Kinoautomat

Earlier today, Paolo Pedercini hosted an “interactive movie night” on the Molleindustria Twitch channel, using Twitch’s features to poll the people watching about choices. I of course had to watch. Four pieces were screened: Kinoautomat, I’m Your Man, an adaptation of the shoot from Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair, and The Immoral Ms. Conduct. As of this writing, the recorded stream is still available, although obviously not interactive.

I mainly want to talk specifically about Kinoautomat, a black-and-white Czech comedy that first screened at the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal. This is a piece I had been curious about for some time, but had never had a chance to see. As far as anyone knows, it’s the first work of interactive cinema ever attempted — although later claimants to that distinction can be forgiven for not knowing about it, because it was simply unavailable for decades, having been banned by the Czech Communist Party. In its original form, it would have had a live presenter narrating the choices, telling the audience which buttons to press for each choice. Interactivity was thus seen as something operating on the film from outside, rather than a part of the content. It’s a bit ironic, too, to put “automat” in the title and then make it depend on direct human interaction. In the form presented to us today, however, the presenter is part of the video, clearly a later addition. The original filmmakers could have done it this way — the film was still running while the presenter talked — but chose not to. Call it a UI decision.

In form, it’s very close to linear: despite some pretentions of being controlled by a complex computer (which speaks directly to the audience at the end), the interactivity was originally created by running two film projectors simultaneously and blocking one of them at a time. (Apparently it was also once televised using two channels.) So, your choices can’t affect the sequence of events for very long. This isn’t much of a surprise, though, because the bulk of the story is told in flashback: the whole thing starts with an apartment block on fire, followed by recounting the events that led up to it. Apparently it’s been read as a satire of democracy. No matter what you vote for, it all ends in flames.

The style is goofy and extremely 1960s in its sensibilities — most of the story concerns a respectable middle-aged man dealing with being caught in the company of a naked woman for completely innocent reasons and Everyone Getting The Wrong Impression. That man, Mr. Novák, is the viewpoint character, but interestingly, not all of the choices concern his actions: in the end, the audience is asked to simply pass judgment on him, decide whether he’s culpable for the fire or not, a choice that basically asks you to end any identification you had with him. (Personally, I was strangely disappointed when it turned out that he didn’t start the fire deliberately.) Also, at one point the doorbell rings and the audience is polled for their guesses about who it is. Neither of the options offered is right, and the only effect of the choice is the display of how many people chose what. So even at this early date, designers were using completely fake choices to split up lengthy noninteractive sections.

I feel like the filmmakers showed a lack of confidence in the format when they decided to make Kinoautomat a goofball comedy, unsure about whether audiences would be willing to take interactivity seriously. That’s pretty definitely the case for I’m Your Man, the second “world’s first interactive movie”, which was specifically intended as a test of audiences, and which turns up the goof factor to the point where it’s using cartoon sound effects. I’d also like to note that I’m Your Man doesn’t bind its audience to making choices for a single player character, switching characters freely — indeed, its first several choices are choices of whose story to follow. Film, after all, has no technical constraints limiting who can act on your decisions. And yet Kinoautomat mostly sticks to the CYOA model, despite predating the Choose Your Own Adventure series by a decade.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Yesterday, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, an interactive movie, was released on Netflix, and my entire Twitter feed immediately became very annoyed. Apparently it was accompanied by a suite of breathless articles about how daringly innovative it is, a claim that ignored decades of prior experimentation, including four earlier interactive releases by Netflix itself. Oh, but those were aimed at children! Black Mirror is serious grown-up drama, and high-profile at that.

But also, it’s Black Mirror, which means the whole thing was constructed around the constraint of making CYOA dismal. It does this by going meta. Most of the meta is is reasonably restrained, almost even subtle, but a couple of branches take a dive into the crassly meta. The story is of a game developer named Stefan Butler in 1980s Britain — a distinct branch and era of gaming history, presented here condescendingly but, based on what I’ve read about that scene over at The Digital Antiquarian, fairly accurately — descending into madness as he works on a game with CYOA-style branching narrative, based on a CYOA-style book whose author also went mad in a similar way. Part of his madness is a sense that he has no free will, that someone else is controlling his actions. There’s a sense that he’s coming to be aware of the metafictional truth because he has some memory of the failed branches you’ve put him through; in some cases, he “wakes up” from a branch as if it’s a dream, and one early choice seems to change how multiple characters behave in its replay (something that I find myself thinking of as an “Undertale choice”).

