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Electric Dreams #18

You can almost smell the age of the mysterious artifacts in the cobwebbed room on this remote hideout in cyberspace. The ancient manuscript looks so real, you feel it will crumble at your touch. It looks so real, you are certain you can touch it. You wander around, trying to solve the greatest mystery of all time. You spend all day, and don't notice the time whizzing past.

You could go on forever, playing Myst or any of a number of new computer games that are not all of the stereotypical 'shoot-em-up, save-the-princess' sort. As people begin to live in cyberspace, game companies are exploring a whole new market of intelligent information workers who need to relax occasionally. And they are doing it so well, with real sets, live actors and brilliant imagery, that you wonder at the fading distinction between reality and the surreal world of gameland.

As armies of technologies drag us into the future, we manage to devise newer ways of keeping ourselves entertained. Cyberspace is all about a flow of information, about interaction between users and producers. When applied to entertainment, it is all about being active rather than passive. Role-playing, rather than watching. Games (or interactive movies as they are now being called), rather than TV soaps. And the big boys of the film industry are catching on.

The video game industry already earns more than Hollywood's box-office takings; it is growing at 30% a year and is expected to reach $15 billion by the end of the century. As more developers create games on CD-ROMs, with symphonic soundtracks and high-quality graphics, the plots are naturally changing. Just as game addicts no longer tolerate beeps and cartoon characters, they are getting bored of shooting the millionth wave of space invaders. Innovative companies like Maxis have made games like SimCity, where, as mayor with a limited budget, you battle traffic jams, rising crime and power supply problems for the industry. Broderbund's Myst, Philips' Voyeur and Access Software's three-CD 'Under a Killing Moon' have plots so intricate that they are actually screenplays.

Screenplays, live acting, real sets -- no wonder that many video game companies are hurriedly making pacts with some of Hollywood's largest producers. George Lucas ('Star Wars') has owned LucasArts Entertainment for a long time. Time Warner owns Crystal Dynamics, and Matsushita was an early investor in the over-hyped 3DO. Steven Spielberg will join Lucas in producing a space fiction, 'The Dig', which will be released on CD-ROM rather than as a movie. And everyone's waiting for 'Jurassic Park, the Game'.

As with films, video games now need well known actors to be popular. Stars like Donald Sutherland and Ned Beatty will soon appear in the live video portions of CD-ROM games. Films and games are merging enough for many producers to consider killing two birds with one stone by shooting 'interactive' and 'ordinary' versions of a movie at the same time. Not only would doing this cut costs -- a reasonably extravagant CD-ROM title can cost $2 million to produce, as much as a low budget film -- but the same sets and actors will hopefully encourage game players to watch the movie and vice versa.

Everyone assumes that people actually want interactive movies, that they want to work to be entertained. The phrase 'to be entertained' itself implies passive participation; and the world is full of couch potatoes who would rather stare at endless reruns. The rest of us, though, can actually have fun, and act in remakes, rather than reruns.

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