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TALKING ’BOUT AN EVOLUTION
Graham Leggat explores the convergence of film and games, and the creation of the epic sci-fi adventure Advent Rising.

Advent Rising.

This summer and fall there’s been plenty of crossover between films and games. Alien vs Predator, first a comic and then a game, is now a film, as is Resident Evil: Apocalypse, the Milla Jovovich delivery-system based on Resident Evil 3: Nemesis. Patrician Patrick Stewart has brought his spot-on pronunciation to Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone. Vin Diesel’s game studio, Tigon Games, has produced the excellent Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, a prequel to Pitch Black. John Batter, formerly a senior executive at DreamWorks’ computer animation division, the group that produced Antz and Shrek, is now general manager of giant game-publisher Electronic Arts’s L.A. shop. Mark Lasoff, computer graphics supervisor for Centropolis FX, which worked on The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolutions, and an Oscar winner for Titanic, is art director of EA’s blockbuster WWII Medal of Honor franchise, which also has a contract with John Milius, nutbag writer of Apocalypse Now, Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn. And so on.

The two industries are converging and there’s no turning back. This is a huge kick for the casual observer, but even dispassionate natural historians of contemporary media, seeing the two species gamboling together in the wild, are feeling a sense of excitement, perhaps even liberation. And why not? It looks like progress. It gives you hope. Like anything, though, the novelty of cross-industry adaptation can wear thin. After you’ve watched several dozen ants launch themselves noisily downstream on leaves you start wishing for an ant that can swim. There’s not much to do, however, but be patient and put your trust in evolution. If you are lucky someone like Donald Mustard will come along.

Donald and his brother Geremy are the creative forces behind Advent Rising, the first entry in a projected trilogy of epic cinematic sci-fi adventure games, due from New Jersey–based publisher Majesco in early 2005. The story of the game’s development is an interesting one, but of equal interest is that of Mustard’s professional and vocational development. He and hopefully numerous undiscovered talents like him are part of a new generation that is as at home in the film world as in the world of games and whose natural and inevitable aesthetic inclination is toward a fusion of the two.

Mustard went to college in the early ’90s looking to become a filmmaker. He planned to go to Pratt but at the last minute decided on Brigham Young University in Utah. BYU didn’t have as strong a film department, but it did have a battery of new filmmaking equipment, CGI stations and cutting-edge digital software. Mustard went to Utah and in 2000 graduated with a BFA engineering degree in film — an odd hybrid that now seems clairvoyant. While in college he made a number of short films, the most successful being Gestures, which screened at several festivals. A mix of CG and live action, it secured him freelance work at several effects studios, including Industrial Light & Magic, Rhythm and Hues and Digital Domain. At this point Mustard could see his future laid out before him. It looked like 5 to 10 years of fairly unrewarding apprenticeship with no guarantee of anything substantial at the end of it. This wasn’t appealing. So he gambled on something else.

Donald and Geremy had always been active gamers, big fans of deep and spectacular role-playing titles like Final Fantasy and the moody metaphysical Riven — games with a compelling narrative, beautiful design and strong cinematic roots. The two brothers decided to join an art-production studio, GlyphX, that designed game packaging and produced full-motion video (FMV) cut-scenes for games. So-called because they interrupt game play, cut-scenes are mini movies with a variety of functions. They set up the action, explain what’s going on, direct a player forward or reward him for finishing a level, deepen character, introduce plot twists, produce spectacular effects, etc. In the hands of particularly good game makers, they are as gripping, revealing or moving as a short (animated) film. To make this kind of work, Mustard had to learn new tools — Maya, Photoshop, AfterEffects, 3D Max — but overall, he says, it wasn’t that different from what he had done in film school and subsequently in the film industry.

The Mustards went on to work on in-game cut-scenes for major publishers like Eidos, Activision and Sony, including work on Spider-Man, Soul Reaver, War of the Monsters, and Downhill Domination. At this point, still considering himself in many ways a filmmaker, Mustard started to write a script for a sci-fi/fantasy film set in a Star Wars–type universe. This was about five years ago, in the late 1990s. The script grew to some 300 pages before he realized that it was too complicated a story to be told as a mere two-hour film. With all the characters and back-story and psychology and world- building, it was going to have to be a novel. Or, better yet, a 15- to 20-hour game.

Around this time criminal mastermind Geremy Mustard, trawling eBay, came across a contraband disc of unlisted celebrity home addresses and phone numbers. Neither he nor Donald believed it was real but as a goof they bid $40 and won. When it arrived, the CD turned out to be accurate and authentic. On it was contact info for best-selling sci-fi novelist Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game — a film version of which is forthcoming in 2006, with Wolfgang Petersen directing — and Shadow Puppets, among others. Being fans of Card’s work and believing he could help the project, now a projected trilogy of games, GlyphX managed to arrange a half-hour meeting.

“I get contacted a lot, I’ve got to say,” Card recounted. “People want to make games or whatever and I routinely turn them down. I’m not a game guy. But these guys… for one thing, they’re really nice… and I liked their attitude. They are so creative and they are open to the thing that I care about, which is turning games into a real storytelling medium, instead of just a means to killing as many monsters as possible.” (It also helped, perhaps, that Card’s son loved games and was getting interested in the business.)

Card signed on to write and edit dialogue, flesh out and provide motivation for the characters, direct the game’s voice-acting, shape the story arcs, etc. This was in December 2001. Over the next two years Mustard and Card kept up a steady dialogue — the former in Utah, the latter in North Carolina — as the game went from an unwieldy 300-page script to a tight 400-page design document that detailed every aspect of the game: each layered character and environment and all the various potential actions and outcomes in any given scene across the numerous levels of the first 15 to 20 hours of the trilogy.

The creation of this document — a mix of script, novel and engineering blueprint complete with crisp dialogue, vivid physical description and psychological profiles, and intense fight choreography — was no mean feat. The game features several centuries of interstellar history, a singular cosmology, numerous characters and alien races, hundreds of original interiors and exteriors, distinctive objects and weapons, several branching narrative paths, spectacular special effects and ultraresponsive graphics and physics engines that enable any number of complicated scenes to be rendered and then manipulated by the players in real time.

It sounds like the wild blue yonder, Star Wars gone mad, sheer geek heaven. And the game is that; it is aiming to be a space opera to end all space operas. But in a candid moment Mustard confesses to be, at bottom, going after something else entirely. “Basically, I’m trying to make a Jane Austen novel,” he said. “Or something like Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility or Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings — intelligent literary films built around large and small dramatic events that cumulatively define character.”

With the game now but two or three months from release, how have these character-defining dramatic events been crafted? Mostly, says Mustard, through tried and true narrative-cinema techniques: namely, the artful use of music, sound design, dialogue, kinetic action, camera angles, lighting and discriminating shot composition. It also has roughly two hours of integrated full-motion video, a complex fighting system that will satisfy hardcore gamers and a strong but fluid underlying narrative that — unlike that of The Matrix, which became systematically more turgid with each film — picks up speed as well as complexity as it moves along.

Prerelease footage and game play look good but whether Advent Rising will be a fully successful game, let alone a trilogy of games, remains to be seen. Whether it will succeed in delivering various filmic, not to mention novelistic, pleasures in addition to its kinetic blandishments also very much remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: wholly unafraid of the water, a new generation of game makers are climbing the highest tree and diving in.

Interviews with Mustard and Card, as well as art and trailers for Advent Rising, can be found at at www.adventtrilogy.com.

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