatest memories. Doom, Day of the Tentacle, Plumbers Don't Wear Ties.

However, it was a frustrating one for developers, many of whom were looking up at Hollywood with a mixture of envy and pride. Joining that world meant being taken seriously, and seriously cashing in. If people liked watching movies, surely interactive movies would be even better. Right?

Wrong, so very wrong

Interactive movies were one of the most expensive mistakes the industry ever made, to the point that the term is effectively banned. You can't even use it to describe games like GTA4, Gears of War, and Call of Duty 4, all of which were widely praised for drawing from the Hollywood well.

Even at the time, a good yardstick for spotting the good games was to see which were referred to as interactive movies, and which were absorbed into a larger genre, typically adventure games.

The basic problem was this: the more a game relied on movies, the less the player would be able to do. To maintain some semblance of a flow, they had to keep moving. However, every action, every movement, every success and every failure had to be either pre-filmed or pre-rendered. This was expensive in terms of production, and with the best will in the world, designers had to make cuts.

Even if you could get the footage in the can, you still had to squeeze it on a disc. CD-ROM was still cutting-edge technology, but even with low-quality, low-resolution graphics, it filled up fast. One of the last interactive movies, Black Dahlia, shipped on eight of the buggers.

Why interactive movies failed

Why interactive movies failed

Dedicated interactive movies had two ways of solving the problem. The first was the Dragon's Lair method, introduced to arcades in 1983. Every scene had exactly two possible endings. Press the right button at the right time and you moved onto the next room. Press the wrong one, or do nothing, and you died instantly and had to try again.

Later games made that button-press slightly more complicated, typically using a control-room style interface, but it was the same concept. The Daedalus Encounter used puzzles instead of action scenes. Over on the MegaCD, the infamous Night Trap made you hunt for the right room before pressing the button.

A second, slightly more entertaining method was to use the pre-rendered footage as a glorified background. Megarace, Microcosm, Rebel Assault, and many others rear-projected the background like an old movie chase sequence, with the game overlaying traditional sprites on top and trying to keep track of whether you were hitting the walls/obstacles.

Rebel Assault was easily the most successful of these games. It was a shameless example of style over substance, but the mix of Star Wars and genuinely fast-paced action meant that people didn't mind too much. It was a game that showed off both your PC, and your shiny new CD drive. In that context, it was okay.

Thankfully, both these game genres quickly proved dead ends. Rear projection was no match for proper 3D terrain, even in early offerings like Wipeout. As for click-or-die, it only ever worked in the arcades, where games that could be finished in under half an hour were acceptable.

American Laser Games made a particular name for itself here with its massive arcade cabinets and shooting games, such as Mad Dog McCree, Who Shot Johnny Rock? and Space Pirates, all based on lightgun technology.

Despite featuring some of the cheapest kills ever (such as a seemingly dead enemy lifting his gun up to shoot you from the floor) they were still pretty popular in arcades, and ALG made a good living on them – before somewhat bizarrely transforming itself into Her Interactive to make Nancy Drew games.

Most interactive movies quickly moved to something at least slightly less reliant on pre-recorded film footage, whether it was copying the adventure game style of old, or integrating more involved action between the clips.

The 7th Guest was the showpiece for this on PC, selling for twice the price of a standard game. Its 3D rendered haunted house and fiendishly beautiful logic puzzles were unquestionably eyecatching, but it was a one-trick pony. The scrappy sequel, The 11th Hour, underperformed, as did a cartoon version of the concept, Clandestiny. The series' final gasp was a puzzle compilation called Uncle Henry's Playhouse. It sold 176 copies. Worldwide.

Lights, camera, arse

It's easy to mock the actors, and yes, many of them were terrible, but that's too easy.

In most cases, they were simply the most visible face of a grotesquely over-ambitious project that wanted to be a big budget movie on a budget of 10p, being rushed through an embarrassing script by an inexperienced (possibly first-time) director, with nothing to bounce their performance off except a big blue screen and a vague description of what they're actually meant to be doing. If you don't have someone capable of telling star talent like Christopher Walken that his performance is even embarrassing the furniture, you only have yourself to blame for his 'acting' in Ripper.

