One of the greatest games I’ve ever played is also one of the least interactive. The environments are pre-rendered and unchanging, and the game’s ultimate outcomes are completely beyond your control. There are no forks in the narrative except those that punish your failures. You have no choices in how you interact with the other characters, and they vastly prefer to interact with one another anyway. They’re portrayed by actors in front of green screens and have been pasted into the game world. You do very little but watch and listen.

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The game I’m talking about is The Last Express, but the above description applies to a number of outstanding “interactive movies” that came out in the ’90s. Today, “interactive movie” isn’t a phrase most of us remember fondly, and with good reason – it was quite thoroughly debased by a number of ill-advised “games” that used the novelty of video content in place of actual ideas or gameplay. Nevertheless, it’s a mistake to judge everything to come out of that genre by the worst possible examples. Yes, Space Pirates and Night Trap happened. So did Wing Commander III and The Pandora Directive. Video sequences are no more proof of a bad game than shiny graphics are of a good one.

Interactive movies were different from the games we play today, however, and offer some rewards that are simply beyond the reach of current-generation designs. The oft-voiced desire for more sympathetic and realistic videogame characters was realized in these earlier games, and as a consequence many of them delivered a greater emotional punch than we’re accustomed to expect from our gaming. Despite the ever-present risk of corniness and camp, the best titles to come out of this era still lay claim to some of my most memorable and affecting gaming experiences. The quality of the productions and the enjoyment they gave their audiences should make us question some of the current theories about what constitutes a proper videogame.

At the most basic level, if gameplay is what matters first and foremost, and if forcing the player to watch and listen is somehow a betrayal of the medium, why is a game like The Last Express so tremendously satisfying despite its sins against convention? Even by the standards of the point-and-click adventure, it’s low on interactivity, eschewing dialog trees in favor of scripted conversations and sharply limiting the number of interactive objects to only what is useful or significant. Most unusually, there are portions of the game where the player has nothing to do but sit around and wait for something to happen. Downtime is built into the experience.

Yet The Last Express succeeds because it ignores convention and redefines what constitutes play. The game features what is probably the best ensemble cast ever used in a game, and your job as the player is to eavesdrop on these characters as they play out their minor dramas on the eve of the First World War. It is a game devoted to the joys of voyeurism, granting your wish to know what people are saying when they think no one can overhear them, and it fosters the sense of discovery that comes from watching other characters slowly come into sharper focus.

A purist might criticize a game like this for being neither fish nor fowl: It isn’t enough of a game for satisfying play, and it requires too much of the audience to succeed as a movie. Sometimes that charge has merit, as in the case with Wing Commander III, where the characters that develop between missions are frequently far more interesting than the missions themselves. The repetitive nature of Wing Commander‘s mission structure, combined with an engine that never overcame its sense of unreality, means that the cut scenes are the most convincing and engaging element of the game. The unfolding story of Mark Hamill’s Col. Blair, stuck aboard a slightly decrepit carrier in the wake of yet another catastrophic setback, is more than a little reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica, and made a decent space simulator into a powerful piece of entertainment. It’s just unfortunate that the simulator itself was the weakest part of the experience.

But this is only a problem for those with a slavish devotion to classification and forms. The Wing Commander series uses film and gameplay to create an entertainment experience that neither medium could achieve individually. That’s all the justification any creative decision should ever require.

The best products to emerge from the “interactive movie” period should give you pause about whether or not we’ve defined “interaction” too narrowly and whether or not we underestimate the degree to which sharply-drawn characters and convincing game worlds lie at the heart of a game’s appeal. Again, The Last Express is a key witness in the case against orthodoxy.

The Orient Express as imagined by Jordan Mechner and company is a real place, and your fellow passengers are living people. Listening to the different characters talk to one another and assume different roles in relation to one another is not what typically passes for interaction in a videogame, but it is nonetheless profound. These conversations happen whether or not the player is present to hear them, and characters are revealed in bits and pieces that don’t always seem to fit together. The newspaper in the salon car is jammed with lengthy, contemporary articles regarding the impending war and other obsessions of the moment. Although the player knows that the First World War is mere days away, it’s striking to see the varying degrees to which the passengers and personnel aboard the train are preoccupied or oblivious to the seriousness of the crisis.

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No film could permit characters to develop so organically, and neither film nor literature could create the same feeling of presence that a player gets from seeing the Orient Express through the eyes of the game’s protagonist. A typical videogame, on the other hand, asks gamers to explore and navigate level maps, but not people. The Last Express takes one of gaming’s signature elements, exploration, and applies it to character and history. This only works, however, because there are actors, writers and artists who created characters deep enough to warrant such exploration.

Take August Schmidt, for example, the German arms dealer that the player must stall and then deceive during the voyage. He starts out as a caricature of the gauche German “nouveau riche,” as one of the conductors pointedly refers to him. His English is stilted and accented, and he lacks basic social graces. Early on, he betrays the bland anti-Semitism that reigned in pre-Nazi Europe. He flirts with the young women on the train and is susceptible to flattery that plays on his own mixture of vanity and attendant insecurity. Short, portly, balding and sporting a rusty and weak mustache and beard, he initially seems the worm imagining himself a butterfly.

However, the game is never cruel to any of its characters, and even the ridiculous Schmidt eventually becomes sympathetic. Watching how other characters manipulate him, and how contemptuous they are behind his back, it’s impossible not to feel sorry for him. His flirtation and awkward bonhomie gradually reveal a desperately lonely man who takes refuge in romantic daydreams. Scouring through his compartment, the player discovers that he is being used by the German government to which he is so lap-doggishly loyal. He has written a letter explaining his failure to his superiors full of strike-outs and restarts – a detail that conveys volumes about the author.

What’s remarkable is not just that Schmidt is such a fully developed character, but that every single person you meet aboard The Last Express is similarly fleshed-out through body language, tone of voice, dialog and personal effects.

The Last Express is the gold standard for videogame writing and performance, and few among its contemporaries can match it. Even so, more typical point-and-click adventures like Gabriel Knight II: The Beast Within and the Tex Murphy games also feature moments of brilliance and some truly unforgettable characters and settings (although they’re diluted by the occasional unconvincing performance and clunky bit of dialog). The use of film and actors produced a qualitatively different sort of relationship between player and game, a relationship that has rarely been reproduced by other means. As gaming moved on from the “interactive movie” phase, it left behind a number of effective ways to emotionally invest players in the game world.

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It’s a commonplace to lament the lack of good videogame characters, and on those rare occasions we meet them, we instantly treasure them. It’s telling that what seems to be the most lasting complaint against Grand Theft Auto IV is the fact that the plot and gameplay failed to rise to the level of Michael Hollick’s Niko Bellic, turning a character that gamers thought they knew and cared for into a mindless kill-bot. For a medium that is so often dismissed as infertile soil for narrative and character, gaming audiences seem eager to connect with real characters rather than blank-slate avatars.

My suspicion is that in a medium that’s too often dominated by über-beings whose emotional range only goes from pistol to laser cannon, audiences still look for characters that live close to Earth and who have problems similar to the rest us. Maybe that’s why interactive movies briefly succeeded in igniting the imagination of the gaming public. They dealt with a subject that videogames have always been the least comfortable with: human beings.

Rob Zacny is a freelance writer. When not focused on gaming, he pursues his interests in Classics, the World Wars, cooking and film. He can be reached at zacnyr[at]gmail[dot]com.

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