It’s all very thematically tight on paper, but it all hinges on the idea that Stefan lacks agency because he’s under the viewer’s control, and it undercuts this idea by not giving the player a whole lot of agency either. It feels like most of the off-trunk choices just result in immediate failure and rewind, or maybe one other choice before failure and rewind. Some of the choices even deny player agency by using a choice to assert authorial control. At one point, you’re given the choice of “shout at dad” or “pour tea over computer”. The story needed Stefan to behave irrationally as a result of his lack of control, so it put the irrational behavior into viewer choice. But neither of the choices reflected my desires, so I was just as powerless as Stefan. The writer either expected an audience of sadists, who would relish such a choice, or wasn’t thinking about the the experience of the interactivity at all there. At another point, the player is given a meaningless choice between two ways for Stefan to fidget just so he can be shown successfully resisting your command. Well, good for you, kid. You sure showed me. How about we stop fighting and team up against the writer?

A lot of this is the result of treating the format as a gimmick rather than a medium, but some of it, particularly the shallow structure and inconsequential choices, can be blamed on technical limitations. The fact is, streaming video makes it hard to do the sort of narrative interactivity we’re used to seeing in games, as I learned while working on the Netflix adaptation of Minecraft: Story Mode. 1My involvement was slight, but it mostly involved removing things: pruning branches, getting rid of conditional logic, simplifying it into a form that Netflix could handle. And the result was still far and away the biggest, most complicated interactive video they’ve got. People who say that Telltale games are just barely-interactive movies have no idea what they’re talking about. Throwaway callbacks are suddenly expensive, because they require an entirely separate video stream. Choices have to be spaced out — you have to give about two minutes between choices because it has to buffer both branches in advance to keep playing smoothly. This also means that the video clip that plays in the background of a choice has to complete playing in full, which I found particularly irksome. You could make your choice in the first second, but Stefan would just sit there indecisively while his dad repeats “Well? Which do you want?” and similar filler. Streaming video just isn’t the ideal medium for this sort of thing.

But it may be the most accessible. If this is what it takes to get interactive narrative deeper into the mainstream than it already is, should I really complain? And, as gimmicky as it seems to those of us steeped in the stuff, it probably at the very least serves as a good showcase of the platform’s capabilities. One of the first choices you get, of which of two music tapes to listen to, has a very obvious callback after the story has trunked, as if just to tell us that it’s capable of keeping state. (This isn’t the only piece of state-tracking, but it’s the only really obvious one.) At another point, there’s something that’s almost a puzzle: you use a special UI to enter a telephone number that was clued in a subtle and cryptic way earlier. The solution is thrown in your face while the UI is up, so it isn’t actually relying on the viewer to solve anything. Maybe it did in an earlier draft. Regardless, what it’s communicating is “We could have made this a puzzle if we wanted to. That’s something we can do.”

Ultimately, it’s a first-released work of IF by a new writer — not new to writing, but new to IF specifically. It may have a larger budget than your typical Comp entry, but it’s about the same length. It should be welcomed as such, but also criticized as such.

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1. My involvement was slight, but it mostly involved removing things: pruning branches, getting rid of conditional logic, simplifying it into a form that Netflix could handle. And the result was still far and away the biggest, most complicated interactive video they’ve got. People who say that Telltale games are just barely-interactive movies have no idea what they’re talking about.

TCoR:EfBB: Final Thoughts and Apologies

All in all, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay is a pretty satisfying diversion. It’s mostly quite linear, but it uses that to force the player through a good variety of play styles, from crawling around in ducts to piloting unwieldy riot mechs. It’s like the Half-Life games that way, but shorter and with a slightly more talkative hero.

I think I owe the game an apology or two. I said some thoughtlessly mean things about it in my first post that it doesn’t really deserve. Like about the profanity. There’s swearing throughout the game, but most of it’s much more natural-sounding than the bits I complained about at the beginning, unless I just got used to it or something. It probably helps that most of it is screamed at you by people who are trying to kill you. Also, that crack I made about spending most of the acting budget on paying Vin Diesel? As Ellison pointed out in the comments, Mr. Diesel in fact founded the production company responsible for the game. This certainly changes his imagined relationship to the game, but I’m not sure it really casts him in a better light — “Let’s form a studio to make games about ME!” They’re even purportedly also producing a game about one of his D&D characters.

