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Bytes, Camera, Action: Play the Hero in Movie-Quality Games
Picture this: You're watching a terrific action movie, only instead of biting your nails and hoping the hero makes the right choice, you must make the right choices.
Don't go into that room, you think, go into this one—and the commando does it.
That would be the perfect melding of film and computer game: Games that tell complete stories. Games with real characters in them. Games that have a beginning, a middle, an end.
It's the holy grail of many game designers: to create an interactive movie.
Why not? We're working with a TV-sized screen, aren't we? Gone with the Wind may not look so grand in a 13-inch display, but it's still Gone with the Wind. And animated feature films such as Cinderella are surely within reach.
But game designers face some limitations that film animators don't. With computer games, each new background scene means another 20K; or 60K; each new animated character eats up great dollops of memory. And that translates into RAM, into disk space.
In a few years, we'll be buying our games on CD. That's the day the shackles come off, the day when we'll start seeing feature-quality animated games.
But if you want to glimpse the future, there are some programs that already get close to the goal of movielike games.
Of course, Sierra always deserves a nod if only because it was the first to produce animation with character and style, animation that's a pleasure to watch for its own sake. But Sierra isn't alone anymore for several reasons.
- The new guys are reaching beyond Sierra's cute look, trying for more realistic art.
- They're getting away from the puzzle-game mentality; the player makes choices instead of guesses.
- Instead of relentlessly using the same side-on view that Sierra uses, new animators constantly shift between long shots and closeups, overheads and profiles.
- A lot more kinds of things can happen. It isn't just picking up things and setting them down.
Take Cinemaware's Rocket Ranger, for instance. I've found five completely different arcade-style action sequences within it: flying with a rocket pack, a dogfight with Nazis, sharpshooting, a night passage through antiaircraft fire, and a hand-to-hand slugfest.
Best of all, Rocket Ranger is highly interactive—the player has great deal of control. You aren't being forced through a sequence of arbitrary puzzles. The game requires strategy as well as skill.
Mindscape's Hostage: Rescue Mission, on the other hand, is much more linear. As you prepare to rescue the hostages being held inside the embassy, first you have to knock out the sharpshooters, then land on the roof and crash through the window, and finally machine-gun the terrorists room by room as you make your way down to the basement of the embassy.
What Hostage lacks in interactivity, however, it makes up for in velocity. The game moves along at a pretty good clip, and you do have a few meaningful choices, especially since you can switch from one character's point of view to another's.
Rocket Ranger. alas, is constantly being interrupted by screenfuls of text (too often the same text you've already read a half-dozen times before). Yet I don't see how they could have managed without the narration, since Rocket Ranger is trying to tell far more of a story than is Hostage.
In short, in both games the designers had to make tradeoffs to get the effects they wanted. Hostage's designers were going for a thriller, a caper. The details had to be real, and they were.
Rocket Ranger's designers, on the other hand, wanted you to feel as if you were caught up in a Buck Rogers or Commando Cody serial, trying to save the world from evil. They succeeded admirably, in large part because they took the story seriously, even though they surrounded it with delightful hokumlike decoder wheels and rocket packs. (I've got to admit, I fell in love with this game the way I fell in love with sci-fi 30 years ago.)
With superb animation and movielike effects, these two games pretty much define what interactive movie means in mid-1989.
They may not keep that lofty position for long, however, because the guys on Skywalker Ranch are putting such startling touches into the latest offerings from Lucas-film Games that I laughed with delight when I saw and heard them.
But that's for my next column. For now, it's enough to say that Hostage and Rocket Ranger are both compelling, challenging games—and tantalizingly close to being interactive movies, too.