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Screen Play – How Videogames Grew Up With The Movies

This feature originally appeared in Total Film # 133 in 2007. Please forgive the dated references.

With Halo 3 out-hyping this year’s blockbusters and Peter Jackson signing up with Microsoft, games can no longer be dismissed as cinema’s gaudy sidekick. We go back to the late 1970s to track the twisting, two-way history of blockbuster flicks and joysticks…

Want to know about movies and videogames? Watch Toy Story 2. The rug-pulling opener – in which Buzz Lightyear’s doomed dash across an alien planet to assault Emperor Zurg’s lair turns out to be a videogame played by timid dino Rex – is a brilliantly savvy comment on how interdependent cinema and its electronic cousin had become by the late ‘90s. Dig a little deeper and the film even offers a self-aware history of how it all came about: the central tale of an old-fashioned cowboy made obsolete at the hands of a flashy astro-hero (which echoes Pixar’s own success as a computer-age marvel – more on which later) is a eulogy for an earlier, simpler time, pinpointing the cultural shift which first drew films and games together. As a sad Stinky Pete observes, ‘Once the astronauts went up, children only wanted to play with space toys.’

To be exact, those astronauts went up in 1969. Watched by half a billion people, the Apollo moon landings became a television fixture for a generation in the early ‘70s, paving the way for a decade characterised by spaceships and silicon chips. Computers, having grown powerful enough to launch the lunar module, were now also capable of handling the first mass-appeal videogames, which started with Pong in 1972 and soon became a money-spinning phenomenon – market leader Atari was raking in $120 million a year by 1978.

At the same time, Hollywood was reinventing itself, ushering in the age of the blockbuster. Many of the films which defined the new era shared the same sci-fi subject matter at the leading arcades – while Atari and rival Midway released the likes of Space Race and Space Invaders, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas gave us Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars. Computers also helped define the look of these blockbusters, as they became increasingly integral to special effects technology. Star Wars featured cinema’s first entirely computer generated scenes – Luke’s drop-down X-Wing targeting system, as seen during the attack on the Death Star – which sported the same grid-based vector graphics as contemporary arcades.

These scenes were the work of Industrial Light And Magic, part of Lucas’ growing media empire. The forward-thinking director was a key figure during these formative years, recognising early the significance of both computer imagery and videogames. In addition to ILM, Lucas tempted cutting-edge computer scientist Ed Catmull away from the New York Institute of Technology to head up Lucasfilm’s Computer Division in 1979. The division included the Graphics Group – which would go on to become Pixar Animation – and, from 1982, the Games Division.

The whole of Hollywood was hot for games. The very same week that Lucas’ Games Group was revealed, Fox and Universal made similar announcements, while Warner Bros. had got into the game early, snapping up Atari in 1976 for what turned out to be a bargain $28 million. The studios were tempted not only by impressive financial results, but also by the potential for lucrative crossovers between the two industries. “There definitely will be a relationship between movie titles and the games,” predicted Frank O’Connell, president of Fox Video Games. “The strong advertising and publicity given movies can support the games.”

That relationship was more evident than ever in the year’s big film releases, which were dominated by special effects and sci-fi. They included Firefox (Clint Eastwood steals a Russian fighter plane controlled by thought), Blade Runner (Han Solo hunts man-bots), Star Trek II (with Pixar-designed CG sequences), ET (kid befriends alien) and, sealing the deal, Tron.

Tron vividly captured the essence of cinema’s relationship with games, and also spawned the first official tie-in titles – Tron, and the 1983 follow-up Discs Of Tron. While the film fared badly at the box-office, the games did excellent business, and many similar tie-ins followed. Star Wars, Raiders Of The Lost Ark and James Bond all received digital adaptations, although none of them had the impact of Atari’s 1982 release of ET.

Riding an uninterrupted wave of rising profits and encouraged by a growing collaboration with the movie business, Atari handed over a reported $20 million for the rights to make an ET videogame. But they gave programmer Howard Scott Warshaw just 6 weeks to turn the project around for a Christmas ’83 release slot, and the results were infamously unplayable; gamers who got past the terrible controls and bewildering setup discovered that the game’s objective was to literally make a phone.

