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The Origins of Night Trap: An Excerpt from Generation Xbox
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The Origins of Night Trap: An Excerpt from Generation Xbox

April 24, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[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.

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Conor Mckeown
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I'm honoured to make the first comment. Great excerpt and I'll probably have to buy the book as it's what I'm studying. That said, I'm hoping that statements such as '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.' Will be in the minority. It's obviously been discussed to death on the Gsutra forums already as well as almost every other gaming blog out there. Graphics really aren't an important part of emotional narrative - I think it's possible for you to care about anything provided the context is correct. Beyond that, it's a great time for this book to come out - the convergence is becoming assimilation and evolution - perhaps not in the way that was predicted in the 80's but certainly on an industrial level, the money is coming and going through very similar ports and channels. There is a lot that both industry's could learn from each other...

John Byrd
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Thanks for giving Night Trap its due. It's a shame it's taken this long for Night Trap to be recognized as a brave, early attempt to make video games awesome.

Hadley B
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Zito, Night Trap and FMV games of that area are a massive influence on me, this was a great read - thanks for sharing it.

Michael Joseph
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Thanks for bringing this lost game back into memory. There are some "Let's Plays" on youtube interested folks might want to look up.

Apparently this game was fairly controversial in it's day. They had congressional hearings and everything! :p

Senator Byron Dorgan referred to it as "shameful", "disgusting" and "child abuse." Captain Kangaroo even spoke out against it. :) Apparently this was one of the games that lead to the industry's ratings system.

8 minute documentary titled "Dangerous Games" about Night Trap. The cast and crew look like they had a lot of fun shooting their scenes.

Christian Nutt
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Oh nice, a documentary. Will watch.

Frankly Night Trap completely sucks as a game IMO, but it's still a landmark title in many ways, and an interesting evolutionary dead end.

And I have some great memories of it, all the same...

Stephen Horn
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I was entirely too young (only 9 years old!) when I first played Night Trap at a kiosk in my local games store. I remember understanding the basic premise of the gameplay, but couldn't understand how to control which room I was going to, or how to actually prevent any of the stuff that was going on. And while I recognized the idea that all I had to do was explore what button combinations resulted in "not losing", I remember the experience felt quite different from the anime or Disney-cartoon stylings of Dragon's Lair and its kind. Rather disturbing, actually, from my perspective as a child. Definitely not a game I would have recommended to someone in my age bracket.

So I'm somewhat surprised, actually, that the developers had been told "make it for kids."

Jon Cameron
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I wouldn't say it's a total evolutionary dead end, considering Chunsoft's 428 came out a few years ago. Not quite the same as an FMV game, but I have a feeling things might loop around eventually for interactive movies; I can see them residing in a niche arena like IF or visual novels do.

Josh Bycer
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I grew up playing the Zito games, I still have Sewer Shark and Corpse Killer on my 3dO, but never played Night Trap. I've always like the cheesy FMV scenes as it can sometimes add to an over the top story. Such as with the Command and Conquer series.

Josh Foreman
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"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."

Who is this "we"? Hopefully it's the royal we. Because I know there are many people who absolutely care more about 8-bit sprites than horribly acted FMV characters.