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The Trance Experience of Zork Nemesis

Donna La Breque interviews Activision producer Cecilia Barajas about the company's new hybrid animated-and-live action offering, Zork Nemesis--the latest in the ongoing Zork saga.

It's backed by a million-dollar marketing campaign and generates a fevered buzz in well-traveled chat rooms. It offers at least one technological first. And its earnings are likely to exceed the box office of some major motion pictures. It's Activsion's new, hybrid animated-and-live action offering, Zork Nemesis.

Okay, but numbers aside, does this latest installment of the ongoing Zork saga have something to say about the role and destiny of animation in the world of CD-ROM entertainment?

Alexandria Wolfe holds a secret that players must uncover to solve the mystery of Zork Nemesis. © Activision.

At Activision's headquarters in Los Angeles, producer Cecilia Barajas sits surrounded by magic posters from the turn of the 19th century and a spate of merchandise spawned by the title. Besides her producer's credit, Cecilia shared in the writing and directed the adventure's interactive segments. No rank newcomer to the Zorkian underworld she: As Associate Producer of the company's successful forerunner, Return to Zork, Cecilia has, for now at least, traded in her previous role as a Los Angeles deputy district attorney to serve as Activision's interactive alchemist.

For all the richness of the game's environment, it's built on good, sound three-act bones. The petite and understated producer turns out to be less an advocate of the newest and the latest than an admirer of books and literature.

First, a bit of orientation: Zork's Forbidden Lands universe includes five uniquely different worlds, hitherto unexplored: Temple, Monastery, Castle, Asylum and Conservatory. They're decidedly well fleshed out, as alternative worlds go: Zork Nemesis occupies a lot of space--three CD-ROMs worth, including thousands of 16 bit animations and nearly an hour of live-action video in a "prerendered" game environment. The Nemesis ' soundscape, too, is omnipresent. With the toot of a fleezle, we enter...

The original Zork is generally acknowledged as the grandaddy of all interactive adventure games. Why has it survived?

The early Zorks were text adventures. This is a very powerful medium because it is words. With words we can convey nuance and tone. With Zork Nemesis, we took those givens and started to expand upon them. Two years ago, Return to Zork was such a big deal because it was a CD-ROM at a time when CD-ROMs were new to the marketplace--and the first graphic adventure within the series.

Up until very recently, at least, it seems CD-ROM animation has too often happened without serious art direction...

I was going for something that has generally been very underused: a sense of visual authorship. It's done in film all the time--production design is really, really important to establishing a great movie. Underusing visual authorship represses a way of creating emotions. In the game experience, visuals are incredibly important. So, with my art director, Mauro Borrelli, I tried to maintain a way to imbue the image with a sense of emotional content. So, rather than the image saying, "Oh, here's a temple," it feels desolate and stark and barren--in a very particular way.

Also, by borrowing some of the same postproduction technology that film and television use, we created a greater realism than computer games usually have. We could add to the established animation incredible details--flames leaping from a book, the real time flicker of a candle, the planetary system that glows brighter and brighter, spinning rings--some pretty cool stuff. Combined with Mauro's background as a production designer, director and illustrator on major motion pictures, we were able to hone in on the environments.

But how good does the animation really have to be to communicate story in a video game?

The burning book of sheet music of one of the many animated clues in Zork Nemesis. © Activision.

Great animation is one of the keys to visual authorship. And you can't find "how to" books on this subject in the bookstore. I came up with an approach in this game: I stitched in little pockets of narrative where I could and exploited the tools I had to work with. I started first with the graphics. And then video, text and audio. Unlike a movie, where you're pretty much strapped down and made to watch events in a given order, Zork Nemesis has a very nonlinear environment--but I still wanted to communicate the core story within a complex framework. Like with the animation: Putting animation over a surround image is fairly complicated. And some of our compositing involves both live action and animation. The initial computer graphic image is created geometrically, with all of the textures created over a layer of basic geometry, just as the way the skeleton gives you the general outline of a body. So, for example, we can animate a scrapbook filled with theater posters and make you feel like you're actually thumbing through the pages of antiquity--and then boom! Time changes and a performance begins.

You've got a lot of components working together here: sound and animation, complex animated fly-throughs swooping into a prerendered environment, varying styles of animations that look clinically eerie in one world and appropriately delicate in another. When do you sit back and say, too much?

Sketch of the burning bookin Zork Nemesis.

You keep experimenting, adding and taking away. You try not to become too attached, too excessive. Then discipline sets in. You think about timing and the pace of the storytelling, how many puzzles you need to solve. Practicality. You know it's not a quick action game, so you're not going to get the adrenaline--the kill or be killed buzz--like other games give you. But we wanted each of the environments to be distinctive--that was one of the givens. We tried to give the Asylum a direction like the movie Brazil, in terms of feeling both technological and old and rusty, like you'd need a tetanus shot if you fell. That's going to be embellished.

Also, I used other things like symbology for clues. There's a big piece of animation when the sun and moon are joined. With Activision's newly developed 360° perspective called Z-Vision, the animation looks seamless. That's pretty much never been done before, especially using surround perspective in a prerendered environment with animation and live-action video. All of it was done on high end SGI's. We used 16 meg graphics, which occupy a lot of space because of their thousands and thousands of colors. But all of this allows you to have amazing images which get loaded into memory. Having enough memory is still one of the constraints in the technology.

It seems there's new technology every day.

Sketch of the underworld in Zork Nemesis. © Activision.

Games in general are the wave of the future. The power of the written word will always be maintained, but I think we're moving into an even bigger direction for interactive games. I think they will actually cut into the film industry. They're the most nihilistic form of entertainment: you start out knowing that whatever you create will be obsolete by the time you finish it. For example, huge storage capacity on a CD is right around the corner. Right now, we're constrained by about 500 megs of information, and graphics alone take up a lot of it. But as we keep investing in our graphics, the quality will keep getting better and better. At this time, standardization is impossible.

Even though the underworld was already established in the Zork series, you could say that you've taken the game into, what, a darker place?

Yes, a much darker direction. It's got a very surreal and macabre tone to it. We were even able to get animations into distorted images by compositing them onto computer graphics with this really great machine called a DP Max. For example, an animated violin floating from a coffin might pique your interest. And the strains of a violin solo. You become keenly aware of everything around you. I call it the trance experience. It's very much enhanced with music and surround sound. Wherever you are, it can slow you down at a rate slower than your heartbeat.

Donna La Brecque is a writer based in Los Angeles.