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Looking Back At The Virtual Reality of The Lawnmower Man

Last Thursday at The Los Angeles Film School we held a private screening of the film The Lawnmower Man, which is a 1992 science fiction film about an experiment in virtual reality gone wrong.  One of our alumni knew the film’s director, Brett Leonard, and asked if he could host a screening of the director’s cut of the film followed by a question and answer session with Leonard.  I had never seen the film before but seeing it was on my bucket list due to my interest in virtual reality, and I suggested that we screen it on the same day that we have our monthly Game Fair, where one of our student teams was demonstrating a virtual reality project of their own.

Based on a Stephen King film of the same name (although according to King himself, bearing “no meaningful resemblance” to it), the film stars Jeff Fahey as Jobe Smith, a simple-minded gardener (the titular “Lawmower Man”), and Pierce Brosnan as Dr. Lawrence Angelo, the scientist who decides to experiment on him.  Dr. Lawrence Angelo has been running experiments in increasing the intelligence of chimpanzees using drugs and virtual reality, When of the chimps escapes using the warfare tactics he was being trained for, Dr. Angelo finds a human subject to work with when he spots Jobe mowing his lawn.

Dr. Angelo makes it a point to redesign all the intelligence-boosting treatments without the “aggression factors” used in the chimpanzee experiments, and like the protagonist in the story story Flowers for Algernon, Jobe soon becomes smarter, for example, learning Latin in only two hours.  The story also has a resemblance to Altered States, where Jobe develops telepathic abilities and eventually becomes a being of pure energy.  Jobe uses the lab equipment to enter the mainframe computer, to become a wholly virtual being,  Angelo then joins Job in virtual reality to try to reason with him. but Jobe overpowers and crucifies Angelo, then continues to search for a network connection to escape. Each eventually escapes their entrapment in virtual reality, and the film ends with Jobe ringing hundreds of telephones all around the globe to signal his birth as a being that now resides in every networked computer system.

The story may be a bit derivative, but how prescient were its quarter-century old predictions about virtual reality?  Much of the technology was dead-on to where we are today.  Characters were connected to computers by wearing helmets with visual displays for seeing the virtual world, gloves allowing users to manipulate virtual objects, touchscreens for operating the computer controls, and hand-held controllers for additional input.

Unfortunately, time has not been kind to the film as the virtual reality graphics themselves are now primitive by today’s standards (although at the time they were state-of-the art, the eight minutes of computer generated special effects taking seven people eight months to complete on a budget of $500,000).  Also, the film did not anticipate bluetooth, as there were wires everywhere, and characters were locked into giant gyroscopes, apparently so that they could tumble through the ether when other characters punched them in virtual reality.

As far as the application of virtual reality goes, the film explored its uses for therapy, education, and training, which are indeed three fields for which virtual reality is being developed today.  Of course, for dramatic purposes this is all made menacing by the use of a not-properly-tested drug as well as an evil military overseer that introduces aggressiveness factors into the treatment with the inevitable disastrous outcomes.

So, is this a film worth seeing if you are into virtual reality and its depiction in cinema?  Unless you are a diehard science fiction film buff, I suggest taking a pass now that we have the real thing to now available to play with.  Brett Leonard told us after the screening that he was developing some virtual reality applications with his team. I trust that he’s learned from both this film and his 1995 similarly-themed film, Virtuosity, of the dangers of virtual reality, and it will be interesting to see what benefits filmmakers will bring to the medium.

After all, the film did inspire the scrolling action game The Lawnmower Man (1993) for Game Boy, Genesis and SNES as well as the full-motion video adventure game The Lawnmower Man (1993) for DOS, Macintosh and SEGA CD , which used clips from the movie and is a direct sequel to the movie, since Its plot begins. The adventure game Cyberwar (1994) for DOS and PlayStation is a non-FMV sequel to the FMV game.  Now technology is at a point where I don’t expect to play the movie, I want to be in the movie.

 

AAA Publishers Balk While Indie Devs Rock At E3

Last Wednesday I made my annual pilgrimage to the Electronic Entertainment Expo to check out the new video games coming out this year. Okay, it wasn’t much of a pilgrimage; it was just a short subway ride from my work to the Los Angeles Convention Center, which has been the home to E3 almost every year since the trade show debuted in 1995. However, unlike many trips, it’s the destination and not the journey that matters, for E3 is like the video game industry Mecca, where publishers show off their upcoming releases to retailers and the gaming press.

Except that there seemed like a lot more elbow room in Mecca this year. Activision, Electronic Arts, and Wargaming were all no-shows this year, as was Disney, which is (once again) dropping out of video game publishing entirely. Whereas in previous years South Hall was jam-packed with ginormous booths numbing crowds with sensory overload, this year there were a lot of lounge area and recharging stations in the back of the hall. The reason: retail sales are losing their significance in an era of digital downloads, and there are now many more outlets for promoting games that through the gaming press.

For the publishers that did show up for the party, the games that they were promoting indicated that they were living in glory days of the past: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Halo 2, Killer Instinct Season 3, Gears of War 4, Elder Scrolls 5, Civilization 6, Resident Evil 7, and Final Fantasy 15. Now, don’t get me wrong, I loves me some more Civilization and Deus Ex, but I would have liked to have seen something new at the show. The closest the AAA publishers had to anything innovative was in slapping virtual reality onto titles: Batman Arkham VR, Doom VR, Fallout VR Resident Evil VII Biohazard, Star Wars Battlefront: X-Wing VR Mission, and perhaps the best of the bunch, Star Trek: Bridge Crew VR. Now, these are all good indicators that consumer virtual reality will eventually go mainstream, but there was still no killer app that convinced me that I gotta have VR today.

