Clickable flicks

With six new titles in the shops, the mouse-driven interactive movie is here, writes Bradley Borum
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The Independent Online
The future of film, or a fad? Interactive movies, the long-promised cross between a video game and a proper film, are finally receiving the full Hollywood treatment, with more than six titles now available in the shops. The latest entry, with the biggest budget to date, is Privateer 2: The Darkening, a $6m, star-studded action adventure that marks the first interactive title to be wholly developed in Europe.

Released on three CD-Roms just before Christmas, at pounds 34.99, the stars the likes of Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Brian Blessed and Clive Owen, and was filmed on four stages at Pinewood Studios. It joins such successes as Wing Commander 3, starring Star Wars' Luke Skywalker, Mark Hamill.

Backed by Electronic Arts and two years in the making, The Darkening is played on a high-specification computer (see box), and takes at least a week to get through. The technical standard is impressive: three hours of high-resolution video and graphics, interactive plot lines, flight and trading games. The film benefits from advanced software technology, which finally begins to match the hopes and expectations of the non-game- playing public. The experience proves that the game-film hybrid is greater than the sum of its parts - a long way from the jerky animated sequences with which seasoned CD-Rom games players are wearily familiar.

In sum, The Darkening creates a world that is plausible, visually compelling and intriguing.

But is it the way all films will go, or an interesting side development, unlikely to attract mass audiences? Actors' Equity is in no doubt: "It is entirely possible that interactive movies will become a major new entertainment form, as important as the birth of television," a spokesman says.

The story is set up with a 13-minute filmed introduction. The action takes place in the far future, on a federation of planets where the hero, Lev Arris (Clive Owen), wakes up in hospital suffering from amnesia. Here he is told that he's been rescued from a "cyropod", ejected when the ship he was on mysteriously crashed. Armed men burst in, and send Arris to another planet. When he next awakes he consults his futuristic diary (which displays a map) and heads for the nearest bar, tended by John Hurt. Now the player can begin to take over, encountering the world through the hero's eyes, and making key decisions on his behalf. As Clive Owen puts it: "The story of the game player is my story."

What implications does interactivity have for actors, writers and anyone else concerned with storytelling? The experience was a little strange for the actors involved. The Barbarella-like French actress Mathilda May, who plays a mean pilot, confides: "When the director told me the player would click [on a mouse] and I would come into action, I felt like a doll ... manipulated by people I would never know."

Star Trek screen-writer Diane Duane, who moulded the idea of 27-year- old producer Erin Robert into a screenplay, warns that the term "subplot" takes on a whole new meaning with an interactive script. There are a myriad of possibilities within the storylines, involving action on seven different planets. The story's script is not "tree-like" with cul-de-sac branches, but instead provides numerous paths which sometimes cross, but which all lead to one ambiguous ending.

Oddly enough, breaks in the story do not affect its dramatic tension, chiefly because when the film narrative stops, the player must take action. By doing so, he or she forces the story into excursions: meetings in extraordinary places with extraordinary people, simulated fights in spaceships, demanding investigations, deal-making and trading.

Co-ordinating the "if I do this, what happens then?" variables of such a complex script is the responsibility of the computer programmers. Numerous flow-chart storyboards were employed, as well as a large master chart to show where all of the 24 actors would appear and to ensure that the right video and graphic sequences were triggered at the right time.

Electronic Arts concedes that the painstaking preparations were the result of lessons learnt on earlier projects, where the final product just didn't cut it. "We realised it wasn't enough to stick actors against a blue screen and have no true interaction between the player and the plot."

Paul Hughes the software engineer responsible, says: "We try not to look at the big storyboard too often, or nervous breakdowns are in order." Small wonder, then, that none of the actors was able to visualise the end product. But as Christopher Walken, who plays the head of an interplanetary CIA, says: "You trust that the people making it can."

On the set at Pinewood, it immediately became clear that the production was a far from ordinary one. At the end of each scene, the actors were required to film alternative scenarios, that would be seen on the screen only if the player made the choice. The actors were also shot for "interactive frames" - a still screen in which they perform small, repetitive movements with their heads, arms or feet. Behind the actor in the finished product lies a "hot spot", or window of interactivity. By clicking here the player activates a prepackaged video sequence. Brian Blessed was filmed throwing his arms in the air as he pivoted on a 180-degree axis. Later he confided that "my daughter was more pleased with me doing this than playing King Lear".

So, did the stars alter their acting styles to accommodate the alternative choices and responses? No, says John Hurt. "It just gives you a lot of fun in a sense ... because you don't change the character you're playing, you just change the [character's mood] to fit the situation."

Bing Gordon, vice-president at Electronic Arts, says: "In five years' time we're going to see actors whose careers are made up primarily of interactive movies." He acknowledges that "it's difficult to imagine how those actors will be different to the superstars of today, but they will be different".

It's interesting to note parallels with the way cinema developed. It wasn't until about 1907 that film pioneers realised that "story" movies were what the medium did best. It could be argued that the computer entertainment industry is reaching the same conclusions, and are using the new technology to make storytelling even more compellingn

Bradley Borum is a producer with Goldhawk Film & TV in London, and visited the set of `The Darkening'.

What you need to run interactive films

IBM PC with triple-speed CD-Rom

Pentium 60mHz or higher

8mb Ram, 36mb free space on hard drive

1.2 compatible video card

Microsoft-compatible mouse

Soundblaster-compatible sound card

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