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A Videogame to Tempt the Sundance Cineastes

Psychic Detective still

SAN FRANSICCO - When the movie moguls descended on Park City, Utah, last week for the Sundance Film Festival, they found a concession to the changing face of entertainment. While theaters worry that too many teen-agers would rather stay home and watch MTV or play videogames, Sundance invited the monster, CD-ROM's, inside the gates.

They were available for examination as part of a New Media Center at Sundance. The CD-ROM's included "Public Shelter," a virtual encyclopedia of information about fallout shelters by Jayne Loader, who showed her documentary "Atomic Cafe" at Sundance in 1982; "Bad Day on the Midway" and the "Dark Eye," two 3-D animated stories on CD-ROM, and "Psychic Detective," a CD-ROM videogame available for the PC and 3DO platforms. The last of these, directed by the video artist John Sanborn, will be shown twice today at Sundance.

Last May, at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, where 1,300 CD-ROM titles were introduced, a columnist for The New York Times singled out "Bad Day on the Midway" and "Psychic Detective" as belonging on a "very short list" of truly innovative titles for grownups. These are, she said, "serious efforts to create immersive, transporting experiences for the people using them." Which sounds like they could be a serious threat to movie making.

"Psychic Detective," which Wired magazine called a "huge — nay, gigantic — leap forward in the world of interactive storytelling," was shot over 20 days on 31 locations. The 477-page script had 30 speaking parts. The CD-ROM sprung from the mind of Jim Simmons, a game producer at Electronic Arts, who produced the title with Colossal Pictures.

Such a videogame, or interactive film, would seem out of place in the auteur-driven, low-budget climes of fledgling film makers at Sundance. Yet Christian Gaines, the director of new media at the film festival, points out that "Sundance's goal is to nurture and nourish independent film in all its forms."

"We're platform-agnostic," he says, meaning that his group does not care what form entertainment takes. "We are more interested in how people are using new art forms to tell stories than what medium they are using to tell those stories."

A murder mystery with a twist, "Psychic Detective" allows the user, with a mouse or joystick, to control the flow of the movie by exercising the psychic gifts of Eric Fox, the film's slacker protagonist, who can leap into the minds of others and see vivid scenes by touching various found objects.

"Media-savvy audiences can take in a lot of information fast and connect the dots, which is what 'Psychic' hinges on," says the film's screenwriter, Michael Kaplan. "Films are made up of fragments. They're a puzzle that the director and editor put together. We wanted to take that puzzle nature and exploit it." He says that budding film makers and editors at Sundance will, by altering the narrative with their actions, make their own movies out of "Psychic Detective," which he calls "a half-hour long and five hours wide."

There are 15 different endings possible in "Psychic Detective," and a multitude of ways of getting there. "Basically," says Mr. Sanborn, the director, "there are 750 digital movies that you are tossing up in the air and shuffling like a deck of cards. An engineer figured there were some 110,000 different action combinations possible."

But questions remain, especially at a festival that awards a prize for best film: Isn't there one version that is superior to the others?

The game is structured so that there are five ways to win, the best of which is called "Grand Slam," in which Eric Fox gets the girl, saves his friends and defeats the nemesis. There are also five ways to lose (at the final, or "Black Diamond" level, the character runs the risk of being "psychically fried," or turned into a mindless sex slave). In between those extremes are the gray areas that make up most of life.

Will videogame movies one day supplant the more traditional movie-going experience? Mr. Kaplan says he hopes not.

"I love movies and have no desire to replace them," he says. "I would just like to convince people that there is a legitimate entertainment to be had by playing an interactive film."

Playing an interactive film? It is a phrase we may have to get used to.

The New York Times, January 21, 1996