The technician calmly says, "Speed." The director, Peter Sprague, calls for "Action!" and Robyn Lively, the youthful red-haired actress dressed as a fairy, pushes an invisible object off of her. The set is relatively bare, except for assorted lights, microphone booms and a large blue screen behind the actress. Yet, the monitor shows Robyn in the midst of a lush, green forest.
Such is the magic of computer graphics and such was the setting when CGW invaded the sound stage of Activision's upcoming Return to Zork (Return). The concepts behind the project had sounded interesting, but we arrived at the set with a ton of skepticism (largely due to our feelings about Leather Goddesses of Phobos II) and left with an equivalent amount of expectation. The design team really seems to have learned from the mistakes and built on the strengths of the first attempt to create a full-scale graphic adventure from a classic Infocom title.
First of all, LGOP II used amateur voice talents. Return uses professional actors and actresses, as well as an experienced screen-writer to clean up and refine dialogue on the fly. Second, LGOP II was designed to be easy and accessible to entry-level players. Return has the most intricate puzzle structure we've seen in quite a while. LGOP's interface could be described as "clunky" at best. Return's interface may be revolutionary. It is certainly an interface that I would have said could not be done. LGOP's art had an unfinished, almost crude, look. Return's art is being integrated with the live actors from the very beginning. In short, Return has the potential of being ... well, ... a real Infocom game.
All of the actors and actresses had to participate in one ritual unique to the requirements of a computer game. In order to use William Volk's technology, which synchronises phonemes and facial movement, each performer was required to say a standard line in three emotional states. So, at some time during each performer's tenure in front of the camera, a casual observer would observe him or her shouting, "Mad dogs howling at the wind, so let's eat!" The line doesn't make much sense semantically, but it does phonetically, as the line contains all the phonetic units of which English words are made. Technicians will be able to use the facial movements from the line to create lip-synced dialogue.
Those who used to watch "Twin Peaks" should recognise the game's fairy, Robyn Lively; fans of "The Wonder Years" should enjoy the troll, Jason Hervey (Wayne); and filmgoers who remember the remake of "Flash Gordon" should be familiar with the blind bowman, Sam Jones.
One of the actresses, Lori Lovely, serves as a spirit in the woods and will be morphed into a tree. As an additional creative touch, Lori sings her part. Tougher yet, she had to sing her part a capella on the set and the accompaniment will be scored under her part at a later time. Fortunately, the project's voice coach, Teri Mason, has perfect pitch and was able to cue Lori and assist her in staying in the same key throughout each song segment.
According to art director Joe Asperin, use of the chromakey method serves to assist the six computer artists on the project when they have to match cameras and light between live video and 3-D rendered backgrounds. Without filming in chromakey, the artists have to match shadows and light sourcing between actors and backgrounds after the fact and it is much tougher to make the scenes look natural.
The objects in the backgrounds were modelled in a 3-D program called Infini-D and the design team plans to do a CD-ROM version where players will be able to walk into locations much like in Virgin's The 7th Guest (but, because of Volk's compression routine, requiring only one compact disc). Further, even the backgrounds are composed such that very few of the shots are "square on". Instead, the artists strove to create new and interesting angles.
That the team has been successful is clear from the fact that Michelle Em, the screenwriter (Jazz Heart, written for Robert Redford's Sundance Productions) who rewrote the original dialogue, complimented the artist's approach. That is significant because Michelle is an Art Centre College of Design graduate and worked for Robert Abel's special effects group. Indeed, several of her storyboards were used in the spectacular "other-wordly" sections of the original StarTrek : The Movie. So, she knows storyboards and she was impressed. (She is also an experienced Infocom gamer, dating back to the original Zork, so she knows games, too.)
Although this editor would have said it couldn't be done, we believe the icon-based interface solves some of the communication problems encountered with other non-text parsers. There is an icon for photographing the creatures, objects and characters encountered, as well as an icon for recording the dialogues in certain encounters and taking notes on clues uncovered. From the data saved via these icons, the gamer can show the "pictures" and "notes" to the NPCs encountered or play the "recordings" for them in order to gain other clues.
In essence, the game has not lost the text capacity of the classic Infocom stories, it is simply that one uses images and captured sound bytes to prompt the on-screen characters into telling more and more of the story. Further, the interface allows players to assume one of three body language poses: bored, interested or threatening, when they interrogate an on-screen character/creature. This allows a richness that has been absent heretofore in non-text graphic adventures.
Once the game was cast, Michelle Em entered the picture and began rewriting the dialogue to fit the characterizations she was seeing emerge from the cast. Michelle really loves working in the game genre. So much so that she often plays Infocom adventures before she writes, because they help her start visualizing scenes as a "warm-up" to writing her own material.
Asked about the toughest challenge in switching from screen-writing to writing games, Em suggested that it is tough trying to write funny dialogue from 24 different character perspectives. Asked what was the most satisfying about making the switch, she said: "When I see a movie, I get impatient. They're so ossified. There is such a formula. Games are like the beginning of the movie business. People are having so much fun that you don't mind working long hours." She went on to explain that she enjoyed the possibility of breaking the mold in the game business.
In summary, Activision seems to be making all the right moves as they attempt to bring gamers back to the GUE for a Return to Zork. After observing the set, we can't wait until the premiere.
Thanks to Warwick Annear for transcribing and donating this article.