Generation Xbox uncovers the love/hate relationship between gaming and Hollywood. It's a wild, creative story that begins with Steven Spielberg choking on dope fumes in the offices of Atari in the 80s, before hurtling through a story of disaster, triumph and Angelina Jolie in hot pants.
Along the way, we'll hear how the Dragon's Lair coin-op pissed off Disney; the untold story of how Don Simpson and Stanley Kubrick reacted to full motion video; the culture clash over the aborted Halo movie; and how companies like Microsoft, Rockstar and Ubisoft are changing the entertainment landscape for everyone, forever.
"The most interesting and illuminating game-related book I've read in years."-Tony Mott, editor of Edge
"A must-read for anyone fascinated by videogame history or the symbiotic relationship between two seemingly competing forms of entertainment."- Destructoid
"A superb and often elegantly written book about the convergence of two industries that, even now, eye each other warily across the table and worry about what the other is doing."- Eurogamer
“[Videogames] are genuine narrative forms and we would have to be very stupid not to be immersed in and understand [them].... In the next 10 years, I see a huge shift whether we like it or not. It’s going to take you either by surprise or you’re going to be there to do it. It’s going to be like going from silent films to sound. There are going to be a lot of us that cannot do the talkies because we are not familiar with the form. I think it’s urgent that you get familiar with them. The art direction, soundscapes and immersive environments in videogames are as good, if not superior to, most movies. I’m not talking about Kieslowski or Bergman. I’m talking about most movies. They are far more advanced and far smarter about it, so I think it’s something we all can learn from and it’s urgent that we do.”
-Guillermo Del Toro, director of Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth, speaking in 2006
“We see games as being an emergent art form, that will eventually supplant or challenge movies,”-Dan Houser, co-founder of Rockstar Games, creators of the Grand Theft Auto series, speaking in 2008
It was almost finished before it started...
On Thursday 22 September 1983, a fleet of 18-wheel trucks rolled out of a non-descript manufacturing plant in El Paso. They trundled through the streets in a single column, engines groaning as they eased onto Route 54 and headed north. Their cargo? Millions of Atari VCS cartridges including E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, the most hyped game in the company’s history. Their destination? A landfill site in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
Arriving in the desert dump in the mid-morning heat, the trucks emptied their once precious loads. Millions of black plastic cartridges, none much bigger than a cigarette packet, scattered into the dust. Each bore an artist’s impression of the wrinkled prune face of E.T., the alien star of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie. A few minutes later, they were flattened and crushed into a mangled mess of twisted plastic, microchips and torn labels.
Among the debris were computer hardware, game cartridges and other leftovers from Atari’s bloated inventory. “We’re covering them with garbage and then with dirt,” said Ed Moore, one of the waste management employees on duty on that tragic but historic day. “I’ve been crushing them as fast as they dropped them off the trucks with my Caterpillar. It’s kind of sad.” Chances are Ed wasn’t a gamer; probably his kids were. But maybe he felt moved - like so many moviegoers had been - by that alien face as it stared plaintively up at him from the abandoned cartridges.
Spielberg had designed his extra-terrestrial for maximum emotional effect superimposing, so the story goes, Albert Einstein’s eyes onto a picture of a five-day old baby. Here in the New Mexico desert that ancient-yet-vulnerable visage still tugged at the heart strings. But there was no Elliott to save E.T. this time. There was just Ed; and he had a job to do. He threw his Caterpillar into first and drove forward again. He couldn’t hear the sound of cracking plastic over the throbbing chug of the machine’s engine.
When Ed was finished what was left of the mangled cartridges was scooped into a landfill pit. Then came the cement. A thick layer was poured over the crushed remains to prevent any salvageable pieces being looted. Even still, by the weekend, there were reports that rescued E.T. and Pac-Man cartridges were being hawked around local stores. Despite the dump’s no-scavengers policy - and a security guard who’d been specially hired at Atari’s request - a few carts had escaped the cull. The rest weren’t so lucky.