The idea that Vin Diesel plays D&D at all is a bit of a shock. I mean, his best-known roles are pretty firmly on the opposite side of the Geek/Jock divide. Perhaps I’ve underestimated the man. I regarded him as just another Hollywood action star, but a quick look at Wikipedia reveals things about him that I didn’t know (or perhaps used to know but forgot; I don’t exactly keep track of celebrity gossip). For example, did you know that he’s black? No, really! Or, well, it’s not quite that simple. He’s racially weirdified by the standards of present-day America, and apparently had difficulties getting roles before he became a star, because he was considered not white enough for roles that weren’t specifically black, and not black enough for ones that were. He even made a semi-autobiographical film about this experience, which impressed Steven Spielberg with its poignance. Poignance? In a Vin Diesel flick? I had no idea it was in his range. As Riddick, he delivers all his lines in an affectless growl, but I suppose that’s what’s appropriate to the character. He’s the extreme tough guy, completely imperturbable, as unmoved by pain as he is by the death of others.

And that’s really what puts him on the Jock side of the aforementioned divide. Indifference is not a geek trait; the defining trait of a geek is excessive interest. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to use these terms in discussing Escape from Butcher Bay, either. The whole thing is pitched at a middle-school mentality, the sort that finds transgressive fascination in antiheroes, excessive profanity, and an “M for Mature” rating. Prison is a metaphor for school, and Riddick goes through a symbolic puberty: eyeshine is an unexpected and confusing physical change, and the one burst of Furion fury he experiences in the game is the closest someone so unemotive can get to a mood swing. Well, like I’ve said, Riddick is styled as a Campbellian mythic hero, and the whole point of myth according to Campbell is to point back at ordinary experience, to provide us with ways of understanding our own lives. So, what kind of school experience does this story resonate with? A violent one, obviously. One where you feel oppressed, and so you lash out, and you don’t care much about the little guys you hurt in the process. You’re disruptive. You’re constantly in trouble. You keep your cool, because any display of emotion makes you vulnerable. This is the world-view of the schoolyard bully. And to that audience, the game provides the reassuring promise that you can escape from violence by being better at it than everyone else.

But in that light, what are we to make of the ending? Riddick ultimately doesn’t escape Butcher Bay by punching everyone until they let him go, but by a ruse, in which he cooperates with Johns, the bounty hunter who brought him there in the first place. Johns is actually instrumental in recapturing Riddick throughout the game, but grows disgruntled by the extra work and lack of payment, and at some point is threatened with being imprisoned himself, on a pretext I’ve already forgotten, but probably more because it’s the easiest way to get out of honoring Riddick’s bounty. I suppose Riddick had earned Johns’ respect as an adversary or something, but at the very end, he straps Riddick into his restraints again and just takes him off to some other prison. Again, I think of the way Riddick kept surrendering at the end of each chapter, after facing much worse things than Johns. Perhaps he has some undisclosed personal reason to do this? Heck, maybe they’re in cahoots, doing some kind of bounty-oriented swindle like Clint Eastwood in the beginning of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Except I think he’s the same bounty hunter as in Pitch Black, and I don’t think it this speculation jibes with their relationship there.

The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay

I’m on record as declaring a fondness for games adapted from movies, but I really haven’t posted about many. I just haven’t been buying the things since my self-imposed rules forced me to limit my game purchases. The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay is sort of a special case. I had to have it because, on its release, it was popularly acclaimed as the first tie-in game that was better than the movie it was based on.

It’s debatable whether this description is accurate. Goldeneye 007, for example, predates it by about seven years, and was certainly more influential as a game than as a movie. (Heck, the game even started its own dance craze.) Some of the Star Wars prequel trilogy tie-in games were better-received by fans than the movies they were based on. But nothing before Riddick provided such a stark contrast between the overwhelmingly positive reception of the game and the poor reviews of its source.

When I picked up the game, I personally had seen neither The Chronicles of Riddick nor its predecessor, Pitch Black. I had seen the trailer, however, and had been struck by the visual style, and how much it looked like a 1980s sci-fi magazine. Pretty much any frame could have been put on the cover of Analog, no questions asked. This seemed promising for the game. Visuals are the easiest thing for a game to get right.

