Shall We Play A Game?
From Tron to Her: the fake videogames Hollywood uses to deliver real messages
The story of Hollywood’s fake videogames, from Tron’s Space Paranoids to Wrestle Jam ’88
blame it on Pac-Man. In the early ’ 80s, the dot-gobbling yellow circle took America by storm. Quarters were pumped into machines across the land, and manufacturer Midway coined it in. Pac-Man made so much money – raking in an estimated 7 billion coins by 1982 – that it dwarfed even movie blockbusters like Superman II.
A klaxon went off in the boardrooms of movie studios. Suddenly, videogames were on the agenda. “It made them all look up from their lattes with avarice in their eyes,” says screenwriter
Jonathan Betuel, who’d make his mark with Universal’s The Last Starfighter in 1984. Desperate to cash in on the fact that the USA had become, in the words of one Atari VCS programmer, “the
Pac-Man nation”, the movie industry scrambled to get a piece of the action.
Theatre chains shipped in arcade cabinets for their lobbies. Studios such as Fox and Universal set up their own videogame divisions. But the biggest response was what began to be shown on cinema screens. Faced with a nation hooked on arcade cabinets and home consoles, the studios began to commission material that would reflect the craze.
If the kids wanted videogames, the unspoken logic went, then the movies would give them videogames like they’d never seen before. Hollywood, the world’s dream factory, was going to give players a glimpse of the future.
“Space Paranoids was just such a great name for a game,” remembers VFX guru Richard Taylor, who worked on Disney’s groundbreaking Tron (1982). “It’s like: ‘What? What the hell is that? I’d like to play that game. Where is it?’”
Tron revolutionised the special effects industry with its CGI-heavy exploration of the Grid, but it was also the first flick to truly reflect how American pop culture was being changed by games. Its hero, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), is a software engineer who we meet in an arcade, playing
Space Paranoids, a fast-paced Battlezone-style shooter we’re told he built himself, and which boasts visuals that are leagues ahead of anything else from the real-life arcade scene of the era. “At the time, videogames were
Asteroids and Pong,” says Taylor. “[They] were very naïve stuff – lots of vector graphics and schematic in their gameplay. You’d be looking down on a flat plane and going through mazes. Lots of arcade games were analogue, not digital, and so the imagery that could be created in realtime by those systems was limited.”
Space Paranoids blew that apart. Glimpsed for just a few seconds near the start of the movie, it wasn’t really a game but prerendered computer animation using fully shaded 3D objects. “What you saw in the movie was a monitor – a 525-line monitor, this was before HD – built into the arcade cabinet and frame synced with the camera so you wouldn’t see any rolling or anything like that,” Taylor explains. “It
Space Paranoids looked like a missive from the future of games, which was the point, of course
wasn’t really a complete game, nor was there a design for Space Paranoids.”
It may have been totally fabricated, but it looked like a missive from the future of games, which was the point, of course. “What we were trying to project was a sense of the future, of what was coming,” says Taylor. “People saw it and said, ‘I want to play a game like that. It looks much more fun than Pong or something.’”
Tron marked the first time videogaming – as both a pursuit and an industry – had been taken seriously in a movie. It was what many had been waiting for: a showcase for, and validation of, their pastime that didn’t come from Electronic Games magazine, but rather from the unfettered imagination of Hollywood.
Soon after, videogame culture had become cinema’s hot topic, sending movie execs into action. There was a sense that the world was changing, and Hollywood couldn’t wait to reflect the upheaval happening beyond the theatre’s walls. Even James Bond got to play games onscreen when Sean Connery’s spy took on villain Maximilian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) in a Tempest- style game of global war called Domination in Never Say Never Again (1983). This being a high-stakes spy film, the losing player also received an electric shock from the joysticks.
The next year, Universal’s The Last Starfighter revamped the Sword In The Stone myth for the Atari generation. The plot is pure teenage wish fulfilment, with high-scoring teen Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) discovering that his favourite space shooter arcade cabinet is secretly a recruiting tool for an intergalactic army. The movie recast games as part of the classic hero’s journey, a way for us to all feel like Luke Skywalker in waiting.
