NEW YORK — When Microsoft started talking about the first "Halo" game more than a half-decade ago, the company pitched the game as an experience that would feel like playing a movie. A lot of game makers offer that boast.
This November, Microsoft's Xbox 360 will play host to the story-heavy, science-fiction, role-playing game "Mass Effect." The makers of that title have found a new way to back up the most-cinematic-ever claim. In their effort to create the most cinematic title gamers have ever seen, the "Mass Effect" development studio, BioWare, has hired people who make movies out of video games — not the film directors who brought the world "Doom" and "BloodRayne" movies, but the people who actually turn games into virtual movie sets: machinima makers.
"There are times when you reflect on the works you do and say, 'Yeah, this kind of is pushing the limits and it's bringing something new,' " Paul Marino, one of those machinima makers, told MTV News in a recent interview.
Marino is one of the most prominent members of the machinima community, a group that uses games such as "The Sims," "Half-Life 2" and "Neverwinter Nights" as staging grounds for its own stories. Until early this year, Marino's main gig was running an annual Machinima Film Festival in New York. But he has spent the bulk of 2007 working in Edmonton in the Canadian province of Alberta, helping ensure that the interactive conversations featuring "Mass Effect" 's Jack-Bauer-style Commander Shepard have the verve of the best verbal showdowns in feature films. He and the handful of other BioWare recruits from the machinima field know that that's not the standard for most video game conversations.
So Marino, under lead cinematic designer Ken Thain, has worked to spice things up. A major part of that assignment involves taking any of the many interactive conversations that appear in the game — many triggered only by taking particular branches of the game's morally complex path — and improving the scene's visual punch.
He gave an example of the kind of work people in his new role do on BioWare's own project. "We had a scene where one character was dealing with a very personal issue," he said. "The voiceover had this very irate woman and this very irate guy and they're clearly having an argument. When I first came on the scene, quite literally, these characters were just plain talking to each other. You hear the v.o., and they're very irate, but they're just kind of standing there looking at each other and they're talking. ... I went in there and started giving them emotion and giving them looks on their faces and things that really manipulated how the scene went."
Thain said that those kinds of scenes add up to "a number of feature-film lengths of footage," in the game, all interactive, all bearing the marks of his cinematic-design team.
Under Thain, Marino's colleagues have been assigned to specific worlds in the "Mass Effect" universe. "We kind of joked that on the team we have our Tarantino and we have our Michael Bay," said Thain, declining to say which of the game's worlds is the Bay planet. The overall feel the whole team is going for is "Blade Runner," "Aliens" and "Battlestar Galactica." They looked at spaghetti Westerns to get ideas how to best do some of the game's standoffs. They watched Hitchcock for directing tips. Marino said he watched a lot of Martin Scorsese, making the camera almost a character in the world.
What Thain, Marino and the half-dozen other machinima veterans are doing at BioWare is novel. Most development studios don't have a team of guys like BioWare does. Thain came onto the project in 2005, hired by BioWare when the director of design for "Mass Effect" popped up in the comments section of Thain's blog telling him to get in touch. Since then, the process Thain has overseen has started with his cinematic designers poring over the game's lengthy script and talking to the "Mass Effect" writers about each scene. They've looked over the game's environments, offering ideas about where each conversation should take place — "maybe it's better to have it here near the fire or maybe in this darkened area, where it would be more mysterious," for example. They work with the scene's technical directors, who set the characters in place. They help decide the animations that drive the digital actors' bodies and faces, and the sounds that will play to punctuate the scene.
"We have full control of the camera system," Thain said. "We have full control of acting and performance. But the little things, like when someone blinks during a conversation, we can't go into 20,000 lines of dialogue and put blinks in. So we have systems that give us blinks, that give us shifting. We have systems that put cameras in place. As the cinematic designer ... 30 percent of our job is designing the systems that get us halfway there. And then we use our creative talents to fill those holes in important conversations and bring them that much further." If all goes well, they've taken scenes they initially describe as "bronze," like the stiff-but-irate chat that Marino worked on, and turn them into something they classify as "gold."
"Our biggest compliment, which is kind of sad, is if our work is invisible," said Thain. "You won't see the great stuff we do because you'll be pulled into the story. You'll see the bad stuff we do because they'll stick out. But along those lines, we don't look at other games to see where we should go. We look to films where there are 100 years of learning and technique. Basically what we're looking for in 'Mass Effect' ... the bar is a feature film."
The machinima-bred team approaches working on games from a somewhat different perspective than other game developers. Thain and Marino both described some of their pre-BioWare machinima-making as hacking. They were getting games to do something that, initially, they weren't made to do. And although Marino became a serious gamer long ago, Thain's tinkering approach allowed him to skip that stage of life. "I've never been a hard-core gamer," he said. "I would buy a video game and never play it. I would always just go straight to the toolset and hack in. It's like 'Unreal Tournament 2004' that I made the Everseason [machinima] with. I only started the actual game once so I could go in, shoot the guns and see what effects I could get when they fired." Now he's jumping into an epic space-faring, role-playing game and amping up the drama.
Does the future of games involve more people like Marino and Thain entering a project to make video game conversations enjoyable to watch? Will more developers start hiring people like them? "As games start to become more focused on the characters, on the emotional content of the game itself, they'll start to look how to manifest that," Marino said. "BioWare and other companies are starting to look at machinima makers as a way to bring that to their games." He said developers Blizzard and Shiny have also recently tapped the machinima field.
So how best can a "Mass Effect" gamer appreciate all this effort when the game comes out in November? Try making Shepard say different lines in a given situation, Marino said. "Play 10 or 15 times." A different way each time, of course.