The Tex Murphy series shows this wonderfully. There were five of them in total, three of which were done as interactive movies: Under A Killing Moon, The Pandora Directive, and Overseer. All five starred Chris Jones, the company's co-founder and finance guy as Tex Murphy, a PI in futuristic San Francisco.

For UAKM, with its full FMV sequences and new Hollywood leanings, Jones did almost everything: co-writing, designing, directing, and leading up a cast mostly made up of other Access software employees. The result was fun, but hammier than a pig that just ate a bacon sandwich.

For the next two games, Access brought in director Adrian Carr, and the quality skyrocketed. The acting became more assured. The cinematography warranted the name. They're hardly the greatest stories ever told – although they're all really good adventures – but the difference was night and day.

Bringing in the stars

Bringing in the stars

Sadly, few companies bothered taking the time and effort to improve the general standard. Instead, they went for quick fixes. The word 'Starring' has rarely been so universally abused. When Critical Path proudly announced 'Starring Eileen Weisinger as Kat', it was with the desperate hope that you didn't know she was a stuntwoman.

Games would proudly trumpet big names like Dennis Hopper and Tim Curry... hell, even names like Margot Kidder and Dirk Benedict, regardless of how much time they actually spent on screen, or whether they were an important character or simply a comedy bartender, like John Hurt's character in Privateer 2: The Darkening.

Most of the time, these were simply small, irrelevant jobs that known actors would agree to do between 'real' jobs, spend a day or so filming, then never think about again. Dennis Hopper agreed to star in Take Two's Hell not because of a desire to be part of the endless creative possibilities of videogame/movie crossovers, but because CEO Ryan Brant was a friend of the family.

The Wing Commander games are arguably the only ones where known actors have emerged smelling of roses. It helped that unlike many, these games had a real budget – a then-insane $4 million for Wing Commander III, which used the standard bluescreen technique, and $12 million for the fourth game, which finally allowed for actual sets and physical special effects.

Mark Hamill's performance as world-weary space hero Christopher Blair grounded the series in a way that surprised everyone who thought Origin had just hired Luke Skywalker as a gimmick, while Tom Wilson (as the arrogant but insecure pilot Maniac) was pleased to be recognised as something other than Biff Tannen from the Back to the Future movies.

Malcolm McDowell and John Rhys-Davies also showed up and gave excellent performances, to the point that the fourth game's most exciting moment wasn't the last battle, but the FMV debate that followed it, where you had to talk a council chamber full of diplomats into acknowledging the bad guy's naughtiness.

Sadly, the story didn't end well. Series creator Chris Roberts had the chance to make the real Wing Commander movie he'd always wanted – which bombed harder than the Dambusters at the box office. A terrible movie. And a terrible end to the series.

Misunderstood

One of the oddest things about interactive movies was how restrained they were. This was at least partly a political issue, thanks to Night Trap – a Sega CD game that quickly found itself banned and brought up in the US Senate as an example of a video game nasty. Clearly, a horrific nightmare of blood and gore, right? Well, no. It really didn't deserve any of this.

As with Rockstar's Bully, the controversy was based on a misunderstanding – that the player's job was to spy on and murder a group of nubile co-eds at a slumber party. Instead, it was a parody of the slasher genre, involving activating Scooby Doo style traps to protect them from a band of PG-rated vampires.

Now that devs knew they didn't have to do anything wrong to get it in the neck themselves, it's no wonder they became very cautious. Even some of the actors expressed concern, notably Tia Carrere, who specifically requested that she not be directly killable by the player character in The Daedalus Encounter, even if they had wasted good money to see Wayne's World 2.

Adults-only gaming

Adults-only gaming

Violent content was usually taken care of by the game's setting – sci-fi laser guns and similar offering the side-bonus of not having to deal with the safety issues surrounding even stage pistols, or having to pay to fit the actors with exploding squibs.

Only a handful of interactive movies brought out the tough stuff, notably Harvester (a woefully misjudged game in which the player is supposedly being trained to become a murderer via a VR simulator) and Spycraft – another genuinely good interactive movie - where players were invited to take part in an interactive torture sequence.

