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The Origins of Night Trap: An Excerpt from Generation Xbox

How did the controversial full motion video game get made in the first place? Years before the Sega CD system it became synonymous with was released, a group of developers tried to change video games into something new.

April 24, 2012

14 Min Read

Author: by Jamie Russell

[In the 1980s, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell's startup Axlon was formed to create electronic toys and games -- and toy company Hasbro bankrolled the development of Project NEMO, a VHS video-based console. Former journalist Tom Zito became its head of marketing -- an outspoken proponent of the marriage of Hollywood and games. In this extract from Jamie Russell's new book Generation Xbox: How Video Games Invaded Hollywood, you'll find the story of one of the most infamous 1990s video games, Night Trap -- long before it landed on the Sega CD.]

The American Legion Post 43 stands at 2035 North Highland Avenue in Hol­lywood. It's not an easy place to miss. For a start it has a five-ton Howitzer artillery piece parked on the front steps. Then there's the building itself, a solid Art Deco bunker in the Egyptian Revival style adorned with the Stars and Stripes. If Cleopatra and General Patton had been an item, this would have made a decent love nest.

The celebrated building is no stranger to celebrity, either. Over the years, the distinctive bunker has played host to Hollywood talent like Bob Hope and Errol Flynn. But between 1983 and 1994 it was better known to theatregoers as Il Vittoriale -- the central location for Tamara, a unique play about politics and scandal in '20s Italy.

Unlike most conventional theatre, Tamara had a brilliant selling point. Staged in the American Legion building, the play asked its audience to follow the actors as they moved from room to room. You didn't simply sit and watch the drama that unfolds as Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka is seduced by Italian poet Gabriele d'Annunzio, you became part of it.

With as many as nine parallel stories running in 13 different rooms over three floors, the audience had to make choices: would you follow mysterious chauffeur Mario? Or were you intrigued by the arch seducer D'Annunzio? Did you want to know the story behind the house's pretty maid, or was the fascist policeman a more interesting character? Depending on what you chose and where you went, you might witness a suicide on the first floor but miss a lesbian tryst that was happening downstairs in the scullery.

Moses Znaimer, the Canadian TV producer who bankrolled the long-running $550,000 production, liked to describe it as "a living movie." Reviewers compared it to a cross between Dynasty and Disneyland. The New York Times suggested it was like watching "a movie in which each theatregoer does the editing without ever seeing the rushes".

For the NEMO team, Tamara was more than just a play. It was also the blueprint for the kind of movie-video game they were grappling with. Over the course of a weekend in 1985, Axlon employees Rob Fulop and Jim Riley watched three performances, hoping to piece together its multi-strand plot by repeat attendance.

At around $80 a ticket it wasn't cheap, yet the price was worth paying. "It was the first design model that made sense," recalls Fulop. "We decided you could let the user be the camera, just lock a camera down into a room and let people walk in and out of the scene." For Riley, who'd previously worked with laserdisc technology at MCA, the play mirrored the kind of interactive experiences he'd been experimenting with.

Tamara became the basis for a five-minute demo of NEMO's live-action video capabilities called Scene of the Crime, co-created by Fulop and Riley. Styled as an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, the demo was a radical re-imagining of what a video game could be.

Instead of moving 8-bit pixels around a screen, you were being asked to drive a narrative, each choice leading you to another piece of filmed footage featuring real-life actors. Just as Tamara had offered different perspectives on the story, so Scene of the Crime jumped between characters and points of view as the player tried to solve the mystery by watching and interacting with video clips.

As far as Hasbro's executives were concerned, they were witnessing the evolution of the industry Atari had started. The console, attached to a VCR that it used to load the data from VHS tapes, looked nothing like the Nintendo NES. And neither did the game it played.

"The immediate assumption was that this was a huge leap in video games," recalls Fulop. "They were like, 'Wow, just imagine video games with live footage.'" After watching Scene of the Crime's rather adult whodunit plot unfold, Hasbro's suits offered just one instruction: "This is great. Now go and make it for kids." Zito and his team were about to become filmmakers. It was a huge step.

Three months later on a soundstage at GMT Studios in Culver City, the NEMO team watched as a pretty blonde in a lace teddy arranged her hair in a bathroom mirror. As the cameras rolled three monstrously misshapen Quasimodos, kitted out in black boiler suits and pantyhose face masks, limped and shuffled towards her. One of them brandished a strange contraption that looked like a cross between a cattle prod and an over-sized dildo.

