Only in The Movies

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

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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.  

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