Monday, November 14, 2005

The Movies

The Movies

An in-depth critique

By Craig Perko

The Story

My experience with The Movies did not start off well. I brought home the case to find it contained 3 CDs rather than a single DVD. Why? Who knows. More importantly, the third CD was defective. So I got - for once - to read the instruction manual.

It tasted like corporate. Bleah. The whole thing vaguely talked down to you the whole time - and it had ads in it.

The next day I fetched a replacement third CD and returned home. At which point I entered the 25-digit gibberish that they call an activation code. I am happy to report it did not require me to register on-line, which is good, since I can't do that. I am sad to report, however, that the installer was at least as corporate-tasting as the manual, treating their installation code as if it were a precious gift they were deigning to give me.

Anyhow, it worked after that, but I was worried worried about the game at this point. The whole experience smelled like funk, and not the good kind.

The Gameplay

The gameplay of The Movies is bad.

Let me rephrase:

If you're a huge fan of The Sims, you're going to feel right at home. Using an engine ENTIRELY cloned from The Sims 2, you get to feel the joy of micromanaging an estate roughly the size of Virginia. Make sure to tell your stars what to do at all times, every hour of the day, because otherwise they don't tend to their basic needs! Oh, how much fun!

Playing the game feels like fighting your way through thick fog while wearing shackles. There's too many oblique elements. Too many things that aren't connected to the central play of the game. Which, it should be noted, is why I didn't like The Sims. If the game is about layout, then let me concentrate on that. If the game is about filming movies, let me concentrate on that.

Otherwise, you end up with movies like this. 1 meg. It's WMV, because that's all they allow you to export. It's my highest-grossing movie to date. Optimizations include: using whatever sets are rated the most interesting, even if they don't make any sense; using whoever isn't stressed at the moment; using a minimum of scenes to achieve maximum script quality, even if that means they don't make sense; doing no meaningful postproduction at all, because it takes time and doesn't contribute much.

Alas, Lionhead evidently did not feel the urge to include an assistant to handle the parts of the game you don't want to bother with, so this kind of "come on already!" feeling is pretty much continuous. Like when movies stop earning, they make you manually move them to archive instead of moving them automatically, even though there's nothing else meaningful to do with them. Like moving movies from "ready to shoot" to "shooting". Like sprucing up the terrain. Like putting scientists to work when a new field is uncovered, instead of having them continue to laze around and do nothing.

Apparently, there is a more forgiving "sandbox" mode. Unfortunately, it does not give you complete access. You have to "play through" their shitty game first.

It's not even a hard game. It's just a shitty game. I have more than three million dollars: that means my "wealthy" rating cannot get any higher. I could afford to sit on my ass and simply wait for the year 2000 to come, fifty years from now. Or I could, if I had an assistant to handle the stupid little details. Anyway, time moves so slowly that there is no way to "skip" the empty decades.


The Movies, Overview

Let's talk a little about the movies.

As is becoming the standard for Lionhead games, the ideas have much promise and the execution is depressingly poor. They do not allow for custom content: you are stuck with the sets, monsters, scenes, props, and costumes they provide. They do allow you to recombine the various elements of some of these: you can add props to scenes, and put hats on people. But that's a poor substitute.

The scene creation is a burden the likes of which a man should never have to experience. First, it should be made clear: the engine has not the foggiest. About anything. It doesn't assume you want the next two seconds of the scene to be in the same place as the first two seconds. It doesn't assume you might want to continue with something related to the first two seconds. Every time, it makes you select which set to use from the master list, then allows you to select a scene fragment from that master list.

Unfortunately, selecting a scene fragment is like pulling splinters from under your fingernails. The list of fragments is at least a hundred long, but they are only displayed six at a time. You can "filter" and search, which would be helpful if they had an actual range of scenes, but they don't. So, more often than not, searching gives you half a dozen worthless results and nothing useful.

For example, they have eight different "read book" scenes, the only difference is, as far as I can tell, what expression the reader uses. On the other hand, they have "enter with rifle", but not "enter with shotgun". They have "fire shotgun", but not "fire rifle". You can "replace" props, but that doesn't mean "replace them with something different", it means "replace them with another version of the exact same prop". You cannot replace a rifle with a shotgun, but there are fifty other kinds of rifle you can replace it with.

The scenes often have a little flexibility, but that flexibility is painfully limited. Usually, it consists of how active you want the scene to be or how long you want it to run.

Now let's start ranting.