By now, I’ve seen both movies, and I have to agree with pretty much everyone else who’s seen both movies: Riddick is a much more interesting character in Pitch Black, where he isn’t the hero. Pitch Black didn’t really have a hero. It’s more of an ensemble piece, and Riddick’s role in that ensemble is to make everyone else uneasy. We’re told that he’s a criminal, a psychopath, a merciless killer… and then the story finds ways to make the other characters dependent on his mercy. The resulting drama was the main point of interest in an otherwise indifferent sci-fi monster movie. But all the studio seemed to take away from it was “People sure do like this Riddick character, don’t they?”, and so they made a sequel about Riddick’s Heroic Journey, in which he turns out to be The Chosen One and Last Of His Race and similar malarkey. The most interesting parts are when the Joseph Campbell stuff is juxtaposed with the character’s dismal origins, hero as convicted criminal. (Kind of like when Paul Newman did the same thing back in 1967, but more brutal and macho.)

And so, sensibly enough, that’s what the game focuses on. Riddick’s backstory always included an escape from a maximum-security prison, and now we get to make that happen.

The prison environment isn’t as strongly-styled as that trailer, but it’s convincingly prison-like, even though you wander around it with a strange amount of freedom. There’s the whole inmate pecking-order thing going on, with one tough guy ruling over the rest and receiving special favors from the corrupt and violent guards. (He is, of course, killed by Riddick in short order.) The first weapons you get access to are shivs, and, in a nice touch, every shiv is unique: one is made from scrap metal, one from a sharpened screwdriver, etc. The hidden collectibles that unlock bonus content at the main menu take the form of cigarette packs.

And everyone swears a lot. The voice actors, for the most part, don’t really sound like they understand why they’re swearing, but they agreeably say “fuck” when it’s in the script. It reminds me of a story about Mark Twain. Apparently his wife once tried to make him embarrassed about swearing by writing down everything he said and then repeating his scandalous words to him in a cold and disapproving tone. His reply: “You’ve got the words right, but you sure don’t have the music.” I suppose it’s because most of the voice-acting budget was blown on Vin Diesel. I never thought I’d say the words “Vin Diesel is the most talented actor in this”, but such is games.

TLC as Interactive Movie

Tender Loving Care is not the only interactive movie I’ve interacted with. My trophy case 1The Oath defines the “trophy case” as the collection of games I’ve played to completion. I think this is the first time I’ve actually used that term in this blog. includes such titles as A Fork in the Tale and Psychic Detective, I’ve rented Scourge of Worlds: A Dungeons & Dragons Adventure (the only video DVD that’s ever made me google for a walkthrough), and I managed to catch Mr. Payback while it was still running in specially-modified cinemas. I frankly don’t recommend any of these, except perhaps as case studies in interactivity design. (Mr. Payback was particularly interesting as a UI experiment: by use of subtitles, it polled a roomful of people about what should happen next, reported the results, and applied them, all without ever pausing the action.)

In all of these works, the interactivity is obvious. You’re presented with options, you make a selection, you see the results. In most cases, this amounts to a cinematic equivalent of a “choose-your-own-adventure” interface 2Psychic Detective is a notable exception: most of the time, the choices there are about whose eyes you want to watch events through, and the player can just switch perspectives arbitrarily at any moment, like switching between cameras on a live feed. Even so, it ultimately adds CYOA-style choices when it wants to start branching the plot., with all the pitfalls that entails. Tender Loving Care isn’t like that. The connection between your actions and their effects in the movie are far from obvious.

I should emphasize here that there is definitely the possibility of altering what you see. I’ve peeked at the movie clips just enough to confirm that some scenes exist in multiple versions. Whether this constitutes a branching plot or just different presentations of the same events, I’m not yet sure. Once I’ve hit an ending, I intend to take a more thorough look. But regardless of how strong or subtle the changes you wreak on the story, you’re never explicitly choosing one branch over another. Supposedly what you see is dependent on your psychological profile, which the game has been building up through the interactive segments.

The obvious part of this is the periodic multiple-choice questions, but the exploration sequences supposedly play a role too. For example, at one point you can watch a grainy black-and-white striptease on a television in the house, and according to something I recall reading once, the game remembers whether or not you interrupted it. If you watched the whole thing, the game draws conclusions about what sort of movie you want to watch and has Kathryn get her tits out in a later scene. Now, that’s what I read, but it seems unlikely to me that the striptease is the only factor in the decision — certainly there are enough multiple-choice questions about your sexual attitudes, as well as your attitude toward Kathryn in particular. But, short of disassembling the executable or doing a whole lot of experimentation, there’s no way to know which inputs actually have effects. The result is, predictably, a lack of sense of agency — although the free-exploration sequences mitigate this somewhat. Even if you’re effectively relegated to the role of passive observer in a movie that’s putatively interactive, at least you can play hunt-the-hotspot between times.

