Of Movie Tie-Ins and Joystick Storytellers: The Video and Computer Game Revolution that devoured Hollywood

Why did the computer and video game industry “tie in” with motion pictures? How come the once ubiquitous game adaptations disappeared whilst gaming is more popular and lucrative than ever?

Of Movie-Ties and Joystick Storytellers: How  the Computer and Video Gaming Industry devoured the Motion Picture. An Analysis by Andreas Wanda. Screenshot: Jurassic Park by Ocean Software, Amiga OCS, 1993
Of Movie-Ties and Joystick Storytellers: How the Computer and Video Gaming Industry devoured the Motion Picture. An Analysis by Andreas Wanda. Screenshot: Jurassic Park by Ocean Software, 1993

This is an analysis of how gaming industry’s original envy turned into unsurpassed pride, of how the relationship between the motion picture and the computer and video game industries has undergone a significant change over the last four decades, of how players cast off the double-duties as brand ambassadors name-dropping a film’s title in conversations to tell their very own, very personal story of their adventures inside the bits and bytes of computer and video gaming. This is the journey of the joystick marketeer that lived to be a virtual storyteller…

The glamorous motion picture industry used to be so far removed from everyday life before the World Wide Web, any promise of proximity, let alone direct involvement, sufficed to bet one’s pocket money on yet another licensed computer game tying in with a film’s release. The promise of participating in the latests blockbuster’s action scenes, however indirectly, was too tempting to pass up on. Jon Woods, one of the two founding members of 80ies and 90ies computer gaming giant, Mancunian developer Ocean Software remembers in Retro Gamer’s Ocean special: “These were studios that would sell whatever they could: paper hats, playing cards, wallpaper and sleeping bags for, say, Highlander, and of course all of a sudden we’re providing these people with another commodity and they didn’t take much notice of.” (Ocean Software – Retro Gamer Signature Collection, p24).

Indiana Jones and the Lost Kingdom represents a typically misleading license. Although a current blockbuster, Paramount's and Lucasfilm's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is clearly referenced by the packaging, the game itself amounts to a rather non-descript jump-and-run title. Licenses tended to be exploited to hide the average quality of a particular game. Visit www.houseofgames.org more more information.
Indiana Jones and the Lost Kingdom (1984) represents a typically misleading license. Although a current blockbuster, Paramount’s and Lucasfilm’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, is clearly referenced by the packaging, the game itself amounts to a rather non-descript jump-and-run title. Licenses tended to be exploited to hide the average quality of a particular game. Visit www.houseofgames.org more more information.

The might of the movies typically overshadowed the reception of a game based on an established intellectual property, which proved both a gift and a curse: for while consumers envisioned themselves as the world’s greatest archaeologist Dr. Henry Jones in Mindscape’s Indiana Jones and the Lost Kingdom (pictured above), the game’s hero sprite was perfectly interchangeable. Mindscape’s timely 1984 offering coincided with the launch of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The film’s impressive release poster even emblazoned the game’s box. The article itself nevertheless was lacking any further connection to the IP. Lost Kingdom thus also worked as a ruse to lure the market to take lightly to a mediocre, insignificant jump-and-run game in great need of marketing acumen. A license was shrewdly exploited to superficially “improve” the impact of a computer game it would otherwise never have attained. The “genre” of the motion picture tie-in has consequently always borne the mark of a tempting yet deceiving offering since its inception.

On the other hand, motion picture licenses revealed that gamers were keen to explore fantastic worlds, which the world of film ever so effectively casts on movie screens. Technological evolution would eventually allow developers to turn tables on an industry that formerly dictated terms for granting affiliation with its prized intellectual properties.

The need of the games industry: Adding substance to vacuity

To label early  electronic entertainment a “tough sell” is as fitting as it is dichotomous. While an instant popularity cannot be denied, the public at large was  oblivious to the mysterious new leisure activity. People were inevitably at a loss to comprehend a handful of so-called “pixels” moving other “pixels” for no apparent reason. Early gaming platforms were so limited, promotional materials, packaging, manuals, novellas and downright gimmicks provided the necessary context for initially woefully blank screens and the monochrome pixels.

Since computer and video games started out as a highly abstract form of entertainment, assorted external materials had to be created to provide the ample context for a given game. From left to right, Missile Command, Star Raiders and Starglider each sold a massive interstellar conflict to consumers by means of narrative packaging, a hardware add-on to mimick a spaceship's console and a science fiction novella, which explained why gamers were supposed to worry about flashing dots on the screen.
Narrative context in all shapes and sizes: Since computer and video games started out as a highly abstract form of entertainment, assorted external materials had to be created to provide the ample context for a given game. From left to right, Missile Command, Star Raiders and Starglider each sold a massive interstellar conflict to consumers by means of narrative packaging, a hardware add-on to mimick a spaceship’s console and a science fiction novella which explained why gamers were supposed to worry about flashing dots on the screen through a fully developed story. Please visit www.atarimania.com, www.atariage.com and www.c64sets.com for in-depth discussions and presentations of these video gaming classics.

The amount of time and money required to provide ample context to properly market a computer and video game was staggering. Up until the mid-1990ies, developers and publishers tended to inundate consumers with give-aways to add value to the gameplay experience. In spite of such commitment, there still remained the battlefield of a merciless market vying for consumer attention. Computer and video games were sorely lacking “marquee value”, that magical blessing which secured actresses and actors hefty fees and theater owners sold-out screenings.

David Fox is an American multimedia producer who designed and programmed numerous early LucasArts games. He and his wife, Annie Fox, now work on educational software, Web design, Emotional Intelligence content, online communities, emerging technologies, and writing books for children and teens.
David Fox is an American multimedia producer who designed and programmed numerous early LucasArts games. He and his wife, Annie Fox, now work on educational software, web design, Emotional Intelligence content, online communities, emerging technologies, and writing books for children and teens.

The electronic games industry nevertheless had the enthusiasm and creativity to rival the celluloid behemoth. Its ability to ship consoles that gave families control over basic dots darting across the television screen was in itself an incredible achievement. The motion picture still unquestionably ruled as the ultimate example of immersive entertainment, said former Lucasfilm game designer David Fox in a 1987 interview: “It’s like you’ve been transported to somewhere else. Most of us like that feeling and we wanted to be able to transport the person to another universe too, through a game that’s really different. I think it’s very exciting to do that. I wish we had wide screen and stereo sound and things like that, to make the experience even stronger. But we’re doing the best that we can within the limitations of the machines.“

David Fox raises a crucial point. Developers were naturally committed to making their games stand-alone experiences. Yet everything that needed to be created through the gaming platform at hand was inherently abstract, especially during the early days of computer and video game entertainment rendering self-explanation hopeless. What better context to endow an upcoming game with than a motion picture blockbuster people instantly connect with by means of reference? “Recognition value” turned the emphemeral dance of pixels into an instantly relatable circumstance. Marketing departments relaxed and shipments soared as movie heroes and film stars came to the rescue with their prized gift of “marquee value”.

One Plot Point per Cartridge

David Fox’s wishful thinking about cinematic widescreen gaming had to be placated for the time being with motion picture licenses stuffed into the loose, unfinished stockings of computer and video game technology. The public needed to be initiated into an incomprehensible mess of dots and grating sounds through guidance. Proximity to motion pictures was an undeniably seductive proposition.

Early motion picture tie-ins: E.T. - The Extraterrestial and Raiders of the Lost Ark cartridges for the ATARI VCS Console, Photo (C) Andreas Wanda
Early motion picture tie-ins: E.T. – The Extraterrestial and Raiders of the Lost Ark cartridges for the ATARI VCS.

Translating a beloved box office smash into a riveting game proved a punishing assignment. There were plenty of limitations programmers had to contend with, aside from the burdensome responsibility to turn the employer’s hefty license fee into a smart investment. Memory was the greatest concern, which initially forced designers to develop games around a particular scene: Atari Games released Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1982 for its VCS console, which elaborated on the famous Staff of Rah scene from Steven Spielberg’s eponymous blockbuster. Although the cartridge left out the rest of the film, it featured multiple screens and an exploration mechanic, effectively affording players a more detailed investigation of the so-called “Map Room” and the eventual discovery of the Ark of the Covenant. The film’s Academy Award-winning art direction, visual and sound effects were naturally – and criminally – absent and had to be filled in by the players’ imaginations.

TRON: Deadly Discs - Video game cartridge for the Mattel Intellivision console

Unable to combine entirely different stages of gameplay in one cartridge, Mattel launched three separate games based on Walt Disney’s TRON: Deadly Discs, Maze A Tron and Solar Sailer. A narrative reminiscent of cohesion suggested itself to owners of the complete series – provided one had studied the manuals assiduously, for the game’s graphics were particularly abstract and memory virtually non-existent to allow for in-game narration of any kind, let alone reminiscent of TRON’s groundbreaking high resolution computer graphic visuals.

Star Wars: Jedi Arena from Parker Brothers for the Atari VCSParker Brothers also resorted to a multi-cartridge strategy to perfectly capitalise on its Star Wars license, releasing in short order Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, as well as Jedi Arena and Death Star Battle in 1984. As with TRON before, gamers could place themselves in multiple scenes from their beloved space saga and enjoy vastly different genres, with their memory of the classic films filling in visual and aural blanks, and adding the connective narrative tissue.

Computer game genres: Be pixellated and multiply

Gross technological limitations of the time necessitated the creation of a great variety of computer game genres. Either a game was meant to be fast-paced and colorful (shoot ’em up), multi-screened and adventurous, or skill- and logic-based. Whenever narrative scope was required, a text-adventure game was in order.

A combination of all these aspects inside a uniform computer game design proved elusive in the early days of computer and video gaming. Bitmapped assets requested generous amounts of RAM and any real-time renderings had yet to be mastered on home gaming platforms. Arcade games, by contrast, always boasted expensive hardware accroutements to allow for spectacles unseen and unheard of. Per consequence, arcade games placed in coin-operated machines started a crucial development that would eventually free computer and video games from the burden of licensed properties.

Story-Telling Blobs of Pixels and Speech

Midway's Pac Man literally "starred" a whole roster of quirky ghosts, who engaged in funny interstitials in between stages, a seismic innovation that was the starting point for "narrative" gaming.
Midway’s Pac Man literally “starred” a whole roster of quirky ghosts, who engaged in funny interstitials in between stages, a seismic innovation that was the starting point for “narrative” gaming.

Namco’s Pac Man (1980) was one of the first games ever to entertain players with non-interactive animation in between levels. These interstitials had not been designed to rival the likes of Tolstoy or Henry Fielding, but to lend each of Pac Man’s ghostly enemies distinct personalities. Gamers considered the simple yet witty level transitions a valuable addition to the overall experience.

Namco also ensured in this sly fashion that players had something to talk about, having also created a bona-fide word-of-mouth honey pot.

All arcade game designers followed suit and eventually adorned their releases with animated, non-playable intermissions: Super Joe treats himself to a smoke in Capcom’s Commando, Konami’s Green Beret flings himself impressively over the fence of an enemy outpost, while Sega’s Afterburner lets the battered F-14 refuel, adorned with spoken sound bites. With these rapid strides, it seemed very probable that action-packed motion picture blockbusters could be adequately retold by advanced arcade machines.

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi by Atari GamesIn 1984, Atari Games launched Star Wars: Return of the Jedi in the arcades and released Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom a year later. Both were multi-staged games that covered several key plot points of the original films. The former in particular recapitulated virtually 3/4s of the second Indiana Jones adventure. Developed on custom-designed hardware that allowed rich, bitmapped visuals and synthesized music and digitized speech, these two arcade games displayed scene-stealing qualities that subtly reduced the gap between the motion picture industry and the world of gaming.

You Tube: Early video game "cut scene" of Han Solo destroying the Endor shield generator in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi by Atari Games
You Tube: Early video game “cut scene” of Han Solo destroying the Endor shield generator in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi by Atari Games

Jedi and Indy had managed to squeeze a narrative of sorts into a homogenous gameplay mechanic, with the element of racing thrown in for good measure (the Endor speeder bike chase, the escape from the Death Star on the one hand and the mine cart chase in Indy). Jedi also featured non-playable animations to lead players from one stage to the next, such as Han deftly lobbing explosives into an Imperial bunker to take out the shield generator. The motion picture narrative was still far from being fully translated into a computer game.

Importantly, both Jedi and Indy also featured a gameplay experience augmented by audio clips from the original movies. For in addition to animations, arcade owners were pleased with the very early addition of speech to coin-operated games. Speech synthesis had indeed started in the arcades, where dedicated hardware let the likes of the 1982 arcade classic Sinistar taunt players with seven evil voice clips (“Beware, I live!”, “Run, run, run!”).

From Wikipedia: Once the Sinistar is completely formed, a digitized voice (recorded by radio personality John Doremus[5] and played through an HC-55516 CVSD decoder[6][7]) makes various threatening pronouncements, including "Beware, I live!," "I hunger, coward!," "I am Sinistar!," "Run! Run! Run!," "Beware, coward!", "I hunger!," "Run, coward!," and various loud roaring sounds. The Sinistar has no weapon attacks, but if it contacts the player's ship while it darts about the playfield, the player's ship will be "eaten" and destroyed.  Click to play video on You Tube.
From Wikipedia: Once the Sinistar is completely formed, a digitized voice (recorded by radio personality John Doremus[5] and played through an HC-55516 CVSD decoder[6][7]) makes various threatening pronouncements, including “Beware, I live!,” “I hunger, coward!,” “I am Sinistar!,” “Run! Run! Run!,” “Beware, coward!”, “I hunger!,” “Run, coward!,” and various loud roaring sounds. The Sinistar has no weapon attacks, but if it contacts the player’s ship while it darts about the playfield, the player’s ship will be “eaten” and destroyed. Click to play video on You Tube.
The spectacular inclusion of speech in games remained the unique selling proposition of arcades for a relatively short time. Mattel had first introduced the Intellivoice Module, but only a handful of modules would support the add-on, which arrived late in the console’s lifetime. Yet loquacious computers had always been attractive, for who would not want to know what silicon thought? And since audio hardware of early home computers proved rather malleable in the hands of crafty coders, speech was introduced to computer games in 1984 with Impossible Mission by Californian developer Epyx.

Beach Head II by Access Software featured heart-pounding speech that lent the fairly abstract and cartoony visuals a surprisingly brutal and visceral quality. Click to play longplay video on You Tube.
Beach Head II by Access Software featured heart-pounding speech that lent the fairly abstract and cartoony visuals a surprisingly brutal and visceral quality. Click to play longplay video on You Tube. Also visit www.c64-wiki.de for more information on Commodore 64 games.