Ed chugged his Caterpillar across the dump and repeated the process over and over again. Each truckload cost Atari $300 to $500 to dispose of but the real price paid by the fledgling videogame industry ran into the millions. The VCS 2600 game of E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial, the brainchild of Steven Spielberg and Atari, poisoned Hollywood’s love affair with gaming overnight and crashed the nascent business itself. Since 1983, the story of the buried Atari cartridges has become enshrined in videogame lore. Although contemporary reports in the New York Times and Alamogordo Daily News detailed the dumping, Atari never officially confirmed events. Manny Gerard, former co-chief operating officer for Atari’s owners Warner Communications, concedes it was probably true - a simple matter of waste disposal rather than some dirty corporate secret. “There was overproduction because everybody thought E.T. [the game] was going to be the greatest thing in the world. At some point you realise you’re better off just destroying them than trying to sell them at 5¢ to some guy who’s going to come and take them away.”
Armchair historians of the 8-bit videogame era remain fascinated by the desert burial. On the internet, a group of true believers even hatched half-baked plans to excavate the site in the hope of discovering archaeological relics from videogaming’s early history. As one poster put it on an ongoing AtariAge.com forum thread that has been running since 2005 - the legend of the buried E.T. cartridges is the videogame industry’s “grassy knoll”.
If it had been a different cartridge that had been buried, would the interest be so acute? Probably not. The Great Mass Burial of E.T. resonates because it marked the Icarus-like fall of Atari and the early videogame industry itself. But most of all it stands as potent image of the troubled, on-off love affair between videogames and Hollywood that continues even today.
Back in 1983 Atari was owned by Warner Communications, the parent company of the venerable movie studio Warner Bros. Atari had been hailed as the future of the entertainment industry. Games like Pong and Asteroids were supposed to end America’s obsession with movies forever. It didn’t quite work out like that. E.T., one of the earliest attempts to translate a blockbuster movie into a blockbuster game, fell flat on the prune face of its eponymous alien. Warner Communications’ stock nosedived and Atari, which had once generated more revenue than Warner Bros. Studios, suddenly became a millstone around the conglomerate’s neck. The major motion picture studios rejoiced. They had fretted that videogames would eclipse them. Now they watched as the bogeyman they had feared was unmasked as nothing more than a paper tiger.
In that brief moment between 1981 and 1983, though, the seeds of a much bigger cultural shift were sown. The studios believed that games were simply ancillary products to sell alongside T-shirts, lunch boxes and action figures. They were wrong. The medium had the potential to become Hollywood’s inspiration, imitator and ultimately its bête noir.
While the major motion picture studios have spent most of the last 30 years lazily trying to co-opt videogames, the videogame industry itself has been evolving into a real competitor in the entertainment business. From Dragon’s Lair to Night Trap to Grand Theft Auto III, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Heavy Rain, videogames have been offering players increasingly immersive, cinematic experiences. At each point on that journey you can bet someone, somewhere dropped their joystick or gamepad and said: “Hey, it looks just like a movie!”
What I call Generation Xbox - the 13- to 34-year-olds who lived through the era of Sony PlayStations and Microsoft Xboxes - were born into a world where videogames were already a viable storytelling medium. They don’t need convincing that games can be more exciting, addictive and involving than movies.
In the last couple of years alone, they’ve been fired at while crossing the favela rooftops of Rio de Janeiro in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2; they’ve played a father trying to bond with an estranged son in Heavy Rain; they’ve munched hotdogs in Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV; they’ve chased murderers through the mean streets of L.A. Noire. Why would they want to watch a movie when they can play inside one?
Generation Xbox knows that the once solid boundary between games and movies has become a permeable membrane. They use their Xbox 360s and PS3s to watch Netflix movies. They create their own machinima videos out of the latest first-person shooters. They’re more likely to have a poster of Niko Bellic from Grand Theft Auto IV on their bedroom wall than Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver or Tony Montana from Scarface.