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1. The Oath defines the “trophy case” as the collection of games I’ve played to completion. I think this is the first time I’ve actually used that term in this blog.
2. Psychic Detective is a notable exception: most of the time, the choices there are about whose eyes you want to watch events through, and the player can just switch perspectives arbitrarily at any moment, like switching between cameras on a live feed. Even so, it ultimately adds CYOA-style choices when it wants to start branching the plot.

The Final Cut

Well, the Vintage Game Club is proceeding on to its next game 1As I write this, they’ve narrowed it down to four candidates, all of which I’ve already played. , so I think it’s about time to admit to myself that I’m not finishing up the JRPGs just yet and proceed on to something else. Something nice and quick to finish, like an adventure game. I still have a passel of obscure European graphic adventures that I was formerly unable to play due to the GeForce bug.

So, last night, I reinstalled a couple of games, feeling kind of strange about it — it’s been quite a few months since I ran an installer from physical media. First, I tried out Ring 2, the second part of Arxel Tribe’s sci-fi adaptation of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Sound issues drove me away from this; if there’s one place you don’t want the music to be skipping and stuttering, it’s in a game based on opera. My second attempt was another Arxel Tribe title, The Final Cut. This had similar sound problems, but I was able to mitigate them with some fiddling. I still get some ugliness in incidental background noises, but at least the dialogue seems to be playing without problems.

The grand concept behind The Final Cut is that it’s based on, or at least inspired by, the works of Alfred Hitchcock. An oddball premise, but adventure games can get away with such things more easily than other genres. I haven’t got far in the game yet (I’m basically at the point where I abandoned it the first time), but so far, it doesn’t strike me as a very good match to the source material. I mean, if I were going to make a Hitchcock pastiche, I’d start off with the stereotypical Hitchcock protagonist: an ordinary man who, through no fault of his own, gets caught up in events beyond his control, like in North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Not all of his films have such a protagonist; sometimes it’s a spy or a master thief or something, but those sorts of roles aren’t specifically Hitchcockian; anyone can make a film about spies or master thieves. Well, the player character here is apparently some kind of psychic detective, which seems a bit outlandish. That’s the kind of premise you’d start with if you had heard of Hitchcock but had never seen his films. Or, more charitably, if you thought players wouldn’t be attracted to playing the Jimmy Stewart role.

The game is driven by the same sort of interface seen in Grim Fandango, which is to say, it’s the Alone in the Dark interface with the addition that the player character turns his head to look at important objects (something that worked a lot better in GF, due to the PC’s freakishly elongated cranium). In this UI, you drive your avatar around with keyboard or joystick, 2The controls here are relative to the direction the character is facing, not the camera, which makes for awkward stumbling and running into walls. Grim Fandango at least let you toggle between character-relative and camera-relative movement modes. and the camera switches between fixed positions depending on your position. And this is the game’s second stumbling block as a Hitchcock imitation — that the camera is controlled exclusively by the player’s position. Hitchcock’s directorial style heavily depends on his control of the camera: I think of the way it emphasizes the separation between inside and outside in Rear Window, or creates tension by lingering on the impromptu casket in Rope, or how in Frenzy it follows a woman to the killer’s door, watches her go through, and then slowly backs off the way it came, as if abandoning her to her fate (and thus forcing the audience to abandon her as well). But here, even in noninteractive bits — which is to say, the dramatic parts — the camera just sits there. I suppose that even with an engine like this, you could give the director control of the camera in FMV sequences, but so far the only FMV bit I’ve seen is the intro.

So, if we don’t have Hitchcock-style premise or direction, what, apart from the blurb on the box, lets us know it’s a Hitchcock game? Well, there are scattered references to specific films — in particular, one of the early puzzles involves piecing together film titles from fragments. And I think the sets are probably from his films. (Note that when I say “sets”, I mean sets: the premise involves a wealthy eccentric who’s making a film on his estate.) I’m not sure of this because, frankly, most of Hitchcock’s sets aren’t all that distinctive. Maybe a real devotee would look at the hotel set and say “Aha! It’s the hotel from scene 17 of Topaz!” But people like me, who have seen a bunch of Hitchcock films and enjoyed them but didn’t rush out to buy the action figures 3On the other hand, I did buy the game, so maybe I’m just in the smallest part of the Venn diagram here., can probably recognize the Psycho house and maybe the schoolyard from The Birds, and that’s it.

