Go back to Wing Commander 3 and 4

Written by: Rik

Date posted: April 3, 2005

The term ‘interactive movie’ immediately brings to mind a whole load of unplayable guff unleashed on the PC gaming world following the advent of the CD-ROM drive. The Wing Commander games remain largely untainted by this tag, partly because the movie sequences were actually pretty good, and partly because there was a pretty decent space combat game in there as well. Nevertheless, Wing Commander 3 in particular was marketed as an ‘interactive movie’, and it seems fair to say that Origin wouldn’t have splashed out on the cut-scenes if they hadn’t first noted the commercial popularity of other FMV-laden epics.

But why the need to make the movies ‘interactive’? While games consisting almost entirely of pre-rendered scenes had to allow such choices in order to involve the player in an essentially shallow gaming experience, this wasn’t the case with Wing Commander, and previous games in the series never required your input during the animated cut-scenes. And though the storylines in WC3 and 4 are undoubtedly fantastic, it has to be said that the interactive element actually adds very little.

In Wing Commander 3, many of the movie cut-scenes are short exchanges with members of the crew, which usually involve selecting a pleasant or rude conversation responses. Although these do have an effect on later interactions with these characters, the main storyline remains largely unaffected. When you consider that Colonel Blair has already appeared in the two previous games, you’d have to say that his character is already pretty well developed, and the attempt to give the player control over his personality seems a little superficial and unnecessary. Generally Blair is an all-round good guy with a few character flaws, and in most of the game’s scenes he behaves accordingly, so why bother allowing him to be rude to his fellow crewmates in between?

A well-defined character like Blair should behave as the writer believes he should behave. On the odd occasion when you are asked to make a major decision, you’re left wondering what you should do, torn between the “correct”, rational action, and what Blair might do in that situation. Sometimes you have to make a choice between progress in the game and watching the more dramatic cut-scenes in the film – which is hardly ideal.

This problem is even more prominent in WC4. Without spoiling anything, early on in the game you have a pretty dramatic choice to make – and it’s a tough one. Obviously, the main storyline eventually forces you down one path, but for a handful of missions you can experience pretty different cut-scenes. Each branch brings something significant to the story, so much so that either way you miss out on something. If you choose one option, you get a big-dramatic cut-scene which seems to indicate you made the right call at the right time, but you miss out on some great stuff which gives some other characters more screen time and fills in a few blanks regarding the direction of the plot. Conversely, the second option means you miss out on a few missions and the death of a major character. I suppose this is more genuine interactivity in action, but there could have been a way to fit the good scenes from both branches in there. And what would Blair have done?

Of course, the very release of WC4 highlights problems with the ‘interactive movie’ element of these games. WC3 allowed the death of wingmen, and also offered a romantic choice for Blair: the ship’s mechanic or a fellow (female) pilot. However, whatever happened in your game is swiftly rendered irrelevant once WC4 begins: the writers choose who survived from WC3, and no mention is made of either female character. This is of course perfectly understandable, but highlights the superficial nature of the choices you make.

In other respects, WC4 offers greater interactivity while also sticking more rigidly to the story. On the one hand, your conversation choices have a greater impact on the story and you get to choose the kind of approach you’ll take to some of the later missions. But wingmen are not killed off unless the story specifically demands it, and there are times when what seems like a significant conversation choice turns out to make absolutely no difference to the storyline.

I guess my point is this: if you have a story to tell, then just go ahead and tell it. Big-budget FMV isn’t flexible enough to offer a significant level of interactivity – even the small level of choice on offer here required a lot of re-shooting. As long as you’ve managed to include a decent game in there somewhere, then people really don’t mind kicking back and watching a few film clips – especially when they’re as well done as the ones in the Wing Commander games.