You Oughta Be In...Computer Games?

While it's true that many of us use personal computers just to keep track of our finances, catch up on work from the office, or help the kids with schoolwork, a PC that's all work and no play can be an awfully dull tool. Besides, with the power of today's multimedia PCs, equipped with a Pentium or PowerPC processor, double speed CD-ROM drive, sound card, and 8 megabytes of memory, it's hard to resist playing "just a few minutes" of games such as Broderbund Software's Myst. But wait until you see what temptation software makers are throwing your way now.

Called interactive movies, the new offerings make extensive use of digitized video footage (instead of cartoonish animation) and Hollywood production techniques to create a new level of game realism. In these games, which are geared to teenagers and adults, the player becomes a principal character in the story line or directs the on-screen action. Either way, the decisions you make lead to different plot twists and directly influence the outcome.

VIRTUAL FUNERAL. One of the better examples is Origin Systems' $50 Wing Commander 3: Heart of the Tiger. WC3--as fans call it--continues the story of man's intergalactic war against the Kilrathi, an aggressive tiger-like race. However, in contrast to the previous two Wing Commander episodes, you no longer have to imagine what Colonel Blair--the character you assume during the game--looks like. In WC3, he's played by Star Wars leading man Mark Hamill. Jason Bernard, who appeared in the movie While You Were Sleeping, takes the role of your commander.

As you direct your on-screen alter ego, the plot changes. Pick the wrong wingman to fly with, and you could fail in your mission or even die. You'll then watch a video of your own funeral in space. Luckily, it's only your virtual self that meets its demise, so you can always restart the game and try different courses of action.

Although I'm a self-confessed flight-simulator fanatic, I rushed through many of the animated flying and fighting sequences--the "true gaming" portion of the program--just to get to the next video section. While the gaming sequences were enjoyable, I was so intrigued by the game's story line that interacting with the other actors became more compelling. The sequel, Wing Commander 4: The Price of Freedom, due out before Christmas, promises even more--an estimated six CDs full of digital video sequences.

For those who prefer horror flicks, there's Sierra On-line's $70 Phantasmagoria. In this story, you play Adrienne, who has just moved with her husband, Don, into a large island mansion previously owned by an enigmatic magician. Soon, Don becomes possessed and seeks to kill you. As Adrienne, you must explore the house and pick up clues to understand what has happened and how to save Don from the evil force that grips him. This seven CD-ROM set is unique in placing digitized actors in a computer generated world where game-play is as simple as clicking a mouse button. Want to see what's in the kitchen closet? Click on the door and Adrienne dutifully walks over and opens it. This seamless blending of digital video and computer art is surely a harbinger of forthcoming creations from the marriage of Silicon Valley and Hollywood.

Outside of its technical merits, Phantasmagoria has garnered much attention thanks to the grisly ways in which Adrienne meets her death. While some pundits have denounced the title, I found the footage and content to be no more graphic than that used in many theatrically-released "R"-rated horror movies. Still, although Sierra has put in a "censor" option allowing players to adjust the violence level, this game is best considered "adults only."

Other genres will debut soon in the interactive-video world. In November, Tsunami Media will offer Silent Steel, a military techno-thriller that puts you in charge of a U.S. ballistic missile submarine. The $70 title will use the emerging MPEG digital video standard, allowing gamers with an MPEG board to view video that fills the entire monitor, rather than just a small window.

But as interactive movies become even more engaging, they're going to require plenty of computing horsepower. Consider that brand new Pentium- or PowerPC-equipped computer just the starting point. A standard kitchen timer might also help--to limit your playing time.

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