Silicon Hollywood. (the making of Access Software's 'Under a Killing Moon')
by Denny Atkin
A hush falls over the small sound stage as final preparations are made for the shoot. Actress Margot Kidder studies her lines one last time as the cameraman makes a last-minute adjustment. The director cues, "Scene 3-A8, take 1. Action!" and Kidder instantly slips into her persona as a bartender in a futuristic gin joint.
"Call me sweetheart again, and I'll tear your throat out. Now what do you want?" she demands in a threatening manner. After the take is finished and the director gives the cut signal, the film crew laughs approvingly at the intensity of her performance. The lights and camera are quickly repositioned for the next shot. A serious look comes across Kidder's face as the director cues the next shot. "Mind your manners, and I won't introduce you to Bluto," she sneers. "He's the reason we call this place the Broken Skull."
No, this isn't a scene from a typical day of filming at a major Hollywood studio. The sound stage isn't in Tinseltown, but in a back room at Access Software's headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah. Kidder's tough, sarcastic bartender isn't a character in an upcoming movie blockbuster. She's starring in the Access interactive opus, Under a Killing Moon, scheduled to hit a software store--not a theater--near you in March. It's a CD-ROM adventure game that features Kidder (Superman through Superman IV), Brian Keith ("Family Affair" and "Hardcastle and McCormick," along with numerous films), and Russell Means (Last of the Mohicans).
In many respects, Hollywood and Silicon Valley are converging. Hollywood has been looking to the computer game industry for inspiration as it decides how to exploit the entertainment products it will be able to create when 500-channel interactive cable systems, computerized set-top control boxes, and the digital superhighway become realities. Although it hasn't received as much media publicity, the computer game industry has been reaching out to the TV and film industries not just for ideas for games, but for production techniques and even actors.
A Shining Example
Access is billing Under a Killing Moon as the first real interactive movie. Other programs have laid claim to that distinction before, but they've generally been little more than collections of film clips stored on CD-ROM, where your decisions simply determine which clip is shown next--you don't get the feeling of being in the film. If anything, calling Under a Killing Moon an interactive movie isn't giving the game the credit it's due, since it offers a first-person feeling of being there that no movie can achieve.
Of course, playing even the most interactive, movielike computer game on a 14-inch screen probably isn't going to cause the intense emotional reactions in the player that watching a movie on a 30-foot screen can. Each medium has its advantages. But many of the distinctions that made computer games seem distinctly more like toys than something that can be compared to television and film are rapidly disappearing.
Access isn't the only company drawing on Hollywood for talent and inspiration. the CD-ROM version of Return to Zork from Activision features over a dozen minor actors with Hollywood credits. Other software producers have hired the likes of Donald Sutherland, Robert Culp, and Robby Benson to star in their games. And behind-the-scenes talents such as artist Syd Mead and writer Harlan Ellison have recently lent their abilities to computer games. As mainstream and electronic entertainment technologies continue to converge, it may become less and less unusual for professionals to jump back and forth from working on TV pilots to working on interactive entertainment products.
>From the start, there were many parallels between the creation of Under a Killing Moon and the production of a film. The project began when Access decided it was time to create a sequel to its Tex Murphy detective series, which started with Mean Streets and Martian Memorandum. The first break from the computer game past came here; Access brought writer Aaron Conner into the project to script the game. Woody Allen and a few others aside, most Hollywood directors and producers don't write the screenplays for their productions, and Access decided it was time to bring a dedicated script writer to its game.
After the basic background script was created, it was time to meet with the special-effects folks--the programmers. Initially, there were thoughts of using a two-dimensional, fluid-motion polygon system (like that used in Delphine's Flashback) to achieve a movielike quality, but the programmers decided to do a test and see if they could create a real 3-D virtual-reality (VR) environment. When the first tests came back better than anyone had hoped, the script was modified to take advantage of the VR approach. Now Access could create the game from a first-person perspective, making the player a participant in the experience rather than an observer.
Chris Jones, who heads up the production of Under a Killing Moon and also stars as Tex Murphy, says that the inspiration for the VR approach came from the company's successful Links 386 golf game. "We asked ourselves what we could do to really make this more of a movie experience for the player, when we realized that we could apply some of the things we learned from Links to enrich the movie experience," he explains. Although the Links 386 software engine proved unsuitable for realtime 3-D movement, the programmers were able to create a new system that lets the player move around 3-D Studio-generated rooms with complete freedom.
Comprehensive storyboards for each section of the game were created, and the puzzles were reworked for the new first-person perspective. "The next part was developing the individual scripts for the characters," Jones says. Conner worked hard to develop realistic personalities for the characters. "We don't want to deal with the characters as puzzles, like some games do, but as human beings," Jones says.
The story is divided into a sequence of related quests, with a reward at the end of each one. A film only has to keep the viewer's attention for about 2 hours, but games of this scope can take as much as 100 hours to play. "We divided the game into segments that are more like interesting short stories to keep the flow of the game going," Conner says.
