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The Viewer Is in the Driver's Seat In This Movie for the 21st Century

UNDER the hot lights of a Seattle stage, with only a bright blue background for a set, director Greg Roach is finishing his latest cinematic effort, a science-fiction drama called ``The Vortex: Quantum Gate II.''

Filming one of the climactic scenes, he coaxes his actors to do each take with a different emotional spin. This time around, the actors inject a touch of crazed humor into their life-or-death situation:

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``Drop the gun.''

``No, you drop it.''

``I asked you first.''

In an ordinary movie, Mr. Roach would choose just one version of the scene to make the final cut. But several may make this movie.

``The Vortex'' is part of a whole new artistic genre made possible by computer technology: interactive films on compact disc. The scenery is dubbed into the CD-ROM movie using computer-graphics software. The central character is not played by any of the professional movie actors on the set today, but by you, the viewer, sitting in front of a multimedia personal computer (a PC that can run both sound and video).

Thus, the main character is never seen on screen but is addressed by other characters, peering out of their virtual world at ``Drew Griffin'' (the viewer-participant), who is ``a medical student running from a tragic past,'' stationed on another planet. It is the middle of the 21st century, and Earth is on the brink of environmental collapse. The plot unfolds based on choices you are prompted by the computer program to make.

This film takes the medium to a new level of complexity. The original ``Quantum Gate'' disc, released last year, also offered choices to the viewer. But the sequel will do so in a much more sophisticated way: Paths taken early on will determine the options that open up later, ruling out some and opening up others.

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``Whole sections drop out depending on choices viewers make,'' says Roach, who describes four basic paths Griffin can move on: anger, secrecy, balance, or psychosis. ``If you drive the character to a psychotic state, the soundtrack becomes psychotic to reflect that,'' Roach explains during a break from filming. ``There are literally dozens of different endings,'' whereas the original has only one ending.

A creative pioneer

Roach is viewed as a pioneer in this emerging field, having been called by one reviewer ``the Steven Spielberg of multimedia.'' Yet he considers himself to be just scratching the surface of a new art form.

``This as a new medium is going to be as significant to the next century as television and film have been to this one,'' he says.

A key challenge is to develop artistic experiences that will satisfy people who are currently buying CD-ROMs (and who are often steeped in video games) while also building a mainstream audience. Aside from the gun scene, Roach has put in little violence, unlike many CD-ROM titles whose raison dtre is blood and guts. But the science-fiction setting of the ``Quantum Gate'' stories appeals to the present market of techies.

Roach, artistic director of HyperBole Studios Inc., is convinced that a mainstream market will emerge, as multimedia computers enter more homes. One favorable sign: He says his earlier disc, ``The Madness of Roland,'' has been selling as well to women as to men. Billed by HyperBole as ``the world's first interactive multimedia novel,'' the early 1993 release tells a medieval story based on text as well as video.

The emergence of a new art form

Brian Stonehill, director of the media-studies program at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., agrees that the interactive media could become a major new art form, alongside conventional films or novels.

``It appeals to a different set of interests,'' Professor Stonehill says. Some people may prefer the ``drive-it-yourself experience'' to the ``chauffeured experience'' of films.

He adds that CD-ROM opens up the opportunity to integrate text and video, linking the hitherto distinct worlds of books and movies or TV.

As a former actor and playwright, Roach says he wants the work to explore the same scenes from different characters' perspectives. He has done something in this vein, although his current effort is ``closer to a game model,'' with multiple endings and one protagonist.

Despite the many endings, Roach does not see himself as abdicating the role of storyteller in ``The Vortex.'' He says his goal remains to distill real-life issues into a meaningful artistic experience. The story line presents ``a series of moral and ethical decisions'' that a typical user will complete in less than three hours, Roach says. He expects that viewers will use the $60 disc more than once.

Could this genre be part of an increasing trend toward escapism into techno-fantasy?

``I think that is a real danger. Virtual reality has an addictive quality,'' Stonehill says. ``People lose hours in those things ... until they've tried every path and explored every branch of that plot tree.''

``I don't have any idea what the impact is going to be on society,'' Roach says. He adds that he tries to take this issue seriously, asking, ``Would I want my son or daughter to grow up in a world that is shaped by this media?''

``The Vortex: Quantum Gate II'' will be released this fall for use on computers running Microsoft Windows. An Apple Macintosh version will follow, as will more movies.

Do potential viewers need to worry about a bad ending when they star in their own movie? Only if they fail to take action or ``side with evil,'' Roach says.

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