When the Carver brothers’ Beach Head II – The Dictator Strikes Back was released in 1985, a first glimpse of realism was distinguishable in the mess of dots and lines. The soldiers of pixels proved an outspoken lot, crying for medical attention or screaming in terror while meeting the end underneath a tank’s catarpillars. Beach Head II thus sprang to life and would never cease to captivate gamers who felt the weight of responsibility come crushing down on them as yet another of their men dropped dead.

Another key ingredient in the struggle of computer and video games for recognition as a bona-fide story-driven experience was thus established. The eventual availability of full in-game voice-overs would improve the sensation of immersive storytelling immensely.

Animated but speechless adventures

Mask of the Sun by Broderbund, released in 1982, click to play You Tube video.
Mask of the Sun by Broderbund, released in 1982, click to play You Tube video to see early first-person segments surprise 8-bit adventurers.

Animations also became an integral part of adventure games. As early as 1982, The Mask of the Sun from Brøderbund, a floppy disk exclusive, elaborated on the possibility of animated intermissions. Its developers used the medium to narratively augment an already densely structured story about a mysterious Aztec treasure. Taking a page from Namco’s Pac Man interstitials, Brøderbund surprised text adventurers with animated graphics that dramatized story beats visually: players literally “approach” their South American hosts at the airport, drive through a treacherous jungle and see the eponymous mask come to life. Visually impressive, it was technically groundbreaking in that 8-bit computers were effectively multi-tasking to distract from the considerable loading times of the next section.

Roberta Williams' beloved adventure series King's Quest featured animated characters and locations from the start, yet still employed a command line interpreter, which parsed the player's input into on-screen actions.
Click to watch on You Tube: Roberta Williams’s beloved adventure series King’s Quest featured animated characters and locations.

Roberta Williams’ revolutionary The King’s Quest started in 1984. It featured full-color environments through which players directly controlled the protagonist. The characters’ actions were all carried out visually rather than cast into paragraphs of prose. Although arguably hard to fathom today,  Sierra’s adventure games broke the mould of the genre by giving players the as yet unknown pleasure of watching their avatar loyally execute their commands.

Knight Lore by Ultimate Play The Game used jaw-droppingly fluid animations of high-resolution characters and environments, all while giving players the freedom to manipulate every object on screen.
Watch on You Tube: Knight Lore by Ultimate Play The Game used jaw-droppingly fluid animations of high-resolution characters, all while giving players the freedom to manipulate every object on screen. While this is commonplace in gaming today, manipulating gameplay environments with purpose was nothing short of a revelation in 1984. See Retro Gamer issue 126, “Knight Lore: A 30-Year Legacy”, available from Imagine.

Ultimate Play the Game, the British developer which morphed into developer Rare in 1988, specialised in isometric “action adventures” that did away with text-input, which drew attention to the keyboard and broke the suspense of disbelief. Furthermore, Ultimate even branded their animation technique and put its name “Filmation” broadly on their boxes. Ultimate’s most famous release was the stage-setting 1984 release of Knight Lore, which competed against an increasing amount of “action adventures” that attempted to turn controllers into people’s quills etching a story into history.

A tendency to smoothen the rough edges of early gaming into a rounded narrative whole was undeniable indeed. On the other side of the pond, Yale student (and eventual graduate) Jordan Mechner single-handedly crafted a tale of a captured princess and a valiant knight in between his studies. Set in medieval Japan and taking a page or two from current arcade blockbuster Karate Champ from Data East, Mechner endowed the hero with exquisite karate skills. These the players needed to call upon with increasing precision if they wanted to progress successfully through the three-act narrative – Jordan Mechner had literally employed film structure to create the sense of narration as opposed to harsh breaks in between stages. Each act-break was accentuated by a very stylish animated sequence elaborating on the princess’s plight, a vertiable cut-scene rendered through in-game visuals. Furthermore, the animation was based on filmed footage of the various karate moves and transferred, pixel by pixel, to the game, lending the gameplay experience a remarkably filmic look and feel. Its name: Karateka.

Karateka is legendary cinematic game that visually and stylishly outclassed every release in 1984. Psychology student Jordan Mechner incredibly created a motion picture narrative disguised as a beat 'em-up on Apple II and C64 computers. Click to play longplay video on You Tube.
Karateka is legendary cinematic game that visually and stylishly outclassed every release in 1984. Psychology student Jordan Mechner incredibly created a motion picture narrative disguised as a beat ’em-up on Apple II and C64 computers. Click to play longplay video on You Tube.

As impressive and successful as Jordan Mechner’s Japanese hero tale Karateka was, its gameplay was cast in stone, much like a motion picture’s story, unswervingly moving onward. Unlike typical action-adventure games such as Ultimate’s, Karateka sacrificed exploration, game- and replay-value for its stunning cinematic presentation. The limitations of early computer and video game technology still reared its ugly head, for Mechner’s agile karateka was too  but a pawn in a one-way virtual story.

First-Persion Action at 10,000ft…and lightyears beyond

When home computers made inroads into households all over the world, they introduced the flight simulator on the back of their advanced processing powers. The limitations of the era benefitted the illusion of flight effortlessly because designers never had to worry about too many visual details. Never mind the fact that objects resembled basic building blocks from a toddler’s toybox: players would be screaming through the air at altitudes of thousands of feet. The absence of conspicuous air and ground details therefore seemed to augment the level of realism. Their wire-frame worlds were computed in real-time and afforded players a degree of freedom unparalleled by sprite-based releases of the time.

F-15 Strike Eagle by Microprose was among the first flight simulators ever released on home computers. Their wire-frame worlds were computed in real-time and afforded players a degree of freedom unparalleled by sprite-based releases of the time.
Click to watch the game on You Tube: F-15 Strike Eagle by Microprose. It was followed by a sequel that would eventually be turned into an arcade cabinet.

Flicking through withered pages of computer magazines salvaged from the flames that consumed the Alexandrian library, one realises how popular flight sims were at the dawn of the home computing age.

Sublogic’s Flight Simulator and Jet, the Microprose titles comprising Mig Alley, Sid Meier’s Solo Flight, F-15 Strike Eagle, Cosmi’s Super Huey and Cascade’s ACE strapped players into seats of various aircraft and – inevitably, given the endless possibilities of computer generated worlds and galaxies, as it were – starships.

Three sky- and star-prone games employed the template of a cockpit overlay and a moving horizon with strong story elements.

 

ELITE by Ian Bell and David Braben gave players a box of a galaxies where gamers could trade, fight and travel at their own whim. ELITE must therefore be regarded as one of the very first sandbox games that simulated a virtual world.
ELITE gave players a box of galaxies to trade, fight and travel in at their own whim.

Ian Bell’s and David Braben’s ELITE, released by Firebird, seemed to come from a much more advanced parallel universe in 1984. The entirely open-ended space trading game let players decide on how to attain the titular status.

Against the background of the mid-80ies, there  were limitations gamers had to accept. Visits to planet surfaces were impossible and space stations did not allow exploration. Yet none of that was held against this very early example of an open-world game, which permanently surprised gamers in the form of secret missions and a mysterious storyline revolving around a people called the Thargoids, whose octagon-shaped starships eventually pester the universe.

ELITE tickled players’ senses and imagination, who veritably tasted the distant future of computer gaming, of an era where players – not coders – would determine the sequence and nature of events to unfold during gameplay.

Skyfox from Electronic Arts created its own comic book mythology with a lavishly designed disk sleeve that introduced gamers to their role as a daring fighter pilot sent out to fight back an alien invasion. Unlike ELITE’s vector graphics of wireframes, Skyfox threw sprites of tanks, fighters and motherships at startled would-be space pilots: In-game graphics were fast, splashy and chunky, perfectly exhilarating players struggling to defend earth. 1984-5 players could not believe a game like Skyfox was at all happening on their home computers.

The downside was the limited, practically non-existing freedom of gameplay as Skyfox amounted to a cockpit-overlay disguising a glorified shooting gallery. Players never had to mind more complex manouevres other than pointing the sights at extraterrestrial vessels.

Skyfox on You Tube.
Electronic Arts games used to be unusually packaged. EA Founder Trip Hawkins decided to make every release a work of art and therefore had them shipped in luxurious gatefold jackets, similar to LPs. For Skyfox, a colorful mini-comic was created to draw gamers into the story and provide them with a frame of reference, so that the mind would literally superimpose the startling sci-fi graphics over the actual gameplay visuals. Click to play a clip of Skyfox on You Tube.

Novalogic’s Mercenary boasted the smoothest wireframe graphics on the Commodore 64 the world had ever seen to tell the story of a pilot who is stranded on a far-away planet named Targ.

Paul Woakes' Mercenary, a remarkably smooth sci-fi adventure game told through vector graphics, let gamers freely roam about an alien world, essentially translating ELITE's space-bound design to a planetary surface.
Paul Woakes’ Mercenary, a remarkably smooth sci-fi adventure game told through vector graphics, let gamers freely roam about an alien world, essentially translating ELITE’s space-bound design to a planetary surface. Players were no longer limited by stages and finite number of bitmapped attack waves. The game literally invited you to take a stroll in a new world. Its expansion disk was fittingly labelled “The Second City” to emphasise the real-world aspirations of this rather early and thus most impressive computer game.

In contrast to ELITE, programmer and designer Paul Woakes made it possible that players could freely explore an actual world. In other words, Woakes humbly ushered in the (still far-away) future of open-world games inside fully featured virtual worlds. In Mercenary, players traverse streets, enter and search buildings, looking for clues on how to escape their planetary prison. To put this into perspective, the tough-as-woodpecker-lips ZZAP64 reviewer Julian Rignall concluded in his 1985 review: “Mercenary is about the best computer game ever to be written.”

Although vector graphics allowed an unprecedented degree of narrative freedom, the computer and video game industry was growing restless nonetheless: Sprite-based releases were too bulky to be reasonably afforded an expansive scope, wireframes, on the other hand, were highly abstract. While the narrative aspect was increasingly apparent – and expected – in games, it was all the more undeniable that they still were games. However, there is a marked exception, courtesy of the brilliant Commodore 64 programmer Andrew Braybrook.

1985 also saw the significant release of Andrew Braybrook’s Paradroid, a top-down, 8-way scrolling game of fire blasts and taxing computer logic: when a fleet of space freighters have failed to report in, the shipping organisation suspects the roborts on board may have taken over. Although the player predictably enters the stage at this point, it is not the muscle-clad, crew-cut wearing, cigar-chomping action hero Braybrook introduces, but a robot drone players control via an interface helmet. The top-down view consequently depicts the various ships’ blueprints, all robots are presented as abstract bot icons racing about the multi-levelled space ships. Operating from a remote control terminal, i.e. the home computer, players need to take over robot hy robot, by force, if necessary.

The virtue of limitations: Andrew Braybrook used a basic-looking blueprint for a backdrop and abstract icons for the in-game characters to give players a sense of literally operating Paradroid's remote control terminal from their room in the Terran system. Image courtesy of www.pocketgamer.co.uk, click for its feature
The virtue of limitations: Andrew Braybrook used a basic-looking blueprint for a backdrop and abstract icons for the in-game characters to give players a sense of literally operating Paradroid’s remote control terminal from their room in the Terran system. Image courtesy of www.pocketgamer.co.uk, click to read its feature “Pocket Gamer celebrates 30 years of Commodore 64”

Paradroid justifiably ranks as a legend in gaming history, yet it also afforded players a degree of open immersion that was far advanced in comparison to contemporary releases. Conspicuously, Paradroid removed the technological shakles of its time to become one of the very few 80ies 8-bit games that still are visually attractive; by making blueprints and remote terminals the players’ setting and weapons, a bold degree of abstraction invites human imagination to fill in details whilst simultaneously allowing for a sandbox-type of gameplay.

Although this was impossible for the business to grasp at the time, games such as Mercenary, ELITE or Paradroid epitomise a key advantage over motion pictures to this day: through joystick-inputs, players virtually tell the computer game story by themselves. It is an important piece of evidence in the history of the joystick storyteller.

Saturday Morning Cartoons on a Disk

Epyx, the company that so prominently introduced synthesized speech to home computers with Impossible Missiondevised a remarkably advanced concept in 1985 when it won the bid for Hasbro’s valuable G.I. JOE license. The toy franchise about a set of colorful commandos had previously seen only limited exposure on video game consoles in the form Cobra Strike! by Parker Brothers, a game of dubious quality. Rather than limiting players to a G.I. JOE story arc, Epyx created an infinite loop of combat engagements between the Joes and the vile Cobra operatives, either on foot or in control of a tank, a helicopter or a jet fighter. Players could pick any of their favorite characters and literally play as long as the liked. Effectively, Epyx had created a never-ending cartoon show that pushed the Commodore 64 game to be as close to the original article as possible: G.I. JOE made use of lavishly drawn – and animated – cut-scenes; although designed to disguise the loading process, these animations, adorned with a catchy rendition of the G.I. JOE theme, made this 1985 game one of the best G.I. JOE games ever – and – although nobody realised it at the time – a definitive precursor to the forthcoming multimedia creations of the early 1990ies.

G.I. JOE by Epyx, licensed from Hasbro
The never-ending cartoon show on a disk: Epyx gloriously adapted the famous cartoon show of Hasbro’s perennially popular G.I. JOE Saturday morning cartoon. Click to watch a long play video on You Tube.

G.I. JOE was even more prescient than most gamers give it credit for. By letting players endlessly toy around inside the gaming environment that shipped on the disk in their own time, Epyx overcame the critical disadvantage of a licensed context, namely the limits of an existing narrative.

The 64 Kilobyte Summer Blockbuster

The Neverending Story film adaptation by Ocean Software on the Commodore 64
The Neverending Story film adaptation by Ocean Software on the Commodore 64 still looks fabulous.

It was also in 1985 that Ocean Software successfully adapted two major contemporary blockbusters in full: The Neverending Story and Rambo: First Blood Part II. The Neverending Story unfolded as a text adventure with impressive colour graphics depicting locations, characters and objects in the upper portion of the screen. Ocean’s designers had realised that a story about the disappearance of human imagination could not be adequately told through a series of action-packed sequences, however inviting this appeared in the light of director Wolfgang Petersen’s impressive production. Importantly, players would truly experience the film’s narrative first hand and, by and large, in its entirety and, finally, be required to literally read and type their way to final victory.

Rambo: First Blood Part II by Ocean Software on the Commodore 64
Rambo: First Blood Part II by Ocean Software on the Commodore 64 covered almost the entire motion picture narrative.

