It’s tough to put a neat label on Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom. On the one hand, it was a colossally ambitious and expensive project — in fact, the first computer game in history with a budget exceeding $10 million. On the other, it was a somewhat rushed, workmanlike game, developed in half the time of Wing Commander III using the same engine and tools. That these two things can simultaneously be true is down to the strange economics of mid-1990s interactive movies.
Origin Systems and Chris Roberts, the Wing Commander franchise’s development studio and mastermind respectively, wasted very little time embarking on the fourth numbered game in the series after finishing up the third one in the fall of 1994. Within two weeks, Roberts was hard at work on his next story outline. Not long after the holiday season was over and it was clear that Wing Commander III had done very well indeed for itself, his managers gave him the green light to start production in earnest, on a scale of which even a dreamer like him could hardly have imagined a few years earlier.
Like its predecessor, Wing Commander IV was destined to be an oddly bifurcated project. The “game” part of the game — the missions you actually fly from the cockpit of a spaceborne fighter — was to be created in Origin’s Austin, Texas, offices by a self-contained and largely self-sufficient team of programmers and mission designers, using the existing flight engine with only modest tweaks, without a great deal of day-to-day communication with Roberts himself. Meanwhile the latter would spend the bulk of 1995 in Southern California, continuing his career as Hollywood’s most unlikely and under-qualified movie director, shooting a script created by Frank DePalma and Terry Borst from his own story outline. It was this endeavor that absorbed the vast majority of a vastly increased budget.
For there were two big, expensive changes on this side of the house. One was a shift away from the green-screen approach of filming real actors on empty sound stages, with the scenery painted in during post-production by pixel artists; instead Origin had its Hollywood partners Crocodille Productions build traditional sets, no fewer than 37 of them in all. The other was the decision to abandon videotape in favor of 35-millimeter stock, the same medium on which feature films were shot. This was a dubiously defensible decision on practical grounds, what with the sharply limited size and resolution of the computer-monitor screens on which Roberts’s movie would be seen, but it says much about where the young would-be auteur’s inspirations and aspirations lay. “My goal is to bring the superior production values of Hollywood movies to the interactive realm,” he said in an interview. Origin would wind up paying Crocodile $7.7 million in all in the pursuit of that lofty goal.
These changes served only to distance the movie part of Wing Commander from the game part that much more; now the folks in Austin didn’t even have to paint backgrounds for Roberts’s film shoot. More than ever, the two halves of the whole were water and oil rather than water and wine. All told, it’s doubtful whether the flying-and-shooting part of Wing Commander IV absorbed much more than 10 percent of the total budget.
Origin was able to hire most of the featured actors from last time out to return for Wing Commander IV. Once again, Mark Hamill, one of the most sensible people in Hollywood, agreed to head up the cast as Colonel Blair, the protagonist and the player’s avatar, for a salary of $419,100 for the 43-day shoot. (“A lot of actors spend their whole lives wanting to be known as anything,” he said when delicately asked if he ever dwelt upon his gradual, decade-long slide down through the ranks of the acting profession, from starring as Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars blockbusters to starring in videogames. “I always thought I should be happy for what I have instead of being unhappy for what I don’t have. So, you know, if things are going alright with your family… I don’t know, not really. I think it’s good.”) Likewise, Tom Wilson ($117,300) returned to play Blair’s fellow pilot and frenemy Maniac; Malcolm McDowell ($285,500) again played the stiffly starched Admiral Tolwyn; and John Rhys-Davies ($52,100) came back as the fighter jock turned statesman Paladin. After the rest of the cast and incidental expenses were factored in, the total bill for the actors came to just under $1.4 million.
Far from being taken aback by the numbers involved, Origin made them a point of pride. If anything, it inflated them; the total development cost of $12 million which was given to magazines like Computer Gaming World over the course of one of the most extensive pre-release hype campaigns the industry had ever seen would appear to be a million or two over the real figure, based on what I’ve been able to glean from the company’s internal budgeting documents. Intentionally or not, the new game’s subtitle made the journalists’ headlines almost too easy to write: clearly, the true “price of freedom” was $12 million. The award for the most impassioned preview must go to the British edition of PC Gamer, which proclaimed that the game’s eventual release would be “one of the most important events of the twentieth century.” On an only slightly more subdued note, Computer Gaming World noted that “if Wing Commander III was like Hollywood, this game is Hollywood.” The mainstream media got in on the excitement as well: CNN ran a segment on the work in progress, Newsweek wrote it up, and Daily Variety was correct in calling it “the most expensive CD-ROM production ever” — never mind a million or two here or there. Mark Hamill and Malcolm McDowell earned some more money by traveling the morning-radio and local-television circuit in the final weeks before the big release.
Wing Commander IV was advertised on television at a time when that was still a rarity for computer games. The advertisements blatantly spoiled what was intended to be a major revelation about the real villain of the story. (You have been warned!)
The game was launched on February 8, 1996, in a gala affair at the Beverly Hills Planet Hollywood, with most of the important cast members in attendance to donate their costumes — “the first memorabilia from a CD-ROM game to be donated to the internationally famous restaurant,” as Origin announced proudly. (The restaurant itself appears to have been less enthused; the costumes were never put on display after the party, and seem to be lost now.) The assembled press included representatives of CNN, The Today Show, HBO, Delta Airlines’s in-flight magazine, and the Associated Press among others. In the weeks that followed, Chris Roberts and Mark Hamill did a box-signing tour in conjunction with Incredible Universe, a major big-box electronics chain of the time.
