By Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez
Film, videogames and a family reunion gone horribly wrong.
he cinematic sections of videogames are odd creatures. They exist in a kind of limbo, a twilight world generated in the spaces between celluloid and cd-roms. They are not so much the children of two different parents as the incestuous offspring of siblings. Videogames are the much younger brother of film, perhaps the youngest relative in an entire family of movement based visual entertainment stretching through the century. The two met one another at some shadowy reunion and, in a fit of mad, ghostly procreation, sired a little lost child. The "filmed" parts of games do indeed invoke a sense of being lost.
On the one hand they all exist as gigantic footnotes, kinetic passages which the player relies on to convey information and provide the context of the game-narrative about to unfold before his or her eyes. On the other hand these miniature epics seem to be longing for independence, a life beyond the game's parameters. In a sense these cinematic fragments are even alienated from the games they are representing. This is the limbo in which they dwell, a demand to be more hampered by the knowledge that they cannot go further. Yet this demand is an explanation for the basic form of the medium itself.
In an attempt to outdistance their computer origins, the finite boundaries imposed by designers and programmers, these little films are constantly reaching for a kind of cinematic validation. When watching them one gets the sense that the form and structure they follow is all in an attempt to qualify as a movie. The method the creators choose to manage this transformation is to plunder, not always in the worst sense, the relics of a filmic past. There is not much extreme originality in the cinematic videogame arena; it could be argued that the success of a game's filmed sections lies in the fact that they explicitly recall, and make reference to other images one has seen either in movie theatres or on television.
This muted sense of deja vu gives these pieces an awkward half-life, desperate to seek significant standing but not sure enough to take the overall risks which might promise such higher regard. This is not to say, however, that all of the filmed game sections are graverobbing exercises unworthy of any positive comment. In fact it seems that when the audience can pinpoint such borrowed images and genre conventions they are more inclined to applaud the piece as an accurate representation.
Quake 2, released by Activision in late 1997 and developed by id software, has set the standard in first person perspective games. The game itself recalls the visual design of the Alien Trilogy of films (Ridley Scott's , James Cameron's Aliens and David Fincher's highly underrated Alien 3). The claustrophobic future-in-ruins decor, paranoia inducing threat of sudden attack, distant planet-of-darkness setting and the technology deployed by the characters are echoes of the standards set by the Trilogy. The overall effect is to render the opening of Quake 2 very familiar. We've seen this before, even down to the flickering Quake 2 symbol at the beginning reminiscent of the title sequence in Aliens. The Starship looks like a twin of The Sulaco, the mothership in Cameron's film and the very premise of the game, as pieced together from the opening audio montage, involving an attack on a base and the earth mission sent to respond in kind, is practically drawn from Aliens' script. Our first view of the planet again recalls Cameron's film, the darkened buildings viewed through the twisting angles of a vearing craft. Yet while the opening of Quake 2 is clearly derived (some might say stolen while others, more kindly, might suggest it is an homage) from Aliens and owes a great debt to that film, there is still something to be gained in the venture. The most effective tool of the piece is the sense of unease it creates. The use of sound, the back and forth chatter of the descending troops combined with the white noise of static, is well used, suggesting rather than showing outright. A fine example of this occurs as the ships are preparing to land. The player watches as the city comes closer into view, but can hear as a frenzied voice reports, that the entire earth force has suddenly been destroyed. The discrepancy between that shouting voice with its dramatic news and the quiet, oddly "peaceful" scene of the city the viewer watches on the screen has a creepy effect, pushing the viewer to begin to feel a sense of dislocation which can only help in situating the player in the world of Quake 2. Of course also in the opening film's favor is the chance that many players, rather than pointing out the Alien "references" and finding fault with the creators, will be inclined to accept the opening with the same enjoyment with which they watch the films in the Trilogy. Familiarity can have its rewards, even if it isn't the most challenging road to take.
The cinematic element of Quake 2 is a prime example of the purgatory in which the form as a whole dwells. Yet it also suggests that room to play can be found in even the most constricting environments. While the videogame film is bound in servitude to its older, more established sibling of the silver screen, creative approaches to the style might offer an escape clause. Although the techniques and ideas behind Quake 2 are deeply imbedded in the popular film genre the creative spark can, however slightly, still be felt. One only hopes that as this fledgling media continues taking shape and gaining confidence something unique might still be discovered to justify that illegitmate child conceived in the shadow of a long forgotten family gathering.
- Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez is a regular contributor to loonygames.
Credits: Pixel Obscura logo illustrated and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. Pixel Obscura is © 1998 Josh Vasquez. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited...we know where you live.