It all started with John Romero's severed head—or rather, a gory block of 40 polygons representing it. The film in which it appeared, detailing the digital demise of id Software's (then) hairy head honcho, though somewhat unsophisticated, was in fact the inauspicious beginning of a genre of entertainment that now claims thousands upon thousands of shows as its own.
As the genre has swollen, it's also become increasingly difficult to define, variously intersecting with film, animation and puppetry. Its connection with videogames, however, has been fairly consistent during the 11 or so years since its inception. Back in 1996, a group of Quake players known as the United Rangers put together a short film, using the game's environment as a virtual sound-stage. This was no demo-reel or speed-run; the Rangers had a script to follow, and, acting as a cameraman, one player followed the action with movements and angles lifted from the conventions of cinema.
The drama, such as it was, didn't unfold in a manner greatly distant from events that might normally take place in a deathmatch: a team scouting out the level is decimated by a player camping on the other side of a teleport. Eventually, a well-placed rocket puts an end to their enemy's cowardly tactics, and the Rangers gather round the remaining gibs. "Yeah, it's John Romero," says one, delivering the line via text chat. "Figures," says another.
This film, entitled Diary of a Camper, is widely credited with being one of the very first examples of machinima. It is not alone in contention for that title. A group calling itself the ILL Clan, made up of film and television students, recognised the potential of their nightly deathmatches as a means of recording short films in an inexpensive way. From these Quake Movies, as they were called, the ILL Clan has moved on to become a production studio whose machinima creations have been commissioned by the likes of MTV and SpikeTV, and have recently been bought up by the Electronic Sheep Company in order to bring its popular Tra5h Ta1k show to Second Life.
The ILL clan aren't the only ones wringing financial success from machinima, and the fact that companies are willing to throw money at the community (albeit to exploit its potential for promotion) testifies to the increasing popularity of the genre.
"I think every machinima has an intrinsic marketing value," says Burnie Burns of prolific machinima studio Rooster Teeth Productions. "Any time a game ends up in front of an audience, it just shows off the technology. Even if you don't connect with the piece on a narrative level, you may still be impressed by the game used to create it."
There's a clear incentive for game developers to include tools for machinima creation within their games, and encourage their use. But, as Burns explains, the genre's success is a two-way street; using the game engines in this kind of creative way is inherently attractive to gamers: "People want to mould and shape their experience and tailor it to their own tastes. Machinima extends that interactivity beyond the set of rules the developers have given us. It introduces a new level of user contribution that will continue to draw new fans."
Of course, one other obvious reason for its success among would-be creatives is the low barrier for entry. "Machinima democratised the ability for anyone to make animation," says Philip DeBevoise, who runs the video aggregator and community site Machinima.com. "It's similar to how digital video cameras enabled a new generation of filmmakers and was the foundation for the user-generated content revolution."
It's possible for one person to be the cast, crew, director and editor of an entire movie and all it costs is the price of an old game and some dedication. With the source code for Quake III now released, and the free availability of editing resources, augmented and perfected in the years since the game's release, the barrier gets ever lower.
An advantage of purloining a game engine is that, if you're just going to be using the props and models the game already provides, many interactions will already be available at the press of a button—meaning that manipulation of a character becomes a matter of play—of puppetry rather than animation. The accessibility of creative tools is part of a revolution, to use DeBevoise's term, which continues to run riot across all digital media. Although based on beautiful and egalitarian notions, the proliferation of user-generated content unfortunately throws up one fundamental problem—99 per cent of what is produced, whether it be for Wikipedia or YouTube, be it web 2.0 or game 3.0, is really pretty awful.
Machinima is certainly no exception to this. A quick perusal of the efforts posted at Machinima.com show many to be witless and clumsy. And this particular genre is handicapped more than most by the very accessibility that makes it so popular—because hand in hand with that comes the inherent restrictions on visual quality imposed by the game engine in which it is filmed. Even some of the best machinima, when placed in objective comparison with animation produced in professional packages, come across as poor imitations.
