STARSTUDDED GAMES

STARSTUDDED GAMES

With major stars, directors and musicians getting on the bandwagon, video games are becoming the new radio’

DEREK CHEZZI March 22 2004
STARSTUDDED GAMES

STARSTUDDED GAMES

With major stars, directors and musicians getting on the bandwagon, video games are becoming the new radio’

DEREK CHEZZI March 22 2004

STARSTUDDED GAMES

Entertainment

With major stars, directors and musicians getting on the bandwagon, video games are becoming the new radio’

DEREK CHEZZI

POP QUIZ: what do funnyman John Cleese, director David Cronenberg and music icon Peter Gabriel have in common? And what’s the hottest, fastest-growing entertainment medium today? If you answered video games to both questions, you advance to the next level. Cleese, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, model Heidi Klum, R & B singer Mya, Richard Kiel (reprising his Bond character, Jaws) and James Bond himself, Pierce Brosnan, all appear in the new 007 adventure game, Everything or Nothing. Their faces were scanned using state-of-the-art technology, to aid 3-D computer graphic modellers at powerhouse California-based Electronic Arts in replicating their likenesses on screen. (Even in pixels,

Brosnan remains dashingly handsome.) And each of the actors spent hours recording lines from a script written by Bruce Feirstein, whose screenplay credits include three Bond films. As for the game itself, well, with its realistic graphics, gripping narrative, funky gadgets and steely performance by Brosnan, you would be forgiven for mistaking it for an actual 007 film.

Video games have come a long way since the chunky graphics and bleeps and blips of the horrible E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), still considered the worst film-togame adaptation of all time. “It used to be if a game had a TV show or movie in the title, it was pretty much guaranteed to be awful,” notes Jason Maclsaac, who teaches a history of the medium at Toronto’s International Academy of Design and Technology. But today’s sophisticated 3-D graphics, orchestral arrangements in surround sound and intricate storylines offer a very different experience. Production budgets rival those of small feature films (US$10 million to US$15 million), and hundreds of people, including top-notch film talent, might be involved in a game’s creation and marketing. For Cleese, who has worked in every popular medium, performing for games reminds him of his days at BBC Radio. “Any time I get in the sound booth, I’m very happy,” he says. “It’s just the words on a bit of paper and a microphone. Hours of your time aren’t wasted while they light the damn set before you can put your stuff across to the audience.”

When, in 1999, Steven Spielberg oversaw production of the Second World War action game Medal of Honor, an extension of the film Saving Private Ryan, it was clear that Hollywood had become seriously interested in video game spinoffs. Last year, the Wachowski brothers directed Enter the Matrix, reportedly the most expensive game ever produced, costing as much as US$25 million. It included hours of original footage and linked the first and second Matrix films. In April, a game based on the spy series Alias hits shelves. The TV show’s creator-producer, J.J. Abrams, an avid gamer himself, collaborated with the developers of the game, which features the entire TV cast (Alias buffs take note: the story is set between episodes 19 and 20 of season two). Actor Vin Diesel recently launched his own game company, Tigon; the first release will tie in with his upcoming film The Chronicles of Riddick. Things are heating up abroad, too. This week, French publisher Ubisoft is releasing the sequel to last year’s wildly successful Splinter Cell, which has sold six million copies worldwide. Called Pandora Tomorrow, it stars Canadian-born Michael Ironside as Sam Fisher, an agent in a secret branch of the U.S. government charged with eliminating an Indonesian terrorist threat, and Dennis Haysbert, of the TV series 24, as Fisher’s handler.

Many observers predict video games will be the next big thing in electronic pop culture. “They’re calling them the new radio,” says syndicated gaming columnist Marc Saltzman. “If you want to be discovered and get your song out there, the hot thing to do now is get your song on a soundtrack for a game.” Last year, movie attendance dropped, record sales continued to slide and TV ratings tumbled—while the audience for video and computer games broke records despite this being an age of digital piracy. That’s because people like fundraiser Anissa Hilborn, 32, and her husband, Michael, a 31-year-old financial adviser, include games in their entertainment schedule. The Oakville, Ont., couple still watch movies and their favourite TV shows, but they also buy on average one new game a month and play four to five hours a week, sometimes more if they organize an evening with friends. “Rather than pay $40 for an evening out watching a substandard movie,

we’ll invite friends over for dinner and games,” Anissa says. “If we’re at home alone and there’s nothing on TV, we’ll pull out the Xbox.”

Big-name franchises help sell games to people like the Hilborns, more so than the faces of celebrities plastered on the cover might. So titles such as Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and James Bond carry more clout at the register—especially with parents scanning the store shelves for birthday gifts— than Daniel Radcliffe, Elijah Wood or Pierce Brosnan would. But the participation of A-list talent dispels the traditional perception of games as a last resort for socially inept teen boys. The average gamer is 29, and many people play with family and friends or on-line. Meanwhile, the influence of video games on other cultural realms is increasing. Game Over, a computer-generated sitcom chronicling the “offscreen” lives of a family of fake video game characters, debuted on the U.S. TV network UPN last week. In January, American artists launched pieces for a virtual gallery based on The Sims game. And last month, the British Academy for Film and Television Arts handed out inaugural awards for video games, recognizing the work of designers in creating these original worlds.

For storytellers like Cronenberg and Feirstein, games are a new medium in which to practise their craft and experiment. Cronenberg and his son, Brandon, have teamed up with Toronto interactive studio Trapeze to create a product aimed at an older audience—an action-adventure game set on a university campus. And Feirstein, a father who wanted to learn about a predominant medium of his children’s generation, says, “I recognize that this is a huge, important new form of entertainment.” Martin Tremblay, chief operating officer of Ubisoft’s Montreal production studio, says his company recognizes there’s a demand for sophisticated games. “To entertain people, we have to involve them in the story and create an emotional response so players care about where the plot takes them, the fate of their character, and encourage them to discover more.

Brosnan (left) and Cleese (above), shown in their digital and real incarnations, are among the big-name actors glamming up a burgeoning entertainment sector

“Good music also adds quality to a game,” he says. Traditionally, soundtracks featured catalogue songs by pop artists from Barenaked Ladies to Snoop Dogg. More recently, original work has been commissioned from well-known musicians like Gabriel, who’s worked on Ubisoft’s top-sellingMyst franchise. Composer Danny Elfrnan, longtime collaborator with Tim Burton, scored the upcoming fantasy title Fable. And Mya co-wrote and performed the theme to Everything or Nothing, which has the same Top 40 appeal as Madonna’s Die Another Day. Vancouver-based alt-rockers Gob have not only remixed some of their songs for sports games, but their likeness has been included in Electronic Arts’ NHL and Madden football game series. “We got to be characters in a video game!” says 25-year-old bassist Craig Wood, a gamer himself. “ It’s so coolhow many people are able to say that?” Soon enough, everybody and their agent. Iffl

derek.chezzi@macleans.rogers.com