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Vol. 2, Issue 9
January 24, 2000

Pixel Obscura:

Sudden Histories

by Josh Vasquez


Shot out of a cannon into the past

ideo game opening cinematics don’t exactly allow for three-hour epics.

Their main function is to brief the player for the game to come in a hopefully interesting way, whether that be a montage of action, a little slice of narrative or a simple introductory piece like a character display (for an example of the latter see the intro to Namco’s Soul Calibur). There are games, however, which because of either sheer scope or stylistic concerns require a different approach, a radical compacting of story, theme and character into a hysterically operatic few minutes of viewer concentration that generate in the player the sensation that he or she is descending into a folkloric miasma, a tidal wave of legend.

Greeting players with phrases like “in the dark times” or “and so it came to pass,” these games catapult you backwards into their own foundational history, and then quickly escort you, pointing out the odd bit of local color, through a winding narrational hallway that terminates in front of a door leading to the game itself. Two recent GT Interactive releases provide a glimpse into how this technique can succeed and backfire.

Unreal Tournament (developed by Epic Games) and The Wheel of Time (developed by Legend Entertainment) both open with an informational hymn to a phantom “first part,” a telling of events which the player has never before seen that feels strangely more like a recapping. There are two basic forms the “history pill” technique can take, background filler as in Unreal Tournament and force-fed need-to-know plot as crammed by WoT. Background bits serve to add a little color to otherwise formulaic designs and thereby presumably allow the player a more rewarding experience, a context by which to dramatize the shooting and maiming. UT, a combat game, seeks just such a “fleshing out.”

“...to crush your enemies, to win the tournament”

Beginning in the ruined underground of a subway and making its way up and across the sky, weaving between hunched, diseased looking buildings, Unreal Tournament’s “camera” glides past the various architectures of the city before entering the black and cancerous Tournament arena itself. A woman’s voice, echoing the mid-Atlantic deadness of the characters populating 2001, chronicles the formation of the Tournament. Unreal Tournament started as a tool for quieting rebellious miners and over the past fifty years has developed into an obscenely profitable money making scheme, attracting the most dangerous wretches from across the universe. The Tournament started as one form of control and grew into another, violence channeled into entertainment, aggression into currency. There is no moralizing here, however, just a back-story designed to give the player something to chew on, a broader picture in which to wreak havoc. But is there a hint of desperation in the narrator’s otherwise controlled voice? A symbol lurking in the fact that the first thing we see is the rotting foundation of the city’s underground, a darkness that is, perhaps, leaking to the surface, infecting both machines and man?

Well, maybe not. As so many are bound to point out, it’s just a fighting game after all...

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Credits: Illustration © 2000 Dan Zalkus. Pixel Obscura is © 2000 Josh Vasequez. All other content is © 2000 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited, you cartoonish villian, you.