Thursday, September 8, 2011

Interview with Director Duncan Jones

This interview originally ran in this month's Retro Gamer (UK) Magazine (issue 93). Unfortunately, I was forced to heavily edit the interview due to space constraints within the magazine. The kind folks at Retro Gamer are allowing me post the full, unedited version (the Director's Cut, if you will...) of the interview here on my blog, which is great because Duncan had so much to say that was spot on and interesting that I truly hated whittling it down.

So, without further ado...

Duncan Jones is the director of the sci-fi films, Moon and, most recently, Source Code. He is also the son of one of the most iconic rock stars of all-time, the “Starman” himself, David Bowie. On top of that, Duncan has a deep appreciation for retro gaming and technology of all sorts. You can follow him on Twitter @ManMadeMoon.

As a filmmaker, do you ever think that a truly great video game film will ever be made? If so, what would that film be?

I absolutely think a great video game film can and will be made.  The inspiration for a good movie can be just about anything.  Take "The Social Network" for instance; Facebook is hardly an obvious choice for movie material.  Really it’s just about finding the key element of drama, an interesting setting, a fascinating character that can lead to an engaging story, and games have a plethora of these.  As always, though, it’s all about the script.  I think one of the common mistakes that is made in trying to turn video games into movies is to believe that all is required is to tell the story of the game in a linear format.  That's not going to do it.  You need to isolate and use only those elements that actually work.  Only those elements that are original and have dramatic potential... It can be done, and I think there are many games that have great source material, but really it’s going to take a combination of great writer, inspired director, and a franchise owner who is willing to let go enough to allow what needs to be done, to be done.

great film (and book), High Fidelity, was famous for its lists of “Top Fives.” What are your “Top Five” classic video games?

Totally unfair, as I have FAR more than a top five.  In fact I KNOW this is not a top five list, its just 5 treasured gaming memories, but it’s the best I can do.

The game that first tapped my imagination like nothing I had experiences before was Richard Garriot's "Exodus - Ultima 3," on the Commodore 64.  That was the game that first motivated me to buy a ring binder and a stack of graph paper, to draw pixel accurate maps and lists of reagent costs.  After that game, I was Lord British's subject, and Origin Software was my church.  The cloth maps, the "relic" inside... marketing?  Maybe... but inspired.  Garriot was a genius.

For sheer arcade fun, the Amiga served up an amazing array of titles, but I’m going to pick out just a couple for my top 5 list.  The Bitmap Brothers fantastic "Speedball 2:Brutal Deluxe," and the equally amazing movie-game from Cinemaware "It Came from the Desert."
I remember getting my first PC, a 486/66 where you had to manually set your config.sys and autoexec.bat files.  A nightmare, but the only way you were ever going to play the amazing titles available on that format.  The best of that time was the space opera “Wing Commander” series, but a spin-off of that series was the excellent Privateer, which was a bit like David Braben's Elite on steroids. Amazing game, and yet another that had me bringing out the old ring-binder to keep notes on prices in various sectors.
I'm going to bring up another Cinemaware title now, back from the Amiga days.  "TV Sports Football."  Cinemaware was doing something here that modern sports games have completely lost sight of; they were having fun with the sport!  They had mock interviews and a sense of a life beyond the game itself.  I think it’s a lesson a lot of sports games could do well to relearn.
I feel sad having such a short list here.  I would want to give special mention to Amiga's Dungeon Master, Bards Tale, Barbarian, Sanxion, (introducing me to high culture as it used Prokofiev's classical composition "Montagues and Capulets,") the original Apple 2 version of Castle Wolfenstein and Wizadry and Daley Thompson!  Hit those two keys, my son!
What was your system/computer of choice back in the day and why?
Had a few but the real stand out was the Commodore Amiga.  Amazing colour, stunning sound, cool design.  And just to top it off, I recently saw THIS! 
Do you play many “current gen” titles? If so, which ones?
I have an Alienware laptop I am using to play Steam games now until a good enough new PC game comes out to warrant a desktop.  Hearing that the new Battlefield might be the one, but we'll have to wait and see.  I have a PS3 and a Wii, but they gather dust, more than anything else.  Play more games on the iPhone, to be honest! 
Beyond the obvious, what do you think is the biggest difference between today’s great games and the great games of yesteryear?
Humour and surprise.  Like the Spanish inquisition!  Old games used to be less corporate... they were less afraid, less rigid.  OK, so sometimes they got the play balance wrong...maybe you occasionally had to really struggle to get past a section that a modern game would be designed to let you succeed at, but that was the point!  You felt a real sense of accomplishment.  Also, because they were being made by small teams of really passionate people, and not by squadrons of corporate producers, they had a whimsy to them that we have really lost.  And it really is a loss.  That whimsy is something I really do miss.  Come back Origin & Sierra... come back Cinemaware and Lucasarts.  We need you now more than ever.
If you had a crack at making your own game what kind of game would it be?
Probably something retro!  Seriously.  I think I would try to distill the best memories I have in games into a small, tightly made package that could be played on an iPad, phone or browser... and if that went well, I would go for a great big fuck off RPG sprawler, like Richard Garriot used to make!
In your opinion, will there ever be a “perfect” synthesis of film (i.e. cutscenes, a la Metal Gear Solid 4) and gameplay?
I don’t know how out of the norm I am, but in all honesty, I rarely care about the story in games I play.  I tend to skip and/or ignore cutscenes.  Unless they are really visually spectacular.  Blizzard cutscenes keep my attention.  The reason I play games though is for the interactive opportunities.  If I want someone to tell me a story, I go see a movie. 
I don’t know if you’ve seen the mock up of Moon as a classic LucasArts adventure game but what are your thoughts on it? Would you/could you “let it happen” as the article suggests?

Brilliant bit of work that has not gone unnoticed.

What is your favorite video game theme song/musical score and why?

Well Jonathon Coulton's "Still Alive" at the end of the first Portal game was a touch of genius, and as I mentioned above, Sanxion introduced me to Prokofiev, but for sheer "put a smile on my facedness" I have to give it to the “Wanderer” from Ultima 3.  Ahhh, memories...

Did you ever get a chance to play any games with your famous father?

Nope. Was never his bag.


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