John Rambo’s assault on home computers was equally successful. By adopting a scrolling full-screen gameplay area, Ocean was able to fully depict the Green Beret’s mission to rescue prisoners of war from Vietnamese captivity. Every crucial plot point was included – bar the love interest – as players first collected equipment that had been lost in a botched airdrop, then located the camp, acquired a means of entry, freed the prisoners and made a daring escape by helicopter. Granted, the story was vaporous at best even then, yet it still remains a palpable achievement to have reduced 1985’s most popular film to a mere 64 kilobytes of chart-storming data. To put this in perspective, an average email signature takes up more space than John Rambo’s blockbuster game. Yet Ocean had achieved far more than a technical feat.

The beautiful Ocean Software logo by artist Roger Dean came to signify movie licenses for home computer adaptations.
The beautiful Ocean Software logo, gloriously souped up by Bob Wakelin, came to signify movie licenses for home computer adaptations. The Mancunian company’s sensational programmers and artists have created a Facebook page where they continue to reflect on the roaring computer gaming days of the 80ies and early 90ies. Why Inforgrames, which bought Ocean in 1996, chose to retire this highly recognizable brand in 1999 remains a mystery to this.

Ocean’s canny selection of a four-quadrant family-friendly adaptation of Michael Ende‘s popular novel on the one hand and a bloody, barrel-chested actioner starring Sylvester Stallone on the other for computer game adaptation ensured complete market exposure. Ocean smartly fostered its stature as a first-rate developer and publisher. Other computer and video game publishers started riding the crest of movie blockbuster receipts instead of being simply washed away by them.

A motion picture license was ultimately a vehicle for unbridled word-of-mouth promotion effected by the consumers, who paid for their key role as joystick marketeers on behalf of developers in charge of film tie-ins. This is an important step to remember.

A Tale of Two Aliens

Aliens - The Computer Game by Activision, was one of two games based on Jim Cameron's 1986 blockbuster Aliens. The US edition featured 6 mini-games based on story beats of the film.
Aliens – The Computer Game by Activision, was one of two games based on Jim Cameron’s 1986 blockbuster Aliens. The US edition featured 6 mini-games based on story beats of the film. Click for more details at www.lemon64.com

The venerable video and computer gaming rebel Activision, risen from the ashes of the video game collapse, had etched into its very name the notion of “active” vision as opposed to passive media consumption. Designed around the hook “The Film. The Game.”, Activision conceived of a series of titles based on presumably hot IPs during the mid-80ies.

One significant motion picture release in the summer of 1986 was the sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien. James Cameron, who had co-written Rambo: First Blood Part II, switched from the haunted mansion genre to a full-blown combat flick intrigiungly titled Aliens. Hundreds of rapidly spawning xenomorphs facing off against a haphazard group of Colonial Marines promised to translate well into high score boards and hero sprites.

Activision secured the rights for Cameron’s xenomorph BBQ and developed two vastly different games from the license, both of considerable significance to the evolution of the modern computer and video game.

Activision's faithful adaptation of Jim Cameron's classic Aliens features all important story beats translated into digitized still images and screenplay excerpts. As such the US adaptation of the Sigourney Weaver vehicle from 1986 was a predecessor to future CD-ROM-based FMV titles.
Activision’s faithful adaptation of Jim Cameron’s classic Aliens features digitized still images and screenplay excerpts. As such the US adaptation of the Sigourney Weaver vehicle from 1986 was a predecessor to future CD-ROM-based FMV titles. Click for details on www.lemon64.com

The American branch of Activision set out to put the complete film on a double-sided floppy disk. While the game was loading the next stage from disk, gamers could closely follow the narrative – as shown in the film – on their computer screens. For players were treated to digitized stills from the film and text segments taken directly from the Aliens shooting script. Never before had players been able to relive the film experience as closely as here.

Click to watch the final confrontation with the Alien Queen in the C64 game Aliens by Activision, US Edition, on You Tube.
Click to watch the final confrontation with the Alien Queen in the C64 game Aliens by Activision, US Edition, on You Tube.

The highlight of Aliens – US Edition was the mano-a-power-lifter battle between Ripley and the Alien Queen, which was importantly executed from a first-person perspective.

Once successful, a series of “cut-scenes”, or “cut imagery”, rather, brought the story to its proper conclusion, milky android blood included.

Activision’s European partner Electric Dreams put players inside the film’s mission control vehicle. Watching the Marines’ bio- and video-feeds, the gamer had to safely negotiate the infested base to destroy the main reactor and blow the xenomorphs to smithereens.

Aliens by Electric Dreams, UK Edition, a very early and rather successful implementation of a first-person shooter mechanic. Click to watch video on You Tube.
Aliens UK Edition: a successful implementation of a first-person shooter mechanic. Click to watch video on You Tube.

Said video feed would show the action from a heart-stopping first-person perspective: watching an alien approach just when your ammunition had run dry was sure to be a heart-stopping moment. Furthermore, Electric Dreams gave people an envirinment to roam about in, not the usual stage-by-stage mechanic that put players on rails. The overall goal was clear, it was up to the player to find his or her way out of this horror.

As simple as it may look today, Aliens from Activision was not only a successful film-tie in, it also fully anticipated the sandbox genre. What is most striking then about the UK edition of the Aliens film adaptation is how the film’s key pointers were used by the designers not as per-se contents, but as tools to make the game’s narrative their very own, with players effectively operating from the director’s chair.

Lights, Cameras, Code!

Cinemaware on LinkedIn.
The Cinemaware logo, click to visit LinkedIn profile.

The race for a more cinematic experience in computer and video gaming was officially started by a fresh, upstart American company that burst onto the scene in 1986, its bold attitude etched into its company name “Cinemaware“.

Commodore Amiga 1000 was launched in 1985 and inaugurated a new age of computer entertainment. Its graphics powers significantly closed the gap between pixels and photorealism. Bob and Phyllis Jacobs founded Cinemaware on Commodore's powerful machine. Click to visit www.oldcomputers.net.
Commodore Amiga 1000 was launched in 1985 and inaugurated a new age of computer entertainment. Its graphics powers significantly closed the gap between pixels and photorealism. Bob and Phyllis Jacobs founded Cinemaware on Commodore’s powerful machine. Click to visit www.oldcomputers.net

The foundation of the Californian developer was timely. Commodore had just launched its Amiga 1000 models, which promised graphical wonders unseen on home computers and even in motion pictures. The demo pic of Tutanchamun promised an early approximation of photorealism.

Now Cinemaware founders Bob and Phyllis Jacobs plotted to exploit this technological breakthrough that, speaking in terms relative to the computer graphics people had been familiar with at the time, were clearly pointing towards photorealism – a key aspect of merging the two media of gaming and film making.

True to its ingenious company name, Cinemaware put the visual presentation and film-like narration – replete with introductory scenes, act-breaks and end-of-game sequences displaying scrolling game credits – at the core of its marketing strategy.

Defender of the Crown by Cinemaware, original box art from 1986, click to visit www.cinemaware.com
Defender of the Crown by Cinemaware evoked the glorious days of Technicolor knights, armors and damsels. Unfortunately, the suggestion of mysterious masked characters or exhilarating one-on-one combat is grossly misleading.  click to visit www.cinemaware.com

The graphical splendor of Cinemaware titles truthfully served as connective tissue for a negligible collection of mini-games. For the Jaboses’ “cinemaware” proposition to be successful, they needed visual splendors yet unseen. Jim Sachs, a graphics artist who had taken a liking to Commodore’s Amiga from the start, was hired to produce what continues to be some of the most beautiful computer game graphics ever created to this day. The overall game design was far from original, however.

Defender of the Crown  was Cinemaware’s premiere on the market. It was a strategy game not too unlike but also not nearly as deep as Parker Bros.RISK, dressed in the guise of classic Errol Flynn cloak and dagger films of the 30ies and 40ies.

Players “star” in a story of how Robin Hood has to be helped to protect Britain. The strategy segment of moving armies across Britannia was augmented by the following tests of skill: sword fighting, jousting and sieging. These vignettes were either directly triggered by the players’ moves (attacking a castle  would launch the siege mini-game) or took the form of a random event, such as a computer-controlled opponent calling for a jousting match or a damsel in distress asking to be rescued from a castle, leading to a night-time raid.

Rescuing a fair lady in Defender of the Crown by Cinemaware, Amiga, 1986.
A lady most fair, yet gameplay quite quaint: of the six screenshots, only two involve minimal gameplay, which was typical of Cinemaware games. Hammering madly on the fire button, players get a chance to rescue a damsel in distress in Defender of the Crown, improving your character’s morale. Click to play a long play video of the Amiga version on You Tube.

Hardly riveting today and not too universally appreciated by reviewers at the time either, players still could not help fetching a copy because of Jim Sachs’s incredible artwork, a groundbreaking achievement in computer game graphics that noticeably raised the bar for the industry.

Cinemaware advertisment from 1988 advertising S.D.I., King of Chicago and Sindbad and the Throne of the Falcon. These made up the initial batch of games that hewed closely to motion picture classics.
Cinemaware advertisment from 1988 presenting C64 and MS-DOS conversions of S.D.I., King of Chicago and Sindbad and the Throne of the Falcon. These made up the initial batch of games that hewed closely to motion picture classics at the cost of more involving gameplay.

Regardless of gameplay shotcomings, Cinemaware’s line-up was distinctly attractive: from space epics to World War II science fiction (The Rocket Ranger) and slapstick comedy adaptations (The Three Stooges) to Japanese strategy games (Lords of the Rising Sun) and highly immersive sports titles (TV Sports Basketball), the Jacobses had carved out a significant niche for themselves in the newly minted field of made-for-gaming-movie-narratives. Cinemaware importantly loosened the self-imposed shackles of motion picture similitude over the years, crafting deeper concepts that would have stood their ground without the typically lavish presentation they were afforded. The lesson learnt had yet not really been understood: Bob and Phyllis Jacobs merely refocused their resources yet had not come to realize how their well-intentioned “cinemawares” were holding them back.

This is vital proof that the entertainment industry simply was not educated enough, nor could have been, to grasp the dichotomous nature of “interactive movies”, which move, arguably enough, while the players embarrassingly do not.

Despite such inevitable short-sightedness, all of Cinemaware’s original games entered the market at the no. 1 spot on the UK sales charts. The Californian developer still was not the only company to recognize the potential of Commodore’s new machine.

Enter the man who discovered Atlantis: Trip Hawkins

A brilliant, trailblazing businessman, Trip Hawkins immediately jumped on Commodore’s band-wagon to exploit the advantages of 16bit-technology that the Amiga harnessed.  Electronic Arts proved that Commodore’s new flagship product could run pixel-perfect arcade conversions (Marble Madness), detailed simulation games shouldering detailed bitmapped-graphics (Ferrari Formula One Simulator) and harbor fantastic worlds for the player to explore: Return to Atlantis by Mike Wallace.

1988's Return to Atlantis was an ambitious combination of various genres that culminated in a first-person exploration section, which, though sluggish, created the illusion of free underwater exploration. Click to see reviews of this Electronic Arts release at the Amiga Magazine Rack.
The striking cover of 1988’s Return to Atlantis emphasized how it literally placed gamers inside the ocean: Return to Atlantis was an ambitious combination of various genres that culminated in a first-person exploration section, which, though sluggish, created the illusion of free underwater exploration. Click to see reviews of this Electronic Arts release at the Amiga Magazine Rack.

Designer Mike Wallace recreated all the aspects of mounting underwater expeditions with a strong roleplaying mechanic at its core. Wrapped inside lavish production values that depict your marine craft, informants and analyses of objects retrieved from the bottom of the ocean is a first-person exploration stage. Using bitmap graphics for objects and solid vectors graphics for the environments, Wallace created the illusion of unbounded underwater exploration. Like Cinemaware’s offerings, Return to Atlantis also essayed cinematic techniques that scarcity of RAM had previously made impossible, indicating where computer and video gaming was headed. Return to Atlantis, which also had players explore lost cities as one of its 14 missions, did not exclusively depend on the Amiga’s graphics prowess,  however, and introduced gamers to the more expansive type of gameplay afforded by 16bit technology.

With two American software houses assaulting the Amiga market segment so prominently, Ocean Software had to react.

Multi-Loads, Multi-Genres, Multi-Levels: Narrative scope through multiplication

The Untouchables by Ocean Software: The back of the game's box depicts a varied collection of gameplay styles, typical of multiload releases from the late 80ies.
The Untouchables by Ocean Software: The back of the game’s box depicts a varied collection of gameplay styles, typical of multiload releases from the late 80ies.

The market was thirsting for anything film-related, with the competition hot on Ocean Software’s heels. Activision’s US edition of Aliens had successfully proven important advantages of designing with a product, not a technical limitation in mind. The American market was notoriously floppy disk-centered, enabling companies such as Activision, Cinemaware or Electronic Arts to more generously design and “tell” the stories contained in their computer and video games. While floppy disks could be accessed randomly on a file-by-file basis, tapes could only retrieve data sequentially. Dependent on the much more popular tape format, Ocean Software spuriously responded with advanced techniques to keep up with the American developers: Batman The Movie, The Untouchables and Platoon were practically compilations of separate games, doubling as “stages” that had to load separately from either tape or disk.

The advantages of finally accepting the dreaded multi-loads were two-fold: One, designers no longer had to worry about memory limitations. Secondly, players would get great value for money, their entertainment lasting infinitely longer than a visit to the local multiplex. In particular, the games were each graced with “main event” levels that placed gamers inside their movie heroes’ shoes.

The Tunnels, level 2 of Platoon by Ocean Software, very successfully implemented a gripping first-person mechanic.
The Tunnels, level 2 of Platoon by Ocean Software, very successfully implemented a gripping first-person mechanic.

These early first-person designs were sensational, positioned after more traditionally staged, mostly side-scrolling jump-and-run segments for maximum surprise value.

For example, entering the tunnels and encountering Vietcong face-to-face in Zach Townsend’s adaptation of Oliver Stone’s Academy Award-winning Platoon still sends chills down every player’s spine.

In The Untouchables, gamers were tasked with alternately negotiating side-scrolling locations from the film or facing off against Al Capone’s goons in daring gun fights. Ocean even busied itself with an arcade-worthy translation of the film’s famous homage to Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, the perambulator scene at Chicago’s Central Station.

The Untouchables: Stairway shootout comparison between the film and its C64 computer game adaptation by Ocean Software.
Click to see the famous movie scene as translated to the C64 (at 6:00): The mind is much more capable of rounding off the rough pixels of yesteryear’s game The Untouchables by Ocean Software than the technology available in the late 80ies.

Click to watch Batman: The Movie as played on the Commodore Amiga - The lure of the first-person perspective was undeniable: The second level of Ocean Software's Batman: The Movie is set on the streets of Gotham City and places gamers inside the awesome Batmobile.

