Quantum leap into virtual cinema

The interactive movie, a radical form of story-telling, is coming soon to a screen near you, writes Gerry McGovern
From fringe theatre to virtual cinema requires less of a leap of the imagination than you might think. In fact, for Greg Roach, artistic director and founder of Seattle-based Hyperbole Studios, discovering the computer as an artistic tool led him to the realisation, "that I'd really found my life's work".

Greg Roach had spent most of his career in theatre as an actor, director and playwright. "But there was very much a feeling of constraint in theatre, which was sort of economic," he explains. This was because he had been writing plays that required many actors and scene changes. Sadly, he was finding that most commercial theatre would not risk staging original works of such size.

Enter his computer. Used primarily as a word processor, he now began to look at it as a processor of ideas. As he gradually became aware of the potential, he was left with a feeling that he had entered a new realm, that he had come in at the beginning of a new artform.

"One of the main things was coming to realise, oh my God, there's so many things I can do here," he says. "If I can imagine it, I can find a way to do it. And the feeling of freedom ... I suddenly saw that I had the means of creation and distribution for original works. I could become a publisher both for myself and for others."

Formed in 1990, Hyperbole's first release was an interactive book entitled The Madness of Roland, which was described by MacUser as a "multidimensional, ground-breaking work". The CD-rom allows you to explore the medieval story of Roland, a super-knight in the service of the Emperor Charlemagne. Roland is a hero or villain, depending on which character you read/listen to.

Jumping ahead quite a considerable number of centuries - to 2057, to be exact - Quantum Gate, his interactive movie/ game/story released in 1993, moved forward not just in time. While The Madness of Roland hinted at the possibilities of user interactivity, Quantum Gate begins to set down a genuine foundation. It showed off for the first time Hyperbole's patented VirtualCinema multimedia technology, which allowed the user to become the central character in the story.

Just released, its engrossing three CD-rom-packing, six-hour sequel, The Vortex: Quantum Gate II, is another step forward in technique and technology. With The Vortex you begin to see just where all this could lead, as you become a character in a plot that twists and turns, depending on the choices you make. You won't be able to complain about the ending either - because that will depend on the path you have chosen.

When they are perfected, interactive movies - or whatever you want to call them - will become an intoxicating and addictive experience for many people. Perhaps some up-and-coming socialist thinker will describe them as the new opium of the people, and, indeed, they would have a point. Greg Roach is aware of the "destructive" possibilities. However, his own work has very little overt violence and it is his ambition to mould the new form in as positive a way as possible.

It would be unwise, though, to rush out and buy a multimedia computer and a copy of The Vortex, expecting to see the same standards of production as in Jurassic Park. Although Greg Roach has been described as "the Steven Spielberg of multimedia", he is working with a technology that is still a number of years away from acceptable standards of reliability and efficiency. Multimedia today is like the film industry of the Twenties.

Of course, that is what makes it so exciting for Greg Roach and pioneers like him. "One of the things that caused me to leave my old profession," he says, "was the understanding that there was something completely, radically new going on; a whole new form of communication, a new way to tell a story, a new way to engage people."