It was a modest financial success, but gained a cult following, perhaps because it spoke to something that existed in the adolescent male psyche. “In the 13th century, kids would have been playing war with wooden swords,” says Betuel. “Fast forward [and] videogames appeared and spoke our ‘inner warriors’. I remember thinking: ‘OK, so I can play
Battlezone for an hour on a single quarter.’ But what if there was some yetunseen purpose, maybe even a greater good? What if all us modern kids needed to do was be like Wart in the Arthurian legends and pull this electronic Excalibur
to the top of the scoreboard? What if, somewhere, alien eyes were watching, waiting?”
Not all Hollywood takes on gaming were so favourably inclined. Reeling from the cultural shift, some movies tapped into growing anxieties about games and computers. In WarGames (1983), a naïve, Galaga- loving teenager (Matthew Broderick) hacks into a NORAD defence computer AI, mistaking it for a videogame company’s database. He browses a list of what he believes are strategic games, from Chess to Guerrilla
Engagement and Theaterwide Biotoxic
And Chemical Warfare, before deciding that what he really wants to play is Global
Thermonuclear War. As a result, he almost takes mankind to its game over screen when ‘Joshua’, the military AI, simulates nuclear war with the USSR.
Anxieties about games also informed the Bishop Of Battle sequence in horror anthology Nightmares (1983). In Joseph Sargent’s movie, Emilio Estevez plays an obsessed arcade hustler who reaches the infamous level 13 in the eponymous wireframe shoot ’em up. His reward isn’t a high score, though – he’s sucked into the demonic cabinet itself to become trapped forever as an avatar. It was the start of a ‘gaming is dangerous’ trend that became a genre in itself, stretching from The Lawnmower Man (1992) and Brainscan (1994) right up to Stay Alive (2006) and Gamer (2009).
yes, studios saw financial potential in tapping into games, but filmmakers found a rich vein in them as well. As early as 1983, movie directors and screenwriters were recognising that games could be useful in establishing theme and character, and even for offering social commentary. In WarGames, Joshua plays through thousands of games of tic-tac-toe with itself, projected onto huge display screens at a NORAD command bunker. “A strange game,” the AI eventually decides. “The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?” In an era when the public felt like every nuclear power had its finger poised over the big red button, the message packed quite a punch.
A few years later, screenwriters Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg used games to explore a very different theme in Big (1988), a Tom Hanks comedy about a boy trapped in an adult’s body. When the movie starts, we meet Josh (David Moscow) in his suburban bedroom. He’s playing a made-up graphic adventure game known as The Cavern Of The Evil
Wizard on his IBM PC. “You are standing in the cavern of the evil wizard,” reads the onscreen text. “All around you are the carcasses of slain ice dwarfs.” Distracted by his mum as he types in commands, Josh ends up running out of time and dying, trapped in a block of ice for a million years. Only at the end of the movie will Josh work out how to defeat the evil wizard, melting it by throwing the ‘thermal pod’ he has in his inventory.
Although the screenplay gave a detailed description of this fictional game, computer engineer David Satin still faced a technical challenge in bringing it to life onscreen. “To get the superhigh resolution [for the time] EGA graphics to run reliably at 24fps,” he remembers, “I had to modify one of the brand-new Zenith flatscreen CRT monitors to lock to the 24fps sync. I also had to create a system that would allow me to synchronise the shutter of the Panavision film camera to the computer in order to film the game with no visible distortion.”
Using the “glorious 8bit colour” of PC Paintbrush, Satin created a single game screen for The Cavern Of The Evil Wizard and wrote “a little memory-paging flip- book application” in Turbo Pascal that could handle the quirky reset rate of the heavily modified Tecmar Graphics Master board. It let him play out the animation at any speed without the screen tearing on camera. “It was,” he reckons, “all of 100 or so lines of code.”
Then, while child actor Moscow plugged away at the dummy keyboard, Satin sat offscreen with his own live keyboard and advanced the animation frames in time with the actor’s keystrokes. In the finished scene, we get to see young Josh typing in commands as the evil wizard menaces his avatar and eventually freezes him in ice.
Although few people in 1988 were likely to be wowed by The Cavern Of The Evil Wizard’s simple graphics or gameplay, it subtly captured the movie’s theme of arrested development brilliantly.
