Micro Essay 2: Building Stories through Machinima

By: Alex Marcarelli

Machinima is a concept in which a cinematic production is created using computer game technology. Another way of defining machinima is the making of animated movies using computer software such as a game engine. The assigned viewing for the week is This Spartan Life: Episode 7 and is one of many popular examples of machinima. Popular works of machinima include the Red vs. Blue series, the Make Love, Not Warcraft South Park episode and the Sanity Not Included show. Machinima is a relatively new concept with what many consider the first machinima Diary of a Camper being released in 1996 using Quake as its source of software. The part of machinima that I find most interesting or to have the greatest potential is its ability to be used in telling a story. I think of works like The French Democracy which really nail the pace and feeling of a short movie. I feel that there is both great potential and limiting aspects to machinima as a means of digital story telling.

The simple aesthetics of a game engine used to tell a story will have a certain effect on the viewer. Using the graphical assets of a popular game series creates a very compelling experience for players knowledgeable about the game. There is familiarity in the simple aesthetics of the game world. It may also give the viewer the opportunity to view elements of the game in a different way. Those unfamiliar with the game’s environment may be less willing to watch a machinima simply due to the way it looks. While certainly not an example of machinima, I can’t help but relate this to one of my favorite animated shows Avatar: the Last Airbender. It is a show with a compelling story about mature themes that is overlooked by many (including many I’ve recommended the show to), simply because it aesthetically looks like a cartoon for children. People who don’t consider themselves gamers may not want to watch Red vs. Blue because they may feel they aren’t the intended audience or can’t relate to the show. It should be noted that some people are so unfamiliar with games that a first viewing of a certain machinima might leave them confused.

While I’m certainly not an expert in modding itself, I think it can be argued that modders are limited by the graphical engine they choose to use in a production. There is only so much that can be done with content and assets that can only be tampered with in a limited fashion. These limitations seem immaterial when considering the potential that modding has on the game industry. The video game industry is growing and now competes with both the music and film industries in terms of profitability. In such a competitive, high-risk industry, many video game companies are hesitant to take risks in their games. This results in formulaic, stale releases of established IPs in order to ensure a company’s financials remain in the black. Julian Kücklich points out that modders are continuously innovating a particular game environment or world. They are providing a solution to one of the industry’s biggest problems and are hardly receiving recognition or financial compensation for their work.

This Spartan Life is particularly interesting as it is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of machinima. It is very much a talk show with a side story taking place about elements of the talk show (finding a person to help shoot at a new location). It is a show that exists inside an online environment. While there are players shooting each other in the background, the host and invited guest discuss issues while walking through a map. This unique type of work is not much different from a radio program simply in terms of the interview taking place between a host and an invited guest. The difference here is that there are familiar visuals, character models, vehicles, etc. that make viewers see an established world in a different light. On this particular episode, the invited guest talks about SOPA and Internet censorship. Enforcing a law like SOPA could result in This Spartan Life being banned for using the Halo game engine even though the contents of the show are much different than any licensed game in the Halo franchise.

Henry Lowood mentions performance in his article. He details several factors contributing to machinima as ‘high-performance play’. Lowood states ”machinima exemplifies high-performance play as public performance for an audience”. Much skill and knowledge is needed to create an engaging experience for viewers. There is a level of uncertainty as to the limitations of a specific game engine that will require great effort to manipulate. It’s interesting to think of players involved in machinima as simply employees for game companies providing said companies with free advertising. This ties in to the article written by Julian Kücklich. ‘Playbour’ is an interesting concept brought up in Kücklich’s article in which modding is very much considered leisure. The works of modders are however saving game companies money in both marketing and research and development. It would be fair to call modders laborers for game companies hence the term ‘Playbour’.

I personally feel that recent machinima productions are limiting the barriers or distinction between different mediums used for cinematic experiences. With the progress in technology, the differences between a film in machinima and a full budget animated short film are marginal. People regardless of video game experience can enjoy machinima and what it can offer viewers. The performers behind machinima should be recognized for their work in a medium that can rival the typical television show.

Works Cited:

Kücklich, Julian. “Precarious Playbour: Modders and the Digital Games Industry.” The Fibreculture Journal. 5. (2005).

Lowood, Henry. “Real-Time Performance: Machinima and Game Studies.” iDMAa Journal. 2.1 (2013).

“This Spartan Life: Episode 7”

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