No niche market, Generation Xbox is now the predominant force in the entertainment industry and Hollywood is frightened by how its core audience is changing. As always, the numbers tell their own story. In 2010, according to figures from IHS Screen Digest, the US videogame sector was worth $15 billion, compared to US movie ticket sales of $9.6 billion. Although adding in US DVD, Blu-ray, video-on-demand and digital sales (another $14 billion) suggests the battle hasn’t been lost yet, it’s clear that Hollywood is right to be concerned about interactive entertainment. We’re all gamers now: even the White House, after President Obama’s election, has a Nintendo Wii.
No wonder Bobby Kotick, chief executive of leading game publisher Activision-Blizzard has predicted that videogames have the potential to “eclipse” both film and television by 2014. As the head of an interactive entertainment empire that stretches across the multi-billion dollar Tony Hawk, Guitar Hero, World of Warcraft and Call of Duty franchises, you wouldn’t want to bet against his take on the market.
When Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was released in November 2009 it took $1 billion in its first 10 weeks, pushing it into the same billionaire league as blockbuster movies such as Titanic, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Dark Knight and, of course, Avatar. Twelve months later, as cinema attendance in the US hit record lows, Call of Duty: Black Ops took $360 million on its first day of release - five times more than the biggest Hollywood movie opening and 15 times more than the fastest-selling CD. It made entertainment history, making more money in 24 hours than any movie, album or book... ever. In November 2011, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 broke those records all over again and helped push the franchise’s total sales beyond the box office takings of the Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings movie series.
In response, movies are starting to look more and more like games. From Tron to The Matrix to Inception to Tron: Legacy, the aesthetics of videogames’ virtual worlds have infiltrated cinema. Pirates of the Caribbean may be based on a Disney theme park ride but it owes an indirect debt to LucasArts’s The Secret of Monkey Island too. Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch is littered with gaming references from its clockwork German soldiers (who have the same glowing eyes as Killzone 2’s helghasts) to its heroines’ stiletto-heeled Bayonetta chic. Avatar recycles the space marine imagery of Halo (itself inspired by James Cameron’s Aliens) to wow non-gaming audiences. Even arthouse movies aren’t immune. Oldboy’s famous set-piece, a long-take corridor sequence, has its hero fighting off thugs as he progresses from left to right as if in a side-scrolling beat ‘em up. Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet captures the down-at-heel ambience and mission structure of a Grand Theft Auto game. The visual lexicon of videogames has invaded pop culture.
Meanwhile, today’s blockbuster filmmakers are using digital tools to craft imaginary worlds out of nothing but bits and bytes. Digital cinema is blurring the line between videogames and filmmaking. High-end directors - like Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and Robert Zemeckis - now spend as much time crafting immersive but non-existent worlds as game designers. Technology has reached the point where, for instance, Resident Evil 5’s African set zombie apocalypse uses exactly the same virtual camera set-up as the billion-dollar game-changer, Avatar.
Generation Xbox tells the story of how we got to this point - and where we might go from here. It’s the story of how two very different industries began competing for the same audience’s screen time; and how Hollywood has been scared and simultaneously seduced by its upstart, interactive competitor.
Technology’s relentless progress raises important questions over the nature of narrative in a medium that’s interactive. In all the excitement, it’s easy to forget that videogames are still in their infancy. The novel has had several centuries to develop its strategies for storytelling. Cinema has had over a century to evolve and it standardised its format of choice (35mm film) early on. Videogames, in contrast, are an art-form forever in flux, where each new technological leap makes the last benchmark redundant. Only 35 years separate Pong from BioShock, but in technological and artistic terms it’s like comparing the “still motion” of the 16,000-year-old Palaeolithic cave paintings at Lascaux with The Bourne Supremacy.
