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Pixel Obscura:
Sudden Histories

Vol. 2, Issue 9 
January 24, 2000 

What is very clear is that in Unreal Tournament the instructive back-story is first and foremost meant to be evocative, a laying on of atmosphere. To make this work is no easy task; such a technique could easily become melodramatic to the point of being silly or flashy, insubstantial, pseudo dark poetry crap geared to get points on the “hip” scale. The bit works in UT because it’s kept simple and direct, the rapid yet steady delivery matched to an equally brisk, controlled visual pace. The unfolding narration even manages to maintain an ever so slightly creepy edge, like listening to a distant radio broadcast in a dream where every little thing seems to be a clue to some unfathomable mystery.

“...what was, what will be and what is may yet fall under the shadow”

The Wheel of Time takes a necessarily different approach. Having been adapted from a series of books and being a game based around an epic storyline as opposed to Unreal Tournament’s local color, Wheel of Time’s history lesson covers far more narrative ground. The piece opens with a working out of the equation of history, myth and legend, a kind of cosmic “let’s get this straight” before proceeding. It seems that long ago the world experienced an age of legend, a time when humanity attained a dazzling level of harmony and metaphysical control. Certain people developed the ability to channel a kind of primal energy and before long one woman misused her powers, unleashing a great evil on the world. Although in time subdued, this fiendish presence left a parting gift in the form of a curse that drove the male channelers insane and nearly destroyed everything. We open sometime later during a period of general unrest. Now, I’m leaving out a lot of details because it would be silly to dawdle but also because my point is that there are indeed so many details.

The opening is bogged down by the weight of the game’s own history, giving the whole thing an almost comic air of self-importance. Fantasy-esque games are always in danger of this sin, caught between wanting to take their own convoluted plots seriously and having to because if they didn’t everyone would be rolling in the aisles. I don’t mean that as a cheap shot as much as a recognition of just how difficult juggling sword and sorcery stuff can be (all that Magmus, son of Flogmarr, keeper of the keys of Pentoozler jazz has a dangerously high scoff factor). The problem is that WoT seems to be struggling with the material, combining weak animation and standard fantasy images with a hard to follow recap that even the gorgeously measured tones of Discovery Channel regular Ed Green can’t bring to life. Considering the fact that they’re compacting an entire series of books into a few minutes, they do an admirable job of streamlining, but that doesn’t keep WoT from suffocating under its own ponderous narrational shadow.

These sudden histories, while pretty popular in video game cinematics, are no easy tool to master. An instant back-story, inflated with all the time it takes to moistly grow one of those shrunken sponge dinosaurs, can give a piece a self-assured ratta-tat-tat that sweeps the viewer along in its narrative folds, never letting go before depositing you, breathless, in front of the game. It can also, however, prove be a crippling mistake, burying an opening beneath a retarding layer of informative blubber.

Actually, the funny thing is that even when done well sudden back-stories feel rushed and a little empty. Perhaps it’s time we had that three-hour epic, that unselfconscious (and unashamed) challenging and embracing of the medium on its own terms, a video game vision of art cinema. We can only hope.

- Joshua Vasquez is the resident film critic here at loonygames. He also writes for the Internet film site Matinee Magazine.

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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.