Next came casting. Like most game companies, Access had used local stage actors, models, and company employees for previous adventure games, where characters were generally represented by digitized stills accompanied by sampled voices. But now the company planned to use full-motion video for the game, and acting talent suddenly became a big issue. "If we did all this work, and we wanted to rely heavily on the characters, but then had performances like we'd seen in other games, it wouldn't have been taken seriously," Jones says. "We want to be compared to TV and movies, and that requires a level of performance that games haven't needed before."
A casting agent found Access some local actors around Salt Lake City who had television experience, including a regular cast member from the series "Life Goes On." But the designers decided that if they wanted to bridge that credibility gap that plagued computer entertainment, they should reach for the stars.
Eventually, the company lined up Kidder, Keith, and Means, as well as a number of other talented actors. Jones says that everyone onscreen in Under a Killing Moon has stage experience at a minimum, but many have been on TV or in films.
The professional actors were intrigued by the possibility of working in a computer game, but they didn't realize the scope of their performance. Jones explains that they figured they'd be doing the voices for animated cartoonlike characters on the screen or voice-overs for still images of themselves. The actual game features full-motion video of the characters, complete with synchronized voices, and you encounter many of them standing right in the VR rooms that you walk through. "What really got Margot excited was the VR stuff," Jones says.
For the most part, the actors were filmed individually and composited during postproduction. They were filmed against a black backdrop, which can be edited out of the digitized video--a procedure similar to the blue-screen techniques used in movies and television.
"There was a really intense preparation period," Jones recalls. "We have to storyboard practically everything the actors are going to be doing--where they're going to be in the room, where they're going to turn, what furniture is going to be in there. You see Margot there behind the counte in the game, but there's nothing there in the room where she's filming."
The amount of footage of actors that was shot for the two-CD-ROM game is actually more than you'll find in an average movie. "Most movies are about 90 minutes, and we've got about two hours of video right now. And most of that is just talking," Jones says. "If you take a whole movie and break out how much speech they have, it might be 30 minutes. The amount of speech we have is like creating Gone with the Wind with no action scenes, just talking."
Virtual Set Building
The images are electronically composited onto 3-D backgrounds, allowing Access to put characters in scenes that would be budgetary nightmares if actual sets needed to be built. Some scenes do exhibit that too-clean appearance that reminds you that you're looking at a computer-rendered background, but others, such as a fight scene between Murphy and the evil Chameleon on a gritty street corner, are dazzlingly realistic.
The 3-D sets allow Access to bring the player into the game as an actor, instead of a director. "You can't have this third-person little guy walking around anymore," Jones says, referring to the characters in previous Tex Murphy games. "You've got to be more innovative. There's nothing more exciting to me than the concept of a real room that I get to walk around in and search, where everything's from my perspective and everything looks real."
And realistic these sets are. Unlike earlier 3-D efforts like The 7th Guest, Under a Killing Moon gives you complete freedom to explore the 3-D sets in the game. You can walk around, look under tables or stairwells for clues, and even climb up on a desk to get a better look at something on the ceiling. Objects are texture-mapped, and there's so much detail in the rooms that you can actually walk up to the wall and read the small print on Murphy's diploma.
Although the virtual sets were built with realism in mind, Access had to go back and do a second pass on early rooms when it was discovered that they needed to be a bit bigger than life. Because of the limited field of view afforded by the computer screen compared to that of your eyes, you'd spend all your time in a room built to scale looking down because you'd be practically on top of all the objects you see.
Lights! Camera! Interaction!
One thing moviemakers don't have to worry about is giving the audience control. Under a Killing Moon has three different styles of interaction. There are animated segments, where-in you watch a short sequence that provides exposition for the next part of the game. The exploration segments draw from classic computer game experience, letting you use the mouse to move around and explore while choosing icons for actions such as looking and taking. The sequences where you interact with actors forced Access to draw from both cinematic techniques and game development ideas.
The player sees characters standing in the VR rooms, but once you initiate a conversation, the view changes from first to third person. The actors were filmed from a variety of camera angles, rather than just head-on, to try to capture the feel of a movie.
When you're watching a movie, you don't read th elines in a script right before you hear the actor say them. Access didn't want to bore players by forcing them to hear the response they just read onscreen, so you choose from selections like "Inquisitive joke" or "Sarcastic detective remark" instead of the actual verbal queries. Jones hopes this will draw the players into the scene, since they'll be hearing responses for the first time. Conner worked hard to inject humor into the script, and many players will likely find themselves going back through the game just to hear the alternative responses. Interactive computer movies will give you the opportunity to see what might have happened if Rhett hadn't told Scarlet, "I don't give a damn."
It's a Wrap
With some of the best acting and most realistic VR elements seen to date in a computer game, Under a Killing Moon sets a new standard for interactive entertainment. When you walk into a bar, look under the tables, and then talk Margot Kidder's character into letting you into a secret meeting, you're experiencing a level of realism that has never before been present in computer games or movies.
Access didn't stop with making the player one of the actors, though. You can also direct, using a feature that allows you to record segments of the game, splice them together, and play the result back as a noninteractive movie.
In 1989 Access released Mean Streets, which set a new standard with its VGA graphics and digitized voices. Under a Killing Moon is the standardbearer for the MPC generation. As the entertainment market shifts to CD-ROM games on powerful PCs, look for the distinction between computer games and mass-media entertainment to blur dramatically.