Imagine if Henry Fielding, Leo Tolstoy or even Dan Brown had been forced to build a new language and a new printing method from scratch every time they wanted to publish a story. Or if D.W. Griffiths, Orson Welles and Martin Scorsese had to upgrade the movie camera every time they planned a new film. The art of storytelling would inevitably be stunted by the focus on technology rather than art.
From that perspective, it’s no wonder that videogaming has looked to cinema for help. Jordan Mechner, the game designer who created the Prince of Persia game franchise and wrote the screenplay for the 2010 Disney movie produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, believes videogames are an art form with a cultural inferiority complex. “If you want to make an interesting analogy, it’s with film itself,” he says. “At the turn of the 19th-century, when film was a fairground attraction, you dropped a nickel in the machine, turned the crank and you could see the early silent films on the Kinetoscope. That wasn’t seen as the beginning of a new art form that would one day be as legitimate as stage-plays or novels. It was looked at, at best, as a harmless amusement - which is how videogames were seen in the days of Space Invaders or Asteroids. You dropped a coin in the slot and were entertained for a few minutes.”
Just as film repudiated its carnival beginnings by turning to theatre and novels for inspiration and instant artistic legitimacy, videogames have leaned on cinema as they have evolved from simple diversions into a medium in which it’s possible to tell stories. When Mechner created Prince of Persia in 1989 he sent a two-minute demo of the game on VHS tape to NYU Film School. “They responded very kindly that this was very interesting, but they were looking for applicants who had a body of work to demonstrate an interest in film as opposed to computer games,” he remembers. Almost two decades later, when Mechner and Jerry Bruckheimer shopped the Prince of Persia movie around the Hollywood studios, they took a demo reel of videogame footage from the 2008 Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time videogame with them to present to studio executives. Clearly much had changed in the intervening period - both in terms of videogames themselves, and the perception of them.
Even still, the videogame is a medium that’s in the process of finding its storytelling feet and working out what it can do that cinema can’t. Yet as the medium becomes more confident and daring, the world’s best filmmakers - James Cameron, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro - are paying attention and getting involved. Others, like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, saw its potential early on and have had played an often unacknowledged role in guiding games towards their present form.
Generation Xbox tells the story of how videogames invaded Hollywood and the men (and it was mostly men) who masterminded it. It’s a story full of creative frustrations, litigation and moments of genius. It begins with Spielberg choking on dope fumes in the anarchic offices of Atari in the 1980s; then continues through Disney’s fury over the Dragon’s Lair coin-op; and Bob Hoskins drinking to stay sane while shooting Super Mario Bros.
Along the way we’ll also hear about the Watergate-era journalist who tried to reinvent TV; CAA’s role in building bridges between the two industries; the aborted Halo movie; the videogame technology that made Avatar possible; and the future of game-movie convergence currently being mapped by companies like Ubisoft, Warner Bros and Valve. It’s a story of bearded programmers, evangelical inventors, duplicitous producers and egotistical movie stars. In short, it’s a story that’s never been told before.
It’s been almost 30 years since that mass videogame grave in the New Mexico desert was filled-in and concreted over. But the ghosts of that era still haven’t been laid to rest. There are still many questions to answer: have videogames changed the movie business? Has Hollywood sowed the seeds of its own destruction by helping the game industry? What does a truly interactive movie look like? What can Hollywood and videogames learn from each other? And is the game-movie convergence creating a truly new art form?
What happens next is going to define the entertainment landscape of the 21st century. You only need to look at Avatar to see the truth of that statement. James Cameron’s immersive sci-fi epic didn’t simply ape videogame aesthetics; it also marked the crossover point between film, videogames and 3D CGI. From The Matrix to 300, District 9, Inception and Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, filmgoers are getting used to emerging from the movie theatre and saying: “Hey, it looked just like a videogame!”
Only one thing is certain. As movies and games from Avatar to Heavy Rain redefine the frontiers of both mediums, it’s obvious that the future of entertainment is changing for everybody, forever. Are you ready to play?