As games have evolved into new forms, filmmakers have interpreted them in new ways, too, with many employing them as a jumping-off point for speculative futurism. The ’90s in particular marked a shift, with movies explicitly about games sidelined – perhaps no surprise when so many games were desperately trying to be movies with cutscenes and grainy, digitised full-motion video. Instead, virtual reality was the new fad du jour. It was a shift that led to movies like The Lawnmower Man (1992), which chewed through $500,000 for eight minutes of CGI sequences, and marked the first time a human actor was replaced with a CGI avatar, although the less said about its pioneering depiction of cybersex the better. It was joined later by the postmodern crisis of David Cronenberg’s is-it-real-or-is-it-a-game surreality of Existenz ( 1999) and the “desert of the real” of The Matrix (1999)
But those are only the most far-flung and high-concept movies to tap into the
No longer were videogames merely eye candy. Their cameos could sell coolness, offering an instant point of connection
increasing ubiquity of games. No longer were videogames merely eye candy to splash on the screen. Their cameos could sell coolness, offering an instant point of connection for young adults. Witness Johnny Lee Miller playing an early prototype of PlayStation classic Wipeout in a grungy club in Hackers (1995), his face lit up by the glow from the screen while a young Angelina Jolie looks on.
Games are even subject to social critique now. In Inside Man (2006), Spike Lee’s convoluted thriller about an ingenious Wall Street bank heist, a brief but memorable scene features Clive Owen and child actor Amir Ali Said playing a lurid PSP game colourfully called
Gangstas Iz Genocide.
“The brief was simple,” remembers Eric Alba, who supervised the animation, working with House Of Pain, a collective of graphic artists. “Spike wanted Gangstas Iz
Genocide to be an extremely violent game that also showed you winning in that game for the violence you committed.”
Alba and House Of Pain spent ten days on the sequence, previsualising it in
3D Studio Max before creating it in Maya so that it could run on a PSP and onscreen in full film frame resolution.
The finished game sequence, which looks like an over-the-top Grand Theft
Auto: San Andreas clone, has a drive-by shooting and the player shoving a hand grenade in a victim’s mouth while the screen flashes up a “Kill Dat Nigga!” text prompt. “That was Spike’s most memorable note after he saw the [original] animation,” says Alba. “He wanted the text there to amplify the action... and when he saw the grenade, he loved it.”
In the scene, Clive Owen’s bank robber plays the game on the kid’s PSP and is clearly appalled by its graphic violence. “What is the point of this?” he asks his eight-year-old companion. “Like my man Fiddy says,” explains the kid, “‘Get rich or die trying!’” The scene ends with Owen’s bank robber – a man sitting in a vault surrounded by stacks of cash – deciding to tell the kid’s father about the games that he plays.
“The sequence shows that Amir Ali Said’s character is completely desensitised by the violence in the game,” explains Alba, “and it’s social commentary on what these games are potentially doing to children playing these types of games. Spike was specific that he wanted the game characters to be West Coast thugs. [He wanted] to call out rap stereotypes and real ‘black on black’ crime.”
Gangstas Iz Genocide works as both a comment on violent games and a critique of the glamorisation of African-American gang culture – not bad for an invented videogame that’s only onscreen for a couple of minutes. But the most refreshing thing about Inside Man’s videogame scene is how it also acts as a window on Clive Owen’s character. He may be a ruthless masked bank robber leading a crew armed with assault rifles, but he’s still decent enough to be appalled by an eight-year-old being immersed in violence – real or digital.
inside Man isn’t the only film to use videogames to reflect upon its characters. In Oscar-nominated drama The Wrestler (2008), Mickey Rourke plays washed up pro wrestler Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson as he struggles to deal with retirement. In one poignant scene, Robinson sits in his trailer home playing on a Nintendo Entertainment System with a local kid. The game is
Wrestle Jam ’88, a fictional tie-in from Robinson’s heyday in which he battles his arch enemy, The Ayatollah.
Going for a retro feel, director Darren Aronofsky brought in artist Kristyn Hume and her programmer brother Randall Furino to create a playable game. “It was a challenging design project for me, because all my software is designed to not create things that look 8bit,” laughs Hume. “Darren wanted the game to be as realistic as possible for the era it was meant to come from. [It had to be] 8bit and simple, believably from the ‘80s.”
It seems like a lot of trouble to go to for a seemingly throwaway scene, and it would be, except the moment is anything but throwaway. While Robinson and Adam (John D’Leo) play Wrestle Jam, the young kid chats to his ageing hero about
Call Of Duty 4. “It’s a war game. Most of the other Call Of Dutys are, like, based on World War II, but this one’s with Iraq,” he explains. The half-deaf wrestler nods, understanding nothing, and continues hammering the D-pad on his controller.