In short, so far this is Alfred Hitchcock: The Game in the same sense as Batman: The Ride. Still, there’s one bit that I’ve come across that seems like it fits the spirit of the films pretty well. Standing in for a missing actor, the player character gets in front of a bluescreen and mimes shooting at a dummy. As I go through that sequence, I know full well that it’s going to come back to haunt me later — I’m basically giving the filmmakers the raw materials to fabricate evidence that I’ve shot someone. And I can only assume that I was supposed to realize this, even as the PC blithely goes through with it, because that’s how suspense works: as in the famous example of the ticking bomb, it’s enhanced if the audience knows something that the characters don’t. But in a game, it can be taken a step farther: the audience doesn’t just watch the hapless protagonist do the wrong thing, but actively participates. Step by step, you’re given directions — “Stand on the X”, “Draw the gun now and point it at the dummy”, and so forth — and you execute them, because however strong your sympathy with the protagonist, your desire to advance the plot is stronger.

Hitchcock was no stranger to audience complicity, of course: he knew full well that people would pay good money to see him take sympathetic characters and put them through the worst day of their lives. He sometimes even made his audience feel like accomplices in his virtual crimes, as in the aforementioned scene in Frenzy, or the cleaning-up scene in Psycho, where the tension depends on the audience’s desire, at that moment, for the killer to get away with it. But it’s so much more direct in a game.

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1. As I write this, they’ve narrowed it down to four candidates, all of which I’ve already played.
2. The controls here are relative to the direction the character is facing, not the camera, which makes for awkward stumbling and running into walls. Grim Fandango at least let you toggle between character-relative and camera-relative movement modes.
3. On the other hand, I did buy the game, so maybe I’m just in the smallest part of the Venn diagram here.

Lego Star Wars as a whole

It’s notable that the lego aspect of the Lego Star Wars games isn’t very strong compared to the Star Wars aspect. At no point does the player actually participate in assembling things out of legos. Oh, sure, there are loose piles of legos here and there to be assembled — created, in some cases, when the player blasts an existing lego structure apart — but the player’s involvement in the process is just plunking a character into the middle of the pile, holding down the “action” button, and watching the legos fly to their predetermined spots. Beyond that, lego is basically window dressing on a Star Wars substrate. Like all stylistic aberrations, you get used to it after a while, and basically stop noticing anything strange about it. (With some exceptions, of course. Seeing Lego Slave Leia for the first time was a bit of a shock.)

So where does that leave the Star Wars aspect of the games? If I’m not mistaken, Lego Star Wars and Lego Star Wars II taken together form the only complete game adaptation of the entire 6-episode saga in a single consistent idiom of graphical presentation and gameplay. The closest I’ve seen is a coin-op rail shooter from 1998 that only covered the original trilogy, not the prequels (which hadn’t been released yet). Absurd as it sounds, this makes the Lego games something like the definitive game adaptation of the series.

As such, they provide a good perspective into Star Wars and its relationship with games. It’s hardly news that the prequel trilogy was more videogame-inspired than the original trilogy — the race in Episode 1 and the platformer-like droid factory in Episode 2 in particular have aroused suspicion that they were added to the movies specifically in order to provide fodder for videogame adaptations. “Racing games are popular,” one imagines Lucas saying. “We need a canonical basis for a racing game. Can we use the Endor speeder bikes? Nah, let’s do something more completely like Daytona.” Even if that’s not how it happened, it’s hard to imagine that these scenes could have been produced without anyone involved in the production consciously imitating videogames. The original trilogy, on the other hand, went the other way: instead of videogame-inspired, it was videogame-inspiring. The movies were showing things that couldn’t be effectively done in games yet, but it all looked so cool, and had such obvious promise for the fledgling game medium, that people tried anyway. And they kept trying until the technology caught up and they really could do something that looked as cool as the movies, or cooler. And then they did it again with legos.