This is not to say there is no skill involved in putting together a good piece of machinima—just that those pieces are rare. Indeed, in order to be successful, machinimakers face a greater challenge than many auteurs in that their work needs to excel in other areas in order to mitigate the aesthetic limitations.
"We always need to get back to the foundation of story and writing," says DeBevoise. "It starts there. You could laugh at something because it was well written, irrespective of the game engine used or final technical execution.
"I think the quality of work is getting better by the day. Not only are the films more complex but the writing and general filmmaking has increased in quality. This will continue as more traditional filmmakers—writers, directors, and so on—use machinima to incubate new ideas and express their creativity."
This gradual advancement of the genre's sophistication is no doubt aided by the manner in which the tools have themselves developed, becoming saleable features of a game when once they were afterthoughts or hacks. Halo 3 has much advertised its support for machinima, for example, and even the games without proprietary tools have been well-serviced by the machinima community's enthusiastic developers.
In fact, with the increasing convergence of games and tools, as seen with titles such as Second Life and The Movies, which enshrine content creation as part of their fundamental workings, perhaps machinima is progressively moving away from its original descriptors. If machinima was at one stage films created within a game, then we have to ask how much a game can become like a 3D animation package before machinima's association with games becomes irrelevant. Surely it would be more in the spirit of the original machinimakers to suggest that it requires a subversion of the game's mechanics—that the film is produced by a means other than that which is intended as part of the game.
"I think that machinima begins the moment a player stops interfacing with a virtual world in the context of a game," says Burns, when probed for a definition of the genre. "A videogame is simply an amazing piece of technology that displays a virtual space in realtime. The 'game' is the set of rules you are given to interact with that world. The moment you choose to stop interacting with that place by the rules—and to start exploring the world on your own terms—then the game has ended and machinima has begun."
It's perhaps because of the fact that most machinima takes place in game engines not specifically intended to produce films that the results lend themselves to satire.
The most obvious example is Rooster Teeth Productions' phenomenally successful Red vs Blue—a sprawling comic drama taking place in the Halo and Halo 2 engines, if not exactly in the Halo universe. Burns, however, disagrees with this assessment: "I think the focus on game-centric stories is simply a matter of circumstance. The people making machinima happen to be gamers, and as they write stories based on their experiences, naturally they will lean toward gaming. In Red vs Blue, we try to include as little gaming humour as possible. If our tone matches the tone of the game, it's simply because we are limited to the elements present in that virtual world. It's hard to make a romantic comedy when everyone is holding a rocket launcher."
Yet it's exactly that absurd juxtaposition in having the characters of Red vs Blue act in ways contrary to the game's ethos that makes it funny. They may avoid gaming humour in the script, but it all takes place within the context of one big joke at the game's expense.
It's arguably this satirical vein running through all of Rooster Teeth's productions which makes them so successful. Like the ILL Clan, Rooster Teeth has surpassed its amateur beginnings and now frequently finds itself commissioned to produce machinima that promotes the game in which it is filmed. PANIC, Rooster Teeth's machinima in the FEAR engine, sends up the game by presenting the squad of marines who deal with paranormal events as a group of chancers who've been exploiting their superiors' gullibility to get an easy meal ticket. Interestingly, Strangerhood, the promotional machinima Rooster Teeth made for the more prosaically set Sims 2, chooses to satirise the banality of American suburban living rather than the game itself—perhaps because the game is already partly parodic.
"The Sims is much broader in the sense that the suburban theme allows for more voyeuristic, sadistic quality of shows like Big Brother and The Apprentice. "Humans perform best," the TV intones, "in competitions where contestants have to live together in a house on an isolated island and lose weight by eating disgusting food and perform stunts in an effort to win the approval of an egotistic billionaire, all while fulfilling their dream of finding true love."
