|Twelve minutes into Electronic Arts latest James Bond game, Everything or Nothing, a very familiar Brit shows up to tell 007 the details of his next mission.
As implausible as it sounds, Oscar-winning Shakespearean thespian Judi Dench now stars in a video game.
Looking a bit rough around the edges her hair appears less than organic and her eyes have that Playstation 2 zombie-stare its still recognizably Judi Dench, her semblance and voice digitally incarnated for the singular purpose of adding authenticity to a video game. And shes not alone, either. Joining her are Willem Dafoe, Shannon Elizabeth, Heidi Klum, and, of course, Pierce Brosnan. Its a cast worthy of any Bond flick.
Except this particular video game has no film tie-in, nor would it need one. With its tight script, convincing acting and high production values, Everything or Nothing actually is the latest movie in the James Bond series. Its just one that happens to not be on celluloid.
Hollywood, as of late, has been making a resurgence into the video game genre and not with their typical rehashes of movies. From Jet Lis Rise to Honor to Jean Renos co-starring role in the upcoming Onimusha 3, games are not only getting major film actors, but brand new scripts. Considering how brutal most movie-to-game translations are, its almost cause to forgive Hollywood for dreck like Enter the Matrix and a hundred others.
Critical failures have never kept Hollywood out of video gaming. Neither have colossal flops. When E.T. the Game came out for the Atari system in the early 1980s, gamers found it horrifically hard and ludicrously abstract. Bluntly put, it made small children want to kill E.T. Parents bitterly returned the game in droves. The fiasco which followed pretty much destroyed Warner Brothers-owned Atari and triggered the infamous video game crash. According to video game lore, there are more than five million returned or unsold E.T. cartridges buried in an undisclosed landfill in New Mexico.
Hollywood studios made a tentative comeback in the 1990s, bringing such actors as Kirk Cameron, Corey Feldman and Rob Schneider to star in "full motion video" games best left forgotten. It was to have been the era of "Siliwood" except for one small snag: the grainy video and ham-fisted acting was a bauble-like novelty as entertaining as playing with a VCR.
With the introduction of graphics powerhouses like Xbox and Playstation 2, actors can now be digitally replicated and fully playable. Yet Hollywoods current involvement in video games cant be blamed on advanced graphics alone.
As Nielsen Media Research figures have shown, video games have become the competition.
In a year of major releases like Spiderman, Star Wars Episode II and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, movies in 2002 made $20.4 billion in box office receipts. Compare this to the $30 billion made from video games that same year. And with around 170 million video game players in America alone with a typical age hovering around 29 years old, it's obvious why Hollywood studios have found themselves at the digital shindig once more, this time not only with a vengeance, but with a majestic parade of star talent in tow.
Yet Hollywood-backed games best illustrate the primary difference between the two mediums. Whereas movies are a visual depiction of a story, video games are the physics and environment of one. The Lord of the Rings games, for instance, recreate scenes from the films to minute detail, but have only a superficial semblance of their camaraderie and character development. Without the movies or books, the games come across as a series of unconnected battles. The story is just an arbitrary framework for the action.
At least until games like Façade arrive. A finalist in the 2004 Independent Games Festival, Façade has become the most controversial example of video gamings latest buzzword: interactive drama. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, collaborators Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern have combined dramaturgical theories with a provocative take on artificial intelligence.
You play yourself in Façade, invited to the apartment of your friends, Grace and Trip, whose marriage is not as blissful as it first appears. What starts out as a pleasant evening turns grim and surly as you watch their relationship fall apart with you caught in the crossfire.
The games voice recognition lets you actually speak to Grace and Trip as you move around in a first-person perspective. Façade is modelled after a one-act play and youre part of its synthespian cast. You can try to rescue Grace and Trips marriage with empathy and diplomacy. Or you can become a virtual Iago, goading them on into complete dissolution. Alternatively, you can just sit there and say nothing because the game continues on whether you participate or not. Immersive and wholly convincing, Façade is like nothing Ive played before.
And it nudges open the evolutionary door for story-based games to become more than action or puzzle-oriented adventures. Imagine a game based on In America or Lost in Translation, with an outcome not predetermined by a scriptwriter. Not only would you be an actor in an untold story youd be the writer and director, too.
With the next generation of Playstations and Xboxes fast approaching with photo-realistic graphics, the visual separation between movies and games looks likely to disappear. And if a game like Façade influences the genre, an intriguing choice might be in store for us: would you like to watch a story or be in one?