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)

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