By Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez
Pondering the potential of a game out of reach
here's always the talk of that film that was never made, the dream project shelved for lack of funds or interest only to be spoken of between friends over dinner or a drink, to be regretted like a lost Vermeer....a canvas of what could have been. It comes as no surprise that videogames often face the same dilemma. They can be lost down the production corridors as quickly as can be fading strips of film or the tattered pages of a forgotten script. It's all too easy.
What makes it that much more tragic is when a beacon is left behind, a tangible reminder of visions gone to hell. The fragments of Orson Welles' almost finished film Don Quxiote, mortally wounded because of the tragic limitations inherent in the word almost can only lean against the shaky towers of their own broken power, haunting the viewer with questions of what if.......? Interplay has left many people asking this question in the wake of their cancellation of Star Trek: The Secret of Vulcan Fury, a game centered around the original Star Trek universe, now doomed to an eternal limbo. All that is left after months of work on the game is a trailer, a gathering of moments. The frustrating thing is that these moments mange to promise so much more.
The overall trailer is successful if only because it immediately recalls the narrative techniques and editing patterns of every other Star Trek preview, and in games which are based on cult programs stylistic imitation that plays on the fans' associations is highly prized. The preview opens on a "Babylon 5-ish" pull away shot of an aging space station while an appropriately somber voice tells us that it is the 23rd century and that ancient secrets are once again coming into the light. The voice warns of world shattering powers and implants the seed of paranoia in the audience, intoning that now it is up to them to decide "who to trust and who to fear."
The trailer format is well handled. The cuts from shot to shot fall on dramatically sustained moments such as the completion of an ominous phrase or the whine of a shuttle traversing space. There is also an interesting sparseness to the piece which, although probably a result of imposing deadlines, strangely fits the overall dramatic feel. The creators seem to have been aiming for a tale of suspense like a film noir let loose in the quiet corridors of abandoned space stations. Actually the visual design really is rather dark, drenched in a lattice work of shadows. Patches of darkness surround the characters. Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty are, when shown alone on the screen, all haloed by aura's of encroaching black. One has the feeling that there is an odd force of alienation at work here, something that is unusual in the Star Trek buddy system of "getting-the-job-done-so-we-can-relax-and-have-a-laugh-at-the-captain's-chair." Adding to this curious state of tense suspense is the lack of any dialogue.
Besides the narrator there are no voices heard in the trailer; this pocket of character silence further increases the eerie atmosphere. We only see their facial expressions, reactions to events which are kept hidden to us...a typical pattern of suspense used countless times in the frantic aesthetic of the film trailer. Another technique which is quite typical of "the preview structure" is a slow narrative build up which jumps into an explosive montage of action. While this is indeed a standard feature of trailers in general, the Star Trek films have a particular stylistic approach to this formula which the game adopts.
After an initial concentration on slower paced environmental establishing shots and a narrative definition of the threat the pace shifts dramatically. The Star Trek trailer formula, as particularly seen in the Next Generation films, begins with an establishment of a threat with no direct mention of the Trek characters. After the turning point, however, the audience finally catches quick moments of our heroes dealing with the crisis. It is at this point that it is made explicitly clear that the narrative is situated in the Star Trek universe. Usually the first thing shown in the montage of action is a shot of starships engaged in battle, the instantly recognizable sound of phasers being fired filling the soundtrack. The game both follows and breaks this formula.
There is indeed a direct cut to battling ships after the turning point and a subsequent rapid series of shots of our heroes preparing to face whatever dangers may await them. In an interesting break with tradition, however, the creators let the viewer see both Kirk and Spock before the jump into the next section. This serves an interesting purpose. By fitting the characters into the slower, spookier narrative set-up the creators manage to increase the tension. The threat to our beloved heroes seems more dramatic because now they are not only shown actively battling the dangers but appear just as vulnerable to the perils of the plot as everyone else. This stylistic move away from formula creates an internal thematic for the piece which presents to the potential player a text of suspense.
All of this leads me to wonder what the game might have been like had it been given a chance. The trailer speaks to a vision begun in earnest but then lost somewhere along the way, lead astray by the various forces of erosion articulated in the cut throat world of production. Star Trek: The Secret of Vulcan Fury might just have lived up to the potential of the fragments assembled in the trailer; the shame is that we will never know for sure.
- 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.