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Video: Us Vs. Them and the Laserdisc Debacle

Behind the scenes on explosive 80s Laserdisc FMV shooter Us Vs. Them.

In this free GDC Vault video, legendary programmer and designer Warren Davis gives a behind the scenes look at making 1984 Laserdisc-powered FMV shooter Us Vs. Them. He begins the presentation with an engaging history lesson, harkening back to a previous GDC talk digging into his experiences designing and programming Qbert, and the general adventures of the early 80s arcade heyday. The timeline has shifted slightly forward here, to the arcade slumps of 1983 and the short-lived (but explosive) fad of Laserdisc games, made famous by titles like Dragon's Lair, Space Ace and M.A.C.H. 3.

While a few standout titles are remembered today (chiefly Dragon's Lair), the technology just wasn't there for a lasting phase of game development. But that didn't stop Mylstar (formerly Gottlieb Games, creators of Qbert) from throwing heaps of cash at a project in an attempt to cash in on the admittedly stellar graphics of the format: Us vs. Them. Davis amusingly recounts his time as the programmer and video editor on the project, which included multiple aerial film shoots and the construction of custom sets for the game's (charmingly corny) live action scenes.

The project was born out of the cinematic dreams of designer Dennis Nordman, who brought Davis aboard with a wildly ambitious vision:

"Basically, the idea was making an alien science fiction kind of B movie thing," says Davis. "The original concept: [we] wanted to have scenes with live actors and [for] them to play like a movie. So you know, you'd cut from the actors and cut to the fighter jets shooting UFOs and you know, it'd be like you'd see in a movie: change the angles just randomly, willy nilly."

"It was a great idea, but not very practical," he continued, noting how designer Nordman "also wanted... to fly over recognizable landmarks like Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, you'd see Lincoln's face blow up and things like that!"

"We worked on it a little bit, we massaged it a little bit, and basically what we came up with was: we would just limit the scenes with the live actors to [moments] at the very beginning of a level. And the idea was maybe you'd have a minute of gameplay, [then] you'd have maybe a 10 or 15 second scene with live actors that pushes the story forward, then a minute of gameplay. Maybe you'd have a little tag at the end for a couple of seconds, nothing [big]."

"And then your viewpoint would change from level to level. So maybe first, your one level is first person, the next level, maybe you're looking at a slightly down angle. [The] next level is a side scroller, you know, something like that."

speaker warren davis showing a still from behind the scenes shooting at the game's command center

While the game that actually arrived was somewhat smaller in scope than the grand vision of the original document, Davis had a whirlwind adventure making it: flying around in jets to capture footage, a memorable helicopter ride through downtown Chicago, and an especially funny story about capturing first-person footage in the woods (all because Return of the Jedi came out the previous year, so the developers wanted a landspeeder-esque forest scene). There was even a full orchestral score and the inclusion of live-action "gags" which Davis shows, to the live GDC audience's everlasting delight.

Davis goes through the technical limitations of working with Laserdisc footage (and the gameplay solutions he came up with), the impracticality of using such fragile tech in an arcade environment, and one particularly wonderful behind-the-scenes photo of himself in the "Mean Green" fighter pilot kit, sporting a fuzzy Qbert on his shirt.

Click the video above to watch the full talk, complete with footage from the game, its behind-the-scenes odyssey, and Davis' many adventures in co-creating it.

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