The Girl with the Digital Face

It was the strangest thing. For weeks something had been whispering at the back of my mind. An idea that would tiptoe around the edges of my understanding, then disappear the moment I tried to gather it closer. Like a glitch in the Matrix, or that dawning horror of a forgotten anniversary. Then it revealed itself…how could I have missed this for so long?

The moment of revelation came in a recent episode of Dexter. I’ve long admired the show which features everybody’s favourite serial killer, but it was during the last season that this gnawing feeling had begun to manifest. More specifically whenever a certain actress was in a scene. Yvonne Strahovski plays the beautiful, but very deadly, Hannah McKay who charms her way into our hero Dexter’s rather black heart. There are many reasons why you’d be drawn to her whenever she’s on-screen, her copious gorgeousness not withstanding, but I knew it was something else. She seemed…familiar. I don’t know what finally made the connection, maybe her head tilted at a certain angle, the light dancing across her cheekbones, or a dreamlike wandering that placed a laser rifle and supernatural telekinetic powers in her elegant frame, but in an instant I saw it.

‘She’s the girl in Mass Effect!’ I cried to general disinterest and probable confusion.

Miranda for real

And there it was. For the first time in my life I had recognised an actress who had appeared in a video game, but not from her voice – as you would more reasonably expect – but from her actual face. Now, any gamer out there who has ever gone to a sci-fi convention or Googled the word Cosplay has probably seen ladies and gentlemen of the more flamboyant persuasion dressed rather convincingly in the costumes of their favourite avatars. We’ve all wondered at the copious Lara Crofts, Master Chiefs, and Little Sisters that decorate those environs, but to have it happen in reverse…well, it was odd.

It created a strange mental relationship with her. After all I had fought the greatest threat to the galaxy mankind has ever known with her, or Miranda Lawson as she was going by then, at my side. We had clashed over her elitist views on alien integration, then shared moments of intimate confession as she told me how her father had scientifically experimented on her. We had rescued her sister, saved the universe, and engaged in awkwardly animated conjugal relations on the mid decks of the Normandy spacecraft. We had history.

Now she was this….woman. Flesh and blood arranged in a spectacularly pleasing fashion. But she wasn’t the same. Hannah McKay had no military training. Not once in the series did I see her pilot a spacecraft, shoulder a pulse rifle, or don an incredibly tight uniform and stand with her bottom directly in the line of the camera. What was happening?

Now the mirror has been cracked, who knows where it will end? Will Cortana turn up as a Dornish maiden in Game of Thrones? Shall I brace myself for the sight of Mario playing a mob-leader suspected of murder in an upcoming episode of Castle? Or Marcus Fenix singing his favourite show-tunes on Glee?

Be afraid people, be very afraid…

Living in the Past with… The 7th Guest

My name is Martyn Darkly and I’m a gamer.

It’s been over thirty years since my first frantic battle on a Binatone version of Pong and I’m still addicted to the wondrous world of computer games. Along the way I’ve been, among others, a barbarian warrior, heroic space adventurer, confused visitor to a haunted town, a hobbit, a professional athlete, Arthur Dent, Bruce Lee, Paul McCartney, and a monster that felt an uncontrollable desire to engage in winter sports. You can see the attraction.

Throughout this journey there have been certain games that stood out more than others. Either they were the most fun, the most challenging, the weirdest, or just technically amazing. In a new series entitled ‘Living in the Past…’ I intend to revisit some of these classics and try to divine what made them special and the stories behind their creation. To begin with we must travel back to the early nineties, where Rob Landeros and Graham Devine had an idea to scare gamers witless with a mysterious invite to a haunted mansion.

7th Guest Cover

The 7th Guest is like the Kennedy assassination, in that most people remember where they were when they first played it. From the beautifully animated 3D mansion to the groundbreaking full motion videos of ghostly apparitions, Trilobyte’s spooky puzzler introduced players to what could be achieved with ingenuity, imagination, and a new thing called a CD-ROM.