Christmas 1989 brought Batman The Movie to all home computers. Batmaniacs, elated having finished the taxing first stage that concluded with the birth of the Joker, were speechless when the second level had finished loading, treating them to a very fine racer set in Gotham: Holy Sprite-scaling engine, Batman!

Robocop from Ocean Software: Players need to resolve a hostage situation mid-game from a first-person perspective.
Robocop from Ocean Software: Players resolve a hostage situation from a first-person perspective.

Lastly, Robocop, Ocean’s most successful release ever, which was, like The Untouchables,  predicated on the side-scrolling gameplay mechanic that was so popular at the time.

Its stand-out gimmick were brief sequences in which players found themselves looking at their surroundings from the eponymous character’s point of view.

The preeminent Mancunian software house, Ocean Software found itself at the peak of its success among the most prolific developers working out of the UK. Thanks to a savvy attitude towards videogame licencing, Ocean landed on Hollywood’s doorstep, adapting a slew of blockbuster films into first-rate software products, from the gothic highs of Batman to the watery depths of Waterworld. Gary Bracey, Ocean’s development director from the late Eighties through to the early Nineties, remembers with fondness the halcyon days of rubbing shoulders with tinsel town’s elite, noodling around movie sets and pouring over script pages. However, he maintains that his greatest accomplishment during his stint was collaborating with the talented team of artists that made Ocean a true original; a developer that played by its own rules.
Gary Bracey, Ocean Software’s development director, spearheaded the push for motion picture licenses.

In an October 2013 interview by gamesTM, former head of Ocean Software software development, Gary Bracey, gives a first-hand account of what his prescient motivations were in selecting motion picture properties and respective scenes for inclusion in the games: “Key scenes that you could visualise as an interactive experience. [W]e tried to mix [game genres] up and that was based on the different scenes or episodes in the film. If you look at Batman, The Untouchables or Platoon, there were many distinct different game styles and mechanics in the game and that was to accommodate the various different episodes within the movie and story. We had to believe it would be commercially successful but also it had to have certain elements in the film you felt someone would love to play.”

The practice of multi-loads gave developers the resources they needed to craft each section as best they could and allowed players to look forward to playing the next exciting level.

The Hollywood Collection by Ocean Software
Gary Bracey’s legacy: The Hollywood Collection by Ocean Software was one of many compilations that bundled several computer games licensed from motion pictures. The package design is indicative of how marketing associated computer game playing with movie going. Some film adaptations of the time  managed to replicate the movie-going experience already then.

A focus on narrative elements nevertheless impinged on gameplay quality and vice versa. Could the rigid lines drawn between game genres ever be erased?

Lucasfilm’s Story-Telling Experiment

The term “action adventure” specifically highlighted the players’ active involvement in on-screen developments. Lucasfilm Games essayed a remarkable experiment in 1986 to further the dream of being inside a moition picture, adapting its mother company’s film production of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. To ease players into the combination of joystick and keyboard operation, Lucasfilm Games teased gamers with an introductory text-adventure segment. David Fox remembers the evolution of this canny design decision: “[Douglas Adams from Children’s Television Workshop,] – a close friend of Jim Henson who directed the film [had an idea as a] nod to The Wizard of Oz, where the movie opens in black and while and moves to Technicolor when Dorothy gets to Oz. So we started off with a text adventure, the gaming equivalent ol black and white […]. When you won the text adventure segment you entered a movie theatre where the graphic portion of the game began you saw David Bowie on the screen and he said: “Come on in”. You were now part of his universe on the other side of the movie screen”, from Retro Gamer LucasArts Signature Collection, p11.

Lucasfilm Games' Labyrinth (1986), www.gameconnect.net
In Lucasfilm Games’ Labyrinth (1986), a precursor to the legendary SCUMM-based adventures, designers perfectly replicated the motion picture narrative and allowed players to roam about the Goblin King’s eponymous kingdom with (almost) unlimited abandon.

Labyrinth’s screen layout indicated the future evolution of adventure games. Its gameplay area was lodged in a broad strip echoing the glory of the motion picture widescreen. Lists of objects and actions were subtly placed at the bottom. Characters’ dialogue was seamlessly integrated above the virtual “movie screen”. Devoid of clutter, the design’s focus squarely fixed on the unfolding “movie” game. Remarkably, gamers could almost freely move about the Goblin King’s world, whose fantastic settings were beautifully depicted, blurring the line between the motion picture and the computer game worlds.

The beautiful cassette tape cover of Labyrinth by Lucasfilm. It brilliantly draws potential gamers into the game, much in the way the Jareth the Goblin King does in the film, whilst putting the game play design, not the motion picture in the limelight.
The back of the cassette tape cover of Labyrinth by Lucasfilm. It brilliantly draws potential gamers into the game, much in the way the Jareth the Goblin King does in the film, whilst putting the game play design, not the motion picture in the limelight. Click to visit the Computer Game Museum.

People who completed the game had also experienced the entire story from their point of view. Their close familiarity with the characters would then entice them to see how Sarah, played by Jennifer Connelly, beat the all-singing, all-dancing David Bowie as Jareth, the Goblin King.

Lucasfilm Games’ subsequent adventure game evolution further boiled down the inhibiting real-world hindrances to a bare minimum. Adventurers effectively came in “touch” with the virtual narrative world.

Maniac Mansion, designed by Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, was the premier point-and-click game, whose brilliant interface changed the face of an entire genre.

Screenshot from Maniac Mansion by Lucasfilm Games (1987), created by Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick.
Lucasfilm Games’s Maniac Mansion, designed by Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, created the genre of point-and-clicks adventures. No longer would the “fourth” wall be broken, players were literally glued to the screen picking words to give the on-screen characters puzzle-solving tasks.

The key to Maniac Mansion’s success was an interface which integrated players into the setting, avoiding disconnection between the virtual storytelling world inside the computer and the physical reality of keyboards, wires and tax bills.

Watch Ron Gilbert, legendary game designer and ace programmer, give a "post mortem" on his classic "Maniac Mansion"
Watch legendary game designer and ace programmer Ron Gilbert, inventor of the point and click adventure, give a “post mortem” on his classic “Maniac Mansion” at the Game Forum Germany 2011.

Secondly, Maniac Mansion introduced players to a location whose boundaries were perfectly logically determined by the narrative. This allowed the setting to be explored completely (provided all relevant puzzles had been solved), enhancing the illusion of acting in fully fleshed out world – except for the missing chainsaw fuel.

Finally, Maniac Mansion also pioneered the use of full-fledged cut scenes in games, which were, importantly, perfectly integrated into the game’s narrative flow.

Maniac Mansion, and all the adventure games subsequently referred to as “point and clicks”, made cut-scenes, that had evolved from the early in-game interstitials, a common staple in computer gaming.

Sierra, LucasArts’s primary competitor on the point-and-click adventure game market, then explored the next level of computer game narratives towards the end of the 80ies with Heart of China and Rise of the Dragon. These lavishly presented samples of “interactive fiction” empasised lush 256-color semi-photorealistic graphics. “True interactive ‘film-like’ entertainment is within the grasp of every computer owner”, a Sierra press release portentiously announced at the time. In a way, these supposedly revolutionary offerings worked as a storyboard for the complex worlds to come.

Heart of China and Rise of the Dragon by Sierra Online.
Heart of China and Rise of the Dragon by Sierra Online: A minimalist user interface gave lush visuals precedence, but limited gameplay depth, despite the players’ urge to explore the absorbing scenarios further.

“Movies in Your Micro”

The summer 1990 issue of ACE, Advanced Computer Entertainment, billed Origin’s upcoming “Wing Leader” as “Star Wars” to underscore that 1990 would mark the transition to “movies in your micro”.
The summer 1990 issue of ACE, Advanced Computer Entertainment, billed Origin’s upcoming “Wing Leader” as “Star Wars” to underscore that 1990 would mark the transition to “movies in your micro”.

The writing had been on the wall for quite some time when British computing magazine Advanced Computer Entertainment, ACE, devoted its summer 1990 issue largely to the prospering motion picture tie-in industry.

Its cover seemed into a world of the future: Chris Roberts had cut his teeth converting games like Jon Ritman’s Match Day to various platforms, yet rose to fame creating the well-received role playing games Times of Lore and Bad Blood for Origin Systems, home to the vaunted Ultima series by Richard “Lord British” Garriot. Roberts proudly presented  unbelieving ACE reporter Rik Haynes Origin’s next blockbuster game called “Wing Leader”, the “hottest game on display at the […] Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago“.

Roberts had decided it was time to place gamers at the heart of a fully bitmapped, three-dimensional war in space. Intriguingly, Haynes writes a foreboding paragraph that, while meant to praise the game’s novelty factor, pin-points precisely the key challenge of forcing two different media into a blender: “When your ship takes a fatal hit, […] the camera cuts to an exterior view, and you see your crippled fighter tumbling our of control. The camera cuts back inside the ship, with a shot of you covering your face against the explosion of your ship”, ACE, no. 65, p39. No mention is made of the player’s utter passivity during this sequence, but it is impossible to find fault with ACE writer Rik Haynes. After all, people were still used to swapping floppies on their micros, so Haynes’ enthusiastic point of view of Chris Roberts’s forthcoming space epic is perfectly understandable.

ACE - Advanced Computer Entertainment summer 1990 issue previewing Origin System's Wing Leader, the future Wing Commander. ACE extensively previews Chris Roberts's upcoming space epic "Wing Leader" in August 1990. It is hailed by both the developer and ACE as the future of computer and video gaming. Click to see the spread in full size.
ACE – Advanced Computer Entertainment summer 1990 issue previewing Origin System’s Wing Leader, the future Wing Commander. ACE extensively previews Chris Roberts’ upcoming space epic “Wing Leader” in August 1990. It is hailed by both the developer and ACE as the future of computer and video gaming. Click to see the spread in full size.

Movies Mimicked in 256 Colours: Wing Commander

Original ORIGIN - We create worlds - logo on Wikipedia

Fall 1990 finally saw the release of Origin Systems’ ground-breaking new game, now renamed Wing Commander, designed by Chris Roberts. It not only embodied but surpassed Origin’s exceptional company claim: “We create worlds.”

IMG_3998.JPGA massive success that forever cemented the PC in its place as a bona fide gaming behemoth, the space shooter Wing Commander became notorious for its utter, almost callous disregard of  consumers at large. The game ran on Roberts’ “Origin FX”, a proprietary engine developed for creating seamlessly integrated narrative cut-scenes using in-game graphics. While animation of the scenes was created by moving texture-mapped polygons, the assets required for texturing the narrative visually took their toll on hard drive disc space and cooked the odd late 80ies CPU.Dozens of mega bytes had to be sacrificed at the paws of the intergalactic war between flimsy humans and the towering cat people known as the Kilrathi.

At a time when hard drive storage came at a merciless premium, Chris Roberts’ Wing Commander was a daring but a much too obvious game-changing gamble for the public to ignore. A new age had dawned on the video and computer gaming industry.

Every computer game should henceforth have a more or less “epic” story unfold for it to be considered an important triple-A release. VGA-graphics boards, meatier CPUs and more substantial hard drives sold like hot cakes. The industry has to thank Chris Roberts for his shrewdness, creating the multi-billion dollar business PC games generate today. As always with seismic developments, considerable losses were incurred but are rarely remembered.

Apart from annihilating 16/32bit home computing, which had grown complacent and irritatingly anemic with regards to affordable expansions (RAM, CPU and hard drives), Wing Commander glorified presentational values over substance. Gameplay honestly revolved around little more than pointing crosshairs at texture-mapped starships, with the odd missile thrown in for good measure. Although the action did indeed unfold in three dimensions, Wing Commander did not play all too differently to the aforementioned Skyfox Electronic Arts had released in 1985.

The bane of hard drive space, an epic tale of betrayal set during the war between the Terrans and the mighty cat people, the Kilrathi: Wing Commander II - The Vengeance of the Kilrathi by Chris Roberts, published by Origin Systems
Click to play video on You Tube. The bane of hard drive space, an epic tale of betrayal set during the war between the Terrans and the mighty cat people, the Kilrathi: Wing Commander II – The Vengeance of the Kilrathi by Chris Roberts, published by Origin Systems, emphasized presentational values and story instead of evolving the franchise’s gameplay mechanic.

The predictably titled Wing Commander II: The Vengeance of the Kilrathi added bombers as a flyable spacecraft but largely expanded the narrative, vaporizing even more invaluable hard drive space. Gameplay remained fully intact, which went unnoticed among reviewers beaming with delight over the narrative sequences. Said animated, non-interactive story segments could furthermore be updated through separately available “Speech Accessory” packs.

Wing Commander II - Speech Accessory Pack at Moby Games
Wing Commander II – Speech Accessory Pack, click to view specifications at Moby Games

These audio-files complemented the game experience with an additional layer of motion picture similitude. All dialougue would long at last be spoken by actresses, actors and Kilrathis to lift the Wing Commander series to the level of Saturday morning cartoons. Chris Roberts’ creation was the next big step up from Epyx’s looping cartoon adaption G.I. JOE. Nevertheless, the vaunted speech-packs not only added to Origin’s bulging coffers, but also chipped happily away at the user’s beleagured hard drive. As welcome as an narratively augmented computer game and video experience was, Roberts’s “take-no-prisoners” approach ransacked users’ accounts and was capped by the market’s sluggish evolution that made unlimited expandability perfectly unfeasible.

Then, from out the darkness of computer gaming time and hard drive space came shining, sparkling medium to the rescue…

Lords of the Rising Compact Disks

Everyone, literally everyone fell on their knees to welcome the new god of entertainment, the CD-ROM. Magazines were bowled over by an impending revolution to a degree that superceded fanatisism. A case in point is the aforementioned issue no. 65 of ACE, Advanced Computer Entertainment, from August 1990. It is a remarkable time capsule of how we all anticipated with baited breath the convergence of multiple media.

ACE - Advanced Computer Entertainment - Issue 65, August 1990: "License to Print Money" covers the rewarding business of licensing motion pictures for computer and video game adaptation.The impending merger of gaming and motion picture production is underscored by ACE in  a feature explaining their similarities. Apart from detailing the economics of licensing film properties (starting at around $100,000 according to this 1990 article), Mirrorsoft agent Dick Lehrberg makes a portentuous assertion: “The film and game business are going to get closer together. The Cinemaware product is stage one – and soon the console market, with bolt-on CD drives, is going to open up a new market”, ACE, no. 65, p24. Lehrberg’s confidence was not exactly unfounded for Commodore and Philips had just announced their rivalling CD-ROM consoles, the CDTV and the CD-i.