Needless to say, if developers balked at violence, sex was right out. We have to wonder how much of this was down to restraint on the part of writers, and how much came down to programming teams simply not having the guts to ask actors to drop their pants for the sake of digital art.

Either way, they rarely delivered. Sony's Voyeur may have had a steamy name, but a couple of women in their knickers and a guy pretending to be a dog were about all you actually got to see.

Even more ambitious games like Riana Rouge, entirely sold on the sex appeal of Playmate Gillian Bonner, proved oddly reluctant to fully deploy its, ahem, built-in special effects for the benefits of players who didn't realise they'd bought a game 'driven by themes of female empowerment and integration' instead of the world's most expensive way to not see boobies.

There were exceptions to the rule, such as the cryptically titled Latex: The Game, but not many. And it goes without saying that whatever fan service and erotic content that did slowly seep into the genre was aimed squarely at men. The idea that women might be playing these games was alien to most of the writers, even in games where your character's gender was irrelevant.

Kat in Critical Path would still tease your faceless soldier about the possibility of doing a shower scene. Spycraft spent the entire game calling the player 'Thorn' specifically to avoid the question, only to accidentally drop Game Overs when Thorn is clearly thrown into a men's prison. Oops.

Feminine clout

With all this in mind, it's amusing that the games that really shook up the status quo were all from female designers: Roberta Williams, Lorelei Shannon, and Jane Jensen. Roberta Williams produced Phantasmagoria, which featured some of the most shocking violence seen on the PC up to this point – mostly committed against innocent women, including a (pretty tame) rape scene involving the game's heroine.

Its sequel, designed by Shannon, made new main character Curtis Craig's growing obsession with sadomasochism into a plot point, although in a story as badly written and confused as the dimension-hopping Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle Of Flesh, it didn't really matter.

Jane Jensen's Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within, however, was another of that shortlist of genuinely good interactive movies. It was an excellent supernatural mystery, weaving together werewolves, Wagner, and the 'mad' King Ludwig II of Bavaria into a superb original story.

It was filmed using bluescreen technology, but it used real-world places, including Munich and the castle of Neuschwanstein for backgrounds, with so much background detail, it was almost like playing edutainment. Its most impressive feature however was the growing bisexual undercurrents between the womanising main character and the game's villain, von Glower.

There was nothing explicit about it, no erotic scenes or anything similar to push that side of the story to the forefront. It was simply brought out in the subtle moments of quality acting that contemporary sprites and 3D models could never have managed.

It was this ability to do more than basic graphics that ultimately cemented FMV in the gaming world for several years, even after it was clear that full-on interactive movies were going to be too expensive to make, too much trouble, and just plain not worth the effort.

This didn't mean the end of live actors at all, and certainly didn't kill rendered cut-scenes. The same problems that had made the idea of movie games so compelling in the first place were still around, and wouldn't be going anywhere for several years.

FMV comes home

What changed was that FMV took its rightful place in the game – behind the gameplay.

Command and Conquer is an excellent example, because it's one of the few franchises still bothering with live action at all. Filmed mission briefings. Tactical strategy fun. Expensive rendered cut-scenes. More film of people telling you how great you are. That's the kind of ego boost we can get behind.

However, when it comes down to it, the only real reason that C&C still bothers is that the hammy acting is as closely associated with it as anything else it brought to the table. Fans expect to see Joe Kucan chewing the scenery as Kane, or Tanya vamping it up in a croptop. Most games have simply moved beyond it.

Rendered scenes, especially in-engine ones, offer so much more freedom and flexibility, with the bonus of never breaking you out of the world the creators are offering. Why struggle to make everyone believe that the latest big name is actually wandering around the post-apocalyptic future when you can create your own Alyx, or Farah, or Dogmeat, or some other character that will always be 100 per cent yours. It doesn't make any sense. It never will again.

But just for a while, it almost did.

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First published in PC Format, Issue 223

Now read 14 arcade machines that led to a misspent youth

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