‘Rob and I were really into the old TV show Twin Peaks,’ says co-creator Graeme Devine, ‘and the company we worked for, Virgin Games, had the rights to the board game Clue. So our initial thinking was that we would make a version of Clue with a Twin Peaks feeling to it. We also loved the old movies House on Haunted Hill and The Haunting, so slowly the idea morphed into a haunted house.’

The house became the home of Henry Stauf, an evil toymaker whose creations claim the lives of several children through a strange virus. As the game begins the player enters the mansion to find it populated with bizarre puzzles to solve and ghosts roaming the halls playing out a tragic story.

‘Initially his name was Henry Steeple,’ Graeme admits, ‘Matthew Costello came up with Henry Stauf because he thought it was good to have his last name be an acronym of Faust. I think we just wanted to find the creepy angle, toy maker, creepy…’

Stauf

The bulk of the puzzle design was on the shoulders of co-creator Rob Landeros, a long time fan of pen and paper brainteasers.

‘I think my main inspiration was a little game called The Fool’s Errand.’ Rob states. ‘It was a series of puzzles of various types with a tarot card related story and theme. Every time you solved a puzzle, you would get a piece of a map that would lead you to the final goal – that’s how we structured 7th Guest. Most of the house is inaccessible to start, but each time you solve a puzzle or solve a riddle, another part of the house is opened to you.’

Players had to contend with an impressive array of logic puzzles involving slicing up cakes, word play, mazes, classic board games like Reversi and chess, and deciphering patterns. But the real star of the show was the lusciously animated mansion itself. From the stained glass window in the entrance hall, to the iconic staircase that dominated the lower floor, every location was an impressive artistic feat and a world away from the typically blocky graphics of the time.

‘Our original idea was to find a mansion,’ says Rob, ‘take a camera in there, set it up on a tripod in the middle of the room, then scan 360 degrees and use that. So we found the largest house in Oregon…but there are no mansions here that have 100ft art galleries. They’re very claustrophobic and it wasn’t working. Then one of our artists, Robert Stein, played with 3D Studio and put together a room, animated it, and had furniture floating around eerily. It was kind of a revelation at that point and we said yeah, we’re gonna do it that way.’

7thguest Ghost Pot

The introduction of the ghostly video scenes that the player encounters was also something truly revolutionary.

‘There had been the Sherlock Holmes games which had tiny 160×100 videos,’ Graeme remembers, ‘but no one had tried full screen and certainly not in SVGA. A lot of people thought what we were doing was impossible and that our demos were smoke and mirrors.’

Assembling a cast from Oregon’s thriving acting community the team set about capturing the spectres that would inhabit the house and reveal the terrible story of Stauf.

‘We filmed for two days on SVHS’ says Graeme, ‘against a blue screen that wasn’t really blue (we got it at an art supply store) and that we broke (one of the actors fell through it), then repaired with blue painting tape. All in all, that’s not the best way to film ghosts. We left the halo around the actors in place because we couldn’t clean it, and made it into a ‘ghostly aura’.’

The Ensemble

A game of the 7th Guest’s size and ambition required huge amounts of storage and advanced multimedia capabilities. Something made possible by the arrival of the CD-ROM.

‘It was timing.’ states Rob. ‘That tool was there and we were one of the first to use it. Only a handful of people had CD-ROM drives in their computers when we first started looking into them. People were still thinking of doing things the old fashioned way pixel by pixel and building up graphics. The debate was how do you fill up a CD-ROM? And even if you did how can you screen video? Those were the questions…and we solved them.’

The game was released on the Mac and PC in 1993 and sold over two million copies. Even Bill Gates became an advocate when he called it ‘the new standard in interactive entertainment’. The game also spawned a sequel ‘The 11th Hour’, and was re-released on iOS in 2010.