One might be tempted to find all this excitement over what today seem like extremely basic pieces of kit amusing, but nobody had ever owned a CD-ROM-based machine, except libraries. The promise of this “technology” finally being available to entertainment companies was thoroughly mind-blowing. In an interview with Dr. Steve Upstill, who used to be a RenderMan engineer at PIXAR, ACE ponders ominously: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could play games that took place on Mars, but looked as real as Leicester Square?”, continuing, “ACE […] discovered [in California] a revolution in computer graphics that could blast gameplay into a new dimension of graphic glory…” Upstill counters such infectious enthusiasm. He notes that the processing time of computer generated imagery would have to be overcome, which was then even out of reach for multi-million dollar hardware. Without “manipulability”, Upstill continues, neither developers nor gamers would have much to do with streamed computer-generated wonders. Yet did not Mirrorsoft agent Lehrberg predict in 1990 how much closer the two business were going to be? “What proximity?”, Ron Gilbert might have instantly retorted.

For all their similarities, Ron Gilbert argues in his essential article “Why Adventure Games Suck”  that films and games have much greater differences. The former depends on consumption of contents, whereas as the other operates on the foundation of interactivity: “[T]he player doesn’t always do what the designer intended, and this causes problems.  It is hard to create a cohesive plot when you have no idea what part of the story the player will trip over next“. Gilbert underlines the non-linearity of computer game entertainment which runs counter to a motion picture relentlessly running onward until the final reel of film dislodges from the sprockets. Inherent in non-linearity is the impossibility of what Upstill referred to as “manipulability”, which was remarkably advertised by the CDs read-only “feature”. Ron Gilbert acknowledges this unbridgeable rift by calling for a “special kind of storytelling” in games development in order to “learn a lot from [films] about telling stories in a visual medium” whilst forging ahead on a unique path of game design evolution.

ACE - Advanced Computer Entertainment - Issue 65, August 1990: The Blitter End about the anticipated rivalry between Commodore's CDTV and Philips's CDI consoles
August 1990 saw the gaming industry veritably on the threshold to a new era of motion picture-aided gaming entertainment. ACE anticipates that Commodore and Philips will be bitter rivals at Christmas 1990 when their secretive CD consoles are rumoured to hit shelves. History would record that neither had much to celebrate as the market proved too mature for undercooked products such as Commodore’s CDTV and Philips’s CDI.

Issue 65 of ACE headlined its “Blitter End” section “CD-I FIGHTS BACK!” to highlight a report about the lavish “Compact Disc Interactive Conference” on the “potential of the medium of interactive CD“. The event attracted the likes of Walt Disney, BBC, Time Warner, CBS, RCA/Columbia, Hitachi and many more, media empires hurrying to stake out future revenue streams. The report closes with the over-arching question “Which multimedia machine will hit the mainstream first…CDTV or CD-I?” whilst entirely oblivious to an incredible gem hidden in this issue’s pages.

The main article “A License to Print Money?” covers Mirrorsoft’s upcoming line-up consisting of Predator IIBack to the Future Parts II and III, as well as the computer game conversion of a little-known summer 1990 Vietnam war film called Flight of the Intruder starring Danny Glover and  Wilhelm Dafoe, itself an adaptation of Stephen Coont’s novel of the same name.

Although ACE notes that it is “not strictly a film license”, Mirrorsoft’s Flight of the Intruder is an unlikely miracle release that will play a major role in the computer and video game industry’s rise to power. Yet for the moment, is it not striking that a 1990 article about film tie-ins fails to mention Activision’s Die Hard tie-in, released in 1989?

Beyond reels of film: The evolution of gameplay

ACE magazine’s elaborate feature on the convergence of the two industries of filmmaking and game design appears to have been slightly misguided, enfatuated as it is with the prospect of cut-scenes, rendered animations and full motion video augmenting the garbled pixel-worlds. What is particularly astounding about an article on film tie-ins published in 1990 is how Activision’s adaptation of Die Hard, released in 1989, was overlooked.

The film Die Hard not only launched Bruce Willis’ action star career, it has become a timeless classic of film history: Policeman John McClane unwittingly chances upon a hostage crisis. He rises to the occasion by using the labyrinthine setting of a skyscraper to his advantage, picking off terrorist after terrorist. Activision tasked developer Dynamix, which had made a name for itself with 3D shooters Stellar 7 and Arctic Fox  with adapting director John McTiernan’s Die Hard. Using solid 3D graphics, the player controlled McClane from a third-person perspective, negotiating the expansive skyscraper, picking up tools and ammunition en route to vanquishing terrorist leader Hans Gruber (played in the film by Alan Rickman, who received an Oscar nomination for his performance). Die Hard therefore employed all the lessons learnt from almost a decade of game design, both technologically speaking as well as far as gameplay was concerned.

Die Hard by Dynamix, published by Activision, beautifully reflects a coalescence of technological evolution and game design principals, valuing the gameplay experience over copying a movie spectacle it could not possibly recreate. Click for longplay video on You Tube.
Die Hard by Dynamix, published by Activision, beautifully reflects a coalescence of technological evolution and game design principals, valuing the gameplay experience over copying a movie spectacle it could not possibly recreate. N0te the multitude of inventory slots and the vast gameplay area built from solid vector graphics, which let players see how they would have fared had they been in John McClane’s shoes. Click for longplay video on You Tube.

Dynamix did not aim for a motion picture-like experience as for instance Cinemaware did. The capable designers used their expertise to move beyond Ocean’s strategy. Players consequently feel what it is like to be John McClane – no small feat for 1989. In short, Dynamix wanted to design a game, not a slideshow and created an experience in the process, not a shooting gallery on auto-pilot. Players literally had to prove themselves worthy of controlling a likeness of actor Bruce Willis.  Die Hard from Activision was a great computer game because it did not attempt to fool players into thinking they were inside a videoclip. On the contrary, Dynamix put gamers into John McClane’s shoes. Much to Activision’s chagrin, however, the advanced approach to creating long term gaming spectacles went unnoticed under the newly risen sun of a new technology.

The Interactive Movie on Compact Disk-Read Only Memory: Inaction Revisited

For an industry ailing in the draught of memory and storage limitations, the CD-ROM was a quintessential deus-ex-machina. The disruptive nature of the CD-ROM format gave the weathered console and computer games a new sheen. Overnight, developers and consumers alike were time-warped to an age when high-resolution graphics streamed fluidly across computer screens. Videos – clipped into short bursts of startling cinematics – rivalled the television set’s previous monopoly on arguably life-like entertainment.

Fetchingly labelled “full-motion video” (FMV), the ability of the CD-ROM to introduce an amalgam of video, animation and voice acting to desktop computing, finally let developers cast off the pixellated coil of yesteryear and put established actors on computer screens in place of Deluxe Paint-rendered characters. Cinemaware was arguably the first company to commit its games development full-time to CD-ROM-based products when the industry was still keeping its cards close to its vest.

TurboPlay Magazine previews Cinemaware's FMV conversion of It Came From The Desert for NEC's PC Engine / Turbo GFX CD-ROM add-on. Click to visit the TurboPlay Magazine Archives.
TurboPlay Magazine previews Cinemaware’s FMV conversion of It Came From The Desert for NEC’s PC Engine / Turbo GFX CD-ROM add-on. Click to visit the TurboPlay Magazine Archives.

As with the Amiga in 1985, Cinemaware, which is again alive and well today, continued to embrace the latest technology available as the 1990ies dawned on the industry to boost its profile as a business-leading interactive story teller. Cinemaware, of all the companies in the world, seemed destined to turn the CD-ROM into truckloads of gold nuggets.

Years before the CD-ROM had reached mass market appeal, the Jacobses boldly announced they were already producing hours of live action footage for enhanced versions of their classic games. Targeting platforms such as NEC’s PC Engine / Turbo Grafix CD-ROM add-on and Commodore’s CD-TV, Cinemaware saw its future in FMV conversions of It Came from the Desert and Defender of the Crown.

The future of computer gaming: Cinemaware's CD-ROM conversion of It Came From The Desert, click to play Long Play on You Tube. Image courtesy of www.videogamecritic.com
The future of computer gaming: Cinemaware’s CD-ROM conversion of It Came From The Desert (pictured right), attempted to usurp the traditional approach of crafting graphics manually with software packages such as Electronic Arts’s Deluxe Paint, as was the case in the original It Came From the Desert, pictured left. Click to play Long Play on You Tube. Image courtesy of www.videogamecritic.com

The Jacobses may have bet on the right format, Cinemaware had missed the opportunity to re-invent its corporate vision. hey had not, as Ron Gilbert strongly recommended, forged their own path of computer game story telling but toiled on in the shadows of the mighty motion picture. The straight replacement of text with speech and animation with videos only highlighted the simple game design Cinemaware had not significantly altered since 1985. In fact, the meandering monologues performed by various actresses and actors all but stopped the gameflow for there was no value whatsoever in these honestly grating video segments of interminable duration. Visit www.videogamecritic.com for reviews of Cinemaware’s games.

As Cinemaware, which had been indelibly connected to the Amiga brand, was going on hiatus, Commodore’s future was likewise eerily overshadowed. The Commodore CDTV was a ridiculously hyped CD-console that could not live up to its name’s lofty claims.

Click to play video on You Tube: Defender of the Crown on the CDTV. Note how little difference there is to the original floppy version. Cinemaware was one of the first (and last) developers to support Commodore's failed CDTV home entertainment console.
Click to play video on You Tube: Defender of the Crown on the CDTV. Note how little difference there is to the original floppy version. Cinemaware was one of the first (and last) developers to support Commodore’s failed CDTV home entertainment console. Visit www.cd32-allianz.de for more CDTV entertainment titles.

The CDTV hit markets in late 1990 as a disguised re-release of the Amiga 500 with an internal single-speed CD drive instead of a floppy one.

Adverts struggled to entice users to hand in their beloved Amigas in return for a 100 Pound rebate on a CDTV purchase.

Following in-depth reviews, the market was well aware that Commodore was not only re-selling 1985 hardware, they were also surcharging consumers by forcing them to buy keyboards and additional floppy drives – which had been the norm of any computer at the time – as overpriced peripherals needed to regain access to the vast library of floppy disk-based software users had accumulated over the years.

Technological progress: An unexpected Kilrathi victory

Chris Roberts’ Wing Commander series had been driving demand for upscale hardware specifications sky-high since its launch. In the less than two years, the marriage hailed as “multi-media” finally became a reality: The affordability of high-powered systems coincided with the CD-ROM’s transformation into an everyman’s peripheral as well as the release of three must-own titles.

The 7th Guest by Trilobyte, published by Virgin Interactive. Might pre-rendered animations overlayed with live-action footage of "ghosts" roaming about a haunted mansion, perfectly disguised the game's very basic collection of puzzle games.
The 7th Guest by Trilobyte, published by Virgin Interactive. Mighty pre-rendered animations overlayed with live-action footage of “ghosts” roaming about a haunted mansion, perfectly disguised the game’s very basic collection of puzzle games. Click to play You Tube video.

The three “killer applications” literally merged the best aspects of its respective pedigrees with the advantages of the shiny compact discs. As Myst by Brøderbund, Trilobyte’s The 7th Guest and Rebel Assault from LucasArts seamlessly tied the game mechanics and presentational values together, players, already buoyed by the advent of multi-media, felt fully immersed in a motion picture.

Each of the games flew off shelves worldwide. The appropriate integration of gameplay elements in the digitized full-motion contents was still not universally understood. Since any contents streaming off a disc was pre-rendered or -recorded footage, the gap in terms of visual quality between CD-based assets and real-time computer graphics was nevertheless glaring.

The Lawnmower Man was billed as a revolutionary "virtual reality" game. As the film it was based on boasted impressively psychedelic CGI, the CD-ROM promised to bring the stunning visuals to your computer screen. Click to play video on You Tube to experience the darkness of CD-ROM interactivity...
The Lawnmower Man was billed as a revolutionary “virtual reality” game. As the film it was based on boasted impressively psychedelic CGI, the CD-ROM promised to not only bring the stunning visuals to your computer screen, but to put you in control of virtual reality. Its promotional materials also boasted high resolution animation, yet duped buyers had to realize that the game’s decidedly low resolution fit the low key entertainment spread across multiple disks. Click to play video on You Tube to experience the darkness of CD-ROM interactivity…

The aforementioned releases had jumped that shark by smartly making the exclusive contents the very foundation of the (rather quaint) gameplay mechanics. Otherwise, the CD gave users reason to pause – again and again.

A notorious case was the hurriedly designed adaptation of the 1992 virtual reality film The Lawnmower Man starring Pierce Brosnan. The computer game arrived amidst the FMV-era’s formative days,  amounting to a simple graphics demo of  negligible gameplay value. Its huge box – instantly visible in stores – garnered more interest than the game it contained.

The superficial convergence of media truthfully furthered the rift between the business of passive content consumption and an industry that put consumers in direct control of on-screen action. Inter-action, that ubiquitous term the 1990ies seemed to have been built on, only highlighted what truly was wedged in between bouts of action: inaction.

The great Ron Gilbert made the following far-reaching statement in “Why Adventure Games Suck“: “Movies came from stage plays, but the references are long lost and movies have come into their own.  The same thing needs to happen to story games.” Like Spanish conquistadores blinded by the golden prospect of otherworldy riches, game designers hardly took note of Gilbert’s sage-like assertion amidst the white-out of shimmering CD-ROM disks. Nobody stood up and pointed out that there cannot be progress in anything that proudly has “only” in its name.

Back of Wing Commander III: The Heart of the Tiger box, PC version, released 1994 by Origin Systems, starring Mark Hamill, Malcom McDowell and John Rhys-Davies, courtesy of www.gamesfaq.com
Back of Wing Commander III: The Heart of the Tiger box, PC version, released 1994 by Origin Systems, starring Mark Hamill, Malcom McDowell and John Rhys-Davies, courtesy of www.gamesfaq.com

The short-term effects of the CD-ROM’s explosive market penetration were glaringly obvious in 1994’s Wing Commander 3 – The Heart of the Tiger, touted as the “first true interactive movie on your home PC”. 

The second sequel in Chris Roberts’ space sage shipped on four chock-full CD-ROMs like a motion picture would on as many reels of film. Wing Commander III’s marketing campaign startlingly featured well-known actors Malcom McDowell, John Rhys-Davies and, in a great ploy, Jedi Master Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill as the main character Colonel Blair. The game was a great success and a third sequel was naturally commissioned.

Despite such a remarkable success, the players’ involvement in the story of Wing Commander III was limited to dialogue branches that merely affected the overall outcome of the campaign, the fate of wingmen and the choice of Blair’s love interest.

Such short-comings were inevitable of course, as pre-recorded video footage forfeited any push for “manipulability”, the key to inter-action. Wing Commander III’s gameplay, an area that the developers did have control over, had still only slightly evolved.

