How to Make a Good Fake Video Game

How one television show got video games right after so many get them wrong.
December 3, 2020, 2:04pm
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'Room 104' still courtesy of HBO

Time was when video gamers could reliably roll their eyes at the next representation of their hobby in film or television. Those of us who came of age alongside games in the 1980s and 1990s saw a wider world of media repeatedly befuddled by and mishandling every aspect of gaming, from how a controller was held to the inner workings of the internet. Thankfully, times are changing, and as more people who understand gaming have a chance to make media about it, games are gradually being given both a more faithful and a far more mature treatment.

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This autumn brought a wonderful example of those changing attitudes, perhaps one of the best examples yet, with the broadcast of one of the final episodes of HBO’s four season anthology show Room 104. “The Night Babby Died” tells the story of a pair of long-separated friends, Bruce and Abby, who agree to a tentative reunion, an evening which soon transforms into an all-night gaming-meets-therapy session. The two end up exploring their past, reexamining their experiences and rekindling their friendship, all whilst playing through an old action-adventure fantasy game Crowning Glory II. For the first time in years, they once again join forces to solve its puzzles, explore its dungeons and fight its bosses, all with the hope that they can put right a long-resented wrong.

It’s twenty-five minutes of television that gets gaming right, both in its portrayal of the joy of shared play and its representation of classic concepts. Without the episode diving into the deeper complexities of playing an action-adventure game, it still communicates experiences like puzzle-solving, exploration and big boss fights, each of which unfolds in parallel with the characters examining their feelings and resolving their past.

'Crowning Glory II' images courtesy of Barnstorm

Here’s the thing, though. Crowning Glory II doesn’t exist.

Instead of using any contemporary title, the show’s production team decided to develop something entirely original, a simulacrum of a game that would look like one, behave like one and allow them to tell exactly the story they wanted. Rather than smoke and mirrors, this illusion would be made of finely crafted sprites and pixels. It all began with an old tale told by Room 104 creators Mark and Jay Duplass, a tale of the night they lost someone very dear and very digital.

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“This was actually something that happened to Mark and Jay when they were playing Wizardry,” explained writer-director Jenée LaMarque. “Their character, who was also named Bruce, died. They were so grief-stricken that they wouldn’t come to dinner that night. Then Julian [Wass, LaMarque’s partner, co-writer and the show’s composer] did some research…”

“It was New Year’s Eve a few years ago and we were all at Mark’s house,” Wass continued. ”And I told him what I’d discovered. In Wizardry they could’ve actually gone back, collected Bruce’s bones, then dragged them to the town and attempted a resurrection. I said ‘Mark, if you can find your old cartridge… Bruce is still there.’”

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The core of the story had already formed: a present-day attempt to resurrect a cherished character (and also a relationship) from a distant youth. LaMarque took the name Bruce from the Duplass Brothers’ character and based him on her “eccentric best friend from high school,” while Wass talks about the idea of him “maybe working out a trauma or something unsaid through the game.” The pair had grown up playing video games and wanted to depict both the technology of the era and the feeling of play as faithfully as possible, but without alienating viewers who might not be so games literate. Instead of settling on any single game to use, their idea was to build something that could represent the best of the 1980s, a kind of a collage.

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“Julian made clips of video games that were meaningful to him in his childhood, and the things there that I responded to most, we built from in reverse.” says LaMarque. “Crystalis and Zelda were used for combat, from Phantasy Star we took the first-person dungeon exploration, and for the boss battles we looked at Master Blaster, because we wanted them to look big.” Sprinkling in some influence from Ninja Gaiden’s cutscenes, the team had the formula for Crowning Glory II.

Stitching together this collage would be a painstaking process, and it would be a very different kind of job for Room 104‘s visual effects crew, Barnstorm VFX. Responsible for effects work on a variety of shows, including The Man in the High Castle and Fargo, Barnstorm had faked plenty of ruined cityscapes, fluid effects and digital makeup, but they’d never created an artificial video game. It was to prove a unique challenge. 

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“We knew that it was going to have to be an 8-bit era game,” says Barnstorm co-founder Lawson Deming. “We knew that it needed to be some sort of fantasy adventure game and we knew that it needed to have some sort of story because there were cutscenes in it, which one of the characters in the show rapturously reads out.” From these starting points, Deming and his team knew they needed sprites that could move, some amount of animation and screens that would mimic the static storytelling scenes of the time. Their first thought was to hire a pixel artist, but Deming says the results of that early work didn’t feel right, coming out too crisp and too polished.

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“Pixel art is a style, but it’s not necessarily tied to a particular era of video games”, he says. “A pixel artist is not a 1980s programmer trying to figure out how they’re going to do a sixteen-pixel sprite with three colours only.” Deming instead decided to try to work just like that 1980s programmer, drawing pictures by hand on graph paper and then translating those, bit by bit, to a digital image “with an extremely limited palette and sprite set that were still visible when they went through the TV filter.” Pixels on old televisions were not square, Deming adds, meaning that programmers worked knowing that the shapes they formed would be distorted.