The Wrestle Jam interlude works on two levels, then. On one hand, the similarity between the two games’ Middle Eastern enemies offers a commentary on America’s shift in bogeymen between the ’80s and now. But it also illuminates Robinson’s predicament brilliantly. This wrestler, like the tie-in game he was once the star of, is now a retro throwback cast
adrift in a modern world he doesn’t understand, clinging to past glories.
Today’s films are increasingly full of such nuanced uses of videogames, now that the Atari generation has grown into directors, writers and producers. In the retro arcade feel of Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs The World (2010) or the nostalgia of Wreck-It Ralph (2012), Hollywood has shown it is now comfortable evoking both the history and visual language of videogames.
Just as in 1982, though, the desire to show us the future hasn’t completely vanished. In Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his upgraded OS, which is voiced by Scarlett Johannson. Set in a near-future world, Her gives us two glimpses into the future of games: a frantic mom simulator called
Perfect Mom, where players must feed their kids breakfast and get them ready for school, and a holographic adventure game that’s like a cross between a holodeck and PlayStation 4’s augmentedreality distraction The PlayRoom. “The brief was wide-ranging,” explains
David OReilly, animation designer for the hologram game in which Phoenix’s nerdy man-child follows a potty-mouthed AI alien child on a quest. “The main two things were to create something that would feel real in the room, and to create these worlds and characters inside the game that didn’t look like contemporary games. Both these goals were very much intertwined, as the design, colour, shapes, scale, etc, of everything had to read against the live-action backgrounds. This was particularly challenging because the holograms were incandescent light, so there was a lot of pushing and pulling of certain elements to make it work together.”
In the finished movie, Theo hunches on his sofa, fingers clawing empty air as he propels himself through a cavernous maze. The sweary alien child (voiced by Jonze himself) mocks him, but also needs Theo’s help. “The game ties directly into Joaquin/Theo’s mood and emotional
“It’d be amazing if the decisions we made in Her had an influence on the games of the future”
journey in the film,” OReilly explains. “It’s what makes it much more effective than just a technological showpiece. We worked really hard to make sure the actual techniques to deform and display the game were more felt than shown.”
At its heart, though, Her proves that in the three decades since Hollywood first started to incorporate videogames, some things have stayed the same. CGI and processing power may have increased exponentially, yet the movies are still showing us visions of the shape of things to come. Her’s holographic videogames are a vision of a possible future, just as
Space Paranoids was 32 years ago. “Science fiction’s task of imagining things does have the power to manifest them outside of the screen,” says OReilly. “Further back than Tron, if 2001: A Space Odyssey wasn’t made [then] I’m not sure if we’d have half of Apple’s products. It would be amazing if the decisions we made in Her had an influence on the games of the future.”
After Tron’s producers shipped in dozens of real-life cabinets to get the cast in the mood, Jeff Bridges got hooked on
BattleZone. “They would come and try to yank me away. I’d say, ‘I’m preparing. I’m preparing’”
RIGHT 007 swapped his Walther PPK for a Tempest- style deathmatch in the non-canon Bond outing Never Say Never Again
Ronald Reagan believed that Atari games would train the next generation of US fighter pilots. The Last Starfighter’s conceit transplanted that idea into deep space to deliver a potent teenage power fantasy
In WarGames, Matthew Broderick’s character used an IMSAI 8080 computer to hack into WOPR, although his keyboard input was coded to always output the correct strings, so that the actor needn’t worry about his typing
TheCavernOfTheEvilWizard, recreated as a browser game by BoMToons
Hackers showcased a prototype of Psygnosis’s PlayStation-exclusive Wipeout, and Jolie would later portray Lara Croft
LEFT Jeff Fahey brings a vision of virtual reality to the masses in The Lawnmower Man.
ABOVE Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus, from the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix
After watching Inside Man, you’d guess Spike Lee doesn’t like Grand Theft Auto:San
Andreas very much. Commenting on games and violence, its fictitious PSP title, GangstasIz Genocide (below), is a hard-to-swallow message about modern culture
Scott Pilgrim’s Ninja Ninja Revolution foreshadows its own boss fights
Her’s holographic adventure sequence promises a future free of screens and controllers, but also makes a point about humans insulating themselves in technology
Nostalgia for the 8bit era takes on a new layer of meaning in Darren Aronofsky’s poignant tale of a washed-up professional wrestler, reflecting on simpler, happier times for Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson (Mickey Rourke)