The Hey-Days of CD-ROM Gaming

Hindsight arguably sharpens the blade of criticsm somewhat immeasureably on occasion. However grating the flood of FMV-powered entertainment software appears today from a design point of view, full motion video constituted a sizeable segment of the computer and video game market.

Ads from this era testify to an undeniable popularity not only among players, but Hollywood celebrity. Following Mark Hamill’s and Malcom McDowell’s lead, agents scrambled to put their clients into a gleaming hot CD-ROM title. Actors were instantly enthusiastic, having realized how this new arena would allow them to return to the limelight, making themselves known to a new generation of gamers at a time when the motion picture powers that be had lost interest in them.

Close inspection of marketing materials also reveal another emphasis that might seem peculiar today, namely the predictable reference to professional production values. Consumers were promised not only established actors, but motion picture-grade footage.

Thirdly, FMV benefitted from the unavailability of video on computers. Online video streaming was not yet feasible either and the DVD, eventually introduced in 1996, would only begin to evolve into a main stream product after 1998.

Spy Craft: The Great Game from Activision, 1996 advert: A highly typical CD-ROM game from the mid-1990ies, Spy Craft underlines its variety of segments that rely heavily on video and audio contents. Note in particular the first screenshot is simply a still from video footage literally inviting you to engage with game.
Spy Craft: The Great Game from Activision, 1996 advert: A highly typical CD-ROM game from the mid-1990ies, Spy Craft underlines its variety of segments that rely heavily on video and audio contents. Note in particular the first screenshot, nothing but a still from video footage literally inviting you to engage with game.
Ripper from Take2Interactive:: A basic clue and evidence collecting game is held together by full-movtion videos of a remarkable entourage of actresses and actors who had enjoyed remarkable popularity during the 1980ies. While Christopher Walken, of course, always adds class to any production,  John Rhys-Davies of Indiana Jones fame clearly pursued the multimedia  route of acting, having just starred in the Wing Commander series, en route to returning to worldwide fame as Gimli the Dwarf in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings motion picture trilogy.
Ripper from Take2Interactive:: A basic clue and evidence collecting game is held together by full-movtion videos of a remarkable entourage of actresses and actors who had enjoyed remarkable popularity during the 1980ies. While Christopher Walken, of course, always adds class to any production, John Rhys-Davies of Indiana Jones fame clearly pursued the multimedia route of acting with great deliberation during the 1990ies, having just starred in the Wing Commander series, en route to returning to worldwide fame as Gimli the Dwarf in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings motion picture trilogy. The brilliant Karen Allen, Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark, notably reunited with Rhys-Davies in Take2’s multimedia release.

There was demand for motion video and the film industry certainly did not want to leave this emerging sub-genre of “full-motion video” to computer game geeks. Gameplay mechanics seemed to have been excluded from any thought processes entirely.

In comparison to the excitement of Ocean’s multi-levelled Batman: The Movie or Platoon, it is apparent that the sensation of videos playing on your computer screen had worn off while computer gaming remained popular as ever. What had been completely forgotten amidst the sound and fury of CD-ROMs and their pixellated FMV was that players wanted their games to tell the story while actively playing the game. And that the CD-ROM was, truth be told, but the very storage medium of librarians’ dreams.

The Full Talkie-CD ROM and Enhanced CD ROM Versions

The practically beatified and equally reviled CD-ROM achieved its greatest and lasting success in the aural department. What used to be the only redeeming feature of some CDTV releases, such as Cinemaware’s Defender of the Crown, speech became an integral part of gaming because of the CD-ROM. Adventure games had always relied on textured characterisations, whose ultimate success remained brutally unattainable until the advent of the caressingly named “talkies”. No longer was “speech” a gimmicky – if welcome – sporadic asset as in Beach Head II: The first time Bobbin Threadbare raises his voice in LucasArts’ underappreciated fairy tale adventure Loom is a mesmerizing moment.

Loom by LucasArts was also released on CD-ROM as a "full-talkie" version. Click to play the You Tube video.
Loom by LucasArts was also released on CD-ROM as a “full-talkie” version. Click to play the You Tube video.

Although as simple an addition as there can be, voice-overs for every character on screen made them and their stories come to life. Regardless of the developer, “talkies” universally and finally lent computer games the life-like sheen in literally unforeseen ways. There was no grating rift as in the case of full-motion video, but natural coalescence.

Tim Schafer's Day of the Tentacle shipped as a full-talkie adventure game on CD-ROM. Bar the lowly VGA-resolution of 320x256 pixels, Schafer's sequel to Ron Gilbert's original Maniac Mansion is a bona fide and literally timeless cartoon hit.
Tim Schafer’s Day of the Tentacle shipped as a full-talkie adventure game on CD-ROM. Bar the lowly VGA-resolution of 320×256 pixels, Schafer’s sequel to Ron Gilbert’s original Maniac Mansion is a bona fide and literally timeless cartoon hit. Click to watch on You Tube.

The full-talkie CD-ROM versions of point-and-click adventures evolved into playable cartoons and movies. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Beyond a Steel Sky, Space Quest or Discworld each gave gamers the enjoyment of multiple motion pictures. Although they perfectly mimicked films, there still remained the question of direct involvement in a virtual realm. First-person segments as in in Ocean’s Robocop or the jousting game in Defender of the Crown grabbed players by their shoulders and placed them in digital worlds.

Yet how could this sensation be visually sustained? And with cinematic similitude achieved in computer gaming, albeit in a limited form, are not the whereabouts of the motion picture tie-in an even more pressing question?

RUN STOP for computer and video game motion picture tie-ins

Multi-disk release Jurassic Park by Ocean Software (1993): As designers experimented with amalgams of various gameplay elements whilst incorporating new technologies - such as texture-mapped 3D environments - more storage space was required. Games like Jurassic Park ended up spread across several disks that needed to be swapped during gaming play. One might have likened the number of disks to reels of film… Photo by Andreas Wanda
Multi-disk release Jurassic Park by Ocean Software (1993): As designers experimented with amalgams of various gameplay elements whilst incorporating new technologies – such as texture-mapped 3D environments – more storage space was required. Games like Jurassic Park ended up spread across several disks that needed to be swapped during gaming play. One might have likened the number of disks to reels of film… Click to play Jurassic Park Long Play video by www.recordedamigagames.org

While the CD-ROM was staking out its turf, movie-tie ins continued to dominate sales charts. Of particular interest is once again 1993, when earth clearly was not big enough to stage that year’s major motion picture, Steven Spielberg’s eagerly awaited adaptation of the late Michael Crichton’s New York Times Bestseller Jurassic Park. The book about sensational genetic engineering which resuscitates dinosaurs was fittingly translated to the screen using the latest computer graphics technology and full-size in-camera puppeteering. Spielberg demanded the utmost of excellence from every party involved, including the developer charged with adapting the dino-sized hit for home computers, none other than Ocean Software from Manchester.

Arguably the greatest computer game developer of its time, Ocean Software, with its long history of stellar motion picture tie-ins, bar the odd misstep, was a shoe-in for Universal and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, the production companies in control of all merchandising. Remembers Gary Bracey, head of development at Ocean Software: “ [A]t that time we’d seen some early demos of Doom and we wanted to get that 3D FPS into the game. I mean, with dinosaurs that would be fantastic!” (Ocean Software: Retro Gamer Signature Collection, p27).

Jurassic Park by Ocean Software, Amiga OCS version. Photo by Andreas Wanda.
Bronto-sized gaming: Ocean Software ensured that the biggest film of 1993 got an equal presentation. Jurassic Park was released on every platform imaginable. The complete Amiga OCS version is pictured above. Click to view reviews of Ocean’s Jurassic Park tie-in at the Amiga Magazine Rack.

Everything about Ocean’s tie-in was first-class. The production values even superseded Batman’s and the brave attempt at elaborate first-person maze levels brought the game in line with Spielberg’s insistence on groundbreaking excellence.

Ocean Software was part of the Jurassic Park "dream team" of merchandise producers. Click to play the "JP Dream Team" promo video on You Tube.
Ocean Software was part of the Jurassic Park “dream team” of merchandise producers. Click to play the “JP Dream Team” promo video on You Tube.

The medium of classic movie tie-ins nevertheless started to seem out of place, or, in Jurassic Park’s parlance, extinct even, in spite of Ocean Software’s highly commendable effort. With more powerful computing power asking to be put to good use by more expansive and compäex designs, the days of the vaunted multi-loads were lurching towards their bitter end. For the demands on software houses already struggling to meet release deadlines carved in stone by motion picture producers then graced with vastly more resources than original software houses proved to be too limiting and stressful.

The legendary if rightfully divisive developer Psygnosis endowed the history books of computer gaming with three spectacular failures: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Cliffhanger and Last Action Hero.

Psygnosis doggedly pursued pre-historic game designs as late as 1994 and grafted movie licenses on them to hide the short-comings of Last Action Hero (pictured, courtesy of Abime.net), Cliffhang and Bram Stoker's Dracula.
Psygnosis doggedly pursued pre-historic game designs as late as 1994 and grafted movie licenses on them to hide the short-comings of Last Action Hero (pictured, courtesy of Abime.net), Cliffhanger and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The slavishly “authentic” adaptation of the film narrative, crafted onto below-average executions of jump-and-run mechanics, painted Psygnosis into a corner only future technology could pull the games industry out of. For a market where consumers had been teased for ages with the upcoming marvels of video-playback as a new vehicle for gameplay, grievously exacerbated the gap between the two media.

Bram Stoker's Dracula was a critically and commercially successful film by Francis Ford Coppola starring Gary Oldman, Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder and Anthony Hopkins. It was not a successful game, however, dumbly impaled on a jump-and-run mechanic lacking the playability of the likes of Konami's similarly themed Castlevania series.  Image courtesy of the Video Game Museum, click to visit www.vgmuseum.com
Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a critically and commercially successful film by Francis Ford Coppola starring Gary Oldman, Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder and Anthony Hopkins. It was not a successful game, however, dumbly impaled on a jump-and-run mechanic lacking the playability of the likes of Konami’s similarly themed Castlevania series. Image courtesy of the Video Game Museum, click to visit www.vgmuseum.com

If one considers how human imagination was critical in merging the pixellated characters of Epyx’s G.I. JOE with the Saturday morning cartoon show, one equally realizes how computer game developers could not have possibly followed suit once the CD-ROM introduced actual video playback; the entertainment industry had not yet made any provisions for dealing with the need for additional footage featuring the real-life film stars inside computer games. It was therefore impossible to employ the likenesses of actors through video assets. Furthermore, one revenue stream should not cannibalize the other, which during the early 1990ies would have been case had production companies unabashedly granted access to their prized footage intended for movie theatre screenings through CD-ROMs.

Sylvester Stallone successfully scaled the heights of his former box office glory again with 1993's Cliffhanger, directed by Renny Harlin, yet Psygnosis seemed to have lost touch with a the rapidly changing games industry. Image courtesy of www.lemonamiga.com, click to visit its Cliffhanger profile.
Sylvester Stallone successfully scaled the heights of his former box office glory again with 1993’s Cliffhanger, directed by Renny Harlin, yet Psygnosis seemed to have lost touch with a the rapidly changing games industry. Image courtesy of www.lemonamiga.com, click to visit its Cliffhanger profile.

Compounding the movie tie-in’s situation further was the simple fact that, very much like Dororthy in Wizard of Oz, both developers and players no longer had to literally imagine re-telling or re-playing a motion picture narrative. The abundance of full-motion video releases featuring former or up-and-coming film stars has already been established. A so-called “motion picture tie-in” failing to deliver actual film footage while an “original” game such as Activision’s Spy Craft lured consumers with motion picture-grade production values had no chance of being favoured by the ancient gods of licensed computer and video gaming, the joystick marketeer. To quote from an NEC ad in TurboPlay Magazine 07 (June/July 1991): “Announcing something never seen in a video game. Video. And remember, if you’re not playing real live action video, you’re just playing games.”

Full motion video had swept over gaming like a medieval winter. Yet within the freezing gloom of deteriorating gameplay quality, the heart of immersive and thought-provoking game design continued to beat. It had been indeed throughout the history of computer and video gaming, sporadically revealing itself at irregular intervals.

A glance at Ocean Software’s catalogue provides cunning evidence of a sleeping dragon that had been waiting to escape its confinements since the 8- and 16-bit age: ECO, Platoon, Batman, Robocop, The Untouchables, Robocop 3 and indeed the aforementioned Jurassic Park.

ECO, an evolution simulation game (left) and Robocop 3 (1992) by Ocean Software freed players from the constraints of bitmapped areas and coalesced gameplay elements from various genres. A first-person segment would no longer be only a separate "stage" but the vehicle for the complete game. Why would designers ever want to fence their creativity and the players' adventurous spirit in again adapting motion pictures?
ECO (1988), an evolution simulation game (left), and Robocop 3 (1992) by Ocean Software freed players from the constraints of bitmapped areas and coalesced gameplay elements from various genres. A first-person segment would no longer be only a separate “stage” but the vehicle for the complete game. Why would designers ever want to fence their creativity and the players’ adventurous spirit in again adapting motion pictures?
Ocean Software was personally ordered by Steven Spielberg to make the adaptation of his blockbuster Jurassic Park a "groundbreaking" game. Gary Bracey and his team complied and pitted players literally head to head in then-sensational first-person stages.
Breaking the traditional “crates in a warehouse”-jump-and-run mould Ocean Software had perfected over the years, Jurassic Park aimed to put players inside the film’s heroes for a first-hand dino-experience. Ocean Software had after all been personally ordered by Steven Spielberg to make the adaptation of his blockbuster Jurassic Park a “groundbreaking” game. Gary Bracey and his team complied and pitted players literally head to head in then-sensational first-person stages.

First and third person mechanics: Eliminating the proxy

Computer and video game design was growing independent of hulking motion picture blockbusters and full-motion video, itself a by-product of an industry reaching out for additional revenue rather than original and game-changing products. Envelopping traditional gameplay in a collection of video snippets does not create the impression of virtually acting in a motion picture. Nor do rigid strictures of player movement augment the sensation of involvement. Technological limitations necessitated proxies by which a semblance of immersion could be attained if never fully realised.

Early first-person action on the ZX Spectrum: Sandy White's I of the Mask, released by Electric Dreams in 1985. Click to play video (beware of grating sound effects!).
Early first-person action on the ZX Spectrum: Sandy White’s I of the Mask, released by Electric Dreams in 1985. Click to play video (beware of grating sound effects!).

The technology needed was not video playback, but raw computing power. The video cinematics migrated to the in-game graphics engines, discarding entirely the B-list stars that used to populate everything from poker simulators to space shooters. Furthermore, the primary gameplay mechanic would become the first- or third-person perspective from inside the action, as foreseen by Ocean’s earlier film tie-ins and essayed as the aforementioned dungeon crawler I of the Mask.

