PRINT March 1996


CD-Rom Game

HOW CAN WE ORDER the holdings of the “new museum” of CD-ROMs? Brøderbund’s classic Myst and its many spawn could be grouped into a “figurative” wing. Abstract games, including Alexey Pajitnov’s Tetris and derivatives such as Endorfun and Zoop, would fill a smaller “Modernist” gallery. Combination or maplike games—fast-action adventures, flight and sports games, and the many Sim games (Sim Ant, Sim Tower)—might be shown in the lobby alongside most “art” releases, the more collagelike works by Laurie Anderson, Todd Rundgren, and others.

While the last two genres may actually be better suited to the medium, the high-end figurative games are the flagships of this nascent industry. State-of-the-art commercial releases now on the shelves include Roberta Williams’ Phantasmagoria, an adult-themed suburban horror “interfilm”; the courtroom drama In the First Degree; and the many games that integrate video with computer-generated-image puzzle arrays, exemplified by 11th Hour, The Dark Eye, and Welcome to the Future. Designers in this field constantly scramble toward various holy grails: “seamlessness,” smooth control of photorealistic characters, artificially intelligent active agents, and so on. But the CD-ROMs considered early “classics” aren’t necessarily the most technically advanced. Myst succeeded because it made the limitations of the medium work for it; even the water that can’t ripple possesses an eerie quality. Gadget, a 1993–94 release from Harukiko, also transforms the medium’s necessary stillness and frustration into major themes, evoking the Zentropa-ish slow burn of a railroad trip to a semideserted city in Eastern Europe. Stylistically echoing Lyonel Feininger, Tamara de Lempicka, and Otto Dix, Gadget is also antique-futuristic in the intentionally grainy, “rendered” look of its computer-generated images, a realer-than-real Léger-ish hard edge that caricatures the recent past of the computer-generated-image medium itself. With clever allusions to László Moholy-Nagy and Buckminster Fuller and a relatively linear, puzzle-free narrative (it’s a curator’s dream—you must look at all the exhibits), Gadget delivers a “you’re in good hands” feeling that makes it a natural crossover to the traditional-media audience.

Near the opposite end of the game-element spectrum, the more recent 11th Hour features logic, chess, and crossword-type puzzles that definitely don’t insult your intelligence; its familiar haunted-house interface teases in a beguiling way. To appreciate how good The 11th Hour really is, one could demo some of its nearest competitors, most of which, despite a multitude of framing strategies, founder on the integration of live-action video with computer-generated imagery. Michael Kaplan, John Sanborn, and Jim Simmons’ much hyped Psychic Detective flails against unintentionally B dialogue and cheesy acting, and what feeling of discovery it does deliver arrives without the sense of a controlling intelligence behind it. Darkseed II, based on paintings by H. R. Giger (the world’s foremost designer of extraterrestrials), is unimpressive despite Giger’s knowing references to Symbolist painters such as Arnold Böcklin, Fernand Khnopff, and Jean Delville; the filmed-video characters look ridiculous in front of Giger’s backdrops. Like the unconvincing, computer-rendered humans in the film Toy Story, the adults would be better left out of the playroom.

And right now, even good live-action seems like a provisional solution. In Phantasmagoria (probably the “smoothest” of the current generation of games), one chafes against the necessarily limited menu of things to say, do, and check out. The complementary strategy—playing more cartoonish characters against more realistic computer-generated-image sets—might seem a safer bet, but it doesn’t always succeed. The Dark Eye, based on several Edgar Allen Poe stories, is another “despite-the-talents-of” situation, evoking Poe’s sense of ominous expectation but not delivering any payoff; sound by Thomas Dolby and the voice of William S. Burroughs fail to enliven Russell Lees’ awkward papier-mâché-like puppets. The mannequin theme is much better treated in The Residents’ Bad Day on the Midway, a hilarious “character browse” that strikes a smooth balance between Photorealism and Peter Blume-ish surreal caricature. But the most successful aspects of all these pieces may be those that do not depend on character animation at all. Welcome to the Future, while more of a Zen stroll, is similar to Gadget in its focus on deserted visionary architecture à la Hugh Ferris, Syd Mead, Lebbeus Woods, and Zaha Hadid. What game elements it has are the basic trapped-in-a-Turkish-kilim/hedge-maze variety, but they’re enough to keep you going through a not-quite-photorealistic and often hand-painted environment that goes against the flow of most CD-ROM design.

Despite the frantic pace of this medium’s “improvement,” attempts to cram in too much “realism” may only fight the form. Intermittent motion and too-clear computer-generated models are not in every way unhappy accommodations to a point-and-click interface and the limited pixels of a monitor screen; at this point, in fact, the user’s relationship with “realistic” filmed characters certainly seems less intimate than that with an invisible architect of a dynamic environment. Art, of course, must edit, or it becomes as monotonous and overcrowded as life. So until the technology can do more, maybe it’s better to attempt less and even turn limitations into strengths. Early monuments in this field may be less remembered for what they could do than for how they managed what they couldn’t.

Brian D’Amato contributes Gadget Love regularly to Artforum.