Like so many of you, I spent a few hours of my holiday season watching Mark Hamill revisit a beloved character, grizzled and worn and pulled reluctantly back into a fight he thought he had left behind forever.
I’m talking, of course, about Hamill’s 1996 return to his starring role as Colonel Christopher Blair in the
computer game “Interactive Movie” (a term invented after we discovered that CD-ROMs could store SO MANY MEGABYTES that of course it we decided that live-action cutscenes were the best way to make use of the space) Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom.
Thankfully, one hero put the entire game up on youtube (minus, of course, those pesky game-playing parts), which is why I recently had the chance to revisit this bizarre, wonderfully stilted, three-hour movie without trying to find a computer that could play a 20-year-old DOS game.
I’m not sure I can fully convey just how entertained I was watching this, but what struck me the most was that these cutscenes somehow simultaneously represent the pinnacle of what could be accomplished twenty years ago, while also providing a clear example of just how far we’ve come (both in terms of technological advancement, as well as developing narrative in video games) since then.
When WCIV was first released, I spent countless hours in front of my PC, arguing with my neighbor Tom over which character we wanted as our wingman over the course of the game (he preferred Maniac, whereas I liked flying with Panther, although we agreed that Vagabond was the best wingman until he met his untimely, and narratively unavoidable, demise), both of us marveling at how engaging and cinematic the cutscenes were.
But here, with all gameplay removed, we can enjoy ALL OF THE CHEESE baked into the cutscenes that, admittedly, I probably missed the first time around.
And there’s so much to enjoy! The awkward merging of 90s-quality green screen and practical sets! The tonal and emotional whiplash that comes from making a strange choice in the dialogue tree! The bizarre, stretched way-too-thin-because-we-need-more-missions second act where it’s decided that the best way to command a carrier is for you to be in charge of the entire operation while STILL FLYING EVERY SINGLE MISSION like an ordinary pilot! The beautiful absurdity of the fact that after spending hours flying around in space shooting things, THE ENTIRE OUTCOME OF THE GAME HINGES ON A LINCOLN-DOUGLAS DEBATE IN FRONT OF THE SPACE UNITED NATIONS.
Of course, none of this would be so enjoyable without the cast. And what a cast! Mark Hamill! Malcolm McDowell! John Rhys-Davies! Jason Bernard!
Biff Tannen Tom Wilson! Leo McGarry John Spencer!
Look at that salute. John Spencer is ACTING right there.
Those are just the easily recognizable names: WCIV also has a bunch of actors you may not know by name but you’ve definitely seen elsewhere: Francois Chau! Mark Dacascos! Richard Riehle!
And let’s not forget the actors who we didn’t know yet but do now, the ones just getting started back then, in small, day-player roles. Casper Van Dien is here! And our favorite Patriot, Chris Conrad!
Walton Goggins (who has popped up virtually unnoticed before) is also here somewhere, although I couldn’t definitively identify him. Maybe that’s him about to be blown up?
The Full Motion Video craze of the 90s was a beautiful, but flawed era of gaming, a brief period in time where storage space was no longer a primary constraint. Games suddenly had the opportunity to expand the scope of storytelling tools, in part to cover up for the fact that our computers and consoles were not ready to truly utilize the additional storage capacity.
Today, our machines are powerful enough that the actors are integrated seamlessly into the game, and advances in motion-capture and rendering technology means that such an explicit break between game engine and cinematic is no longer necessary to provide a compelling narrative.
It certainly provides a better, more immersive game experience. But I’ll admit: there’s a part of me that misses the games that utilized FMV, now mostly relegated to history or the occasional indie game.
Maybe it’s just nostalgia. Or maybe it’s because nobody managed to quite get it right before technology progressed, and we moved on from the form. But Wing Commander IV, for all its flaws, arguably got the closest.