Paul Woakes’ Mercenary (1985) , which liberated gameplay even further in ways unseen, was eventually topped by Incentive Software’s Driller in 1987, the first of a series of games based on the novel Freescape engine. Operating an excavation probe from the the first-person perspective, players freely traverse a vast playing area to prevent a catastrophe on a moon by releasing gas from 18 regions. Freescape referred to its ability to render solid objects and complex worlds (featuring buildings, elevators, drops, etc.) at an adequate frame rate in real-time.

Driller by Incentive Software introduced the revolutionary Freescape engine capable of rendering solid 3D worlds on 8- and 16-bit computers. Click to play longplay video on You Tube.
Driller by Incentive Software introduced the revolutionary Freescape engine capable of rendering solid 3D worlds on 8- and 16-bit computers. Click to play longplay video on You Tube.

Driller’s technological breakthrough further reduced the degree of abstraction so common with purely wireframe-based games. Driller was an unqualified success, with Julian Rignall stating: “The graphics […] generate a thoroughly convincing and realistic world.” (ZZAP!64 Christmas Special, p12). How horrible then does the show-stopping CD-ROM interlude that followed the groundbreaking, revolutionary 1980ies appear in retrospect?

The conceit of shoveling pre-drawn or -rendered still images in fairly quick succession from a storage medium to the screen to simulate motion as seen from the first-person perspective was hopelessly outdated even by 1992 – even before the advent of the CD-ROM – as two prodigal coders had proven.

The original Doom by John Carmack and John Romero, published by id Software created a world of terror brought to life by seriously advanced coding techniques pioneered by Carmack and Romero. Nevertheless, CPUs had also advanced significantly, to make Doom and its sequels the stuff of legends. CD-ROM acrutements were glaringly (and thankfully) absent. Design alone mattered.
The original Doom by John Carmack and John Romero, published by id Software created a world of terror brought to life by seriously advanced coding techniques pioneered by Carmack and Romero. Nevertheless, CPUs had also advanced significantly, to make Doom and its sequels the stuff of legends. CD-ROM acrutements were glaringly (and thankfully) absent. Design alone mattered. Click to play video on You Tube.

id’s John Carmack and John Romero ultimately spearheaded the push for first-person shooters with Wolfenstein 3D and the legendary Doom. The latter was indeed afforded a CD-ROM release upon launch, but tellingly devoid of gory video footage. id had had the foresight to exploit the storage medium’s best features, namely its feather-light weight saving millions in shipping costs and its storage capacity sparing players the trouble of clearing their hard drives. Nobody balked, millions of units shipped. The CD-ROM was perfectly exploited as a storage medium, not the saviour of human creativity. There is of course more to id than cunning salesmanship.

Doom establishes with its players a unique relationship. Gamers are given a specific universe of stringent rules by which success may be achieved or failures made inevitable. The exact procedure towards attaining a set goal – even one as simple as getting to a level’s exit – is entirely left to the player to develop. The resultant freedom gives gamers the chance to develop their own style and thus their very own unique character, completely independent of anything the motion picture industry might have conceived.

Midwinter by Mike Singleton, released by Rainbird Software in 1988, was an unparalled technological achievement, a full-fledged strategy game almost entirely played from a first-person perspective.
Midwinter by Mike Singleton, released by Rainbird Software in 1988, was an unparalled technological achievement, a full-fledged strategy game almost entirely played from a first-person perspective.

It follows that the first person mechanic, so beautifully essayed during the formative 80ies by the groundbreaking games such as Mercenary, Firebird’s Cholo, Ocean’s ECO or the late Mike Singleton’s incredible Midwinter series, only provides the tool set if not the path towards victory over a game. Every round of Doom therefore writes its own narrative of valour, cunning, courage and even stupidity at the hands of persistent Arch Demons. Perhaps even more important is the great entertainment value for passive on-lookers, who, naturally unfamiliar with a gamer’s “narrative”, so to speak, watch with baited breath as a chainsaw rattles into action against Hell Knights and Arch-Viles. This is such a crucial point because it proves that there is excitement in watching gameplay as created by a player’s style unfold, which is a pastime that was lost on the uninitiated incapable of deciphering the chunky Duplo blocks of early 80ies graphics darting across the screen. LucasArts, which had been forged in the fires of Mount Hollywood,  found itself in both an unenviable and an incredible position, and also shared John Carmack’s and John Romero’s penchant for impeccable game design.

The FPS also reached a galaxy far, far, away. Once the vaunted Star Wars license had reverted back to LucasArts, the early waves of releases still stuck to David Fox’s conviction by not literally depending on the Star Wars IP but much rather augmenting it through computer games. Of particular interest is the 1995 CD-ROM title Dark Forces by Darren Stinnet, who had principally designed the game as a floppy disk-based release devoid of lavish cinematics.

Star Wars Dark Forces box, front and back, including "Manual: Coded Intelligence"
Good blaster at your side? Check. Darron Stinnet’s FPS Dark Forces reigns supreme, shipping more than 500,000 units in its first year of release. As box design proves, LucasArts seized every opportunity to sell the idea of putting players right inside the Star Wars universe. Click to play gameplay video on You Tube.

Darren Stinnet knew that Star Wars, essentially a mythical modulation of wild west motifs, was the perfect foundation for improving upon Doom’s first-person shooter mechanic. The first impulse was to make Luke Skywalker the main character of LucasArts’s premier fps-game. Stinnet eventually realised, however, that as much fun as it is to watch Luke evolve into a Jedi Master by the end of Return of the Jedi, actually playing as this legendary character would prove too limiting for a number of reasons. First and foremost, continuity would have to be observed, so that the game would have had to segue smoothly into unalterable narrative strands. Thus the decision was made to create a brand-new character, a former Imperial officer and now mercenary for hire, Kyle Katarn. This simple but brilliant design decision liberated the production of Dark Forces: once the introductory mission to retrieve the Death Star plans is completed, players were free to explore the devious world of Imperial weapons engineering (see Retro Gamer LucasArts Signature Collection).

Using well-established visual and sonic design elements from the original Star Wars trilogy, Stinnet’s team created several new worlds that created the perfect illusion of being part of the saga’s galaxy. Star Wars: Dark Forces succeeded precisely because it did not struggle to unite two essentially warring media to come into its own as one of the best-selling releases of 1995.

The Stories of Polygons

The freshly coined genre of the first-person shooter (FPS) finally freed not only gamers, but designers especially. FPS united all the hard-earned virtues of computer and video gaming history into a uniform gaming experience. Alongside Lucasfilm Games / LucasArts, two developers created three of the most legendary specimen, which ironically also base their game design on existing motion picture franchises to interpret and thus enhance the original cinematic source material through the players’ involvement: Die Hard Trilogy and Alien Trilogy from Akklaim and easily the best and most popular Nintendo 64 game ever, Goldeneye from Rare.

Probe Software created three film tie-ins at once with Die Hard Trilogy, which was designed especially for the then brand-new Saturn and Playstation consoles. Click to the excellent "The Making of: Die Hard Trilogy" at Edge Online.
Probe Software created three film tie-ins at once with Die Hard Trilogy, which was designed especially for the then brand-new Saturn and Playstation consoles. Click to the excellent “The Making of: Die Hard Trilogy” at Edge Online.
Prior to Die Hard Trilogy, Probe delivered the massively popular Alien Trilogy, the definitive game based on the iconic film series launched by Ridley Scott in 1979.
Prior to Die Hard Trilogy, Probe delivered the massively popular Alien Trilogy, the definitive game based on the iconic film series launched by Ridley Scott in 1979. It is noteworthy how the packaging already only references elements from the films whilst promising unique “real-time […] action” rather than the usual “your favorite film inside your favorite game” teaser common during the prime of film tie-ins. Click for the Wikipedia entry on Alien Trilogy.
A Sign of the times: Goldeneye by Rare is widely regarding as a significant milestone in the history of the FPS and one of the greatest film tie-ins ever. In fact, Goldeneye is fondly remembered like a standalone release, despite the prominent depiction of Pierce Brosnan on the box. Click to read the making of Probe's Goldeneye 007.
A sign of the times: Goldeneye by Rare is fondly remembered like a standalone release, an essential milestone in the history of the FPS, despite the prominent depiction of James Bond 007 actor Pierce Brosnan on the box. Click to read the making of Probe’s Goldeneye 007 at NowGamer.

The three games epitomize the “new approach” of game design. Whilst existing source material may be mined for circumstantial contexts, the game proper no longer struggles to re-enact the minutiae of sequences made to look great on a movie screen. There is no longer a steadfast requirement to telegraph the film heroes’ motions. Nor is the so-called adaptation limited to changing characters and backdrops. The ability to place gamers inside a gameplay area of three dimensions prompted players to test their mettle in their own unique way inside the virtual recreations of locations from existing IPs. Whilst some of the overall goals may mirror the plot points of the source material – and they should for recognition value – Die Hard Trilogy, Alien Trilogy and Goldeneye mark the very end of the license-obsessed product portfolio, the end of a glamourous and loud era. For each of these very successful titles confidently made its own creative choices, its own daring steps inside an existing world, endowed with the might of liberating 3D engines.

Before Star Wars: Episode VII, there was Jedi Knight

Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II and its intriguing add-on Mysteries of the Sith are legendary LucasArts releases. The latter dropped the full motion video sequences and relied on the game engine to tell the story of how Mara Jade rescues Kyle Katarn from the Dark Side of the Force.
Star Wars: Jedi Knight – Dark Forces II marked the first and only time that LucasArts made non-interactive full-motion video an integral part of a game’s design. The video deliberately created leverage when interest in the Star Wars Prequels was intensifying by giving players the very first chance to witness elaborate lightsaber fights between full-fledged Jedi and so-called “Dark Jedi”. Click to play all cut-scenes from Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II.

To stir interest in the Star Wars franchise during the years leading up to the highly anticipated release of Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the first entry in the film saga to finally incorporate actual Jedi Knights during their prime, LucasArts went the Wing Commander III-route for Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II. The game, which complemented the theatrical release of the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition, featured more than 30 minutes of FMV-cut scenes including the first officially filmed lightsaber fights since Return of the Jedi wrapped in early 1983. Dark Forces II and its intriguing add-on Mysteries of the Sith are legendary LucasArts releases. The latter dropped the full motion video sequences and relied on the game engine to tell the story of how Mara Jade rescues Kyle Katarn from the Dark Side of the Force. Regardless, designer Darron Stinnett had successfully freed himself and his game from the typical burden of a tie-in by repurposing elements of a fictional universe to tell an original story through a computer game. A brilliant computer or video game did not require the motion picture industry.

Enhancing the motion picture narrative: Star Trek Generations and Aeon Flux

Not always do games tie-in with bona fide-blockbusters. For every Ghostbusters or The Untouchables there is an Alien 3 and a Hudson Hawk, two games that surpassed the motion picture they were based on as well-designed and executed entertainment products. Jurassic Park proved in 1993, games promised to even venture beyond the underlying screenplays by providing tasks and settings not shown on screen. With advances in technology vastly expanding the set of tools at game makers’ disposal, designers were therefore increasingly capable of not only besting a film’s entertainment value, but also of ameliorating a motion picture’s narrative.

When Paramount Pictures released Star Trek Generations into theaters in late 1994, audiences were understandably disappointed that iconic Starfleet Captain James T. Kirk had been relegated to a cameo instead of featuring as a prominent proponent of the plot. Locked out from interacting with the colorful crew of the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series, Kirk’s appearance was incapable of enlivening an anemic plot. Microprose cleverly sidestepped the story beats to create original conflicts for the player to solve whilst retaining the core narrative. The main characters were thus freely placed in entirely different situations that required exploration, leading to a well-reviewed and fondly remembered gameplay experience in the process.

Star Trek Generations by Microprose was a late 90ies motion picture tie-in that used the first-person mechanic to expand the original film's narrative to give players more opportunities to participate in a convoluted plot. All the original cast members of the film provided their voices to enhance this ambitious attempt at cinematic playability. Click to play video on You Tube.
Star Trek Generations by Microprose was a late 90ies motion picture tie-in that used the first-person mechanic to expand the original film’s narrative to give players more opportunities to participate in a convoluted plot as both Jean-Luc Picard and James T. Kirk. All the original cast members of the film provided their voices to enhance this ambitious attempt at cinematic playability. Click to play video on You Tube.

As the new millennium dawned upon the world, the motion picture industry was rediscovering the comic book as a generous source of visual arresting narratives. Using the latest in computer generated imagery technology, Sony’s Spider-Man slung itself to more than $400 millions in box office receipts in the United States alone. Director Sam Raimi’s success sent agents scrambling for the next big property, which led to release of 2005’s Aeon Flux.

Based on a spry futuristic female secret agent introduced in brief animated segments on MTV, Aeon Flux was conceived as a launchpad for a series of action-packed, gravity defying adventure films starring up-and-coming South African actress Charlize Theron. The film was a dismal failure both commerically and critically, yet the game it spawned received universal praise. IGN called it a “surprisingly good cinematic translation”, stating that “futuristic flipping turns out to be fun”. Gamespot argued that “Aeon Flux can be enjoyable, simply because of how it plays“, pointing towards the wealth of gameplay rather than storytelling opportunities an athletic heroine has to offer. What made this success possible was of course the first- and third-person mechanic that rapidly improving hardware could handle with increasing ease and photorealistic panache. Furthermore, Aeon Flux may have been visually based on the film’s design for recognition value, yet its gameplay hewed more closely to the original MTV TV show, thus shunning the presumed virtues of Hollywood storytelling.

Aeon Flux, the computer game by Majestic, released in 2005 to coincide with the release of the film starring Charlize Theron. Unlike the forgotten motion picture, the game is remembered for its versatile playability. Click to play You Tube video.
Aeon Flux, the 2005 computer game by Majestic, released in 2005 to coincide with the release of the film starring Charlize Theron. Unlike the forgotten motion picture, the well-received game is remembered for its versatile playability. Click to play You Tube video.

So computer and video games started creating their own mythologies, that much was certain by the middle of the decade. More than that, technology enabled designers to create entire worlds wherein players could not only develop their own style of gameplay, but actually write the story they were a part of themselves, unencumbered as they were by the burden of motion picture licenses. This evolutionary step coincided with the introduction of Sony’s incredible Playstation 2.