‘We were expecting some success,’ admits Graeme, ‘but we didn’t expect people to rush out and buy CD-ROM drives just so they could play a game. We were blown away by the reaction. I think it was something magical you could buy and play for the first time. Moving real 3D that looked nice. The puzzles were fun and the story, while a bit goofy, held your attention. More than that it was a game you could sit down as a family and play. It wasn’t Doom. There was a lot of people who wrote saying they took turns with the mouse to play the game, and while a lot of the game was spooky, it was scooby doo spooky, which you can easily sit through with a family. That said…a lot of people did seem to get really scared playing the game alone in the dark.’

Games that play with our minds…

It happened again last night.

I dreamt the dream where I see the boy, but he runs from me. I try to save him but he disappears into the shadows. Then I see him again, he’s running, I attempt to reach him but it’s like I’m moving in slow motion. Finally I get to where he is, kneeling on the grass, but as I hold out my hand he bursts into flames…and is gone.

I wake up in my bed….breath deeply for a moment, then lay back staring out of the shielded display as the galaxy flies past the Normandy and the quiet hum of the ships engines rumbles in the background. One day I’ll make those reapers pay for the horrors they’ve made me see…

For those of you who have played Mass Effect 3 you’ll know the scene above well. It’s part of a recurrent storyline where the hero has flashbacks to a boy he saw killed by alien invaders at the start of the game. It adds a sense of emotional weight to the narrative and, although a little crude, it succeeds in heightening the atmosphere of the game. This isn’t the only area where the heart strings are pulled. Long-term characters risk their lives, or show how the impeding war that threatens the end of the universe has them worrying about how they’ll fare. Century spanning cultural feuds are brought to peace, strange alliances made, and even sweet sweet love awaits the player of this epic tale.

Once you go blue…

But among the blockbuster scenes and moments of staged pathos I’ve noticed an odd and increasingly regular behaviour I’m displaying.

That is…..crying at video games.

Don’t judge me. I’m only human….maybe part Asari now after my romantic entanglements with Liara.

That’s right, I’ve started crying while playing games. Now in the past this was more likely caused by frustration at a badly designed level that rendered completing the game virtually impossible. Sometimes there was genuine pain involved, like when I injured myself playing Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. But of late it has been more because I’m finding myself emotionally invested in the games I play. Now, full disclosure here, I can be a bit of a blubberer. Sit me down in front of a Pixar film and chances are by the end of the movie my glasses will be steamed up due to the heat coming off my red raw eyes. I can’t watch Scrubs without a few salty pilgrims making their way down my cheek, and if they ever re-run the Wonder Years I might actually die from dehydration. But games?

I never expected this.

The glory days of emotionally neutral gaming

When I started out back in 1982 with my ZX Spectrum games were simple affairs. Jump over this, try to avoid falling into that, collect these random items and store them in magical pockets that never fill or slow you down. You know, normal stuff. Now I’m negotiating for peaceful settlements between age-old enemies, deciding the moral implications of certain practices and whether their proponents should be accepted our destroyed. I’m even trying to work out how to get the gorgeous genetic mutant with a fiery temper to fall for me so we can be saved together forever on my Xbox in naughty bliss. To be honest…games are getting to be hard work.

Whereas I used to switch off and relieve stress by playing NHL or FIFA, now I’m trying to conserve energy so I’ll be able to make the right choice or work out where this path may lead me emotionally. The weight of consequences weigh heavy on the shoulders, and I live in the knowledge that to see the other ways the story could have run I’d need to start the game again from the beginning. But I can’t do that as it would feel like it I’d be letting down the character I’d bonded with if I played him differently. It’s exhausting. No wonder I’m crying.

In truth I love the way that games have evolved. To have the chance to star in an epic adventure that thrills the sense, moves the heart, and stirs the soul is a glorious thing. The fact that this can be done on a sofa with a cool beer and large tin of Pringles within easy reach makes it all the better. I just wonder how deeper the experience will get in the next ten years, and if I’m mentally strong enough to stay in the game…

 

Do video games affect you emotionally? What moments stick with you the most? Leave me your answers in the comments below…