As much as I’d like to say that the innovative original trilogy yields better game material than the imitative prequels, it’s just not so. Apart from specific set-pieces, there’s one thing that really separates any game adaptations of the two trilogies: the bosses. The prequel trilogy had a whole bunch of characters that were basically level bosses, such as Darth Maul, Count Dooku, General Grievous — even Sebulba, as the only opponent with a distinct name and personality, is effectively a boss for the Super Anakin Kart sequence. Darth Maul was a disappointment as a character in the movie, especially after all the hype, because all he did was attack the heroes every once in a while. But in a game, that’s not disappointing at all; it’s exactly what we expect. So the prequel trilogy gets a gold star for its colorful array of baddies. In the original trilogy, it’s basically Vader, Vader, Vader. Oh, and briefly Boba Fett, but mainly Vader over and over again, on the Death Star and Bespin and Dagobah (even if that’s just a mystical vision, it’s still a boss fight), until the end, when you fight the Emperor, who isn’t very interesting as a fighter — he basically just zaps one of the two player characters with Force Lightning until you switch to the other character and hit him. They had to turn that scene into a series of platformer puzzles in order to make it viable.

[added June 9 2007] Vader basically has the opposite of Darth Maul’s problem. Unlike Maul, he does a great deal more than just attack the heroes: he captures the princess, interrogates her by extreme means including making her watch him destroy an entire planet, orders underlings around and force-chokes them to death when they fail him, exposes Obi-Wan’s lies, and ultimately switches sides and betrays the Emperor. But only the last of these points translates into gameplay; the rest are shown in cut-scenes, if at all. So he’s less interesting as a videogame character than as a movie character.

Lego Star Wars II: Extras and Secrets

Getting through the Return of the Jedi section of Lego Star Wars II didn’t take long. Cleverly, they used Vader’s redemption at the end of the movie as an excuse to turn him into a player character. This was something of a relief, because it means there’s one Dark Force wielder who doesn’t have to be purchased with lego studs. Once you’ve been given control of him once, you can have him in Free Play mode whenever you like.

About those lego studs. Lego studs fill the same role as “bolts” in Ratchet and Clank: little money items that you acquire mainly by breaking stuff. Some of the various secrets and extras can be purchased with lego studs, but, in most cases, you also have to unlock them by completing some other task, such as completing a level or finding a special “power brick”. There are also gold bricks which accumulate to open up bonus areas, and which are mainly earned by accumulating a certain threshhold of lego studs within a single play-through of a level. It’s all rather byzantine, but it’s done with juicy feedback, both when you attain a goal and again as a summary of your accomplishments on finishing a level. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing, you know when you’ve done it, and even if you don’t know what it means, you know it was a good thing.

To use my earlier nomenclature, finding power bricks is a Challenge, and accumulating lego studs is an Activity. So getting all of the extra powers requires both. One of the powers is particularly worth noting: it multiplies stud yield by 10. So this would be the perfect thing to aim for in order to minimize your time spent stud-farming, except for the fact that it costs more than all the other purchasable items put together. Seriously, there are only two reasons to go for that one. One is that you just enjoy making your games display very large numbers — not something that appeals to me, but this is for the people who keep on trying to beat their own high scores at games they’ve already won. The other is the completist’s urge to catch ’em all, to not have any gaps in their collectibles. Well, Lego Star Wars II is officially off the stack now, but I definitely want to keep hunting secrets at least until I finish all the mini-kits. (Each level has one, in ten scattered and hidden pieces. I don’t know much about the toy line, but I assume that they’re all replicas of actual purchasable lego kits.) Whether I go for the 30-million-stud exercise in uselessness depends on how close I am to it after that.

Lego Star Wars II

When I first became aware of the original Lego Star Wars game, my first thought was of an enormous lego Death Star that I had seen in a store window. The whole idea of taking that huge sphere of grey bricks and blowing it up, sending a firework-like shower of lego flying through space in all directions, was tremendously appealing to me. So you can imagine my disappointment when I learned that the game only covered the prequel trilogy, and my delight at the sequel covering episodes 4-6. That’s two Death Star explosions, one in 4 and one in 6.

Well, I can report on the first of those explosions now. It wasn’t all it could have been. The game keeps the scale too consistent to make the moon-sized Death Star noticably lego-like from a distance. Still, that’s the only disappointing thing in this game so far. (It’s so similar in style and gameplay to the first Lego Star Wars, it usually meets expectations exactly.)

