Video games: Hollywood's new art
Oscar winners are making movie spin-offs for PlayStation fans as gaming enjoys a £17bn boom, reports David Smith in Los Angeles
Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne performed. The Wachowski brothers wrote a 60-page script. Hollywood's finest lighting and sound technicians were hired and an Oscar-winning editor produced the final cut. But this wasn't a blockbuster movie from the makers of The Matrix. It was a video game.
The distinction between films and games is blurred as never before, with leading directors, actors and crew increasingly working in both genres. Gaming as an industry has outgrown Hollywood to become worth £17 billion a year worldwide, with titles such as The Sims played by more women than men.
Now, in a sign of games' growing claim to definition as 'art', a festival at the National Film Theatre in London will explore the relationship between cinema and its not-so-poor relation.
Speakers at the NTI*, or non-trivial interaction, event next month will consider a future in which computer-generated faces can express as much emotion as a human actor, the latest Julia Roberts romantic comedy is turned into a game and - to the horror of purists - film producers tailor scripts to include 'game-friendly' sequences.
It is a world in which wannabe actors and other creative talents who once pursued their dreams in Hollywood are as likely to achieve fame and fortune in a software studio down the freeway.
Among those already thriving is Dave Perry, 38, who, having grown up in County Antrim and Egham in Surrey, is now a multi-millionaire, married to a Hawaiian beauty queen, drives a BMW 760 and lives in a five-bedroom 'gadget house' overlooking the sea. His firm, Shiny Entertainment, has developed The Matrix: Path of Neo, to be released by Atari next winter.
With the involvement of Larry and Andy Wachowski, directors of The Matrix film trilogy and other spin-off games, it is the boldest demonstration yet of the power of software developers.
'When we started this game, we said to the Wachowski brothers, "Would you mind re-editing the movies for us?",' Perry said. 'They came up with a better ending than for the movies, so new footage is being made in Hollywood. We were able to laser-scan the actors and photograph them closely for 3D character models. We got the music and sound effects people to remake the music, and the painter to give us better lighting and atmosphere. We've got Oscar-winning people working on a video game.'
It is a glimpse of the future, he argues. 'My prediction is there will be no A-list actor who will not have worked in a video game. The ones resisting don't play games and don't see the point, but they're having children, and then their children are getting addicted to the games, so they'll do it for the kids.
'The crème de la crème of directors are all working on video games. That tells me the industry is tantalising beyond belief to these people.'
The next generation of games consoles, such as Sony's PlayStation 3 and Microsoft's Xbox 360, allow game developers to produce near photo-realistic graphics.
'In 10 years the graphical output has improved by 1 million per cent. It's hard to comprehend but what we're playing today will be a million times better looking in 10 to 15 years from now. We all talk about one day we'll be be able to look like Shrek; we'll sail right past them. In 10 to 15 years what you'll see on screen will be pretty indistinguishable from real.'
Among the leading film directors to seize on games potential are James Cameron, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, whose latest project, King Kong, is both movie and game. Actors including Christian Bale, Marlon Brando, Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Clint Eastwood have performed specifically for games. Among their latest titles are versions of the films Batman Begins, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Chronicles of Narnia, Dirty Harry, The Godfather, Jaws, Scarface, Star Wars: Episode III and Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Some critics see a threat to the artistic integrity of films, arguing that releases such as the Star Wars prequels con tained sequences made with one eye already on the lucrative games market.
Peter Molyneux, doyen of the British games industry and opening speaker at the NTI* festival, said: 'I know that some film makers planning releases for two to three years' time are talking to games developers to ensure there are hooks for them. And when a game is made, there are talks to ensure there are hooks for a film. It is a two-way street.'
Molyneux, director of Lionhead - whose next game, The Movies, allows players to make their own films and show them online - added: 'Both Hollywood and the games industry are running out of content. We've seen everything from The Godfather to The Dukes of Hazzard and the barrel is starting to run dry. The challenge is to do games for other kinds of films: how can we do a computer game of Desperate Housewives or Lost in Translation?'
Iain Simons, director of the NTI* festival, said: 'The time is right for video games to place themselves at the heart of culture. It can be art: it has the potential to move and motivate.'
But Barry Norman, the film critic, said: 'I don't think we're talking art, are we? We're talking commerce.'