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Only in The Movies

A virtual movie studio gives hope to gamers who really want to direct
By IAN MAISEL  |  August 11, 2006

WILD WILD WEST: a solid investment
Take 1: Runnin’ Down a Dream
The 1920s were a grand time for movie makers. My back lot was a vast expanse of parched California desert dusted with weeds, a metaphorical and literal sandbox for my filmmaking dreams. My stars were decked out in bowler caps and suspenders, checking out the new food carts I had set up to keep them happy between takes.

On the west side of my growing studio lot I’d invested in the set for a “Wild West” saloon. Looking around my new creation, I imagined a cowboy’s dramatic entrance through the saloon’s swinging doors, a saucy bartender’s well-practiced slide of a drink across the bar’s counter, a fetching prostitute’s sashay down the well-worn staircase.

I put up an old-fashioned script office. A couple of geeky guys with thick glasses lined up out front, eager to start pounding out cheap plots. I grabbed one of the more twitchy, eager-looking candidates and put him at a desk.

I marveled at how lifelike the scene looked: my man, rendered in colorful 3D computer animation, was suddenly pecking away furiously at a battered typewriter. His desk was set up on top of a blue-lined architectural blueprint that labeled this particular room “Comedy.” For a moment, you could forget that it was only a game.

Take 2: Establishing Shot
The Movies, released by Activision in late 2005, is a video game that lays out a simple, beautiful tool set that empowers its players to create their own films, or “machinima,” to borrow the trendy term for virtual film. But The Movies is a sly creation: it’s as much about the behind-the-scenes drama and intrigue of Hollywood – as much an ode to the lore of the craft – as it is about the end result. 

In this sense, it’s unlike previous Hollywood sims and movie-making tools in that it provides two distinct experiences: The game gives you the ability to film your own actual movies in an easy and intuitive way that also has depth; it also lets you run the imaginary movie studio behind the scenes. It’s an imperfect creation: the studio-building simulation grows awkwardly monotonous by the time you reach the 1960s – but such is the intricacy of the game that the creators may well have been trying to make a statement. TheMovies failed to become a commercial blockbuster, but thanks to a small but dedicated audience – one that I suspect shares my obsessions with pop culture, film, graphic design, history, and gaming – it’s become something of a cult hit.

How could it be anything else? Even for a generation of gamers raised on The Sims and its offshoots, The Movies can be a painfully esoteric experience. It challenges users by limiting the number of employees they can have, which means as a studio boss you’re always running short on maintenance people, builders, scientists, crew members, and extras. Sometimes you get the impression the game is trying to recreate the real Hollywood – to engage the user in a mix of art, commerce, celebrity, and psychology. Other times the experience feels arbitrary. Ultimately, “I want to make movies” devolves into “I need a janitor to go sweep up around the production office.” Which may or may not be closer to the truth of Hollywood than The Movies intended.  

When you are first starting out in The Movies, you’re forced to pay professional writers to turn out material for you – like some first-time director who’s arrived in town without a decent Rolodex. Inevitably, the short, automated films that follow yield nothing worth watching. The films that the game churns out are wretched – nonsensical amalgams of odd behavior on random sets. Like, y’know, Waterworld. But, if you’re willing to put a couple of hours into learning the game’s movie-making simulator and can accept the creative challenge of working with its simplistically bouncy, cheeky character animations, you can produce real animated movie shorts with storytelling depth faster than any pre-packaged animation tool set to date.

Click the screenshot to watch a scene from BBC's The Office re-enacted using Activision's The Movies
Take 3: The Game
The Movies understands Hollywood’s keen interest in making grand first impressions. As the curtain goes up, you’re wooed with a seductive set of startup screens. After the game maker’s logo tips over and spills a bunch of  blocks onto the floor in the satisfying clatter of dumping open a toybox, you hear a projector slowly whirring to life. A grainy, old-fashioned filmstrip countdown sequence is followed by an exuberant blare of trumpets announcing your stupendous arrival at a new Hollywood back lot.

The dream begins with a mellow, loungey jazz song and bubbly game options menu on the left. Animated snippets from the game run in a preview reel on the right, hinting at what awaits you: Amidst a barroom brawl, a white woman strangles a black man sporting an exaggerated Afro. A stiff-looking zombie swings out of graveyard coffin and runs straight for the camera. An intensely-mustachioed starship captain takes charge of a high-stress situation while his lieutenant indifferently chats on his cell phone in the background.

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Related: Bourne to lose, Cinema of Shadows, Last man standing, More more >
  Topics: Videogames , Celebrity News, Entertainment, Science and Technology,  More more >
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  •   NATURAL GASS  |  November 16, 2006
    Ian Maisel interviews Tenacious D's Kyle Gass
  •   ONLY IN THE MOVIES  |  August 11, 2006
    The Movies , released by Activision in late 2005, is a video game that lays out a simple, beautiful tool set that empowers its players to create their own films.

 See all articles by: IAN MAISEL

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