The Lego Star Wars videogame franchise is, needless to say, peculiar. Game adaptations of things that are adaptations themselves actually aren’t all that unusual, but usually it goes book — movie — game (like the various Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movie tie-in games) or comic — movie — game (like the mandatory tie-in game for every superhero movie since 1990), not movie — licensed toy line — game. 1 The only other pattern I can remember seeing offhand is book — comic — game without any movie involved at all. This was done by an adventure game based on Druillet’s comic adaptation of Flaubert’s Salammbo. This, incedentally, is one of three games I own that I discovered only after purchase to be based on French comic books. One effect of mediating the adaptation of the movies through lego is that it becomes pointless to take it all too seriously. We’re presented with a world, yea, a galactic civilization populated entirely by lego people. The designers run with that, throwing in lots of slapstick and silly hats — the silly hats have no effect on gameplay; a silly hat is its own reward — and allowing comic dismemberment. We’ve heard about Wookiees pulling people’s arms out of their sockets, but now we get to see it happen. It happens quite neatly: Chewie pulls on an arm, the arm pops off.

For all its flippancy, it’s actually a better-designed game than most of the other official adaptations of the saga. Well, okay: there have been Star Wars-based videogames for nearly 30 years at this point. The Death Star trench run and the Battle of Hoth have been made and remade in so many games, it would be surprising if they weren’t getting pretty good at them by now. Indeed, the designers of Lego Star Wars II seem to want to avoid repeating other games here: the trench run is surprisingly short, and Hoth has various innovations added to spice it up. (Basically, the tow cable has uses other than tripping up AT-AT’s.)

Right now, I’m all the way through A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, which is to say, I’ve gotten 2/3 of the way to the end. It took the better part of a day. Like the original Lego Star Wars, this is a pretty short game. Or rather, it’s a game for completists, and their close kin, perfectionists. Reaching the end of Episode VI shouldn’t take long, but getting all the stuff — the golden bricks and the hidden multi-part lego models — will take slightly longer. Reaching the end of the game is in a sense only the beginning, just a way to unlock all the characters you’ll need when you go back to hunt secrets. Some optional areas are accessible by using the dark side of the Force. There are only two characters in the movies who can do that, and I suspect that they’ll be the last ones to become available for play.

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1. The only other pattern I can remember seeing offhand is book — comic — game without any movie involved at all. This was done by an adventure game based on Druillet’s comic adaptation of Flaubert’s Salammbo. This, incedentally, is one of three games I own that I discovered only after purchase to be based on French comic books.

The Dark Crystal: Final Thoughts

dark_crystal-endHas it really been more than a week since my last post? Believe it or not, I haven’t abandoned the Oath. I just haven’t played any Stack games in the last week, owing to a confluence of (a) tax preparation, (b) nice weather, (c) the release of the new DROD demo (about which more soon), and (d) a certain amount of dread about continuing The Dark Crystal from where I left off, stuck near the end on one of those one-turn guess-right-or-die puzzles that plagued Time Zone. A nudge from a list of recognized verbs got me through that one, and the rest of the game was smooth sailing, aside from some more difficulties guessing the right commands to do things that I knew I needed to do. This game seemed to have that problem more than the other two games, perhaps because of the way that the necessary actions were chosen to fit a pre-existing story rather than designed to fit the game engine.

The guess-the-verb problem is basically how most people remember text adventures. This may seem like an ignorant prejudice to a fan of modern IF, but it has its foundation in these older games. Especially the early illustrated games, where, as I’ve said, the emphasis in development was on the pictures rather than the gameplay, the story, or the prose. I keep being reminded of the ad campaign that Infocom ran in 1983, extolling the ability of prose to create more vivid images than graphics. Sierra’s games were a large part of the reason this was so convincing at the time.

And yet, I think that if you wanted to make a better adaptation of the movie, the graphics, not the prose, is the main thing you’d have to improve here. The Dark Crystal is a more visual movie than many, and the Apple II is stretched to its limits just making a skeksis recognizable as a skeksis and a landstrider as a landstrider. It must have taken a great deal of work to get it even this far — creating graphics was a laborious process in the days before the mouse, and it looks to me like this game contains far more vectors per illustration than its predecessors. But even if you filled the game with still frames from the actual film at full cinema resolution, it would be less than satisfying: the puppeteer’s art is about movement. To really do this movie justice, you need animation.

I understand that there’s a sequel to The Dark Crystal in the works. I’m not sure how I feel about that, especially with the original creators uninvolved, but I definitely look forward to the inevitable game based on it. May it be a better representation of Froud and Henson’s world than this one.

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