Pillbox

Students explore virtuality

Students enjoy new video game demos provided by the Entertainment Technology Center, one of the various attractions of the wats:ON? festival.  (credit: Michael Kahn) Students enjoy new video game demos provided by the Entertainment Technology Center, one of the various attractions of the wats:ON? festival. (credit: Michael Kahn)

Maybe you don’t spend most Friday nights teleconferencing across the Atlantic with a 3-D-rendered cube-man showing you a series of short films created using video game engines. Or maybe you do. If you were at Friday night’s Machinima Film Festival, you certainly did.

“Machinima?” you say. Sounds like robot porn, or the internal mechanics of some sort of ancient device put on display. No, this machinima is a portmanteau of “machine-cinema” (with a misspelling, because who doesn’t love an extra “i”?). Since the late ’80s, the hacker art of creating film-like sequences through video games has found a home and a community through the world of machinima.

The wats:ON? Festival is a yearly event sponsored in the memory of Jill Watson. Watson was a Carnegie Mellon alumna and adjunct faculty member in the School of Architecture who was killed in a plane crash. This year’s focus was on virtuality. An Anthony McCall art installation, a talk by media archaeologist Erkki Huhtamo, and the work of Gordon Matta-Clark and Ernie Geer, as well as the Machinima Film Festival.

The film festival was held to give an introduction to an accessible virtual space. The films were constructed from common environments: the city streets of every car-racing game, the canyons of Halo, the bedrooms of The Sims. It is in these spaces that the filmmakers created their narratives, manipulating the familiar world of the video game.

And between these shorts, Friedrich Kirschner added his clever commentary. Kirschner, a machinimist himself, included (by request of the curators) one of his own works, person2184. The three-part series is a lushly shaded experience following a solitary individual who roams the streets of a dark, dystopian vision of a city of the future. Without being told, one would never expect that the film was created using the Unreal Tournament 2004 game engine, as Kirschner completely re-skinned the environment.

And while having your German host for the evening communicate with the audience over Skype may seem awkward, for this event it was perfect. His presence was brought to us through a character named Bob he controlled in real time. And with only a webcam to see the audience, he managed questions with a casual grace and an honest ability to get a room thousands of miles away to laugh.

The breadth of these films shows the potential for the future of the genre. Barriers to entry are low: All that is needed is a touch of creativity to add a suicidal slant to a future where humans are all connected to the network through unstoppable addiction, or to turn a flight simulator into slapstick-esque comedy. Machinima already has a yearly festival with its own awards, but as video games increase in their reach, this subversive art is only given more room to grow.
r