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playing the movies

Helen Stuckey

image from the awakening
The Awakening
What is the relationship between games and the movies?

As graphics engines improve and games more closely resemble the look of cinema, whispers increase about convergence. But games have never been cinema 'wannabes'; they are, rather, a separate medium that celebrates interactivity over traditional linear storytelling.

As New York Times critic Clive Thompson argues, they are about creating systems that you play in. And what have some players done in their play? They have used game systems to make movies, or to term it more accurately, to make 'Machinima'.

The Player Producer

One of the most exciting areas of game culture is that it fosters and supports player creativity. The opportunities that games afford the player can range from simple emergent play, to sophisticated in-game toolkits, through to providing access to source code. The top selling game The Sims is a 'sandbox game', meaning that it is already dependent on player actions to generate its stories. It includes features that allow players to download objects to their Sim's houses, to create their own characters and consumable goods, and to download player-created game patches that offer variations on game play. The highly successful team-based game Counterstrike was produced by modifying the game engine (or 'modding') of the commercial game Half Life. Though little trace of the original game is visible, it has extended the life span of Half-Life for many more years.

The open architecture and on-line dynamics of PC games have been extraordinarily influential in driving innovation in the medium. By handing a highly networked, self-organising player population the tools to customise and extend games, new forms of play and activity have emerged that the original developers never dreamed about.

image from diary of a camper
Diary of a Camper

Machinima (muh-sheen-eh-mah) is filmmaking within a real-time, 3D virtual environment. It is a new form of filmmaking that uses computer games technology to 'shoot' films in the virtual reality of a game engine. Rather than working with expensive camera equipment or spending months animating every element in costly 3D packages, Machinima creators act out their movies within a computer game. Players make use of existing game characters and environments as the actors and sets for a type of virtual puppetry that they complete with the addition of voiceovers. Alternatively, Machinima artists make use of the game engine technology to build unique characters and worlds for their work.

Machinima are believed to have begun with Quake movies. These grew out of an emergent form of play called 'speedrunning'. Quake's facility for recording gameplay allowed players to share their achievements in completing game levels in the fastest times possible. According to Quake lore, in mid-1996 a clan known as The Rangers had the idea of recording more than just speedruns, and to use their Quake characters as actors in a film. This decision transformed the game space of Quake into a virtual movie set. The resulting 'film', Diary of a Camper, established the genre now known as Machinima. Not only did these Quake players transform the play of the game, they extended the play into the realm of cultural production.

Fellini, Spielberg and a Guy with an XboxT

image from red vs. blue
Red vs. Blue
Machinima, as a fan-created art form, grew organically from the game community. It is therefore unsurprising that much of the Machinima produced celebrates its source: reflecting upon and finding humour in the culture of games and the idiosyncrasies of the host game and its gameplay. The hugely popular and enduringly funny Red vs. Blue has been described as "Clerks meets Star Wars" and "Waiting for Godot for Gamers". Made in the Xbox game Halo, the witty observational humour and self-reflexive jokes extend beyond the world of the gamer to offer an ironic reflection upon modern warfare. The soldiers of the red and blue armies are locked in a conflict that nobody understands. The war is always elsewhere, and their real struggle is the petty bickering that occurs amongst themselves.

The Red vs. Blue creators, Rooster Teeth, made their first episode for fun and released it on the web. It became an instant hit on geek blogs, attracting 20,000 people within the first 24 hours. It was made using four Xboxes, with the audio recorded in a cupboard. Each ten-minute episode takes a single day to perform and edit before being posted online and viewed by hundreds of thousands of fans the world over. Rooster Teeth are now full time Machinima makers, with their work Strangerhood moving to a broadcast format.

image from the movies
The Movies
Future Cinema

The currency of Machinima is starting to build momentum beyond the game fan. In 2002, the annual Machinima Film Festival was launched by The Academy for Machinima Arts & Sciences: an advocacy and support network for Machinima makers. George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic used the Unreal Engine to storyboard the recent Star Wars movies. The History Channel used the strategy game Rome: Total War to recreate 13 scenes in the show Decisive Battles. MTV has its own Machinima program, and the Sundance Film Festival now includes a Machinima session. In 2006, final year school students in New South Wales can even submit Machinima as part of their assessment.

Paul Marino, executive director of the Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences, sees a strong future for Machinima's real-time rendering capacity in reducing the time demands of the production of 3D animated works. But for the moment "Machinima is still a hackers' world," says Marino. "We are all using tools that for the most part weren't designed to create a film. Within a few years, maybe even this coming year, there will be more tools for the sole purpose of making Machinima films."

image from the movies
The Movies
The Movies offers this in the broadest possible sense. It is not directed toward the professional, but to everyone. It is not a sophisticated filmmaking suite, but a game, which enables anyone to start turning their hand to making movies. The Movies toolkit is rich with possibilities and simple to use. Importantly, the game's website also provides an audience for the work, with the opportunity to swap tips and screen work as part of an international online community as vital as the tools themselves.

In the beginning, game developers had no idea that their creations would be used to make movies. The concept grew organically from the community of users. Today, through titles such as The Movies, games are building upon player creativity to forge a remarkable new form of moving image storytelling.

© Helen Stuckey, March 2006

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