Moving Pictures

by Rick Dakan

29 April 2010

I feel a weird disconnect when video game characters are brought to life with real actors.

This week saw two different Xbox games launch fully scripted and professionally acted videos as promotion for upcoming games, each of which takes a different approach but both of which share a common element that I didn’t expect. They’re both quite subtle.

Halo‘s gone down this path before with their ODST video series, and the new “Birth of a Spartan” video that went up this week follows a similar trend. With basically no dialogue and just a sequence of moments from basic training up to that last second before our newbie Spartan dons the iconic armor, this is a mood piece. The music is dramatic but dour, brimming with a tragic energy. There are no surprises here but rather a building sense of self-sacrifice and tension, all portrayed amongst the soberest of lighting packages and facial expressions. None of that sounds very subtle, I know, and as a piece of film on its own merits, it’s not. Compared to the technicolor, jumping up and down, gunfire-filled romp of your average Halo multi-player match though, it’s subtlety personified.
Then there are the Bright Falls webisodes for the upcoming Alan Wake game. These are more interesting, in part because I have no idea what the Alan Wake game is going to be about and in part because they actually have characters and plot. These little mini-movies clearly owe a great, great deal to Twin Peaks, down to the music cues and small town setting. They also incorporate an over the top level of what seems to me like weirdness just for the sake of being weird. Watch that scene in the diner in episode 1 and tell me that wasn’t gratuitously strange for no good reason. The second episode of Bright Falls starts to brings things together or at least get more interesting. The time jumps and the reporter character’s disorientation promise something interesting down the road, and the whole thing does give me the creeps a little bit. That’s a good thing.

I’m also impressed with the general production levels on both the Halo and Alan Wake videos. They’re professionally done and well executed, although I suppose I have some nits to pick. Played from my Xbox, the Alan Wake videos are very, very dark. I had to close the blinds to see anything at all in some sequences. This doesn’t seem quite as bad on the YouTube versions. The Halo one has some iffy digital effects in the exterior shots, but I think the sets with people on them look quite convincing.

So, on balance then, let’s agree that the videos are well made and came out as intended, which I think is fair. Are they then a good idea? I for one feel a weird disconnect when video game characters are brought to life with real actors, especially in this way when they are integrated into the story of the game in some way (as opposed to a movie adaptation). It conjures up memories of bad full motion video sequences in old CD-ROM games. And while I loved some of those games, it’s hard to take them seriously. I think anything less well done than these videos would’ve failed, but they’re good enough to overcome my initial prejudices.

That said, the “Halo Reach” videos just fail for me because, while they’re fine on their own merits, they don’t feel Halo to me in the slightest. For me, nothing about Halo ever feels real. My friend Jason Scott once described it as a sci-fi game of paintball rather than a gritty war story (which is why he loves it so much—it’s all he plays). The bright colors, over the top action, and everything else about Halo‘s design aesthetic screams Video Game to me. I mean that in the best way possible. Seeing that world in harsh, natural light and seeing that architecture rendered photo realistically just doesn’t match up with my thoughts about Halo. In short, it’s a setting and a game that I can’t take seriously, and the live action videos are asking me to do just that. Instead, they make me want to chuckle.

The Alan Wake stuff, despite its obvious Twin Peaks rip off quality, has the opposite effect. I know nothing about Alan Wake or its world. Aside from a few screen shots, these videos are my first real impression of the game’s setting and tone. I’m intrigued. I want to know more about this strange place and the bizarre goings on there. The videos have primed me to start playing with my head in a particular space, one I don’t normally get into when I fire up my Xbox. So unless the final videos just blow it, I count Bright Falls as a success. Not only did it not make me want to chuckle, it almost (almost!) made me pre-order the game . . .

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