ET was a disaster. While cinema had previously helped elevate games to new heights, it had now tempted the industry into its biggest blunder. 2.5 million ET cartridges were left unsold (rumour has it they were packed into a specially-created landfill in the New Mexico desert) bankrupting Atari and sparking an industry-wide crash. Publishers went out of business and games in various stages of development were scrapped. During the height of the crisis in 1984, Universal released The Last Starfighter, a film which echoed Tron with its tale of a boy recruited to fight for an alien starfleet by playing his favourite arcade. But unlike Tron the promised tie-in game – optimistically advertised during the end credits – was lost in the crash, and never materialised.

Games were forced to lie low for the next couple of years, but the relationship with film had been firmly established. The industry found its feet again in 1986, with the Sega Master System and Nintendo Entertainment System leading the way after Atari’s fall, and Hollywood responded in 1989 with a movie celebrating the most recognisable hero of this resurgent videogame generation. The tale of a traumatised kid with a preternatural gift for gaming, Wizard was remarkable not only for putting the impossibly cool Power Glove controller at the top of unrealistic Christmas lists everywhere, but also for showcasing Nintendo’s then-unreleased Super Mario Bros. 3. It became the top-selling standalone game for the NES.

Despite this warm Hollywood welcome, though, the film-game relationship was struggling to develop. The early ‘90s bore witness to two particularly high-profile crossover cul-de-sacs. With the growing availability of CD-ROM technology – embedded in home PCs, or in games consoles like the Mega-CD and 3DO – interactive movies enjoyed a spurt of popularity. They had appeared briefly before, when laserdiscs were first introduced in the early ‘80s and titles like Dragon’s Lair – designed by Disney luminary Don Bluth – had wowed audiences with cinema-quality visuals. But as a whole new generation discovered with the release of titles like Night Trap and Road Avenger, the gameplay of these interactive movies was joylessly linear and limited.

Also destined for failure was a short-lived fascination with virtual reality. Tantalising promises of a totally immersive computer-based world – Tron come to life – failed to materialise. A handful of arcade curios came and went, while Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, a monochromatic portable VR machine, was discontinued after a year in production thanks to poor sales and general disinterest. This was all in stark contrast to Hollywood’s ever-hopeful version of events, which saw VR as capable of not only rehabilitating the mentally impaired but turning them into despotic demi-gods in 1992’s The Lawnmower Man, and also as the playground for computer cops and robbers in 1995’s Virtuosity.

Something more like progress was made in 1993, with the release of the first film based on a videogame. Starring Bob Hoskins as the plucky Italian plumber, Super Mario Bros. was a landmark – widely panned and a financial failure, the camped-up crossover did at least prove that videogames had finally gained sufficient cultural currency to reverse the traditional formula of big-name films becoming licensed games. Though the potted history of subsequent tie-ins suggests the two media are not yet on an even footing, it was nevertheless a sign of an established entertainment medium.

The modern, post-PlayStation games industry is a paradox. The success of the major publishers is largely dependent on the consistent production of high profile licenses and major movie tie-ins. EA – easily the biggest of the bunch – make games based on Harry Potter, Lord Of The Rings and James Bond, while rival Activision hold licenses for Spider-Man, X-Men and Transformers. With very few exceptions these routinely rolled out titles barely do either film or game justice – they’re safe, standardised money-spinners. The interesting thing is that, independent of any official association, the very best games are often inherently cinematic – like Resident Evil with its fixed, leering camera angles, Hitman’s rigorously rehearsed set-pieces, or the sprawling referential sandbox of Grand Theft Auto.

Has the great promise of convergence been reduced to this? Dreary adaptations and borrowed aesthetic quirks? Perhaps not. Games are better understood by leading creative film talent now than ever before, and projects are underway that could potentially redefine this thirty year relationship. John Woo is directing Chow Yun Fat in Stranglehold, a videogame sequel to their Hong Kong classic Hard Boiled. Even more enticingly, in addition to his Halo 3 producing duties, Peter Jackson has signed on to create an as-yet unexplained ‘interactive’ experience set in the Halo universe. Details are sparse – the director has made enigmatic reference to scenarios and stories which don’t fit the traditional film format, and described Xbox Live as ‘an amazing living canvas.’ Will his mysterious episodic content light the way for future cross-media collaboration? Maybe that’s a lot to ask for. Then again, if anyone can do it, surely it’s Jackson…

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