These days just about any review (or preview) of a full motion video, live-actor interactive game, is prefaced with an "uh-oh." And for good reason. Few games come close to reaching this genre's potential. Even industry giant Sierra, which did a terrific job on Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within, has dropped all FMV projects, opting for 3D animation instead. But newcomer upstart SouthPeak Interactive thinks it's got a handle on FMV, and its upcoming PC game, Dark Side of the Moon, will go a long way to demonstrating that.
Dark Side is SouthPeak's second game using a technology it calls Video Reality. Its first effort, Temujin, showed promise but missed the boat on several key points. On the plus side, the 35mm film production quality was excellent, the story and characters were well crafted, and Video Reality's 360-degree freedom of movement was a true advancement in FMV technology. Plus the game runs straight off the CD. No hard drive installation required. But the game environment was small (a museum interior), navigation was slow and required lots of wandering, many puzzles had no connection to the storyline, there were no character interactions, and your character had no voice or identity.
"I did the rewrite of Temujin and couldn't figure out a way to explain why you couldn't talk to anybody except with the amnesia/zombie guy," says Dark Side's senior writer/designer, Lee Sheldon. "I happen to hate amnesia as a hook for a story, and that he couldn't talk really annoyed me."
Sheldon was a late arrival to the Temujin project, which started simply as a demo of the Video Reality technology. He took its existing framework, actors, and studio sets, then created a new story and characters, plus added a few puzzles. He admits that "patchwork quality" still shows through in the final product.
That won't be an issue with Dark Side. Sheldon has worked on this project from its inception a year and a half ago. Sheldon took a circuitous route before arriving at SouthPeak. Star Trek: Next Generation fans may recognize him as the producer/writer of several episodes. In 20 years as a Hollywood script writer, he worked on Charlie's Angels, Murder She Wrote, Quincy, and Edge of Night. Amidst all that productivity he dealt with several PC/video game companies, starting tangentially with Atari and Electronic Arts and concluding with Sanctuary Woods where he designed the critically successful Riddle of Master Lu. After Disney bought Sanctuary Woods' studio in Victoria, British Columbia, Sheldon left for SouthPeak. "I didn't want to do the interactive version of Hunchback of Notre Dame," he says.
Sheldon's fictional setting for Dark Side is Luna Crysta, a moon in a distant planetary system. There, a mining outpost, with a Wild West survive-by-your-wits mentality, prevails. Your character has arrived to work the claim willed to him by his uncle, who died under mysterious circumstances. Questions arise as to the claim's true value and secrets your uncle concealed there. You soon become entangled in a murder investigation and are pursued as a fugitive. That sends you deeper into Luna, to its maze of tunnels, rivers of light, dangerous monsters, and brave inhabitants.
Like Temujin, there will be a plethora of intriguing and complex characters. Unlike Temujin, you'll actually be able to talk to them in what will likely be the most natural conversation in an FMV to date. No more simple Q&A. Rather, version 2.0 of SouthPeak's Video Reality adds huge conversation "trees." Other gameplay improvements include more than 100 puzzles and problems that are "closely related to the story," says Sheldon. They will act as "dramatic obstacles" or to illuminate characters. And instead of restricting itself to the physical limitations of on-location film studio sets, Dark Side will use huge 3D Softimage-created graphic spaces and insert the actors using green screen videotaping techniques. Those spaces will include a half dozen levels of tunnels and rooms plus an Astrodome-sized structure and a mine shaft that "could fit 15 Temujin museums on the floor and they wouldn't even clutter the bottom," says Sheldon. The only drawback is that it will play back in the same quarter-screen window used in Temujin.
Despite its size, you will still be able to stop virtually anywhere and look around because one out of every 10 to 20 frames of animation is a 360-degree panorama "node." At many of those nodes you can venture off in four directions. In most other 3D full-motion games, such spaces are rendered on the fly and therefore have polygon and performance limitations. Not so in Dark Side. Each deeply detailed frame is prerendered then edited into numerous MPEG video clips that play out as you move. One 360-degree frame can take up to 32 hours to render. No one has calculated a Dark Side frame count, but all this rendering keeps 200 HP workstations computing nonstop, 24 hours a day.
"We want this to look real," says Paul Graham, art director. Two people work full time feeding graphics to the HP network and compressing the results into MPEG videos. "It's a logistical nightmare."
SouthPeak believes this unique combination of high production-value graphics, engaging scriptwriting, and live actors coupled with ease of installation and improvements in its technology will make Dark Side of the Moon appeal to the mass market that longs for a TV program-like experience. "Add gameplay that is as good as any graphic adventure, and the hard-core gamers will come along too," says Sheldon. If so, it'll be an FMV first.