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GAME ENGINE: THE VANISHING POINT
Graham Leggat on film/game convergence and The Lord of the Rings.

Left and Right: 3-D digital character models for Aragorn and Gandolph; Center: A storyboard for Electronic Arts' Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Click here to buy the game from Amazon.com: PlayStation 2 | XBOX | GameCube

If you listen to game developers talk, you’ll notice they have a raging, almost Oedipal desire to offer the same pleasures as the cinema, to be lovers of equal or greater skill.

“I think going all the way back to id Software’s Doom [in 1993], we’ve felt that games have the opportunity to create really immersive worlds,” says Gabe Newell, co-founder and managing director of Valve, maker of the landmark Half-Life series. “We think we’re really on the right track to pull that off — combining the best of games and traditional narrative media like movies. If players say, ‘I’ve just lived 40 hours of a great action movie,’ then that’s great.”

Despite the rhetoric, and some very good games, the vanishing point of film/game convergence — the lived movie, the truly immersive interactive entertainment — is still a fair distance off. It may not even be possible, technically or experientially. But it’s the ideal that developers are aiming toward. Each season brings a new title that, like Zeno’s arrow, seems to halve the distance between the two forms. This season it’s Electronic Arts’ The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

The game opens atypically — that is, like a film. The majestic title appears in filigreed gold over an epic theme, a luminous Cate Blanchett issues a prophetic warning, and the player is plunged into the mayhem at Helm’s Deep. From there, drawing on a wealth of primary materials from the film (motion-capture footage, 3-D models, storyboards, digital renderings, texture maps, data from lighting rigs and cameras), executive producer Neil Young and his team brilliantly re-create the war-torn cities, baleful caverns, demonic creatures, valiant champions and hellish battles of Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy.

The films’ original actors voice much of the dialogue, and stirring voiceover narration by Ian McKellen’s Gandalf weaves together the game’s disparate narrative threads. Roughly 20 minutes of footage from the trilogy sets up the intense hack-’n’-slash gameplay, invigorating the player before each new pocket Armageddon.

Production values across art direction, costumes, set and sound design, SFX and lighting are uniformly excellent. At certain waypoints between levels, players are rewarded with DVD-like extras such as cast interviews, unit photography and concept art, all of which reinforce the feeling that you are part of a larger-than-life experience.

It’s persuasively done, and it makes for a rich, exciting game. But is it a good (lived) movie? In its most successful passages, yes. Young and co. put an enormous amount of intelligence and talent into crafting many exhilarating cinematic sections. Throughout the lavish environments they deploy a battery of camera setups — pans, dollies, swoops, zooms and dissolves; Steadicam, crane and helicopter shots; establishing, close-up, medium and long-range shots and so on — to set moods, deliver information and enable exciting gameplay.

In Gimli, Aragorn and Legolas’s journey through the Paths of the Dead, for example, eerie fog effects, winding catacombs, and forlorn footfalls combine with fluid and intelligent camerawork and shot selection to produce a truly lyrical experience. In one memorable passage, the three heroes enter a vaulted chamber spanned by a thin white bridge. As they cross it the camera pulls back to reveal the awful enormity of the chamber and the legions of the dead marshaled against them. (The set is extrapolated from an original drawing done for the game by legendary Tolkien illustrator Alan Lee.) In the next scene the adventurers burst into the labyrinth and the camera plunges headlong after them without a cut, underlining their energy and courage and imparting terrific momentum both to the drama and to the player.

There are a number of sections, however, where the game fails to meet these high filmic standards. It’s usually not the mise-en-scène that’s at fault, but the camerawork and editing, which can be confusing, repetitive, confini­ng or static. (Because the game is shot in third-person, the player has no control over the camera.)

It’s clear from talking with Young that the directorial decisions in these less successful sections are reasoned compromises based on the physical limitations of the scene, the dramatic pacing of the level or the need to avoid throwing disorienting new camera setups at a player in the middle of a rampaging melee. Nevertheless, at times they border on the absurd.

For example, in the pitched battle in the Courtyard at Minas Tirith, because the camera rides back and forth on a fixed short arc (“a fat spline”), your desperate struggles with fearsome Uruk-hai sometimes take place half a football field away behind an obstructive piece of statuary but at other times are staged literally right under the nose of the camera, such that you seem to be whaling away at your own cinematographer. Appealing as this idea might be to filmmakers, it doesn’t make for good cinema.

When well-realized levels fly by, you are left with a glorious feeling of having dreamed your way through mythic battles. Other times, though, directorial compromises take you out of that dream. And if you are seeking a seamless immersive experience, if you want to disappear into the vanishing point where films and games converge, you feel every bump in the road. With games as good as this, it’s not an unpleasant journey, but there’s still a fair amount of road to go.

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