By John Gaudiosi
Long before Hollywood screenwriter (Pulp Fiction, Silent Hill) and director (Rules of Attraction) Roger Avary was writing movies, he was writing code. Avary, who co-wrote Robert Zemeckis' 3D computer-generated Beowulf with Neil Gaiman, never published a game, but he shared many with his friends.
"When I was a kid, Star Raiders on the Atari 800 was the be-all, end-all game," said Avary. "It was Star Trek and Star Wars rolled into one. You had a map and you could refuel at star bases and defend them. I'll never forget what it was like to warp from one location to another and try to keep centred or else I'd fall off course. I bought an Atari 800 computer because of that game and learned how to program on that computer using 6502 Assembly.
Avary regrets never submitting his biggest game, Shuttle Crash, to the Atari Program Exchange, which published games created by users. The game was an interpretation of Lunar Lander, but gamers had to perform a forced landing while doing as little damage as possible to the ship and keeping the crew alive. "I was big into Dungeons & Dragons and my friends and I did all sorts of character-generation programs on the 800 that would do dice rolling for us," said Avary. "We also had dungeon creators that would generate halls and traps for us so that we could play without a Dungeon Master."
Avary never lost his love of gaming. In fact, he now collects and restores Atari vector machines like Tempest (for sheer balls-out adrenaline this was one of my favourites") and Battlezone ("this game is as fresh and playable today as when it was released").
Although he considers himself a "Wii guy" and has been an ardent Nintendo fan for years ("Nintendo 64 is the best game console ever made"), Ubisoft sent Avary an Xbox 360 and a copy of the Beowulf game for him to test drive.
"Beowulf, like a number of recent film-to-game projects, is interesting because we were able to share a number of assets with Ubisoft right up front, allowing the game and film to release simultaneously," said Avary. "I spent a good part of last night battling sea monsters and learning the control schema."
Avary loves the fact that the development studio explored 30 years of action not covered in the film. As he progresses through the game inspired by the movie he co-wrote, he'll be able to fight new monsters and go on new adventures that weren't in the original poem or 3D film adaptation.
"I'm totally going to take my 9 year-old son to see this movie at IMAX in 3D," said Avary. "He's a big gamer like me. I've been trying to explain the movie to him and I said it's like being inside the biggest and best videogame you've ever seen. I don't see that as a negative. I see that as a natural evolution to the form. What we're seeing is gaming consoles that are vastly becoming the predominant art form on the planet, is merging with cinema. Everybody should be happy about that because it flows in both directions. Games will get more cinematic and movies will get more limitless in what you're able to do. This movie is a beautiful hybrid of all of these disciplines I love."
Avary finds it weird that so many people who have only seen the Quicktime trailer of Beowulf say the movie looks like a videogame cut scene.
"I don't know of any game that looks like this movie," said Avary. "And if Robert Zemeckis was directing cut scenes in games, then maybe that would mean something.
There are plenty of haters out there who love to criticise something. That's like saying this movie is too much like a book or this book is too much like a movie. I see graphic entertainment as graphic entertainment. When you're given sensorial entertainment you just give yourself to it. Everything has its influence. Early movies look like theatre with a singlewide shot without sound. The invention of the cut and the close-up was revolutionary. Television has had its impact on cinema, and I don't think it's necessarily been bad. And obviously, videogames are having a massive impact on cinema and vice versa. When I play the game, one of the things I can't help but wonder is how long is it going to be before games look like Beowulf. How long is it before we'll be able to share all of our assets seamlessly."
Avary believes what Zemeckis has done with his performance capture technology, which has been used in The Polar Express, Monster House and now Beowulf, is a magnificent task.
"Robert Zemeckis has collected a number of tools both hardware and software to create a work flow that allows for a film-like production that renders in this format and allows for performance and for story," said Avary. "It's literally like creating a production process. There will come a time where the development of the game will be able to use all of the elements. We were sharing a lot of the film elements with Ubisoft for this game and they ended up creating a lot on their own because they were far-reaching with what they wanted to do with the story. There will come a time where the exact elements and backgrounds that you render for a movie will seamless be able to travel into someone's home on their gaming system and you'll be able to have a nearly identical interactive experience to the passive experience you get in the theatre."
While movies will continue to evolve - Beowulf is the largest 3D opening in Hollywood history - they won't go away, according to Avary.
"Sometimes you don't want to be an active participant in a game," said Avary. "Sometimes you just want the story to be told to you and it's a different discipline that people love. It's what works best in a big room and it's why we love to get together around a movie screen and watch a story. Other times you want to become an active participant in the story. It's no better or no worse than being a passive participant. What will be really interesting in the future will be sharing in a much bigger way."
When it comes to performance capture, Avary believes the future of convergence between Hollywood and game creation lies in Zemeckis' pioneering technology.
"I think the next step in Zemeckis' process should be to further strengthen the ties between the developers you're working with and the actual film production," said Avary. "By inviting the developers into the production, they will bring a lot of skills that are out there in the game development community that could really apply themselves to Zemeckis' particular production process. They call it performance capture but I prefer to call it digitally enhanced live action. I think it will benefit us in the future in a great way. We're on the cusp of change and I think it's going to be really good. It's going to deliver a much more cinematic gaming experience and a much more limitless cinema experience."
Avary, who wrote Silent Hill and was once attached to direct the Driver film, will write and direct the big screen version of Return to Castle Wolfenstein for his next project.