Cinema inferno. (Out of This World computer game) (Software Review) (Column) (Evaluation)
by David Sears
Computer industry commentators often compare adventure games to films, but mostt contemporary games resemble good films no more than modern films resemble The Great Train Robbery. Pretty pictures and droopy animation don't make great cinema, and it's time we became more critical of B-movie videogames--games that don't fulfill the computer's potential for action and involvement.
Out of this World (Interplay) is a prime example of just how filmic a game can be. Bucking the trend of large design teams, Eric Chahi, who is artist, designer, and programmer, hurls players into a surrealistic other world while maintaining extreme playability. Inspired by the world's first laser disc-based game, Dragon's Lair, but possessing the critical eye of a director, Chahi saw through the glitz and into the heart of that game's prime failure: It offers little interactivity. Push the joystick forward, pull it back--the laser disc driver shows you what happens next. There are no alternate paths to save the princess; a single mistake means annihilation. In Chahi's alternative world, players interact with the environment as they work to return to Earth. There are no seams between scenes here, no annoying dropouts as disk drives struggle to load megabytes of graphics data. This fluidly animated marvel requires only 1.5MB of your hard drive.
In film school, students learn to make the most of available resources. After all, early artistic efforts rarely have corporate funding. In contrast, few computer game designers exploit personal computers to their natural limits.
Sometimes game designers push the hardware to the edge, but as often as not, they're pushing in the wrong direction. In the eighties, for instance, filled polygon animation was largely abandoned (except in flight simulators). Digitized games today seem bent on their own brand of cinema verite, the height of realism. But most people don't have gigabyte hard drives to handle the files a fully digitized game would require.
Instead of turning to digitizing, game designers should develop faster, more detailed polygon animation systems.
And designers should allow us to dabble in plot development, not force-feed us whole chunks of story in which we can't participate.
Computers can inexpensively simulate special effects. The rippling of water in Out of this World puts us immediately below the surface, where light refraction causes marvelous distortion. Explosions flash white, accompanied by suitable booms and crashes. These effects cross the screen boundary to fill the room. They ease us toward the suspension of disbelief, a priceless commodity for anyone about to spend several days playing a game.
Soundtracks don't tax the hardware, either. While cinema purists may declare that a Spielbergian score manipulates emotion, we should welcome this in a game. In spite of our concern with cinematic quality, we do still play games for the sheer joy of play. Designers should pack the most punch possible into every thrill.
Special effects and music don't necessarily make good films. The basics of lighting and direction don't matter much when the film will play out on a computer. Editing technique, however, remains as important for PC movies as for the big screen. Cutting on action establishes the pace. In Out of this World, when a venomous worm strikes, you don't just fall down dead. First, you're treated to an extreme closeup of the deadly thing's spiked appendage, followed by an immediate cut to another extreme closeup, this time of a deadly slash to your knee. Then, at last, you fall. But these events occur so quickly that you don't have time to realize that joystick control has been taken away. No long interludes here--the action almost never stops.
Out of this World plays on every platform at the same speed with the same quality. Chahi might've added photorealistic backgrounds, but most players will happily settle for his distinctive and beautiful matte paintings instead.
Can we expect a series of auteur games from Chahi and Interplay? Unfortunately, it won't happen in the immediate future. Chahi's at work on real film at the moment--the big-screen sort--and won't begin work on another computer project for a year or so. Maybe soaring sales of Out of this World will give other game companies the cue to rethink their production values, though, and we won't have to wait quite so long for more interactive cinema.