Red Alert: Storytelling

As I plow my way through the 1990s, I seem to be avoiding the whole “Full Motion Video” phenomenon. This ends now. I wouldn’t call Red Alert primarily a FMV game — the actual gameplay is firmly within the world of 2D sprite graphics — but it was released at a time when the marriage of Silicon Valley to Hollywood still seemed like the way of the future — if not to gamers, then at least to the people who controlled game development budgets. And so it shipped with two CD-ROMs full of low-quality video.

The video content is at least a bit more ambitious than a lot of the era’s shoehorned FMV. Where the original Command & Conquer basically just had talking heads that gave you over-emoted mission briefings, Red Alert actually has a few FMV action scenes — ones that even show signs of editing. It’s still strictly B-movie material, though, with thick accents substituting for characterization. And whenever the video ventures outdoors — usually to show military vehicles either being deployed or finishing their mission objectives — we’re suddenly in Unconvincing CGI Land. When you think about it, that’s a strange complaint. After all, the vehicle sprites during gameplay look even less real. Even putting aside the low pixel count, they basically look like toys — probably due to the flatness of the focus. But at least they’re consistent with the level of stylization throughout that part of the game. My problem with the CGI in the video sequences isn’t so much that it doesn’t look real as that it looks substantially less real than the live actors immediately preceding it in the same video clip.

Also, in a way, I find the in-game sprite stuff to simply be more effective storytelling than the FMV sequences. They keep including little set-pieces told with sprites and more or less without explicit narration. For example, one mission starts you out with just a single Spy unit and instructions to infiltrate a certain building. Spies are hard to detect, but not impossible: guard dogs, with their keen noses, are this game’s low-tech equivalent of anti-cloaking technology, and the player has to devote some effort to avoiding canine patrols. One you enter the building, a truck parked in front drives off, illuminating new areas of the map as it goes: clearly the spy has secreted himself inside. After it gets through a number of security checkpoints, the spy leaps out, leaving it to crash as you proceed to the next phase of the mission. That’s a little story right there, told with toy trucks and toy soldiers. It’s not in any way more sophisticated than the stories told through the video sequences, but it works better just because it’s told in a way that engages the player. Partly because it’s interactive, but also partly because it leaves so much more to the imagination.

Mind you, nearly every mission in Red Alert eventually degenerates into “kill everything”. It would be kind of cool to see a game with RTS-like rules and presentation that stays at a more narrative and less game-like level.

2 Comments so far

  1. Jason Dyer on 5 Jun 2010

    Would the RPG-modules for Starcraft and Warcraft III fit your description?

  2. Carl Muckenhoupt on 5 Jun 2010

    I’m not familiar with those. Maybe I should give them a look.

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