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Video Games: You Ought to Be in Pixels

11 minute read
Chris Taylor/San Francisco

You can tell that James Bond 007: Everything Or Nothing is a video game the same way you can spot the difference between a painting and a person. But people in the next room can’t. They hear the voices of the real Pierce Brosnan and Judi Dench bantering about the usual enjoyable spy nonsense–nuclear suitcases from Tajikistan!–as created by veteran Bond screenwriter Bruce Feirstein (GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies). “You’re either terrified of the future or you embrace it,” says Feirstein, who had never written a game before. “Games are the future. I’d write another one in a heartbeat.”

Feirstein is not the only Hollywood type who has seen the light. If anything, he’s a little late. Video games overtook movies in the annual revenue race in 1999. But that was an apples-to-oranges contest. The average game costs up to five times as much as a movie ticket. And back then a console title was a movie afterthought, a more expensive Burger King toy. Now, with original blockbuster fare like Everything or Nothing, released in February, the titans of the $21 billion games business have shown their Hollywood cousins (a puny $9.2 billion biz) they can lead as well as follow.

As goes the money, so follows the talent. Musicians like Mya and Method Man are lending their skills to game sound tracks (a smart move, as the average title is played for 50 hours). And as goes talent, so follows buzz. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which won Best Game of the Year at last month’s Game Developers Conference in San Jose, Calif., got more adulation from critics and Star Wars junkies than any of the Lucas movie prequels. And games are getting even more ambitious: Half Life 2, with a record-breaking $40 million budget, has been six years in development, with no end in sight.

The games world is going Hollywood in the wrong ways too–falling back on formulas and pandering to 18-to-35-year-old males, for example. But just as in the movies, many of the major players are entertainment innovators. Here are five of them:

Bruno Bonnell = Michael Eisner CEO of Atari CEO of Disney

Mogul of the Matrix

Bruno Bonnell wants to be the next Michael Eisner–literally. “No company has ever impressed me more than Disney, and I hear they may be looking for a new boss,” says the head of games giant Atari in his heavily accented French. “Maybe I should apply?” It’s just a light-hearted thought for now. But if there’s one thing you learn from looking at Bonnell’s career, it’s never to underestimate his ability to leapfrog. Leaping frogs, in fact, is where he started. In 1983 Bonnell co-wrote Autoroute, the French version of Frogger. He then founded one games company, Infogrames, and proceeded to snap up 25 others–including the onetime arcade giant Atari, which last year became the name of the whole conglomerate.

At 45, Bonnell has the swagger of a movie mogul. He bristles at the word games, preferring to call his product interactive entertainment. For the past few years, he has been aggressively racking up licenses to movie franchises, like Mission: Impossible, so that Atari can create games based on them. He seemed to have struck gold when he inked a deal–terms undisclosed but by all accounts incredibly generous–with the Wachowski brothers for Enter the Matrix, a game whose plot dovetails with that of Matrix Reloaded, going so far as to buy the company, Shiny Entertainment, that already held the Matrix license.

Enter the Matrix looked great, but the final product was slammed by fans as too buggy (it sold 5 million copies). What happened? Bonnell had insisted it be released the same day as the movie–an unusual move in an industry notorious for constantly pushing back its deadlines. But like the embattled Eisner, Bonnell has no regrets. Enter the Matrix was worth it, he says, for the phone calls he’s getting from actors and their agents (like Ving Rhames and Mickey Rourke, whose voices will be heard in the latest game in Atari’s Driver series). “Ten years ago, most studio bosses didn’t know what a PlayStation was,” he says. “Now, who knows? Maybe my successor will buy a studio.”

Terry Donovan = Quentin Tarantino Rockstar co-founder Star director

The Gangster Player

Imagine Quentin Tarantino parlaying Pulp Fiction into an endless string of movies, each set in the mean streets of a different city. You’re getting close to picturing Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series from British gamemaker Terry Donovan. The most recent installment, 2002’s GTA Vice City, is a kind of homage to Miami Vice, in which you play an underworld figure in 1980s Florida. You are what Donovan calls an “aspirational gangster.”

Like all the GTA series–and Tarantino’s movies–the game is packed with moral ambiguity. For example, your character can make his name in drug deals or drive-by shootings. He can kill a prostitute who has just serviced him and get his money back. He can even make an honest living delivering pizza.

Naturally, it isn’t the pizza that outraged parents and politicians. Senator Joseph Lieberman said the game caused “perverse antisocial behavior.” Donovan, 31, was unapologetic–this, after all, was what the M (for mature) games rating was invented for, and besides, whatever you do in the game is your choice. Vice City has sold 11 million copies.

But Donovan’s output represents a trend in the industry that troubles even some insiders–namely, the lack of truly thoughtful games or any with emotional resonance. “Our plots are all power fantasies for 14-year-old boys,” says Warren Spector, creator of the conspiracy-theory game Deus Ex. “Why is our business so firmly rooted in adolescent nonsense? Does every game have to be the equivalent of a Bruckheimer production? Where is our Lost in Translation?”

Turns out that Donovan can create mood, if not emotion. The Fall of Max Payne, one of his 2003 releases, is the closest the games world has yet come to film noir. You can be Payne, a New York cop, or his femme fatale, Mona Sax. Yes, there is plenty of violence and gunplay, but there is also a tender and tragic love story. If Donovan is a part of the malaise of the industry, he may also be a cure.