The sensational, DVD-based games console Playstation 2 from electronics giant Sony raised the curtain on the future of narrative and immersive entertainment. In David Crookes’s article “How the Playstation Changed Gaming” “The PlayStation introduced the idea of true 3D gaming to the living room and, beyond that, the mass market,” says Cliff Bleszinski. […] “The PlayStation shifted the console from having an almost toy-like quality into the consumer electronics that are just as desired by 12year-olds as they are by 35—year—olds” (Retro Gamer 1/2015, p29).  So the consumer base of video and computer games grew exponentially at the same time that it came to be accepted as a “serious”contributor to popular culture. Gaming had shed its pixellated coil and literally grown up, a fact brilliantly illustrated by Rockstar’s legendary Grand Theft Auto III, which placed a complex story of intrigue and betrayal inside a almost fully realized virtual city.

More characters and story telling than all Mafia films combined in a single game: Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto III defined the sandbox genre. The incredible consumer adoption rate propelled GTA III's sales as much as it triggered it. A timeless classic of computer and video game history, click to play longplay video on You Tube.
More characters and story telling than all Mafia films combined in a single game: Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto III defined the sandbox genre. The incredible consumer adoption rate propelled GTA III’s sales as much as it triggered it. A timeless classic of computer and video game history, click to play longplay video on You Tube.

One realizes that the motion picture tie-in unintentionally led to a period in gaming history that can be considered the dark ages of game design. The close ties with motion pictures misled the industry to believe that the two media needed to be merged. Fabulous prospects of seamless filmic interaction blinded the industry to the fact that game production was actually too encumbered with rather than propelled  by movie licenses and the eventual FMV-dog and pony shows. ACE overlooked Activision’s Die Hard simply because it did not reflect the presumed pioneering spirit of state-of-the-art CD-ROMs. The journalists and readers alike ultimately could not help veering towards the glitzy green pastures of ostensibly new technology – which vector graphics, wire frames and still images were not a part of. The ACE article does, however, mention Mirrorsoft’s Flight of the Intruder.

The motion picture slipstream: Paradigm shifts in the entertainment industry

The divisive genre of the motion picture tie-in as a marketing tool undoubtedly augured the eventual fusion of design and narration. As such film adaptations relied greatly on players’ imaginative capacity: by creating pointers that harkened back to specific movie story beats – such as Elliot Ness facing off with Capone’s men in the Chicago Central Station – gamers were arguably under the illusion of veritably existing inside the licensed film by the power of their own imagination. Gamers were in reality, of course, tightly boxed in to do what the designers and – by proxy – the filmmakers had conceived of. Technology and human ingenuity paved the way for letting designers provide an actionable environment where players would tell their own stories: remember Flight of the Intruder by Mirrorsoft?

While ACE focused on the meaty Dick Tracy and Predator 2 licenses in its article “License to print money?”, Mirrorsoft’s lesser known license more or less flew underneath the radar of movie fans but not flight simulation aficionados. Flight of the Intruder is actually based on a novel by Stephen Coonts, which was turned into a film starring Brad Johnson, Danny Glover and Willem Dafoe. Mirrorsoft smartly pencilled in the flight simulator’s release to coincide with the film release. This move generated the same level of interest as a typical film tie-in albeit at a much lower cost. The savings were well invested in the famous developers of blockbuster flight simulator Falcon, Spectrum Holobyte.

Flight of the Intruder, released by Mirrorsoft, developed by Spectrum Holobyte: Confidently packaged, there is no mention of either the book nor the film of the same name as the designers took an existing premise to develop a nail-biting flight simulation experience based on not determined and ultimately spoilt by it. Developer Spectrum Holobyte professionally left the unnecessary determinants of perfectly unrelated media out to create the best game possible.
Flight of the Intruder, released by Mirrorsoft, developed by Spectrum Holobyte: Confidently packaged, there is no mention of either the book nor the film of the same name as the designers took an existing premise to develop a nail-biting flight simulation experience based on not determined and ultimately spoilt by it. Developer Spectrum Holobyte professionally left the unnecessary determinants of perfectly unrelated media out to create the best game possible.

There is a natural relation to the film and book in Mirrorsoft’s Flight of the Intruder. These connections are still left to the players’ minds, no extraneous material impairs the organic flow of a tightly designed and historically accurate simulation. Gamers are consequently not forced to stoically replay the film’s compact set of story beats but take part in well-researched missions, which by nature write their own dramatic narrative. Flight of the Intruder succeeds as a brilliant adaptation of a licensed IP because it is a brilliant game designed to be an engaging computer game and nothing else like Activision’s Die Hard mentioned earlier. ACE Magazine awarded Spectrum Holobyte’s simulation the well-deserved “ACE” rating, noting that this “complex” product features “enough missions […] to keep you going for some time” (p46, ACE June 1990). There is, after all, no finite quality about gaming as in the running time the motion picture industry subscribes to out of necessity. Hence gameplay had already succeeded in surpassing the drama and enjoyment of motion pictures by 1990. All it needed to do to achieve this level of freedom was to develop its own rules, not constrain itself through submission to exterior factors.

Originally, the motion picture industry was of course considered a deity third parties could handsomely profit from if they played the cards well. Vintage blockbusters such as Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters, dominated headlines the world over with raving reviews and record-setting box office results in 1984. The first Ghostbusters made $291 million worldwide in 1984. Adjusted for inflation, ticket sales would be at a staggering $688 million today. This is a sum nobody will easily forget and should still make Ivan Reitman very proud as a testament to his film’s perennial popularity. Naturally, computer and video games – in particular the managers that ran the business – wanted a part of this. Activision grabbed the license and made gaming history in the process because of the film industry.

Early motion picture tie-ins such as Activision's Ghostbusters, created by the legendary David Crane, were inevitably overshadowed by the mighty motion picutre industry.
Early motion picture tie-ins such as Activision’s Ghostbusters, created by the legendary David Crane, were inevitably overshadowed by the mighty motion picutre industry. Crane’s game, which evolved from a cancelled racer, featured the film’s signature music and select speech snippets. Its many qualities made it a massive success.

Thirty years later, the marketplace has changed phenomenally and the unjustly forgotten precursors of modern open world games such as Cholo or Midwinter seem redeemed: the latest entry in the massively popular open-world computer game series Grand Theft Auto aka GTA broke several records over a single weekend in 2014, the most significant of which is the revenue generated within a mere three days: $800 million worldwide. Activision, which coincidentally published David Crane’s Ghostbusters tie-in more than thirty years ago, posted a cumulative revenue of more than $10 billion dollars for its  Call of Duty series of first-person shooters.

The shadow of the gamepad: Grand Theft Auto V (left) and Call of Duty (right) belong to the new, disenfranchised type of computer and video game that not merely stands its own ground but leaves the once all-might motion picture industry in the dust. Key to this success are rich environments where players can have their very own experiences, using their very own techniques instead of following strict routes in a limited set of confining stages. These are the "do whatever you like"-type of games.
The shadow of the gamepad: Grand Theft Auto V (left) and Call of Duty (right) belong to the new, disenfranchised type of computer and video game that not merely stands its own ground but leaves the once all-might motion picture industry in the dust. Key to this success are rich environments where players can have their very own experiences, using their very own techniques instead of following strict routes in a limited set of confining stages. These are the “do whatever you like”-type of games.

Contemporary film tie-ins, by contrast, such as Gameloft’s Iron Man 3, on the other hand, based on Marvel’s $1 billion grossing blockbuster from 2013, ranked only at no. 80 just one month after the film’s premiere according to ThinkGaming. Movie tie-ins today have indeed turned into the quaint by-products that round out a merchandising proposition as Jon Woods of Ocean Software remarked.

“The movie licence period has passed now and you’ve got Activision and others  developing their own licences,” notes Jon Woods in the Retro Gamer Signature Collection on Ocean Software. Besides Activision’s aforementioned Call of Duty, Ubisoft’s time-travelling, history-chewing epic saga of a line of assassins Assassin’s Creed comes to mind, which gives gamers full cities and hundreds of characters to explore and interact with, regardless of the main narrative, which no longer drives sales. The same is very much true of Microsoft’s Mass Effect and even Minecraft. It is, then, the individual experiences players are allowed to have that generate hundreds of millions of dollars in retail. The joystick marketeer has invariably turned into his very own storyteller, who has been given a special lexicon to develop his personalized tale with.

BIOWare produces the Mass Effect series for Microsoft, an epic tale of an intergalatic war predicated on character development. Click to play a walkthrough video of Mass Effect 2 on You Tube.
BioWare produces the Mass Effect series for Microsoft, an epic tale of an intergalatic war predicated on character development. The futuristic roleplaying saga has been earmarked for motion picture adaptation.

The Final Reel: Pulling free of the motion picture slipstream

A typical Christmas season advert promoting the launch of motion picture tie-in: Ocean Software's marketing was occasionally much bolder than the actual game design efforts due to budget and schedule restrictions. Click to watch Ocean's film tie-in wreak havoc on the C64.
A typical Christmas season advert promoting the launch of a motion picture tie-in: Ocean Software’s marketing was occasionally much bolder than the actual game design efforts due to budget and schedule restrictions. Click to watch Ocean’s film tie-in wreak havoc on the C64.

Motion picture tie-ins used to make up for a plethora of technological deficiencies through the pomp and circumstances afforded by the promotional industry. The Christmas season was especially colorful when films seemed to be vying as much for film goers as for computer and video game players. This inevitable superficiality prompted the venerable David Fox to note in 1987: “I wish we had wide screen and stereo sound and things like that”.  So after detours into cumbersome full-motion video, which all but put the brakes on computer game evolution, the timely combination of unbridled developer enthusiasm, technological progress and the need of humanity to experience stories that unleash our imaginations, the video and computer game industry cunningly left the motion picture slip stream to overtake the aging motion picture industry.

Although it is rather sad to see the motion picture tie-in reduced to an afterthought these days, considering that such a release stirred great interest and excitement, the computer and video game industry has matured into a more refined, richer source of interactive entertainment, of which 2013’s The Last of Us is perhaps the finest example yet.

The Last of Us is a third-person action adventure game which sees players protect a young but highly resourceful girl in a post-apocalyptic United States after a virus has ravaged the population. Although intense and action-packed, The Last of Us received great praise for seamlessly integrating a touching relationship with brutal survival combat. This is also, finally, what Dr. Steve Upstill referred to as “manipulability” in ACE magazine’s 1990 interview, namely the players’ ability to operate inside a tangible gameplay environment: the gameplay areas of The Last of Us encourage gamers to not only pick up ready-made weapons or health kits, but may indeed build tools from objects scattered throughout the gameplay environment to  survive.

The Last of Us by Naughty Dog is a superb action adventure game which challenges gamers to survive by crafting their own tools while being part of a very touching, human story. Click to play longplay video on You Tube.
The Last of Us by Naughty Dog is a superb action adventure game which challenges gamers to survive by crafting their own tools while being part of a very touching, human story. Click to play longplay video on You Tube.

The alleged CD-ROM revolution ACE magazine anticipated in 1990 did take place albeit in a more mundane, humble manner. It would be almost a quarter of a century later that a game would allow players to exist almost freely inside a computer games world. Games nowadays are thus not simply content with establishing a believable virtual reality, they have ceased to telegraph the necessary steps players need to take. Instead, they give full access to digital worlds wherein lie objects or parts thereof to aid players in their progress. Since games feature such detailed worlds, gameplay increasingly revolves around decisions, not extra tedious cheat codes or nauseating memory tests disguised as never-ending attack waves. The modern game actually asks players the essential questions movie tie-ins merely pretended to pose: how would you behave if you were in a situation such as the protagonists of The Last of Us?

Modern players may “manipulate” literally anything in the virtual worlds they commit themselves to. They therefore have unique stories to tell based on their individuality, not a far-away writer’s ingenuity. It is no coincidence that recording and sharing features in nearly every game released today are essential. Players not only turn into digital actors but also directors and distributors, with specific clips of their daring or not-so smart exploits in a round of GTA or Call of Duty garnering hundreds of thousands of viewers on You Tube.

Assassin's Creed by Ubisoft features a growing list of time travelling assassins. With each new installment, Ubisoft augments gameplay environments and features, so much so, that its film adaptation is set to feature star Michael Fassbender. Click to play a montage of all Assassin's Creed game trailers on You Tube.
Assassin’s Creed by Ubisoft features a growing list of time travelling assassins. With each new installment, Ubisoft augments gameplay environments and features, so much so, that its film adaptation is set to feature star Michael Fassbender. Click to play a montage of all Assassin’s Creed game trailers on You Tube.

Of even greater significance is how games have also long since stopped quantifying their scope in computer and video gaming terms: instead of “rooms” there are thousands of square-miles in GTA V. Instead of referring to the number of animation frames, Uncharted 4 developer Naughty Dog announces the numbers of bones inside the main character’s digital body model in its press releases. Games have arguably created an attractive demi-reality.

It is exactly therefore that motion picture houses are now scurrying to secure rights to gleaming hot computer and video game properties, with adaptations of Assassin’s Creed and indeed The Last of Us in the works. Notes The Last of Us film producer Sam Raimi, who, as a director, previously showed a nack for adapting Spider-Man convincingly for the big screen in 2002: “I think it’s going to be a great character journey and a great love story and a really great horror picture,” vowing to “protect” the beloved game (Empire Online, July 2014).

What do we need movies for? This is Drake, an actual video game character lying unconscious in an actual screenshot of the actual computer and videogame Uncharted 4: A Thief's End by Naughty Dog. Click to play Uncharted 4's trailer on You Tube.
What do we need movies for? This is Drake, an actual video game character lying unconscious in an actual screenshot of the actual computer and videogame Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End by Naughty Dog. Click to play Uncharted 4‘s trailer on You Tube.

The computer and video game industry has veritably mastered the art of digital creation to focus ever more copiously on contents and fine details of visual realism while films have been struggling to catch up throwing one perturbingly unrealistic computer-enhanced explosion after another at hardened filmgoers. So as we, enveloped by multi-channel directional surround sound, grab a gamepad to graft new high definition pixels onto the expansive narrative canvas of widescreen tv sets by our own, player-determined volition, it is time for a final farewell.

Bye-bye, motion picture tie-in, a genre of promises grand, rewards aplenty and failures not too irregular, it was you that generously gave us the taste of adventures vast and worlds expansive, many years in advance, may you rest comfortably in our hearts a friend most dear and never forgotten.

"The pinnacle of movie licenses" according to Ocean founder Jon Woods: Jurassic Park was released by Ocean Software in late 1993 on various platforms, including the Commodore Amiga. Jurassic Park marked the end of a time when motion picture licenses ruled the world. Photo by Andreas Wanda.
“The pinnacle of movie licenses” according to Ocean founder Jon Woods and a monolith of computer gaming history: Jurassic Park was released by Ocean Software in late 1993 on various platforms, including the Commodore Amiga. Jurassic Park marked the end of a time when motion picture licenses ruled the world.

 

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