Preview - BioForge (DOS, 1995)

"Interactive movies." The industry has spawned yet another buzzword, in the tradition of "multimedia" and "virtual reality." Like other terms of its type, "interactive movie" came into existence as marketing jargon long before any software fitting the description appeared on the shelves. Just when we all thought that it was about to become another meaningless piece of hype, game producers finally started to produce what they had been talking about for so long. Products like Critical Path and Quantum Gate (both from Hyperbole Studios) feature a movie-like plot structure and combine that with user input.

The question is: how much input from the "player" should there be? Interactive movie designers seem to be split on this issue. One group thinks that the basic plot should remain unchanged, but the player should determine which "branch" the plot veers off onto. Others think that the only way to keep the player truly involved with the product is to have them in more constant control of the character they represent.

The developers of Bioforge, Origin's first stab at interactive movie making, definitely belong to the latter camp. In this game you take direct control over your character as he explores the surroundings and interacts with his environment. It seems that this will result in a product that is more similar to today's adventure games than to the "Dragon's Lair" style of choosing a path and watching it unfold.

Although he probably didn't realize it at the time, Bioforge's director Ken Demarest first started the project ten years ago. Back when he was 17 he wrote a simple two-dimensional gymnastics program; in it, you controlled a stick figure from the keyboard, causing it to jump, somersault, and perform other Romanian-type activities. The physics model wasn't quite comparable to what can be done in programs today, but the seed of the project was planted.

After Strike Commander was completed, Ken found himself playing around with bits and pieces of that program, adapting them for the creation of a "synthetic actor," this time in 3D. It didn't take long for this side project to catch on at Origin, and the decision to create Bioforge was made. The project stemmed not from a specific idea for a game, but from 3D technology.

Since nobody kidded themselves that the game playing public would line up to throw down money for a gymnastics program, three dimensional or not, a plot and setting had to be created. Considering that this is Origin we're talking about, that wasn't too much of a stumbling block.

At the start of the game, you awaken in a cell with no knowledge of your identity. Many of your body parts have been removed and replaced with bionic equipment, and you have some memory of the brutal surgical procedures you underwent, although you have no idea who did this to you or why. It soon becomes obvious that the alien compound you are residing in is being torn apart by powerful earthquakes. You must escape your cell and then try to make sense of your predicament. There's also a nasty alien organism running around out there, and it's not exactly a Steven Spielberg creation.

Now that they had created the synthetic actor and a plot and setting, a way for controlling the actor had to be developed. Ken Demarest is the first to admit that there is no perfect way for controlling a character in 3D and in third-person perspective, especially when your view is frequently changed by the inclusion of cinematic camera angles. After several ideas were experimented with and rejected, a keyboard-based interface was finally adopted. Demarest says that most people find the keyboard control to be awkward at first, but after playing for a short while "something just clicks" and the interface becomes a very natural part of the game.

As work on the project progressed, new means of animating the synthetic actor became available. Although the earlier images of the actor walking around and performing various tasks were impressive, Origin has latched onto a system that promises to be the most powerful character animation routine ever seen in a game. The system is comprised of a hardware unit produced in Burlington, VT and software that was developed in-house by Origin. The hardware is called A Flock of Birds. This unit was first used back in the late '70s for analyzing the movements of Olympic athletes to aid in training. It is currently used most often in TV commercials with large budgets. The human heart of the unit is Origin employee Starr Long, Q&A god and resident hardware victim. Starr's body is wired up with electromagnetic sensors on his head, arms, legs, hands, and various other points of interest. Starr stands (sits, crouches, cowers, or whatever) in front of a small box which sends out an electromagnetic field. The movement of the sensors are registered as disturbances in the electromagnetic field, and their data is sent to a computer. This is where Origin's software takes over. The name of the program is SALSA, or System for Animating Life-like Synthetic Actors. ("It's got a Texas feel to it," Ken says with a smile.) This software creates a texture map of the character being animated, and its movement copies Starr's actions with astonishing accuracy. The result is the most lifelike movement I have ever seen in a computer game. Looking at the character on the screen, you get the overwhelming sensation that you are looking at something alive.

In addition to walking around and performing mundane functions, the lifelike animation carries over to combat. Your actor performs about 250 different moves in the game, and among them are punches, kicks, dodges, and a slew of aggressive/defensive actions that really show off what this system can do. If you've ever played Virtua Fighter in the arcade, you have a rough idea.

The Flock of Birds and SALSA combination doesn't stop with your actor, either. The sensors on Starr's body can be re-assigned to points on the texture maps of other creatures as well. By moving his arms I saw Starr animate the head and tail of a dinosaur-like monster. The monsters, by the way, are created using a combination of 3D Studio and advanced texture mapping technology. Artists create the "perfect" monster in 3D Studio, which is then reduced to a much simpler looking form. The texture map is then attached to this simpler mesh, and Starr provides the movement. "I'm amazed that this system has never been used in a game before," Ken commented, visibly excited by talking about his pet technology. He then admits that the Flock of Birds system isn't exactly cheap, and may be financially out of reach of many game development houses.

Another point that separates Bioforge from the "watch 5 minutes of video, make a decision, watch 5 minutes of video" style of interactive movie is the level of interactivity you have with your surroundings. Most of the objects you come across can be used in some way, including a large turret-style laser cannon you are able to sight through and fire at alien ships with. All the art and objects you encounter are beautifully rendered in 3D Studio, and this is yet another area where this project excels. You can count on Bioforge to be one of the most visually striking games of the year.

The genre of the interactive movie still has a way to go before we know what to expect from it. Ken Demarest feels that if interactive film is to have a prolonged future it must keep some elements of more traditional computer games. In his view, the player must interact with the game continuously, taking over the character they portray as completely as possible. His logic is simple: even if you can create a Hollywood quality movie on CD-ROM, are people likely to pay $50 for a CD they merely watch, or are they more likely to pay $2 and rent a movie for their VCR? From the Start, Origin's products have always meant to be played, not just watched and spurred on with an occasional mouse click. It is doubtful that this will change in the near future.

Still, judging by the amount of use the term "interactive movie" is seeing in marketing ploys these days, I'd say it's a pretty safe bet that there's enough shelf space out there for these two dissimilar trains of thought to co-exist fairly harmoniously. Since the Origin Summer Lineup has now been renamed the Origin Fall Lineup, it will still be a while to see how Bioforge fits in to this new classification of game, and longer still to see what its influence will be. One of the most exciting things about venturing off the beaten path is not knowing what to expect, so I'm glad to see that interactive movies are finally on the horizon. Technological leaps and bounds aside, the computer game industry has become more than a little conservative as a whole, and I'm looking forward to seeing a new undefined arrival fly in the face of convention. Regardless of how it is categorized, it looks like the world of Bioforge will be a fascinating place to visit this fall. With its hyper-lifelike animation and astonishing settings, Origin seems poised to spit out yet another game to turn the industry on its ear.