Reel to Real: Interactive Drama and The Cinema of Tomorrow
In Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, a down-on-her-luck housewife looking for an escape (Mia Farrow) gets her wish when a dashing young archeologist (Jeff Daniels) leaps off the silver screen and into her life.
Allen’s story of Cecelia, Tom Baxter and Gil, the actor who plays him, challenges our notions of cinema, audience, imagination, and reality; and it does this by drawing on a common fantasy of moviegoers everywhere: the desire to break the fourth wall and take part in the world of the film.
Indeed, many of us live The Purple Rose of Cairo (in a far less literal way, of course) every time we watch a good movie. Characters seem to pop off the screen and run with us out of the theater. They inspire us, and their stories inform our own. But what if Woody Allen’s farcical take on the movie-going experience isn’t that far off? What if one day we really can interact with the film characters and stories we love? Believe it or not, advances in game technology may make that day come sooner than you think.
Six years ago, a program called Façade blurred the line between game and cinema. Described by its creators as a “one act interactive drama,” Façade put the user in the role of Adam, a dinner guest who finds himself awkwardly in the middle of a marital dispute. As Adam, a user could freely explore his hosts’ complicated relationship, making alliances, taking sides, and asking questions – all while enjoying a favorite (virtual) cocktail. To make the experience even more immersive, a player could enter questions and responses into a text box, as opposed to choosing them from a pre-determined set. The result was a highly effective, open-ended drama that challenged the very notion of game.
What’s important about Façade is that it managed to do something no other game had accomplished: it shared authorship freely with its audience. Whereas other games had allowed players to choose things such as weapons or paths as a means of facilitating game strategy, Façade gave the user the power of choice to facilitate the story itself. And because Façade offered no objective winning position (who’s to say how or even if Trip and Gloria should resolve their troubles?), story was the only thing that mattered.
Since then, game art and game technology have only gotten better. Compared to the cinematic heights of, say, the Bioshock series or Heavy Rain, the world of Façade looks two-dimensional in every sense of the phrase. With each passing year, games get more detailed, worlds more complex, characters richer. When coupled with an interesting story and engaging game play, today’s games can yield an extraordinarily immersive and rewarding experience for the player.
So what happens when we revisit the idea of interactive drama in the face of all this new technology? Can we begin to approach a truly interactive cinematic experience? I, for one, think we can.
Today, one game that is paving the way for such a future is L.A. Noire, which will be released by Rockstar Games in May 2011. An interactive crime drama set in Hollywood’s golden age, L.A. Noire is using truly innovative imaging techniques, including a facial mapping technology called MotionScan to bring a new level of realism to the game.
Not only does the technology make the game look better; it actually contributes to game play. By enabling the player to read facial features and explore an elaborate, eight-square-mile game world, he or she is able to judge a witness or suspect’s believability. The player can employ his or her own intuition, sleuthing skills, and interpersonal skills to navigate through the story. For Star Trek nerds like me, this is basically the holodeck realized.
Although it’s a stretch to believe that Tom Baxter is literally going to step out of movie screen in the near future, I do strongly believe that game technology is giving filmmakers a set of tools they’ve never had before. Talk about social media: tomorrow’s filmmakers may watch their movies take on a life of their own as audience members interact with characters and environments in never-before-seen ways. The interactive drama paved the way for the interactive crime mystery. Who’s to say this couldn’t pave the way to the interactive action movie? Or the interactive romantic comedy? As we continue to grow technologically, filmmakers will have an unprecedented opportunity to engage an audience in exciting, immersive ways. And if that’s not the very dream of filmmakers and audiences alike, I don’t know what is.