Sunday, November 23, 2014

The REAL First Scary Moment in Video Game History...

Listing, ranking or reviewing the scariest moments in video games is a well-worn topic in gaming journalism. And just like your vintage paper Beistle skeleton decoration and vinyl Collegeville costume, it's one of those things that gets dusted off and trotted out annually just in time for Halloween.

While horror video games have become an industry unto themselves, with multiple franchises competing for your cold, clutching hands, its a genre that was recognized as far back as 1983. Here's the proof.

This Nov. 1983 issue of Electronic Games Magazine promises its coverage of the scary video game genre will cause you to "shake, quake and shudder"!

But in those 8-bit 80s, when graphics looked more like knitting patterns than Hollywood films, were games really capable of triggering the emotion of fright?

For the most part, no. Most of these so-called "scary" games weren't actually frightening themselves, but were merely inspired by or referenced horror characters or tropes. They were scary in theme only--horror by association. The experience of playing these games was anything but.

Does this kid look scared?

Just look at some of the games covered in this Electronic Games article. King Kong (1982, published by Tigervision for the Atari 2600) was little more than a Donkey Kong clone dressed up in an expensive trademark from Universal Studios. Are we quaking yet?

Frankenstein's Monster (1983, Data Age, Atari 2600) was another platformer that vaguely resembled Pitfall and wasn't going to give anyone the shivers.

Crush, Crumble and Chomp! (1981, Epyx, for TRS-80 and other computers) was a fairly elaborate, free-roaming Kaiju-simulator that let you wreak urban havoc as a giant dinosaur, spider, robot or blob. It was fun... but scary?

Even the well-reviewed Dracula (1983, Imagic, Intellivision), which comes closest to achieving a horror-like atmosphere with its graveyard and lightning flashes, never really succeeds in scaring the player.

Going all the way back to 1982's Haunted House (Atari 2600, not covered in this article), we find that the chills promised by the enticing box art don't materialize in the game play.

So when did video games go from merely sub-referencing fear to actually invoking it?

For me, that moment occurred the first time I played 1984's Rescue on Fractalus, one of two launch titles from a new arrival to the video game publishing party... Lucasfilm Games.

The 1983 announcement that Lucasfilm was going to transition to the video game medium, in a new partnership with Atari, was met with a fair amount of completely earned enthusiasm. Lucas had just lead a special effects revolution with the original Star Wars trilogy and the prospect of them making comparable technical strides in the still infant video game field had fans salivating.

The two debut titles were Ballblazer, a futuristic sports game boasting two first-person perspectives on a split-screen, and Rescue on Fractalus, which exploited newly developed fractal modeling techniques to generate realistic mountainous terrain for an interstellar search-and-rescue mission on an alien planet.

Both games are set in science-fiction fantasy worlds, and of course the studio that launched a thousand TIE-Fighters wasn't going to settle for rendering those worlds solely within the confines of an 8-bit computer screen. They used their model-making resources to create three-dimensional mock-ups of the rotofoil (the pod-like hovercraft vehicles from Ballblazer)...

...and the X-Wing like space-fighter and alien saucer ships from Fractalus. While images of these would be used for ads and packaging art, there's no doubt the creation of these models was also part of the creative process in developing the games.

Rescue on Fractalus puts the player in the pilot's seat of a space jet hovering above the rocky terrain of the planet Fractalus, seeking out crashed pilots while avoiding anti-aircraft laser turrets and hovering saucers controlled by the Jaggis, a reptilian race of hostiles.

For a consistent in-game narrative, your starcraft always launches from an orbiting mothership and flies down to Fractalus, instead of just starting on the planet's surface.

You have a full 360-degree range of motion and the fractal-geometry landscape stays consistent as you fly around it at various angles. This was quite an innovation back in 1984 when the game debuted.

After spotting a crashed friendly ship on your radar, you land, shut off your engines, and wait for the pilot, visible through the cockpit window, to hike across the alien sands to your ship.

And this is where the first authentically frightening moment I'd ever experienced playing a video game occurred. The pilot doesn't just automatically board your ship... you have to let him in by opening the hatch. He'll let you know he's ready to board by knocking on the door (which you have to listen for, because the pilot is out of view at this point.)

