Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 133 / SEPTEMBER 1991 / PAGE 110

Martian Memorandum: the making of a computer movie. (computer game) (evaluation)
by Richard O. Mann

When Access Software introduced the award-winning Mean Streets two years ago, its exciting movie sequences were state-of-the-art technology. Now, the Access ageniuses are taking game technology another quantum leap forward with Martian Memorandum.

This time, in what is rightfully called full-motion video, Access gives us movie sequences with synchronized sound. When you play the game, the twelve speaking characters talk directly to you as you conduct your interviews, even if you don't have a sound board. They move as they speak and roll their eyes with disgust, shrugging, laughing, and blazing with anger. They're not animated cartoons or photos with dialog boxes; they're people you have to deal with to get anywhere in the game.

You won't believe your eyes and ears. It's a breakthrough that parallels the development of "talkies," when soundtracks were added to movies.

But aside from the programming artistry that represents a giant step for the technology, this is a computer game good enough to deserve being the first computer talkie.

Martian Memorandum's setting is A.D. 2039. You take the role of Tex Murphy, a San Francisco gumshoe in the Sam Spade tradition (complete with the trench coat and 1940-style theme music), who is hired by wealthy Marshall Alexander to find his beautiful daughter, Alexis, who is missing and may have been abducted.

The faint trail eventually leads through her boyfriend's incredible South American jungle fortress to the seedy back alleys of a casino district on Mars. As you meet more people and unravel the web of intrigue, you find there is much more involved than just a missing heiress. If you are successful, you may save humanity from self-destruction.

It's a gritty, hard-boiled private eye yarn in a futuristic, science fiction setting. As the macho hero, you mix it up with mutant villains, sexy secretaries, gamblers, hired muscle, and an eclectic variety of characters, each of whom is trying in his or her own way to influence the fate of the universe.

There's also a healthy dose of humor, particularly in the descriptions of the various objects you'll examine as you search for clues.

The story line is unusually deep for a game. The game's electronic wizardry--after the awe wears off--allows you to get caught up with the people, their motivations, and the scope of the problem you're desperately trying to solve.

The designers weren't content, however, with presenting this richly detailed story in graphics and sound that no one else can match. They had one more innovation in mind; they guarantee you can finish the game. You'll be able to uncover the final solution without a hint book and without frantic phone calls to customer service.

How can they guarantee this? They've developed a new system to give you context-sensitive help at just the level you want. If you want minor hints at the tough spots, you can get them onscreen. But if you aren't playing for the thrill of outsmarting the programmers, persist in asking for help, and the game will eventually spell out for you exactly what to do.

This may be the first adventure/mystery game some of us have ever finished. If you enjoy simple mysteries and puzzles but have given up on adventure games in frustration with their seeming impossibility, you'll want to try Martian Memorandum. You only have to endure as much frustration as you choose to accept.

The Making of Martian


Like its predecessors, Countdown and Mean Streets, Martian Memorandum is the product of a talented team of creative technical geniuses hidden away in an industrial park near the Salt Lake City International Airport. Although they're unquestionably brilliant computer people, they work, talk, and think more like moviemakers.

Martian Memorandum's story and concept are the joint creation of financial vice president Chris Jones and programmer Brent Erickson. Jones directs the game's movie sequences and acts several parts.

The visuals are born when the designers explain the story to their artist, who creates a storyboard with a rough sketch for each game screen. The results of this intensely creative process are pinned on the wall of a long hallway, and production begins.

Videotaping is much like a standard movie or television shoot, with makeup and sound people, a videographer (cameraman), the director, and actors shooting multiple takes directly onto videotape. The difference is one additional person: Erickson lurks in the background, mentally digitizing the scene and fitting it into his program, making sure the degree of detail, motion, and position of the actors will work within computer memory and program constraints.

Ninety-five percent of what you see onscreen in Martian Memorandum is digitized video or still photos. Every move that Tex Murphy and the other characters make was created from digitized video of actors. The derelict train in the rail yard murder scene is a photo of an abandoned string of rail cars a few hundred yards from the Access office. Wherever the appropriate image exists, they'll find a way to capture it and fit it into the game.

Like moviemakers, they create futuristic sets in miniature. After lighting the model set just as carefully as stage directors light a sound stage, they videotape it. Jon Clark, a multitalented artist with 15 years of experience in theater set design, creates the models using a surprising variety of toys, balsa wood, scraps of plastic models, wires, and anything else that comes to hand. Jon also runs the studio's professional sound equipment.

The digitized images of the sets then go to Doug Vandegrift, a cartoonist with a theater background known for his work on "The Muppet Babies" cartoon series. Vandegrift's PC tool chest lets him blend in other images, including his own drawings. He works with the lighting, backgrounds, and whatever else may need touch-up in the original image.

The detailed exterior scene of the Martian casino row, for example, started as a colorful, detailed model built by Clark. Vandegrift blended in a stark Martian mountainscape background and neon signs that came from photos of Las Vegas augmented by his own artwork. The result is a movie scene that looks real without the flat, uniformly colored and lighted look of a cartoon panel.

The live action sequences and characters that talk in full-motion video appear onscreen in three- to four-inch windows over the scene's set. They could do full-screen video, but it takes so much disk space that it isn't practical yet.

In fact, the real technical breakthrough allowing full-motion video with sound is not the video or the sound technology. It's fast disk decompression. Full-motion video is a series of frames projected on the screen, just like motion pictures. Each frame is stored on disk and drawn on the screen at the right speed.

Images take a vast amount of disk storage. To make this game work, Erickson invented a system that compresses the video files by approximately 87 percent and then decompresses them on the fly in a fraction of a second, sending them to the screen as needed, right on time, frame by frame, synchronized with the sound files. Without the lightning-fast decompression routine, this game could not exist.

The Realsound technology that gives us music and voice through ordinary PC speakers is the brainchild of Steve Witzel, vice president of marketing at Access. It's no mature and solid at this point that it's easy to record the soundtrack on the videotape and digitize it using the proven RealSound utility program. If you have expensive MIDI sound equipment, the soundtrack of Martian Memorandum will complete the illusion of being in a movie.

All of these diverse elements feed into Erickson's dimly lit, CD-sound-filled office, where the master programmer melds them together into a finished product. Since the game was created in close partnership with Jones from the start, Erickson is qualified to serve as the movie's cutter and editor. His job is a lot harder, though, because he's also writing the computer code that causes everything to happen.

An Entertainment Experience

The designers of Martian Memorandum are striving to make it more than a game; they see it as an entertainment experience. The intention is to make the player identify with the hero and feel surprise, anger, delight, and tension as he or she solves the mystery. The only concession to the fact that it's a computer game is your limited ability to question and interact with the people you meet in the game. At each step along the way, you are given three to five possible things to say in these conversations. (Such conversations may go on for ten or more exchanges; they are not perfunctory interviews.) Sometimes off-the-wall questions you'd like to ask aren't among the choices, but such occasions are rare.

As games become more realistic, merging full-motion animation and digitzed sound, the gap separating real experience from the game action narrows. Martian Memorandum isn't quite virtual reality yet, but it's closer to it than any other computer game.