The Darkening - 1995 - The Times

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The Darkening - The Times 1995

Millions are being invested in films that will never be seen on the cinemascreen. Rupert Widdicombe reports as a new art form takes off. Scene 74: Sinner's Inn, a sleazy intergalactic watering hole. Enter Clive Owen, star of Chancer and Close My Eyes, as Lev Arris, a man with a mission a man whose fate is in your hands. A few days earlier, Arris had come round in a hospital with no idea who he was and now, heavily armed assassins are trying hard to kill him. Penniless, confused, but as determined and resourceful as a hero should be, Arris winds up in Sinner's Inn talking to barman Joe, played by John Hurt. Joe drops hints about "juicy deals". Should Arris trust Joe and play along, or should he politely decline?

It's viewer decision time in The Darkening, Europe's first "interactive movie" which was shot recently at Pinewood and is now in post-production.

The $6m movie Instead it will be "published" in February next year as a set of four CD-Rom discs. In exchange for about Pounds 40, owners of multimedia computers, or games platforms such as the Sony PlayStation, will be able to lose themselves in Arris's story. With the viewer's guidance, Arris may meet and interact with up to 50 characters many of them familiar faces such as Christopher Walken, David Warner, Jurgen Prochnow, David McCallum, Brian Blessed, and the rising French star, Mathilda May. With skill, strategy and a lot of patience (around 48 hours, if you're good), the viewer helps Arris to discover the truth and the happy ending every hero deserves. With such a distinguished cast, and a budget larger than many of the linear films made in this country, The Darkening is clearly no ordinary computer game. That Electronic Arts, the company making it and others, is prepared to spend such sums is a clear indication of the way things are going. Vast sums of money are riding on interactive media being The Next Big Thing. The telecommunications giants, the games industry and the computer firms of Silicon Valley believe it will be as revolutionary as film or television were in their day. Of course, no two companies agree on what kind of box this future will come in (see Home Hardware Wars, below) but many are convinced that a new mass medium is emerging. Consumers, already overwhelmed by choice, may wonder what need they have for another medium, another technology. But it is not their present needs that are driving the development of interactive technology, but the hope of creating future needs. Mistakes were made in the past. In 1916, the board of the American Marconi company failed to spot the potential of the "radio music box", rejecting a proposal to make a domestic model so that "audiences could enjoy lectures, musical recitals, et cetera". Companies know that in the days before television families did not look longingly at the space the telly would one day occupy, dreaming of game shows and soap operas. And when television first arrived people were dubious, yet very quickly, in less than a generation after it became available, they wondered how life was possible without it. History and sheer corporate spending power suggest that the same will happen again.

In the case of interactive media, a question mark not only hangs over the rapidly evolving technology, but also over whether it is possible to make interactive entertainment with a mass appeal. This is what Electronic Arts is attempting to do with The Darkening and other projects such as the $10m movie Hamill, Malcolm McDowell and John Rhys-Davies. "We want to hit a wider audience than buys a typical computer game the type of person who might go to see a big-budget action movie," says Erin Roberts, executive producer of The Darkening. The existing market for games is lucrative at $16 billion a year, it dwarfs the film industry but stagnant. The demographics are neatly encapsulated in the phrase "boys of all ages" sales are concentrated among males aged 12-25, they slump between 25 and 35, and then pick up again at 35-plus.

"Emotion" is the key to reaching a wider audience, Roberts believes, and the only way to have people emotionally and interactively involved is to give them characters they care about and some kind of say in what happens to them. That means bringing in experienced writers, directors and actors.

With The Darkening, the basic story and setting were devised by Roberts and his team, and then a script was commissioned from Diane Dwaine, a US television writer for such shows as Star Trek: The Next Generation. Roberts then approached Steve Hilliker, a young British director with experience in pop videos and television, to direct the live action sequences. Hilliker was sceptical. "I told them that I didn't know anything about computer games but they loved that because they thought I could bring them something they wouldn't get from within the games world." They sent him Dwaine's monster 500-page script (a normal film script runs to about 120 pages). "When I read it I was totally confused I had never seen a script that had choices before."

He had to read it twice more before he understood that the concept was a variation on the standard alternative endings approach that most interactive narrative projects seem to follow (see Narrative Futures, right). With The Darkening, the viewer decides what Lev Arris does, but there is only one ending to the story. The aim of the game is to reach that conclusion. It takes a long time to reach it because there are dozens of subplots like branches off the main trunk of a tree. These subplots are to do with the strategy element of the game Arris has to earn money to afford to travel and follow up the clues to his identity. Along the way, he has to fight the people out to kill him. In effect, The Darkening is a weird cross-breed between a film, a strategy game and what the games industry calls a "shoot 'em up".

During the film sequences, the choices are couched in terms of Arris's dilemmas. When a decision point is reached, the screen freezes. Spelt out in the dark strips above and below the image are the possibilities in the bar scene, for example, Arris is in two minds what to say to Joe's hints of "juicy deals". Choice 1: "Hmm ... Sounds more than slightly illegal...

Don't like the sound of it." Choice 2: "Maybe I can get a bargain ...

Something a little 'hot'..." Move the cursor into either space and you hear Arris think the words aloud. Click on either choice and the scene and other encounters that lie ahead unfolds according to the decision you have made.

The choices you make dictate the shape of the film. Once Hilliker had seen the light, he knew what to do with the story. "It is about one man's search for his identity, which is a classic film-noir plot, a 1940s kind of thing and not really science fiction so I decided to give it that look even though it takes place in the future." The next issue was the cast. Roberts turned to Jeremy Zimmerman, a casting director with 10 years' experience in television and film. It wasn't easy at first, Zimmerman discovered. "People had a natural caution or suspicion when I said I was calling about an interactive CD-Rom. One said: 'I'm afraid my clients don't do that kind of thing,' but attitudes are changing." For the role of the controllable hero, Zimmerman wanted an emerging face rather than an established star, and decided on Clive Owen.

Like many, Owen had doubts at first. "I was in the last generation to leave school without touching a computer, and I asked myself: 'Do I want to be involved in a computer game?"' John Hurt needed less convincing. "This is the way our business is going and an incredibly fascinating field for an actor to work in." He had no objections to becoming software. "When movies first started, theatrical actors were probably asking themselves, 'Do you want to put yourself on celluloid?"' In a way, Hurt is right. There are many parallels between the early days of film and the faltering evolution of this would-be Eighth Art. The century of film is a good time to look back to the troublesome technology camera that plagued film pioneers. And from our perspective, it seemed to take a long time to work out what to do with the medium....