By Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez
"Were these things produced for the same medium?"
t's odd how wide the gap can often be between similar works developed and produced in the same medium. There are certainly lightyears bounded in a comparison of a dime-store Louis Lamour western and Cormac McCarthy's haunting, frighteningly beautiful tale of the West Blood Meridian, and it's almost disconcerting to imagine the distances separating a horror film as eloquent and poetic as Carl Dreyer's Vampyr Rand a silly experiment in bloodletting like Scream 2. Every artistic medium carries with it such examples of polar opposition, works which, due to general quality and "authorial" intention, stare at one another from disjointed worlds. This is not a surprising phenomenon; not every piece of art is fashioned with the same dedication and passion and is the product of various backgrounds and points of view, not all of which are capable of withstanding the interpretive ravages of critical dissection. It is nevertheless, as mentioned earlier, an odd occurrence, particularly when one stumbles across it in a genre as somewhat stylistically confined as the video game "film." The cinematic sequences in both Interstate '76 and Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee are, while the offspring of the same medium, quite different in the ways they achieve their ends in the realms of story and technology.
Interstate '76, developed and distributed by Activision and released in mid 1997 is a direct homage to seventies detective/action flicks even down to the "waka-chicka" music score; the minute it opens we know we're in Black Belt Jones country. The text prologue recalls the apocalyptic setting of Mad Max while the use of crickets to provide a score for this otherwise completely black screen is subtly effective. The piece opens directly into the middle of frantic motion, a car chase screaming through the desert. There are a few clever moments including a "camera" angle from a landmine's perspective and the use of a car crashing into the screen to signal a scene change. The shift situates the viewer in the middle of a game of cat and mouse as a shadowy character (who because of this is already coded as a villain) stalks a female police official. Again there is a nice use of first person perspective as the "camera" moves through the stockyard and the tension mounts. Finally the villainous gangster-type shoots the girl and prepares to finish her off...and at that moment a car comes crashing through a fence as the driver begins raining gunfire on the mysterious stranger. The scene shifts once again to the new arrival holding the dying girl in his arms as she asks him to tell her brother about her demise.
This sequence is notable for one primary reason: the use of repetition of shots to heighten their dramatic effect. In two moments reminiscent of the brilliant Russian filmmaker from the beginning of the century Sergi Eisenstein, the creators of Interstate '76 use several different angles of the same action and repeat them in succession in order to increase the impact of the action itself.
In his film Potemkin, Eisenstein takes the image of a man breaking a plate and edits together a number of different angles and shots of the act to form one fluid motion. The rapid cuts are jarring and stirringly portray the intensity and symbolic power of the action. Now I am sure that the gang at Activison were not consulting their little filmmakers handbooks while piecing together Interstate '76, but the effect is still intriguing. When the girl is shot the creators replay the moment twice, driving the point of the violence home. When the car smashes through the fence we see the action from several angles in a row, again heightening the sense of impact. It is an unusual and welcome touch. The following sequence is a mimicking cry to the typical opening to any seventies police television show and is the highlight of the entire piece. While funky rhythms pulse in the background we are introduced to the main characters of the game as they engage in actions pulled straight from the pages of a hundred exploitation flicks. It is a humorous and appropriately knowing moment.
The next scene further introduces the two main characters and establishes the plot. Groove Champion and his partner Taurus are determined to avenge the girl's death and kick some ass along the way. Despite some clever moments, however, Interstate '76 fails to live up to its potential.
On the one hand the dialogue is ludicrously simple minded even for a seventies homage piece. Taurus' little rant against the forces menacing the countryside is a laughable cliche...and maybe this is what the creators intended. The one thing that consistently jars narrative is the simplicity of the overall design.
The characters are severely blocky creatures who lack mouths and yet speak anyway. Their environment is as limited in structural design as they are...both recall the early days of computer animation as seen in the Dire Straights video "Money for Nothing." One could say that this is a deliberate choice, and perhaps it is meant to symbolically hearken back to the twenty something year old period of cinema that they are trying to capture, but it still stands out as a flawed creation.
The animation design is essentially a hollow one; there really isn't any character created at all in the animation except for the basics of costume, gender and race. In Interstate '76 character exists through voice or lack of voice, as demonstrated in the silent menace of the pinstripe suited killer. Ironically, considering the importance of voice in generating character in this game, nobody has a mouth, leaving the lingering feeling that economics where the main reason for this decision...no mouths equal no lips to have to be shaped around words. Overall it is a bland world, devoid of any real sense of personality. A universe apart from the empty landscape of Interstate '76 is the wonderfully realized dimension of Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee.
From the very beginning Oddworld, also released in mid 1997, distinguishes itself from Interstate '76 immediately by creating a much more impressive physical-sense world starting from the credits alone. The sound effects are much more dynamic and intriguing and Abe's voice is an automatically endearing feature. Yet since the animators manage to make Abe and the Gluckens physically much more expressive creatures than the Interstate '76 crew, their voices are freed from carrying the full weight of character development and serve to only increase and embellish that character already established. Rupture Farms is a far more expressionist setting than the blocky indistinct desert landscape of Interstate; Abe's world is a hellish one, reflecting both the physical and psychological state of oppression which makes up his existence. The use of Abe's voice over as a narrative tool also allows the viewer to ease into the universe of the game, quickly stimulating interest in the dynamics of Rupture Farms and the interaction of its inhabitants.
The actual character design is wonderfully expressive. Abe leaps and slinks about like a giddy toddler glad to be carrying out his duties. His large eyes convey a friendly warmth and childlike sense of awe. The Gluckens, cigar smoking, demon faced, zoot suit wearing mad capitalists are also superbly portrayed. The "camera" is released to fly about through Rupture, following Abe and circling about the fiendish Gluckens with equal spacial delight. When Abe makes his horrible discovery that the new meat product to be produced at Rupture will be taken from his own race he is forced into a desperate struggle for survival and in the process is destined to become a hero. The transfer from the "filmed" section to the actual game is another striking feature in Oddworld. The "camera" pans down in a continuous shot from Abe being chased by the authorities across several darkened layers of machines to come to a stop as the "game Abe" appears on the screen ready to go. This is certainly an unusual technique and is the capstone to an overall charming and wonderful piece of videogame cinema.
Interstate '76 and Oddworld are good examples of the divergent possibilities of the medium. When comparing these two games, both released at the same time into the same market, it quickly becomes apparent that as in any art form there are various levels of expressivity and storytelling to be found in the cinematic videogame dialogue. The artists can choose how dedicated and passionate they wish to be, which cliched valleys they repeatedly become mired in or what creative peaks they seek to climb.
- 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.