Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Virtual Hollywood: remembering The Movies

Emily Dredge is Curling One Out. That's the first thing that pops into my head when I think of The Movies, Peter Molyneux's movie-making business sim, even though it's got a respectable Metacritic score of 84, sold enough copies to justify an expansion pack, and still boasts a thriving community on the game's official website.

And yet I immediately think of movie stars pooing whenever it's mentioned.

That's because The Movies - and, I reckon, Molyneux too - rarely takes the film industry too seriously. Hollywood's hottest star feeling the squeeze? Fine, send her to the Portaloo. She's hungry? Watch her demolish a burger in three bites. Angry? Let her take frustrations out on her pair of PAs, and dump a trio of paparrazi in front of them so she'll get to the front page and improve her star rating while having a tantrum.

This cheeky streak sits front and centre of The Movies, but that's not the only thing that attracted me way back in 2005. For starters, there's the bright, breezy and detailed graphics, and the pretty fine management sim that lurks beneath its Hollywood glitz and humour.

Bricks, mortar and celluloid

At the beginning of each game you're given a walled tract of land and told to change the (movie) world. You need to construct several buildings straight away - a Stage School to hire actors and directors, a Script Office, a Crew Facility, and a Casting Office where you'll take scripts and assign them directors, stars and crew - before you can begin producing films.

You'll also have to build sets. Initially, only a few are available - there's a basic stage, a sci-fi bridge, a western bar and a desert landscape - but more are periodically unlocked. They soon increase in size, too, with bombed out streets, western towns and creepy forests all taking up plenty of space on your lot, and they’re packed with detail which can be spotted by double-clicking to take a ride around each location.

Other buildings are unlocked as you progress, with bars, restaurants, rehab clinics, trailers and surgeons available to keep your stars in tabloid-toting condition and research centres and PR offices available to improve your studio’s output.

The interface is great, too. Buildings are found under a trio of icons in the bottom-left hand corner of the screen, with employees and movies listed down the sides. Hover over each to open up more information, and then literally drag your movie or star to the relevant building to make stuff happen. It’s simple, but it just works, and quickly becomes as second nature as explosions are to Michael Bay.

The management portion of The Movies straddles a fine line between busy and rushed. While there's always something to do - even in your down-time while movies are shooting, there's always an area of your lot that needs beautifying, a set that needs repairing or a star to placate. It’s a pleasure to guide your movie through the production process, too, from the Scriptwriting and PR departments to the Casting Office, through filming and Post Production, and finally to the Production Office where you can assign a marketing budget and unleash your movie on the (hopefully) eager public.

Personal problems

It's in the personnel department, though, where The Movies hits a couple of bricks. Initially, eager hopefuls line up outside of your buildings, some with pretentions of global stardom and others just yearning to clean up burger boxes. You're told that more will line up outside of your gates as your studio grows, and so you snap up what talent you need early on and wait for better prospects to appear.

Eventually, you'll hire everyone in the queue. Some will go on to be stars, others will remain mere extras, but all of them get old. Behind the cutesy image, The Movies is an extremely clever game, with a litany of conditions contributing to your film’s eventual success: your crew experience, set condition, public hunger for genre flicks and the relationships between actors all play a part. One of the chief factors, understandably, is how well the members of your cast suit the type of film you’re producing.

In the first twenty or thirty years, it's not really a problem. Your actors are young enough to become major stars and find success in most types of movies and, when hairlines go north and other lines plummet south, it's easy enough to rush them in for some nipping and tucking. Eventually, though, your stars will outgrow botox, and their Hollywood stock will fall.
And there's no-one to replace them.

Occasionally, you'll be visited by a rival star who's willing to defect from another studio, but most of them are too old, too. So you’ve suddenly got no-one who’s suitable to take up, say, the action hero mantle, and it becomes increasingly difficult to keep producing chart-topping movies with these ageing stars through no real fault of your own.

This brain drain makes itself felt in other areas, too. New scientists and crew members don't turn up, and the lack of fresh maintenance staff makes it difficult to keep your lot in good condition once you’ve got a few dozen sets and buildings to maintain. As your stars become more famous they demand an entourage, and I find myself often stealing folk away to become PAs, which further puts the squeeze on other departments.

When your studio’s success depends on its employees, the lack of fresh blood seriously inhibits your potential. At least the game’s community has come to the rescue, making a mod available that can increase the number of new applicants who can stand in lines.

Grinding to a halt

The march of time makes itself felt elsewhere, too. Towards the end of the twentieth century, the supply of new sets, technologies and buildings dries up – it finally grinds to a halt after the millennium - and your studio regresses to a mere production line. Of course, it’s always been this way when it comes to churning out films, but the constant stream of new goodies previously kept things interesting.

That production line soon becomes more convoluted, too. As films get longer and more demands are placed on your actors, their stress levels rise and they’ll need more looking after. They regular swan off to their trailers to relax, or hit the booze, and require a fair amount of coaxing to return to the set. Couple this with the increased number of people required to shoot movies, and creating a masterpiece begins to require much more time and money – like, I suppose, in real life.

In the end, you’ll spend more time just fighting to get your movies finished than improving and managing your studio, and some of the early carefree feeling is certainly lost as you try to pamper your spoilt stars and wait years for films to be finished. Again, I suppose that’s just like Hollywood, but the constant grind detracts from the sense of fun felt in the early years.

There's always the distraction of the game's various movie-making tools, which are ideal for staving off boredom, especially when you've unlocked a wider range of effects and technologies. For a cute, cartoon-style game where your leading lady is gleefully described when taking a dump, the movie-making tools included are surprisingly powerful and have even led to the development of a healthy machinima community around the game.

It helps, of course, that there are tens of thousands of movie-making combinations available. You can create scripts by choosing from the hundreds of different scenes that can be used across the dozens of different sets, and then personalise those sets with different backdrops. When you're filming, every last detailed of a scene can be altered, and you can even record your own lines of dialogue and lip-sync your in-game stars.

While you're able to tweak everything about your movie, I confess that I’ve never really delved ino this side of the game despite the increased longevity it undoubtedly provides. Instead, I've always played The Movies like a straight management title, concentrating on improving my studio, ensuring that I've got the top stars, movies and studio possible, albeit with just the AI putting those films together.

The early years

That sounds like an awful lot of complaining, and perhaps it's out of proportion. For at least seventy or eighty years, The Movies is great fun. Your actors rise to the top of the Tinseltown tree, and your studio grows in size and stature. Your films improve, you win awards, and the gravy train keeps on rolling - in the early years, at least, The Movies isn't a particularly difficult game to play; rather, it's just a joy to watch. The regular stream of new goodies and awards ceremonies keeps the game and your studio lot feeling fresh and interesting, too.

It's just that, in the style of the most disappointing MMORPGs, there's no end-game content. Hurtle beyond the turn of the century, when some of the world's most exciting films were being made with envelope-pushing technology, and the game's stready stream of rewards slows to a trickle. My interest in my studio, inevitably, wanes, although that’s partly due to my hands-off approach to movie making.

For those first exciting decades, though, The Movies is one of the best management titles that I've played, and I'm convinced that the combination of slick, refined gameplay and cheeky comedic atmosphere convinced me to initially sink dozens of hours into the game. It’s also made me, years later, dig it out of the garage for another go.

If you've got it lying around at home, I suggest you do the same - you, or your inner Spielberg, won't regret it.

1 comment:

Marco said...

I'd love to see a sequel with CG, 3D and all sorts of new movie making features. It's time for an update! Stupid Fable taking the studios time away.