Also like the programmers of the era, Deming’s team limited their background and foreground palettes, put together simple animations and also created walk cycles for their character sprites. While there was still no game underneath, Crowning Glory II was starting to look like the real thing. However, it was not going to be something the cast would be able to see or to react to.

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LaMarque describes "The Night Babby Died" as “The shortest shoot of television I’ve ever had. It was two days.” No completed visual effects existed during those two days and instead her actors relied on her direction, playing an imaginary game on a blank screen that she had covered in numbered post-it notes. LaMarque knew exactly what would be happening on that screen and created responses and eye-tracking as realistic as the game through those post-its. “We’d have earpieces in their ears and we’d tell the actors when to respond more intensely, or where,” she explains. “We’d be saying ‘Look at [post-it] one, look at eight, now look at nine!’” Deming says his team were able to then “back-calculate” the action of the game to ensure the boss fights felt frantic.

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Meanwhile, Wass took a similar approach as he composed the music, also limiting himself by mimicking the tools and techniques of the era. “While I didn’t use an actual chip to make the music, I did use a program called Chipsounds, where you can emulate the Nintendo chip,” he says. “And I did use it authentically. I didn’t do anything you wouldn’t have been able to do with the chip: Two pulse widths, a triangle, a noise channel and a sample channel. If the sound ever changes, it's because I put a program code in to change it.”

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And so Crowning Glory II came to life as a Frankenstein of fakery and fidelity, a non-existent video game able to do justice to the real thing, and it helps make "The Night Babby Died" not only a touching tribute to video gaming, but also a much more accurate representation of what it really looks and feels like. It also shows that a far better way to depict gaming faithfully is to involve those with genuine knowledge of the hobby in the creative process. It should be obvious, and yet perhaps it still isn’t.

“It's really all down to whether people play or even know people who play games,” says Louise Blain, presenter of BBC Radio 3's Sound of Gaming. “I feel like a surprising number of people still have this stale, old idea of games being things teenagers play alone in basements. It's no one's fault really—everyone stays in their own bubble—but if you don't play games, nothing is going to change your mind.” And, unfortunately, we sometimes forget that a great many people still don’t play games, or at most play them very casually, meaning film and TV can end up “looking over the garden fence at games,” as Blain describes it, with an ongoing disconnection from the details.

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“You wouldn't hand a cello to an actor and say 'just play it' if they were cast in a role as a famous cellist,” she continues, and echoes a sentiment expressed by Wass as he describes how depictions of gaming are as shattered as any others when we see things that don’t make sense to us. “When you’re a musician, when you see someone playing guitar and you can tell their fingers don’t match up [with the music], it’s the same thing. It no longer feels real to you.”

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Indeed, much as gamers might decry how their hobby is still portrayed, it’s arguable whether it suffers worse treatment than so many other subjects. Courtroom dramas have long taken what might almost be libellous license with their portrayals of legal process, more than a few hospital dramas have strayed so far from medical reality, while stunt work misrepresents everything from how cars jump to how hard it can be to knock someone out. Are video games any more maligned? It is, Deming suggests, usually a case of priorities.

“I’d go as far as to say that, for anything that somebody knows about, they’ll find things in movies or television that they take issue with,” he says. “If you’re a car person, you’ll be like ‘I know that model of car doesn’t have that many gears!’ Or a doctor is like ‘That’s nothing like how you perform that procedure!’ It even happens with representations of filmmaking in movies, which I think is crazy. But if it’s not integral to the story, someone probably isn’t thinking about it as much as the more important things they need to do.”

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Indeed, Crowning Glory II was absolutely essential to LaMarque and Wass’ story, and clearly games were a very personal interest to them, to the Duplass brothers and to several people on Deming’s team. “We really wanted to transport people who had had experiences with these games back to those times,” LaMarque says. “And it’s the details that sell it.”

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Does this mean that "The Night Babby Died" is likely to continue to stand as a rare exception in video games representation? It seems the answer is not really in whether games will be depicted more accurately, but whether they’ll be depicted with more love and appreciation, whether we want to make (and to watch) more film and television that is truly about games and what they mean to us. Blain points toward Mythic Quest (“It assumes plenty of knowledge and at times it's probably very inside baseball, but there's something reassuring about assuming that people know what the industry is.”) and the natural evolution of video game elements in Jumanji 2 as welcome examples, but adds that “We should have been at this point a long time ago.” Though this may be a fair gripe, many lawyers have likely long since given up on expecting such realistic returns.

Whatever the future might hold, in the present LaMarque, Wass and Deming are very proud of their work and it sounds like their experience in manufacturing a piece of nostalgia brought them together just as much as any real video game might. So genuine is the result, it even seems possible that Crowning Glory II could generate its own of the Mandela effect in time. “I feel almost like we played a game that nobody ever saw,” says Deming. “I hope, in the future, somebody remembers playing this game.”