Redefining the Game: A Look at Machinima

Roughly ten years ago, a couple of gamers used in-game footage, overdubbing, and the internet to introduce the gaming world to a new style of animation: machinima. Ten years later, if you were to search YouTube or peruse, you might be a bit disheartened by what you’d find. As Edge Magazine explains in an excellent article covering the topic, the low entry barrier that makes machinima exciting is also its biggest problem. Since anyone with a copy of the game and a microphone can make a machinima, a lot of it isn’t very good. It’s confined within the medium of games themselves, typically being overloaded with in-game humor and alienating jokes. Yet talent and quality are emerging in this medium, and the creative potential of a limitless animation studio is beginning to be realized.

On the comedic end of the spectrum is the multi-talented Ross Scott. A recent college graduate with a B.S. in criminal justice and a minor in psychology, he has been relying on contract animation work and oddjobs like roofing and ditch digging to fund his machinima project, Civil Protection. It’s one of the sharpest comedy series on the machinima scene and for good reason: it’s genuinely funny to non-gamers. The show is about a pair of human cops living in a futuristic world where humanity has been subjugated by aliens. The series explores everything from the mundane to the deranged and works with surprising humor at the sheer dichotomy of putting two bored policement in a such a dark setting.

Scott comments, “The cornerstone of what I try to have in my films is believable human behavior. Comic situations are funnier to me if the characters treat it the way real people would as opposed to trying to ham things up or make things seem too contrived.” Whether it’s goofing off on a Friday or arguing about whether someone could or could not have a shadow, the series goes far beyond the initial trapping of in-game humor and uses its game-generated setting for a legitimate story.

On the opposite side is Sam Goldwater, whose very first machinima has rapidly become one of the most acclaimed dramatic machininmas. As anyone at Pixar or Disney can tell you, getting an audience to connect with an animated feature, much less one based in video games, is a tough job. Goldwater is finishing up his last year at Tesside University in England where he’s getting his degree in game design. The video itself, called The Monad, is a biting drama on the effects of having a digital life and one person’s protest. Some of the film’s influences were No Country for Old Men and the town of Middlesbrough in the United Kingdom. He notes, “The desolation, the wind, the concrete sprawl and lurid neon at night [in Middlesbrough] were basically all I needed.” The misleading nature of internet identity and the drab reality contrasting it are just some of the themes handled in the short movie.

So how do these two directors, one with an impressive portfolio and the other having his first break-out piece, deal with all the issues that hold machinima back?

The first decision a machinima director has to make is what game engine they want to make their film in. Goldwater compares it to an artist choosing the paint he wants to use. He outlines a few of the options: “You know that if you shoot in Halo 3 you won’t be able to animate your character’s faces. If you work in Battlefield 2, your stock options are basically limited to a modern day war in the Middle East. In Unreal 3 you’re held to a high fantasy world of garish, futuristic barbarism. The reason I use Half Life 2 is that it suffers from the least prominent constraints of all the platforms out there. Great character detail, animation editors, real world textures, subtle lighting…the HL2 engine has the potential to look like cinema.” Scott echoes this preference for Valve’s Source engine. “The primary reason I film in Half-Life 2 is because it seemed to have the best tools for animating characters and has lots of already-made props and animations. There are chairs, tables, civilians, buildings, power lines, industrial machinery, etc.”

Yet animating in Half-Life 2 is not without its own problems. A Halo 3 machinima may consist entirely of gun-toting super soldiers, but it’s also pretty easy for anyone to make a movie in it. You just get some friends online, make one person the camera guy, and have the other players act the scene out. In Half-Life 2, you have to genuinely animate. Scott explains, “The biggest thing holding me back by far is the time required for all the animation. In the past it really has felt like claymation at times. It’s disproportionately time consuming compared to all other aspects of production.” He’s also been fortunate enough to have a few fans volunteer to help with the animation process but only after roughing it as a one man studio. Yet all of this animation in terms of faces and body is considered key by both directors for crossing the divide between gamers and the larger audience. Goldwater muses, “The quality of the facial animation is something that outside viewers can appreciate…it’s hard for some of them to be immersed in a world of twitching, scarlet spacemen.”

Both directors are quick to point out that good writing is still the most important element. Scott explains, “If you want to create something entertaining, writing is at the core of what you’re doing, production value comes second. I think the best real-life example of this is South Park, which has little better than geometric shapes on the screen, but is simply hilarious.” Goldwater concedes that so long as you have enough ingenuity and wit, you can make anything in any game engine. He says, “Whatever we’re doing, it’s all story telling — and if the story’s bad then the appeal can’t last to the gamer crowd let alone anyone else.” Both directors point out that in their writing they make as few game references as possible, instead producing something that would be interesting to anyone watching. It’s a policy that’s proven useful; by writing machinima with mindset of making it appeal to non-gamers, they’ve attracted a lasting audience from both communities.