This wait starts to get very intense, because sometimes the "pilot" turns out to be an enemy Jaggi in disguise! You find this out when, instead of rapping at the door, it suddenly pops up in your view screen, accompanied by a shrill musical flourish reminiscent of a B-movie horror soundtrack, and begins pounding its fists on the cockpit canopy.

Much like the anticipated but dreaded jolt one gets from a jack-in-the-box, the appearance of the Jaggi startles you for a several seconds, which is all the time you have to fire up the engines and make escape before the cockpit is breached and the game ends with a black screen under a somber funeral dirge.

Here's a short video clip of the encounter (keep in mind this occurs after waiting in several seconds of tense silence for the pilot to knock.)
This clip appears to be from a beta-version of the game that went under title "Behind Jaggi Lines".

In earlier levels, the player is tipped off that the approaching pilot is actually an alien by the green head... but later on the Jaggis get smart and keep their helmet on, leaving you with no choice but to wait it out.

Man--that old Fractalus place gives me the creeps!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

This is Phoenix! Real Life (1979)

I'm going to take a break from taking a break from posting about scary stuff (it HAS been awhile since my last post....ahem) to tell you about one of my favorite comedies of all time, which was not only set and filmed in 70's-era Phoenix, Arizona where I grew up, but also made some startling predictions about how technology would change filmmaking, and how unscripted "reality" programming would become a viable entertainment format.
It's the 1979 pseudo-documentary Real Life. Written and directed by Albert Brooks (Finding Nemo, Taxi Driver, Drive), and starring Brooks as a fictionalized version of himself, Real Life is essentially an early "found footage" film in which we view the results of a failed attempt to document a year in the life of a typical American family.

Today, this is such a commonplace premise it hardly needs further explanation, but back in '79 the idea that cameras capturing the typical everyday interactions of regular people in their homes, warts and all, would be a source of entertainment, and perhaps provide insight into the human condition, was a pretty radical concept.
The Yeager Family of Phoenix (portrayed by Charles Grodin and Frances Lee McCain as the parents, with a son and daughter), are the lucky family chosen for the project, beating out hundreds of other applicants in a grueling (and hilarious) screening process, which involves interviews, psychological evaluations, and embarrassing role-playing exercises (which, as Brooks notes dryly, "single-handedly discouraged 23 families from further participation.")
This occurs not at a Hollywood studio casting call, but at the "National Institute of Human Behavior" in Boulder, Colorado, in order to lend the project, which Brooks is convinced has important sociological and scientific merit, an air of legitimacy.
This is where the film makes some remarkable predictions about the future of filmmaking technology. First, as part of the screening process, candidates have their face scanned into a computer model in order to evaluate their "screen presence" at any angle.
That's right--in 1979, Brooks predicted digital face scanning and pre-visualization on a computer.
Although the actual result resembles the greatest Vectrex game never made.
On top of that, Real Life purports to be the first movie photographed with DIGITAL CAMERAS. In an effort to be as unobtrusive to their subjects as possible, a "whole new generation of motion picture equipment" is developed specifically for this project: The Ettinauer 2-26 XL, from Holland.
Not only is the camera worn over the head (supposedly for ergonomic considerations, but it also has the hilarious effect of making the cameramen look like alien visitors)...
...but all images and sound are captured digitally, on printed circuit-boards, which are swapped out when filled to capacity and later transferred to traditional film.
It's important to note that in 1979 this was, frankly, impossible, and the introduction of these cameras steers the film into the science-fiction genre.

Despite Brooks' initial enthusiasm, things get off to a rocky start when the Yeagers' on-camera family dinner debut begins in uncomfortable silence and collapses into a loud argument that sends the children to their room while Mrs. Yeager complains about her menstrual cramps.
Mr. Yeager, meanwhile, can't disguise his discomfort being filmed, repeatedly looking at the cameras and issuing apologies for his family's behavior.
Brooks, for his part, can't seem to stay off-camera or out of the Yeagers' lives. He moves into the house directly across the street and is constantly popping in, involving himself in their family drama, and trying to steer the Yeagers' behavior with offers of a big screen TV or football tickets if they'll "open up".
A few weeks into the shoot, word of the project leaks to local media thanks to an article in The Arizona Republic, and the Yeagers are soon hounded by news cameras on the street and at their home (including a reporter from KPHO TV 5).
"Nightmare In the Desert: The Phoenix Experiment". Sensational article appears to have been doctored into an actual copy of The Arizona Republic next to a story on winter tourists a.k.a. "snowbirds". A flyer advertising the Heard Museum is visible on the table.