Shigeru Miyamoto = Steven Spielberg Shogun of Nintendo King of directors

At the Top of his Game

It’s hard to beat being the guy who brought us Jaws, E.T. and Indiana Jones–unless you’re the guy who created Donkey Kong, Mario Bros. and Zelda. Ever since Shigeru Miyamoto first sicced that platform-climbing arcade monkey on us back in 1981, everything Nintendo’s lead designer has touched has turned to gold. His games have sold in excess of 100 million copies. Practically all the under-35’s in the games industry today–which is most of them–grew up influenced by his work. “Every Miyamoto title pushes game technology and creativity a little further,” says Souris Hong-Poretta, co-president of New York City–based Invasiv Studios, a game developer. “Not one or the other. Always both.”

The bright colors, cute characters and music-box noises of a Miyamoto game may seem childish to the uninitiated. But try playing 15 minutes of a Legend of Zelda game, particularly 1998’s Ocarina of Time. Next thing you know, it’s 3 a.m. Miyamoto has an uncanny ability to come up with a puzzle whose difficulty keeps pace with a player’s grasp of the game.

Like Spielberg, Miyamoto presents a popular image of the boy who never grew up. His games, he says, are made entirely to please his inner child. He finds inspiration in unlikely places, like his garden (which gave us Pikmin, the tale of a spaceman who has to grow and harvest brightly colored flower people; Pikmin 2 is in the works). Miyamoto lives modestly in Kyoto with his wife and two kids (who don’t play video games). He bicycles to work, is fond of Mickey Mouse ties and keeps a banjo by his desk.

But that image hides a tougher, Hollywood-mogul side–especially in recent years, since Miyamoto, 51, has become more manager than creator. Eiji Aonuma, director of Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, tells of Miyamoto’s habit of coming in at the end of a game’s gestation to “upend the tea table”–a phrase that harks back to what Japanese fathers used to do when they didn’t like what was for dinner. The boy who never grew up is not afraid to make a mess if he doesn’t get what he wants.

John Carmack = Mel Gibson Doom designer Passion player

Master of Doom

If anyone can produce a piece of popular entertainment more blood-soaked than Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, that person is John Carmack. The creator of two of the most violent game franchises in computer history, Doom and Quake, is a few months away from releasing Doom 3. It’s a remake of the original, in which you play an Alien-esque space marine battling the ghostly spawn of hell down gloomy corridors of a futuristic Mars base. Not that the hokey plot matters much to hard-core gamers. “Doom 3 is just going to terrify the pants off people,” says Rob Smith, editor of PC Gamer magazine.

Like Gibson, Carmack is obsessed with the finer details of his production. He sees himself as an engineer of extreme realism, and has spent the past four years figuring out stuff like how to create the most realistic reflections in lightbulbs and what ominous splatters of blood look like on a tiled bathroom floor. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails will provide the ambient sound. It has been a tough project, as shown by the swelling of Carmack’s tiny operation, based in Mesquite, Texas, from 14 staffers to 20. The phenomenally intelligent Carmack tends to hire only programmers who know something he can’t learn from them–and that’s not many.

And just like Gibson, Carmack has an unlikely pet project. The millionaire, 33, is actively competing for the $10 million X Prize, an award to the first private entrepreneur who builds a fully functional rocket that can carry passengers to space. Hey, why not? Mel’s dream came true.

Lucy Bradshaw = Sofia Coppola Sims scion Tinseltown tyro

Home-Movie Maven

The games industry is overwhelmingly dominated by men, which creates something of a vicious circle. If men keep creating games for themselves–if there’s no game equivalent of a date movie or a chick flick–how are women ever going to break in? The notable exception is the all-time best-selling computer game–The Sims–built by a design team dominated by women. Lucy Bradshaw was part of that team; now she’s executive producer on this fall’s hotly anticipated sequel, Sims 2. Colleagues at Maxis call her the Sofia Coppola of the industry–hip, young and iconic. And the feature she’s working on, Movie Maker, could make directors out of us all.

The Sims has long been the antithesis of plot-driven games, like Everything or Nothing, in that you can control much of what happens to your virtual family. “When you talk to Sims players, they start telling you the story of their Sims,” says Bradshaw. That gave her an idea. Why not let players film the story of their Sims?

Movie Maker spreads cameras through your Sims family’s house: you click on one to start recording digital footage of your self-created character. Bradshaw’s team has been experimenting with its own home movies. Her favorite: Maxis Revolutions, starring a family of Sims that all resemble Keanu Reeves’ character Neo. Sims 2 lets you edit your Sims’ looks and personality in detail, so you’ve got all you need to create almost any movie star you want. Hollywood can only dream of doing that.

George Lucas = George Lucas Star Wars director Star Wars gamester

It’s Clone-y at the Top

Who is the George Lucas of games, the geekiest of them all? Easy. George Lucas, owner of Lucasfilm and LucasArts. The latter produced Knights of the Old Republic, a role-playing adventure set centuries before Star Wars Episode I. Knights was a critical hit, mostly because players have the freedom to choose the Jedi or Sith sides of the Force. Star Wars Galaxies, an online game with thousands of players, allows them to choose their species (now anyone can be a Wookie). Mercifully, no one gets to be Jar Jar.

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