Like Kurosawa, I make mad films.
‘Kay, I don’t make films,
But if I did they’d have a samurai.
—Barenaked Ladies, “One Week”
I love the movies. I like watching them. I like writing about them. I occasionally have aspirations to produce them. But, after spending my first evening with Peter Molyneux’s The Movies, I absolutely hated them.
My initial disappointment with the game was two fold.
My first disappointment was less a disappointment than an overall frustration with the game. Despite a seemingly simple tutorial on the basics, the learning curve for the game is very steep. I restarted my studio about a half dozen times the first night as it rapidly devolved into unmanageable chaos after the easy initial set up.
Second, I expect innovation when I hear Molyneux’s name attached to a project. Molyneux’s Populous is seen by many as the seminal or at least the benchmark for the whole subgenre of games known as “god games”—simulation games that allow players a top-down view of a world populated by lives the player manages. At first, The Movies appears to be nothing more than another Tycoon-style knockoff, the likes of which appear at largely discounted prices at Wal-Marts. For a while, I wondered why the game wasn’t simply titled Movie Tycoon (okay, probably because Microsoft has the Tycoon brand name copyrighted, but you get my meaning).
Like in other Tycoon-style games, the object here is to manage a particular business (in this case, a movie studio), develop its resources, staff, environment, and turn it into a financial success. The game received a fair amount of press before its release regarding the fact that the game would allow you to make movies. Indeed, during the game, you do guide your sims in scripting, casting, shooting, and releasing movies. Additionally, with a custom script office and post production editing, you can take fairly direct and deliberate control of the process by mapping out films that your sims will star in—basically storyboarding the film, choosing sets to film them on, etc. However, the studio management component is the focal point of the game, and the editing features largely feel tacked on to what is otherwise a studio management game. The first night of play, the possibility of editing and storyboarding seemed largely to serve as a distraction from learning the main bulk of the game, rather than serving as the impetus of studio management. The game makes you play less of an artist and more of an entrepreneur.
When I fired up the game for what I thought would be another round of masochistic fun the next morning, though, I found my outlook had changed. A few tips from Gamefaqs.com and some creative use of the game’s StarMaker program—a program packaged with the game that allows you to create custom stars, determining both their appearance and (more importantly for success in the game) their demeanor—and I had a whole cavalcade of stars and directors based on myself, my wife, and daughters. I was also beginning to enjoy myself.
The beauty of the god game, really, is the perspective that it offers. While most games offer direct experience of the dramatic situations developed by game designers, god games, while involving, offer the chance to really observe a small chunk of simulated world and its inhabitants. I often wax a bit poetic when I discuss games like The Sims and how its language of “simlish” reveals the absurdity of human experience from an objective perspective. All these little creatures babbling and carrying on tend to become emblematic of the often silly nature of human existence with its fairly simplistic goals of eating, sleeping, and shitting. Oh, and owning a nice car.
If The Movies offers a perspective, it is largely a historical one, and I think it is also what makes the game more than a Tycoon-like sim. The game offers a historical overview of a rather fundamental media of the previous century and the manner in which that media shapes and is shaped by technological and cultural change.
By beginning the game in the 1920s with the advent of silent pictures, you both play out and watch the history of American culture in relation to cinema. I would need to test this theory or take a look at the scripting in the game, but I do not believe that black actors begin arriving at your studios until around the mid to latter end of the century. I do know that black actors do not appear on the stage of the game’s movie awards (which periodically arrive to let you know how well your studio and stars are developing in comparison to other studios of the period) until the 60s or 70s.
Every 10 years it becomes necessary to change the looks of your stars, so that they remain fashionable in the public eye. The various fashions and the stars acceptance of them (more provocative clothing is initially not well accepted by your actors and actresses, but becomes increasingly accepted as the century advances) are rather telling about the way film has influenced appearance and cultural norms have influenced film.
A plastic surgeon is another addition late in the century, and reveals changes in the public’s perception of beauty. While looks are always influential on your stars’ success, only a few pull-ups on an exercise bar will help an ailing physique in the early days of film. Stars’ “frumpier” appearances during this period are more acceptable than the necessity of the lean, chiseled bodies provided through liposuction procedures made available in the latter portion of the game.
Managing stars throughout the game also becomes an engaging—if at times frustrating process. Binge drinking and eating disorders abound amongst your celebrity staff, as do tantrums by divas (both male and female, mind you) that can bring a movie’s production to its knees. If the game gives us a sense of the industry’s history, it additionally offers a peek at what we at least perceive to be the personal histories of the “Great Men” and “Great Women” at the center of such a history.
Watching the films that your studios produce is also fascinating both technologically and culturally. The films begin as grainy silent clips and progressively add color and sharp detail, becoming more “real” as the century wears on. Likewise, the sophistication and acceptance of more sexually provocative material is also apparent as shower scenes (in which stars are always shot in a bathing suit to maintain the game’s Teen rating) and more graphic violence emerges, again, towards the close of the century.
While the potentially innovative creative elements of the game are probably the weakest link in Molyneux’s latest effort to let us play god, he still delivers with an engaging history lesson told through pictures. Pictures and image, of course, being appropriate in a history of the world focused on glitz, glamour, and superficiality.