Between the stress of constant filming, the local media attention, and Brooks' overbearing personality, the entire family eventually shuts down...
...prompting Brooks to turn up at their door, unannounced, in clown makeup, in an ill-conceived plan to cheer them up so they'll be more interesting subjects for his movie.
Finally the Yeagers have had enough and announce they want to quit the project entirely. Brooks, realizing that two months in Phoenix is a movie without an ending, goes into some kind of severe emotional meltdown. Hoping to salvage the film by emulating the spectacle of big budget blockbusters like Gone With the Wind or Jaws, he provides his own dramatic climax by setting their house on fire.
To give you an idea of how novel the concept of filming "reality" for entertainment was at the time, we need merely observe the depiction of the old-guard studio head reluctantly funding the project, Martin Brand (Jennings Lang), who can't distinguish between what Brooks is doing and "the God-damned news", and repeatedly implores Brooks to cast James Caan, Neil Diamond, or some other big name as a next-door neighbor or housekeeper, to give audiences a reason to tune in.

We get to see a lot of Phoenix locations and landmarks during the course of the film (although I suspect at least some of it was filmed elsewhere) including long lost amusement park Legend City, the Phoenix Zoo, Goldwaters department store (owned by... yes, THOSE Goldwaters!) and the downtown area, as well as some local media institutions like The Arizona Republic newspaper, and TV stations KPHO and KAET, and radio station KDKB.

Here's some pics, and if any fellow Zonies want to help identify some of the locations or share your memories, please elucidate us in the comments section!

1.1 - Downtown Phoenix
The Wyndham Hotel (building with the half-circle windows) and Hyatt (with rotating restaurant The Compass Room on top)
1.2 - Downtown Phoenix
The Hotel Luhrs
1.3 - Downtown Phoenix
2.1 - Animal Hospital building
2.2 - Arizona Veterinary Clinic, lobby
Supposedly the interior of the same building, but it could be another location.
2.3 - Arizona Veterinary Clinic, interior hallway
2.4 - Arizona Veterinary Clinic, interior office
3.1 - Goldwaters Department Store
I believe this was the Scottsdale Fashion Square location, although there were several in town.
4.1 - Papago Park
This appears to be somewhere in Papago Park, a range of distinct mountains near where The Phoenix Zoo and the Desert Botanical Garden are located.
5.1 - The Phoenix Zoo, entrance
5.2 - The Phoenix Zoo, elephant
Not sure if this is the famed painting elephant Ruby or not...(?)
5.3 - The Phoenix Zoo, giraffes
5.5 - The Phoenix Zoo, tortoises
6.1 - Log Flume Ride
I'm guessing this is The Log Jammer, a ride at Legend City, an amusement park that used to be located near Papago Park. Can anyone confirm?
Picture of Legend City Log Jammer for comparison:
7.1 - KPHO "Live Eye" Truck
Looks like this is somewhere downtown.
8.1 - KAET mobile van and KDKB truck
KAET is the local Public Broadcasting station, and rock radio station KDKB is following in a truck. This appears to be in a residential area somewhere.
9.1 - Mountain Neighborhood
I'm not sure what mountain this is, presented in the film as the Yeagers' neighborhood in the newer "fifth district".
10.1 - Elementary School
This school is identified as "Benjamin Franklin Grammar School", but I have no idea what school this actually is or if it is even in Phoenix.
11.1 - Soft Serve Ice Cream location
Reflection in the glass places it adjacent to someplace called "CAL Automotive". I have no other clues as to its identity or location.
12.1 - Dry Cleaners
A sign reads "Thank You Call Again".
13.1 - The Yeagers' and Albert Brooks' cul-de-sac
The Yeagers' house is at the end of a cul-de-sac and bears house number 10510. Albert Brooks took a house across the street with house number 10501. I'm not sure if this cul-de-sac is actually in Phoenix (the green trees visible in the undeveloped area at the end of the cul-de-sac don't look very "Phoenix" to me) but here are screen caps from four directions if any detectives want to try to find it.
14.1 - Movie Theater
Because this is a night scene its hard to make out any details identifying this movie theater entrance.
15.1 - Memorial Park
Finally there's this memorial park, site of a funeral scene. The mountains in the background might help locate it.