Set design in this game is painfully uninspired, consisting solely of the basics. That would be fine if you could design your own sets or import sets. However, you can't. Moreover, in 99% of the scenes, you aren't allowed to change the camera angle, meaning that you can't have, for example, two scenes of people talking on a starship bridge. Both will look identical.

Now, I know for a fact that many big-budget movies manufacture their own sets, or at least heavily modify existing sets. Why can't we?

Here's an idea: a "build set" button which, instead of just giving you a list of listless sets, allows you to build a custom set. You choose an architecture, then the various graphics for the elements. So you could have a "living room" architecture, but use "Space 2001" graphics, resulting in a living room of the future! Decorations could be placed then, instead of having to carefully re-dress the set exactly the same every time you want to visit it in a particular movie.

You could even - get this - you could even let the player control the camera! I know, it's a wild idea which has never been done before, except in every 3D game in history. However, this amazing new technology could have been utilized by Lionhead. I think they might know how.


As I mentioned, building a scene is a lot like a root canal, except without the drilling sound. There are so many ways this could have been done better, it boggles the mind!

For example, why does the engine have no concept of "what might come next"? Obviously, you want to be able to override the engine's guesses, but the engine doesn't even have any. If Duke enters with a shotgun, you would think the next scene fragment would consist of him doing something shotgun related, someone reacting to his shotgun, or at the very least he would still be carrying the shotgun.

The scenes are obviously inadequate to the purposes of filming a coherent movie. This would be fine if it allowed you to customise and import scenes, but it doesn't. Why not? Presumably because Lionhead doesn't want any sex in their movies, and they know that's the first thing put in any customisable game.

Take the fucking plunge, you cowards. Boy, it sure would be nice to be able to make the characters talk, then turn away from each other. But it's not possible, because you don't allow me to edit their skeletal animations in even the weakest way. It sure would be nice to make them hesitate when my script wants them to hesitate, but, again, not possible!

This is entirely without mentioning the idiotic way you pick scenes. Here's an idea: use text entry. This amazing new technology is hard to find, it's true, but is the cutting edge for allowing for a wide range of actions. For example, if the user types "Duke enters with a shotgun", the game engine can easily parse out what characters are doing what with what props. After that, graphical manipulation can allow you to bring Duke in from a different angle, change his shotgun, or even make him look suspicious. Although you also could simply write "... looking suspicious".

Sure, it would have inaccuracies. But the inaccuracies would be about one one-millionth the idiocy of these pre-recorded scene fragments.


The costume UI is cloned from Playboy: the Mansion. Consisting of a number of sliders which allow you to "modify" the costume, it allows for some variation in color schemes and hats.

However, you cannot import custom graphics for your costumes, you cannot do nude scenes, and the costume system is schizophrenic. Oh, and facial hair is all wax paint, so you can't go ZZTop.

Nude scenes wouldn't be so terrifically irritating if they didn't have so many scene fragments which are intended for nude scenes. If your characters ever take a bath or a shower or go to bed or make out, they have to wear swimsuits or underwear. By egregious oversight, you cannot make these costumes flesh-colored.

Come on, even TV has nude scenes, with blankets pulled over the naughty bits or clever camera angles. Lionhead didn't even bother giving us that.

Custom costumes are a requirement. I presume Lionhead doesn't allow them because they fear (A) copyright infringement and (B) nudity. Take the plunge. If you design your game with those problems in mind (like, say, SecondLife) then you won't have any problems and you will have an ecstatic user base.

However, even with their limitations, they did a shitty job. For example, you cannot rip costumes. You cannot get them muddy or wet. You cannot do a scene where a costume change is actively taking place. You cannot wear clothing of the wrong size, or wear a coat over a bikini.

As I mentioned, costumes are also schizophrenic. If you have chosen no particular "fundamental" costume, the computer will assign you a costume based on what set you're on and what scene you're using. Fine. Great.

Except those costumes are really cool and you can't choose them. So you can only have the super-costumes in that one scene. I'm not kidding!

In addition, technology levels are thoroughly screwed up. For example, I don't have latex masks as part of my ensemble normally, but if I choose a bandaged outfit, I do. Only for bandaged outfits! So all my monsters are bandaged!

Of course, when it assigns you a costume, it totally ignores what kind of technology you have. Here is a movie where I'll show you what I mean. 1.7 megs, WMV.