They grab her. She screams. And the machine sucks the blood out of her neck. Director Jim Riley shouts "Cut!" and the crew try not to giggle at the silliness of it all. Somewhere in a cemetery in Golders Green in London, Bram Stoker's corpse turns in its grave.

Night Trap was the first movie-game designed for the NEMO system. Starring actress Dana Plato, famous from hit TV comedy Diff'rent Strokes, its live-action footage was shot over three weeks at a privately-owned studio in Culver City, southwest of Hollywood.

Although it was a video game, it was essentially a film production: a B-movie horror in which a bunch of pretty young things are picked off by modern day Draculas while spending the weekend in the in the vampire equivalent of a wine distillery.

Investigating the house is Kelli (Plato), an undercover law enforcement agent who's tagged along with the girls. In Night Trap the player's job is to act as her off-site backup, watching the action via the live feeds from surveillance cameras inside the house.

Like a shopping mall security guard sitting in front of a bank of monitors, you can switch between viewpoints; and, by hijacking the vampires' security system, you can also trap and capture their black-clad assistants as they try to kill the girls one-by-one.

Riffing on cheesy '80s horror, the screenplay by future Sports Illustrated Group editor Terry McDonell revels in its own ridiculousness. You spend most of the game watching the girls gossip, bicker and strip down to their underwear, while occasionally hitting a button to trap the creatures as they creep around the house. It's not supposed to be taken seriously: press the right button at the right time and you can bash the monsters with sliding bookcases or catapult them out of windows thanks to spring-loaded beds. The funniest bit is when you send them tumbling down a staircase that turns into a slide and deposits them through a hole in the floor. It's pure slapstick.

Yet, at a time when Nintendo fans were helping mustachioed plumber Mario navigate the primary colors of the Mushroom Kingdom and video arcades were filled with the tinkling melody of Magical Sound Shower from the OutRun coin-op, Night Trap was an incredible departure. This was a movie you could play, a game that told a cinematic narrative complete with actors, close ups, spoken dialogue and sets. No one had ever made a game -- or a movie -- like it.

What Night Trap seemed to promise was an interactive experience where instead of simply passively watching a movie, players would shape its course themselves. Just as Tamara asked the audience to edit their own story together out of a series of parallel streaming narratives happening simultaneously, Night Trap wanted the player to choose what they saw. Keep watching the living room feed and you might see the house's villainous owners (Jon R. Kamel and Molly Starr) doing some pantomime scheming. But if you did, you might miss the party scene that was going on upstairs, or the chance to catch a couple of creatures limping through the kitchen.

If Night Trap had been a movie, it would have been forgettable straight-to-video junk. But as a video game -- a medium in which cinematic storytelling had previously seemed impossible -- it was a landmark. Just as text adventures had blurred the boundary between novels and interactivity, Night Trap did the same to the line dividing movies from games. Regardless of how it played -- and as we'll see, it played very badly -- as a concept it was truly breathtaking.

Night Trap was also the birth of what Zito would come to call "Siliwood". Flying from Silicon Valley to Hollywood, the NEMO team was brokering a new kind of convergence. It was a meeting between two industries quite distinct from the movie licensing deals of the Atari VCS era and Howard Scott Warshaw's trip to Burbank. Now, games creators were dipping a toe into the world of film production, getting to grips with things like actors, set design, and continuity.

Night Trap's credits said it all. Although it wasn't A-list, the crew was dotted with established Hollywood talent. The cinematographer was Don Burgess, who'd go on to shoot the Oscar-winning Forrest Gump, as well as Spider-Man and The Polar Express. The line producer Donald Klune, whose résumé included The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Hang 'em High. The NEMO programmers were rubbing shoulders with people from a completely different industry.

For the actors, the production was equally unusual. Handed an enormous script, the young, largely inexperienced cast were asked to grapple with something no aspiring Hollywood player had ever been involved with before -- an interactive narrative. "It was a 250-page script," recalls Deke Anderson, who met a grisly end in the game as one of Kelli's law enforcement colleagues. "I mean 250 pages! Holy cow!"

Few among the cast really understood what they were making. Scenes were shot multiple times with multiple outcomes. One set-up might have actress Debra Parks escaping from her bathroom encounter with the vampires' assistants. The next would have a different slant as the teddy-clad scream queen was captured and blood-sucked because the player failed to rescue her. It was like shooting several different versions of the same story simultaneously.

"It really didn't feel like shooting a film," recalls actor Andras Jones, who played one of the vampires. "It felt like being part of an experiment. We knew that it was something that we were unlikely to see for a while and when we did, it would show up in a completely new format. Most films are shot out of sequence but there was even less cohesiveness to what we were doing. It seemed very different."

