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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 Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Three months later on a soundstage at GMT Studios in Culver City, the NEMO team watched as a pretty blonde in a lace teddy arranged her hair in a bathroom mirror. As the cameras rolled three monstrously misshapen Quasimodos, kitted out in black boiler suits and pantyhose face masks, limped and shuffled towards her. One of them brandished a strange contraption that looked like a cross between a cattle prod and an over-sized dildo.

They grab her. She screams. And the machine sucks the blood out of her neck. Director Jim Riley shouts "Cut!" and the crew try not to giggle at the silliness of it all. Somewhere in a cemetery in Golders Green in London, Bram Stoker's corpse turns in its grave.

Night Trap was the first movie-game designed for the NEMO system. Starring actress Dana Plato, famous from hit TV comedy Diff'rent Strokes, its live-action footage was shot over three weeks at a privately-owned studio in Culver City, southwest of Hollywood.

Although it was a video game, it was essentially a film production: a B-movie horror in which a bunch of pretty young things are picked off by modern day Draculas while spending the weekend in the in the vampire equivalent of a wine distillery.

Investigating the house is Kelli (Plato), an undercover law enforcement agent who's tagged along with the girls. In Night Trap the player's job is to act as her off-site backup, watching the action via the live feeds from surveillance cameras inside the house.

Like a shopping mall security guard sitting in front of a bank of monitors, you can switch between viewpoints; and, by hijacking the vampires' security system, you can also trap and capture their black-clad assistants as they try to kill the girls one-by-one.

Riffing on cheesy '80s horror, the screenplay by future Sports Illustrated Group editor Terry McDonell revels in its own ridiculousness. You spend most of the game watching the girls gossip, bicker and strip down to their underwear, while occasionally hitting a button to trap the creatures as they creep around the house. It's not supposed to be taken seriously: press the right button at the right time and you can bash the monsters with sliding bookcases or catapult them out of windows thanks to spring-loaded beds. The funniest bit is when you send them tumbling down a staircase that turns into a slide and deposits them through a hole in the floor. It's pure slapstick.

Yet, at a time when Nintendo fans were helping mustachioed plumber Mario navigate the primary colors of the Mushroom Kingdom and video arcades were filled with the tinkling melody of Magical Sound Shower from the OutRun coin-op, Night Trap was an incredible departure. This was a movie you could play, a game that told a cinematic narrative complete with actors, close ups, spoken dialogue and sets. No one had ever made a game -- or a movie -- like it.

What Night Trap seemed to promise was an interactive experience where instead of simply passively watching a movie, players would shape its course themselves. Just as Tamara asked the audience to edit their own story together out of a series of parallel streaming narratives happening simultaneously, Night Trap wanted the player to choose what they saw. Keep watching the living room feed and you might see the house's villainous owners (Jon R. Kamel and Molly Starr) doing some pantomime scheming. But if you did, you might miss the party scene that was going on upstairs, or the chance to catch a couple of creatures limping through the kitchen.

If Night Trap had been a movie, it would have been forgettable straight-to-video junk. But as a video game -- a medium in which cinematic storytelling had previously seemed impossible -- it was a landmark. Just as text adventures had blurred the boundary between novels and interactivity, Night Trap did the same to the line dividing movies from games. Regardless of how it played -- and as we'll see, it played very badly -- as a concept it was truly breathtaking.

Night Trap was also the birth of what Zito would come to call "Siliwood". Flying from Silicon Valley to Hollywood, the NEMO team was brokering a new kind of convergence. It was a meeting between two industries quite distinct from the movie licensing deals of the Atari VCS era and Howard Scott Warshaw's trip to Burbank. Now, games creators were dipping a toe into the world of film production, getting to grips with things like actors, set design, and continuity.

Night Trap's credits said it all. Although it wasn't A-list, the crew was dotted with established Hollywood talent. The cinematographer was Don Burgess, who'd go on to shoot the Oscar-winning Forrest Gump, as well as Spider-Man and The Polar Express. The line producer Donald Klune, whose résumé included The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Hang 'em High. The NEMO programmers were rubbing shoulders with people from a completely different industry.

For the actors, the production was equally unusual. Handed an enormous script, the young, largely inexperienced cast were asked to grapple with something no aspiring Hollywood player had ever been involved with before -- an interactive narrative. "It was a 250-page script," recalls Deke Anderson, who met a grisly end in the game as one of Kelli's law enforcement colleagues. "I mean 250 pages! Holy cow!"

Few among the cast really understood what they were making. Scenes were shot multiple times with multiple outcomes. One set-up might have actress Debra Parks escaping from her bathroom encounter with the vampires' assistants. The next would have a different slant as the teddy-clad scream queen was captured and blood-sucked because the player failed to rescue her. It was like shooting several different versions of the same story simultaneously.

"It really didn't feel like shooting a film," recalls actor Andras Jones, who played one of the vampires. "It felt like being part of an experiment. We knew that it was something that we were unlikely to see for a while and when we did, it would show up in a completely new format. Most films are shot out of sequence but there was even less cohesiveness to what we were doing. It seemed very different."

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