The article comes from Den of Geek UK.
The early 1990s was a glorious time to be Steven Spielberg. It was an era that saw the filmmaker enjoy unparalleled levels of critical and commercial success with Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List.
He was “The King of the World” to borrow James Cameron parlance, and with a renewed sense of invincibility decided to take the next logical step: he was going to star in his own video game.
Released on PC in 1996, Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair was an unusual first foray into the medium to say the least. In order to understand how it came about, you have to go back to a simpler time for technology and have a look at Spielberg’s then-fledgling production company, DreamWorks.
Long before making waves in the world of animation, DreamWorks explored opportunities in the world of interactive gaming and, more specifically, the full-motion video (FMV) capabilities that CD-ROM technology facilitated.
Though plenty will scoff at the notion now, back then the idea of a game featuring actual video footage was seen as cutting edge.
Primarily used to relay key narrative points during in-game cutscenes, the first part of the 1990s had also seen a string of titles arrive that utilised FMVs to create something akin to an interactive movie.
These point-and-click “choose your own adventure” style titles largely catered to horror fans with Voyeur, Phantasmagoria and, most controversially, Night Trap, offering scares alongside mild titillation.
Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair was something altogether different though.
An ambitious title spanning three discs and initially retailing at the not insubstantial price of $54.99 in the U.S., it represented a unique collaboration between DreamWorks and Knowledge Adventure, an education-focused gaming developer.
Players stepped into the shoes of a budding Hollywood filmmaker tasked with “directing” their own movie via the curation and editing of pre-generated FMV clips. On the face of it, the concept was pioneering – a kind of Football Manager for amateur filmmakers, if you will – and it was one that Spielberg, himself, was very much sold on. So much so, in fact, he agreed to star in the game as a kind-of on-screen guide and mentor.
“I hope aspiring directors used this as a tool, a test to see how interested they are in making movies,” he said in a behind-the-scenes interview. “It is akin to how I began with 8mm.”
An eclectic cast was recruited to “star” in the pre-generated clips with Quentin Tarantino and Jennifer Aniston joined by magicians Penn & Teller in the most ’90s sounding collection of characters ever imaginable.
Adverts teased a true-to-life, hands-on movie-making experience with players collaborating on everything from the film’s script and direction right down to the music, sound effects, and even the movie poster.
It all sounded dangerously close to actual work, though critics would probably say the same about Football Manager or “Football Admin” as some have called it. In any case, while the idea behind Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair was innovative and, on some level, commendable, the reality didn’t quite deliver on the promise.
One of the biggest problems with the game was Spielberg himself. Popping up at various points in some decidedly ’90s looking outfits (layers, lots of layers) Spielberg offered a clear demonstration of why he’s stayed behind the camera all these years. Delivering instructions and stilted quips with all the poise of Tom Hanks in The Terminal, Spielberg’s struggles mirrored that of the game itself: he wasn’t having fun and ultimately, neither were gamers.
Because, for all the talk of being able to create your own movie, Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair ends up failing to deliver worse than Indiana Jones And the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Much of this is down to the technological limitations of the time which meant the game wasn’t so much about making a film but rather editing the order and length of a series of clips. Not just any clips either – very bad clips from a very bad film centred around Tarantino, with the Pulp Fiction director here chewing the scenery as a death row prisoner framed for robbing and killing an elderly lady.
Aniston plays his partner – as unlikely a pairing as you can imagine – tasked with clearing his name and unmasking the real culprits, a pair of magicians called Sigmund Paine and Leroy Terrore. No prizes for guessing who played them.
“Working with Steven Spielberg is one of these experiences that you never forget,” Aniston explained in one interview promoting the project.
It’s certainly not one Spielberg forgot, which might go some way to explaining why he hasn’t worked with the Friends star since. It certainly explains why he’s never collaborated with Tarantino again, who isn’t just bad, he’s Django Unchained Australian cameo bad.
These clips are far from the biggest flaw though. As with many of the video-based interactive games at the time, much of the action was restricted to laborious point-and-click based tasks rather than anything creative. The “writing process” amounted to little more than another video-based appearance, from real-life writing duo Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio famous for penning 1992’s Aladdin, followed by a task in which players “structured” a pre-written script – something requiring more clicks than your average performance of Jersey Boys.
Cameos like these and others from old Spielberg cohorts like Alan Cundey offered a fascinating insight into filmmaking and utilised FMV, but they didn’t make for an engaging interactive experience.
The directing segment suffered from a similar problem too, with gamers tasked with choosing from one of several prefabricated camera angles and performance styles e.g. playing the scene for dramatic effect or, alternatively, for laughs.
While some fun could be had from mixing the serious takes with the silly to create something akin to a David Lynch tone, it was a largely pedestrian procedure.
Matters were marred further by constant in-game studio setbacks and the presence of an overbearing personal assistant on hand to offer patronising advice and updates.
At every turn, Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair seemed desperate to highlight how stressful and unforgiving an experience that filmmaking could be, with much of the game dedicated to working out your budget and schedule. Yay.
Throughout the production, everything that can go wrong, does, sparking random staff to berate the gamer in a string of unforgiving video clips, whether it’s Alison from costume complaining about a Teller’s mummy costume, or Yvonne in hair and make-up confirming an issue with a perm.
This attempt at realism would have been more palatable perhaps had it been accompanied by something approaching actual filmmaking, but the fact is you don’t write the script, cast the actors or direct any of the scenes. You just cop all the flack.
There were some positives though. Adding music and sound effects to your finished film presents a rare opportunity for actual fun, as does designing the movie’s poster.
The “editing” process also proves both engaging and surprisingly authentic, giving players a true grasp of an occasionally tedious but rewarding aspect of the business.
Tarantino declared at the time that the game would mean “a whole generation of filmmakers could come out now, really versed in editing” and while he was only half right, the online discussion around Steven Spielberg’s Directors Chair suggests plenty came away better equipped at editing.
Ultimately though, Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair suffered from repetition; once your film was completed and screened in a bizarrely half-empty theatre, gamers would be given the chance to take on a new project with a bigger budget.
Except it wasn’t a new project. It was the same movie. Four times, to be precise, with each new “level” giving gamers access to a bigger budget and additional camera angles, takes, technical tricks and, get ready for it, a more flexible schedule!
Released to middling reviews, Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair failed to inspire much of a following, ending up a mainstay of bargain bins in all good branches of Dixons and PC World.
It can’t all be blamed on Spielberg and DreamWorks – FMV interactive movie-style games were a dying breed even then, with fans in favour of more hands-on titles that allowed you do more than just click on things.
And Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair was ahead of its time, inspiring a select group of would-be filmmakers and, once the technology caught up, 2005’s The Movies.
It wasn’t all bad either. The failure prompted Spielberg to move on to another gaming project, three years later, with a little PlayStation title by the name of Medal Of Honor. That one did a little better.