The actors weren't the only ones being asked to step outside their comfort zones. The programmers were equally challenged as they tried to ensure that they shot enough coverage to cover all the different paths this interactive, branching storyline might take. Continuity and camera lenses were suddenly more important than sprites, control interfaces or processor speeds. Keeping track of the 250-page script -- and the eventual editing of the footage to use within the game itself -- was a tremendous headache.

"I personally didn't think I was making a game anymore," says Fulop, Night Trap's co-creator. "When you make a game you can adjust it as you make it. You're tweaking stuff, moving graphics around. With a movie you can't do that. Once you've shot it, you've got what you've got. As a game designer you had no control once the footage was shot."

After putting the game together, it was obvious that there was one fatal flaw in using "full motion video". The price of using of "real" images was a loss of interactivity.

Players may have been looking at real actors but they couldn't control any of them in a traditional sense. You didn't have an avatar to move around the screen. Instead you were just a spectator with limited control. Tap the right button at the right moment and you'd get to watch a different video clip.

This was the curse of Dragon's Lair all over again: a game that looked amazing but played badly. Yet despite the downside in terms of interactivity, there was something incredibly seductive about the merger of movies and games. There was an immediacy that came from using live action footage, an immediacy of emotional response that resulted from using real people instead of blocky sprites.

For Zito that was the whole point. "There are certain human, gut-reactions that can only be triggered by seeing another human," he'd tell Next Generation magazine several years later. "Real people produce real reactions. And that's what we're after. For example, I could never really care enough about Princess Zelda to spend the 40 hours I needed to spend battling through the forest in order to rescue her."

He was right. When Dana Plato turns straight to camera and talks to you in Night Trap there is a frisson of excitement and intimacy that goes far beyond anything that the 'toons in Dragon's Lair achieved. Breaking the fourth wall to set up a dialogue between actor and player, FMV draws you into the story much in the same way as Tamara's actors encouraged the audience to become active participants. The use of real actors heightens the tension and works par­ticularly well in the context of Night Trap's horror story. Would we care about Lisa's murder in the bathroom if the screaming blonde was an 8-bit sprite instead of a real actor? Absolutely not.

Seeing real actors on-screen was also something many non-gamers felt comfortable with. According to Riley, it was often the adults who brought children to Hasbro play tests who were most impressed by NEMO.

"The parents would bring in their kids to play the games and then go snack on refreshments," he recalls. "But the minute the adults saw real images on the monitors, they'd walk over. We watched fathers dragging the controllers out of the hands of their sons! They were amazed because this wasn't a cartoon, it was TV. They'd say: 'OK, I get it, I can do this -- TV is my world. Wow! I can interact with it!'"

This was the revolution that Zito had envisioned early on, a redefinition of television itself for a mass audience of casual gamers. "We were trying to change the definition of a video game," he says. "[We thought that] if you give people what they're most used to, namely television, and make it interactive you've opened up a much bigger opportunity. [But] that may have been unfounded. In other words it may be that when people watch TV they don't want to interact with it. They just want to sit on the couch and become mindless."

From Hasbro's perspective, the concept was certainly worth further development although there were already concerns. "We knew it was flawed and we were disappointed by the play experience that was generated by the project," says Barry Alperin, who headed up the project for the toymaker. But since Hasbro had already sunk millions into NEMO's development -- setting up an R&D lab in California and flying out to Taiwan to fabricate the chip-sets needed to power the console -- the decision was taken to keep on going. The hope was that the problems could be ironed out.

Renting sound stages, setting up film crews and hiring actors clearly didn't come cheap. Night Trap's production costs came to $1 million. Although Hasbro was rolling in profits -- thanks largely to the dynamic leadership of then chief executive Stephen Hassenfeld -- the toy company had its limits. If NEMO was going to continue, they decided, they needed to find a production partner in Hollywood who would be willing to finance future shoots, or a licensor who would let the programmers use footage from an existing movie or TV property.

Zito, who was convinced that NEMO was the beginning of a much bigger revolution in interactive television, was adamant about the next step: they needed to get the major motion picture studios onboard. Hasbro, hemorrhaging cash, was only too happy to agree. NEMO -- by now dubbed the Hasbro Control-Vision -- was going to Hollywood. But like a naïve, young starlet hoping to be in pictures, NEMO's wide-eyed dreams of fame and fortune would be shattered on the casting couch.

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