This movie was made in the 40s. All of the costumes except the werewolf costume were assigned by the computer. I don't have access to any of the other monster costumes! Which means I can't fucking use them in my movie.

Moreover, I've had CG monsters from MOCAP, Gollum-style. In the 40s! Obviously, I don't have access to that monster for any other part of the movie.

Also, as a side note, there's no children. You can't put children in your movies. Let alone new and interesting monsters. There aren't even any not-played-by-a-human monsters. No space leeches, no insect swarms, no snakes.


"Feelings, nothing at all like... feelings. Woh-woh-woh."

For a game where portraying emotion is one of the core requirements, it's bizarre that these puppets can't portray emotion. For example, during one of the bath scenes, it gives you the option to select what emotion they are feeling during their bath: happy, sad, scared, etc.

Selecting this emotion slams a rictus death mask on their face which parodies that emotion. That's all. You select happy, he puts on the Joker's grin and it stays there, never wavering, for the entire 10 second scene.

That's not emotion! Come on, what were you guys thinking?

Aside from the fact that it should also have an intensity slider, it should animate their emotions. People don't grin like wooden statues. They make break into a grin, but other expressions cross their face.

When I tell him to "bathe happily", he should smile, grin briefly, pause for a body language moment, look at the ceiling contently, maybe hum or laugh. If I tell him to "bathe angrily", he should scowl, rub fiercely at his limbs while he washes, stare at the water and shoot glances to the side, frown, and so forth. At no point should his face be still! And the animation should not just be his face - his body language needs to change.

(Here's a question: why the hell can't I just click on an actor's face and command him to show a specific emotion?)

The animations in general are very poor. Perhaps their engine doesn't allow you to combine animations with overlapping skeletal commands. It should. Their whole engine should be built around that.

My instinct is that a scene should be nothing more than a list of meta-animations. Meta-animations can be weighted with various emotions, which changes their exact execution. Although this would require "animation on the fly", I think computers these days can handle it.

Then a player could add and subtract meta-animations to customize the scenes. Even export and import custom scenes!

Final Score

Lionhead fumbles again. This game isn't terrible, but it's not something to be proud of.

Unlike The Sims, there's no humanity to the characters in this game. That means that you aren't likely to be entertained by the act of micromanaging them. :P


Patrick Dugan said...

Of course, by obstructing the love of filmaking with needless distractions Lionhead does accurently recreate the hellish experience of working in Hollywood.

Its a shame Lionhead has gotten so corporate and stale over the past several years. While the premise of "The Movies" is interesting and somewhat innovative relative to what the rest of the industry hammers out, it seems like the basics of interactive storytelling are beyond the grasp of their R&D. I know someone in that company had to have had some ideas similar to what you suggest, but I guess hierarchies aren't really open to suggestions from the grunts.

Great review!

Anonymous said...

You said it all, there's not much more I can say...
They concentrated more on making it a Tycoon game, rather than realising that most people just want to make films!
There should at least be an option where you pick one scene, and then pick a sequence of actions that happen on that scene! Instead of having to pick the set, change the backdrop/lighting/weather/extras costumes EVERY TIME!!!! It's very insulting to anyone who actually wants to make movies.
I'm just hoping for expansion packs or users with a great programming knowledge to make things a bit better for us... and you KNOW there'll be expansion packs, it's a sure way to make money :)

Craig Perko said...

There's already something available which lets you "edit the game", but you can't download it unless you've registered on-line.

However, I don't think they let you edit the multitude of poor core elements. I wouldn't know for sure, since I can't download it.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic Review. It amazes me that Lion-whatever is annoucing 'proudly' all the great movies made by users. I have looked at many, and removing the dialogue they are all based on the same infratsture. Lion-whatever says they have hundred of scenes, 20 for horror, 20 for comedy, etc. However much of the comedy scenes are so similiar to the horror fragment (only a few are radically different). There number one priority should be to let the user have free camera movement. I think then the movies produced will feel more different. The second priority would be to add an update module which allowed users to build their own stage using different props. Whether its a horror movie or Sci Fi, the existing space ship or king-kong nautical ship looks the same - control props in same location, camera angle same. I read the excuse that they did not give free camera to the user, thinking it would be too complicated. They do not believe in choice, I guess. Anyway, again great review, however by the news on the web, it looks like machination people wanting more from 'the movies' are in the minority.

Craig Perko said...

Thanks, Anon. The reason Machinima people don't say they want more from The Movies is because Machinima people aren't even using the program, it's so unsuitable.