“The French Democracy” (also here) is a short film about the Paris riots made entirely inside of a computer game. The game, developed by Peter Molyneux‘s Lionhead Productions and called simply “The Movies,” throws players into the shark pool of Hollywood where they get to manage a studio, tangle with investors, hire and fire actors, and of course, produce and distribute movies. The interesting thing is that the movie-making element has taken on a life of its own as films produced inside the game have circulated through the web as free-standing works, generating their own little communities and fan bases.
This is a fascinating development in the brief history of Machinima, or “machine cinema,” a genre of films created inside the engines of popular video game like Halo and The Sims. Basically, you record your game play through a video out feed, edit the footage, and add music and voiceovers, ending up with a totally independent film, often in funny or surreal opposition to the nature of the original game. Bob, for instance, appeared in a Machinima talk show called This Spartan Life, where they talk about art, design and philosophy in the bizarre, apocalyptic landscapes of the Halo game series.
The difference here is that while Machinima is typically made by “hacking” the game engine, “The Movies” provides a dedicated tool kit for making video game-derived films. At the moment, it’s fairly primitive, and “The French Democracy” is not as smooth as other Machinima films that have painstakingly fitted voice and sound to create a seamless riff on the game world. The filmmaker is trying to do a lot with a very restricted set of motifs, unable to add his/her own soundtrack and voices, and having only the basic menu of locales, characters, and audio. The final product can feel rather disjointed, a grab bag of film clichés unevenly stitched together into a story. The dialogue comes only in subtitles that move a little too rapidly, Paris looks suspiciously like Manhattan, and the suburbs, with their split-level houses, are unmistakably American.
But the creative effort here is still quite astonishing. You feel you are seeing something in embryo that will eventually come into its own as a full-fledged art form. Already, “The Movies” online community is developing plug-ins for new props, characters, environments and sound. We can assume that the suite of tools, in this game and elsewhere, will only continue to improve until budding auteurs really do have a full virtual film studio at their disposal.
It’s important to note that, according to the game’s end-user license agreement, all movies made in “The Movies” are effectively owned by Activision, the game’s publisher. Filmmakers, then, can aspire to nothing more than pro-bono promotional work for the parent game. So for a truly independent form to emerge, there needs to be some sort of open-source machinima studio where raw game world material is submitted by a community for the express purpose of remixing. You get all the fantastic puppetry of the genre but with no strings attached.