Perhaps one of the most thought-provoking machinima in this satirical vein is This Spartan Life, a talkshow taking place in Halo 2. Like the other machinima mentioned here, This Spartan Life draws much of its humour from the fact that it is filmed in a game—although not directly sending up the Halo universe, the frequently high-minded discussions are conducted with knowing absurdity: in an early episode, artist Peggy Ahwesh was invited on to talk about the place of the female within the cultural imaginary while bouncing along in a Warthog. A few caustic observations were made about the suggestively labial shape of Halo 2's teleports. More recently, a debate on the subject of civil liberties was brought into relief by the use of weapons to underscore each side's argument. Certainly, This Spartan Life would be an above-average chatshow regardless of its setting, but its presence within the Halo universe undercuts everything with a surrealism that can't be dismissed in any assessment of the show's value.
Conversely, machinima that doesn't embrace the absurdity of its setting or even acknowledge the fact that it has been created in a game faces a struggle to surpass its often rather ropey visual execution. Machinima in which the game itself is not integral to the film's purpose runs the risk of looking like a lazy shortcut; the fact that its creators found it cheaper or easier to master the tools of machinima rather than an animation suite shouldn't matter in objective judgements upon its quality.
Notable exceptions do arise, however, such as the feature-length Borg War, which, once you brace yourself for the intense implosion of nerdiness that comes from combining Star Trek, fan fiction and videogames, reveals itself to be a well-plotted and engaging story on par with its Hollywood counterparts. Its creator, Geoffrey James, set out to create a film that was superior to the recent (and widely derided) cinematic offering, Star Trek: Nemesis. Even given the limitations of machinima, he almost certainly succeeds. In this light, it's easy to forget its clunking visuals, or at least forgive them, knowing that such a production would have been impossible without plundering various Star Trek-licensed games for their 3D and audio assets.
"I wanted to re-use the sound clips from the two [Elite Force] games so that the voice-acting would sound professional," says James on his site. "Writing the script required more or less memorising the contents of several thousand voice-clip files and then rearranging them—or segments of them—into an entirely new plot. In some cases I was able to use the clips verbatim, but in other cases I did a fair amount of audio editing." The process allowed some of the original cast, including Patrick Stewart and Tim Russ, to reprise their roles, and imparts to the voice-acting a calibre that is often absent from machinima.
If much of this 'serious' machinima is hobbled by a lack of awareness about its lacklustre visuals, then it's clear that things are changing as the tools become more sophisticated and more recent engines become readily available.
"The visual quality of machinima is only going to get better," says DeBevoise of the future of machinima. "It's growing rapidly within the gaming community and I think it will soon cross over when we're able to create content that appeals to both gaming and non-gaming communities. A great model for us is how Pixar and Dreamworks Animation have created animated movies that appeal to dual audiences—adults and children."
It's apt to talk of such companies, since, inversely, machinima may well be a great model for professional animation studios—its quite easy to conceive of a company like Pixar one day building realtime, physics-enabled worlds in order to puppet their digital creations, rather than painstakingly animate them. As Burns points out, "machinima concepts have already been used in huge blockbuster movies like The Lord Of The Rings series—check out the Massive engine used for huge battles; they just were not called machinima. Eventually, the theories of machinima will be driving some of the most powerful tools in movie production." It's certainly true that game engines have already been widely used in order to mock up shots; George Lucas famously used the Unreal engine to plan out scenes for the Star Wars prequels.
Yet while Burns predicts that "the spectrum of machinima will continue to expand into other traditional filmmaking, both live action and animation," at what point this would cease to be machinima he is less definitive. Indeed, questions over the genre's future come back to the problem of how far removed from games it can go before it dissolves into the swell of other digital media. It's an issue that portends a split in the genre between users who seek simply to make animations, and those who seek to make animations that specify in some way the world of videogames. As animation packages adopt the essentials of machinimation, live-action puppetry et al, the value of producing animation in a game engine will diminish for this former group.
However, even if the term becomes so dilute as to be meaningless, there will always be machinima in its original, narrowly defined form, because there will always be those who wish to comment upon and satirise videogaming—and there will never be any better way to do that than from within the game itself.