Truth be told, I found the most interesting games not in the multi-million dollar AAA publisher booths, but in the modest IndieCade exhibit. Here are a few of the games that captured my imagination.

 

Beautiful Corner is indeed both beautiful and in a corner:the entire game played out in a small, fantastical bedroom. t has a set, and lights and sounds that react to the player’s progress. Two interactive puzzles are used to convey the narrative,a coming-of-age story that plays out through letters, trinkets and postcards from the player’s imaginary friend.  It’s moving and sweet, while commenting on the realities of growing up (or not).

The player assumes the identity of a specific character, and is given costuming and props. The player enters the set and explores both puzzles to see how the puzzles relates to the character they are playing. As the player plays through the two puzzles, the set reacts to their progress by lighting and music changes. The experience ends with the player being asked to make a narrative choice on the outcome of the story. After choosing, the player experiences one of two possible endings

Lead designer and artist Martzi Campos created the game as her Master’s thesis in the University of Southern California’s Interactive Media and Design track. Her goal was to create an emotional tone in an interactive space of something besides fear or panic. By creating a single player experience, Campos’ hope was to bring about a higher degree of roleplaying opportunities for the player, bridging the emotional tones of interactive theater with the gameplay of escape rooms and creating a hybrid that sets players up as the main character in their own interactive play.

 

Speaking of escape rooms, I was once hired to write an escape room scenario, and ever since then, I’ve toyed with the idea of creating an escape room in a box that could be sold in retailed stores, like those murder mystery party games. Well, as they say in this business, ideas are a dime a dozen but implementation is everything, and two women beat me to making the idea into a reality.

Ariel Rubin and Juliana Patel are the co-creators of Escape Room In A Box: The Werewolf Experiment,  a tabletop gaming experience that crams together all the fun and social interaction of a party game, the event nature of a consumable game and the cooperative spirit and dramatic timed challenges of an escape room. You have 19 puzzles, 3 locks, and 1 hour to save your life! Doc Gnaw has sent you a mysterious box. When you open it, you release a poisonous vapor and need to solve her devious puzzles to unlock the antidote, or you will be forced to join her werewolf army.  Unlike boxed “murder mystery” games, Escape Room In A Box consists us to try to capture the physical nature of escape rooms and not have our game consists not of not just pen and paper puzzles but also diverse materials and hidden objects to capture the physical experience of real-life escape rooms.

This game grew out of the duo’s deep passion for escape rooms and at home game nights and their desire to bring them together in a completely new way.  Their initial plan is to sell their game at a real-life escape room locations, so that players have an opportunity to bring their experience home with them to play with their friends.  I just hope some smart retailers who appreciate the growing escape room craze will offer to carry this product on their shelves, because I would be just one of the first to buy one.

You can learn more here: http://www.escaperoominabox.com/.

 

A tabletop game can be a lot of fun, but how about a thousand?  PlayTable is a tabletop console system designed to let you play any number of board and card games without fiddling with rulebook and hour-long set-ups.  The system consists of a full-HD 1920x1080p monitor that’s impact-resistant and waterproof, software compatible with any Windows-based laptop (future compatibility with Mac and iOS), and a set of standard pieces, cards and stickers.  The system also comes with a recommendation engine allowing you out new games and find the perfect one for game night.  It even includes a construction kit allowing you to make your own games using your existing game and toy pieces such as Infinity, Skylanders, and Amiibo figurines.  However, at $599, the price of admission is steep.

You can find out more at http://playtable.xyz/.

 

Magic Dance Mirror is an interactive visual music and dance experience created by game developer Kinetic Magic, a seven-person team assembled by Game Director Kyle Ruddick. It uses a Kinect motion sensor to track player’s movement and create a stylized mirror image of those using it onto a giant screen filled with neon starbursts that reacted to their dancing.

The concept was inspired by Burning Man and the immersive art there.The goal is to primarily explore and let players’ own movements and sounds entertain them and spectators. The Magic Dance Mirror is designed to be fun for all ages and promote exercise and healthy self-expression.  Not a typical game in tat there is no way to “win” or “lose”, Magic Dance Mirror was built for clubs or large parties, but thankfully not to the home living room, where my spastic attempts at dancing would result in all my furniture being trashed.

You can learn more here: http://www.magicdancemirror.com/.

 

From time to time I get on my soap box and talk about the need for more female game developers, and so I was really pleased to come across an exhibit for the book #Feminism: A Nano Game Anthology.  Written by feminists from eleven different countries, #Feminism offers bite-sized takes on contemporary feminist issues. Each of the 34 analog nano-games (games that can be played in less than an hour, explained exhibitor Whitney “Strix” Beltrán) in this collection requires between three and five participants, and simple (if any) props.

The games range from silly to serious, including scenarios about selfies and rom-coms as well as reproductive rights and domestic violence. And of course, enjoyment has no ideological boundaries–there are games here for participants new to feminism as well as those experienced in making gender arguments on the internet.  The book is available for sale via Indie Press Revolution.

You can learn more at https://feministnanogames.wordpress.com/.

 

Virtual reality was as popular among the indie games as they were with the AAA games, but the experience that most captured my imagination was not a game at all. The Zeiss booth featured a pair of their VR One Plus virtual reality headsets controlling and receiving camera images from drone suspended from above. The headset could only control the camera (you would need a second person to control the drone’s flight), but with the very lightweight headset (essentially a pair of lenses on which you mount a smartphone running the virtual reality software) and heads-up display, I felt like Iron Man flying above the South Hall exhibits.

You can find out more at http://vrone.us/flyfpv.

 

Maybe the reason I didn’t describe too many video games is that it’s a sign the E3 organizers need to rethink what their show is all about.  Fun is fun no matter how you get it, and in a year when doing the same ole, same ole just isn’t cutting it, I’m tipping my hat to the innovators who are thinking outside the console box.