Gordon Freeman of Half Life 2 and Freeman’s Mind

There is also the problem of many machinima jokes excessively relying on violence. After watching a few random machinima pieces you quickly realize they almost always involve someone getting shot, stabbed, or punched. It’s funny stuff for the average demographic of 12 to 25 males, but to anyone else it can be a bit off-putting. Scott explains, “If a person is shot and killed in film, it’s rarely treated lightly, however in the gaming world it’s so common that I think many players are desensitized to it.” Goldwater echoes the same observation about hardcore gamer humor and adds, “Usually, you’re using someone else’s lovingly crafted content in strange and distorted ways. So the first idea people seem to get is to parody or deface the original material.” Since the game itself usually involves shooting and explosions, it’s kind of inevitable for a machinima director to work within those same boundaries. Although both directors’ work involves death or the occasional punch in the groin, both are aware that by themselves these jokes aren’t enough.

Yet for all the wariness a machinima director should have for being over the top with their game references and culture, some of the best comedy in the medium does precisely that. In addition to Civil Protection, Scott’s other claim to fame is the hilarious Freeman’s Mind. Playing like a weird combination of internal monologue meets Mystery Science Theater 3000, Scott started making the series whenever he got tired of animating. Rather than worry about attracting non-gamers to these machinimas, Scott instead wholly embraces the gamer culture and plays on their reactions to Gordon’s new deranged personality. To someone who has never played the original Half Life, the episodes may come across as alien and even incomprehensible.

Freeman’s Mind is entirely from a player’s perspective, and simply coordinates the monologue within the gameplay. He explains, “I think the main appeal of it for gamers is that it’s kind of breathing new life into a game they’re already familiar with.” Scott notes that he’s still aware of the gunplay and explosions becoming repetitive, but like Goldwater is confident in the powers of ingenuity and wit. If anything, the series is worth watching because he applies the very high standards of Civil Protection to a series that is more directly aimed at gamers. As with machinima in general, Scott asks “Why would you release and distribute something you’re not proud of?”

The primary cast of Hey, Shipwreck

It wouldn’t be proper to talk about machinima’s successes without going into a few other artists and their accomplishments. Patrick Hrabe’s Hey, Shipwreck is an amazing spoof of the American Navy based on his own experiences there. Rather than limit the appeal to gamers or wider-audiences, the series is amazing because it’s a huge array of military insider jokes. How else could a show like that ever come into existence but with machinima? There’s the whimsical Red Green Blue, which combines classical music and slapstick comedy to create an amazing chase sequence. And there’s even the surprisingly sad machinima Anna by Katherine Kang, which is a slow look at the life of a flower as it barely dodges disaster day after day before coming into full bloom. All of these projects are driven by individuals or small groups and highlight some of the best accomplishments in machinima.

Both Goldwater and Scott have their own interesting takes on how they see themselves and machinima in general. Goldwater refers to it as a digital folk art, a way for everyday people to experiment and make movies that otherwise never would have existed. Scott, on the other hand, sees the medium as slowly maturing and compares it to the transition from silent film to 1930’s cinema. Others have come to the medium with their own interests. Film students and directors have also begun using machinima to test out scene mock-ups, such as George Lucas using the Unreal Engine to help plan the prequels. Game developers have begun to embrace machinima as well, seeing it as free advertising and a way to encourage their communities.

Beyond all these arguments about what machinima is good for or what its creative potential is lies the nagging question of whether the creativity and interest is there to make it happen. Goldwater muses, “We’ve come from the Zoetrope to Strongman Sandow, but we’re still waiting on machinima’s Citizen Kane.” He expresses his own desire to see more social commentary and character drama, something that should be possible in the zero-cost world of machinima. Scott, with a growing portfolio and fan base helping with the animation, wants to keep exploring the adventure, horror, and comedic possibilities the medium gives him. “So far I’ve talked about a squirrel blowing up a transformer, counterfeiting money, a warm/cold blooded dinosaur debate, an Indian burial ground, dreams about being strapped to a gurney watching Fraggle Rock, all with a very barren level of stimulus,” he comments. Whatever your take on the machinima scene may be at the moment, rest assured some very talented people are getting involved.