The early reviews were positive, and not just those in the nerdy media. “The game skillfully integrates live-action video with computer-generated graphics and sophisticated gameplay. Has saving the universe ever been this much fun?” asked Newsweek, presumably rhetorically. Entertainment Weekly called Wing Commander IV “a movie game that takes CD-ROM warfare into the next generation,” giving it an A- on its final report card. The Salt Lake City Tribune said that it had “a cast that would make any TV-movie director jealous — and more than a few feature-film directors as well. While many games tout themselves as interactive movies, Wing Commander IV is truly deserving of the title — a pure joy to watch and play.” The Detroit Free Press said that “at times, it was like watching an episode of a science-fiction show.”
The organs of hardcore gaming were equally fulsome. Australia’s Hyper magazine lived up to its name (Hyperventilate? Hyperbole?) with the epistemologically questionable assertion that “if you don’t play this then you really don’t own a computer.” Computer Gaming World, still the United States’s journal of record, was almost as effusive, writing that “as good as the previous installment was, it served only as a rough prototype for the polished chrome that adorns Wing Commander IV. This truly is the vanguard of the next generation of electronic entertainment.”
Surprisingly, it was left to PC Gamer, the number-two periodical in the American market, normally more rather than less hype-prone than its older and somewhat stodgier competitor, to inject a note of caution into the critical discourse, by acknowledging how borderline absurd it was on the face of it to release a game in which 90 percent of the budget had gone into the cut scenes.
How you feel about Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom is going to depend a lot on how you felt about Wing Commander III and the direction the series seems to be headed in.
When the original Wing Commander came out, it was a series of incredible, state-of-the-art space-combat sequences, tied together with occasional animated cut scenes. Today, Wing Commander IV seems more like a series of incredible, full-motion-video cut scenes tied together with occasional space-combat sequences. You can see the shift away from gameplay and toward multimedia flash in one of the ads for Wing Commander IV; seven of the eight little “bullet points” that list the game’s impressive new features are devoted to improvements in the quality of the video. Only the last point says anything about actual gameplay. If the tail’s not wagging the dog yet, it’s getting close.
For all its cosmetic improvements, Wing Commander IV feels just a little hollow. I can’t help thinking about what the fourth Wing Commander game might be like if the series had moved in the opposite direction, making huge improvements in the actual gameplay, rather than spending more and more time and effort on the stuff in between.
Still, these concerns were only raised parenthetically; even PC Gamer‘s reviewer saw fit to give the game a rating of 90 percent after unfurrowing his brow.
Today, however, the imbalance described above has become even more difficult to overlook, and seems even more absurd. As my regular readers know, narrative-oriented games are the ones I tend to be most passionate about; I’m the farthest thing from a Chris Crawford, insisting that the inclusion of any set-piece story line is a betrayal of interactive entertainment’s potential. My academic background is largely in literary studies, which perhaps explains why I tend to want to read games like others do books. And yet, with all that said, I also recognize that a game needs to give its player something interesting to do.
I’m reminded of an anecdote from Steve Diggle, a guitarist for the 1970s punk band Buzzcocks. He tells of seeing the keyboardist for the progressive-rock band Yes performing with “a telephone exchange of electronic things that nobody could afford or relate to. At the end, he brought an alpine horn out — because he was Swiss. It was a long way from Little Richard. I thought, ‘Something’s got to change.'” There’s some of the same quality to Wing Commander IV. Matters have gone so far out on a limb that one begins to suspect the only thing left to be done is just to burn it all down and start over.
But we do strive to be fair around here, so let’s try to evaluate the movie and the game of Wing Commander IV on their own merits before we address their imperfect union.
Chris Roberts is not a subtle storyteller; his influences are always close to the surface. The first three Wing Commander games were essentially a retelling of World War II in the Pacific, with the Terran Confederation for which Blair flies in the role of the United States and its allies and the evil feline Kilrathi in that of Japan. Now, with the alien space cats defeated once and for all, Roberts has moved on to the murkier ethical terrain of the Cold War, where battles are fought in the shadows and friend and foe are not so easy to distinguish. Instead of being lauded like the returning Greatest Generation were in the United States after World War II, Blair and his comrades who fought the good fight against the Kilrathi are treated more like the soldiers who came back from Vietnam. We learn that we’ve gone from rah-rah patriotism to something else the very first time we see Blair, when he meets a down-on-his-luck fellow veteran in a bar and can, at you the player’s discretion, give him a few coins to help him out. Shades of gray are not really Roberts’s forte; earnest guy that he is, he prefers the primary-color emotions. Still, he’s staked out his dramatic territory and now we have to go with it.
Having been relegated to the reserves after the end of the war with the Kilrathi, Blair has lately been running a planetside farm, but he’s called back to active duty to deal with a new problem on the frontiers of the Terran Confederation: a series of pirate raids in the region of the Border Worlds, a group of planets that is allied with the Confederation but has always preferred not to join it formally. Because the attacks are all against Confederation vessels rather than those of the Border Worlds, it is assumed that the free-spirited inhabitants of the latter are behind them. I trust that it won’t be too much a spoiler if I reveal here that the reality is far more sinister.
By all means, we should give props to Roberts for not just finding some way to bring the Kilrathi back as humanity’s existential threat. They are still around, and even make an appearance in Wing Commander IV, but they’ve seen the error of their ways with Confederation guidance and are busily rebuilding their society on more peaceful lines. (The parallels with World War II-era — and now postwar — Japan, in other words, still hold true.)
The returns from Origin’s $9 million investment in the movie are front and center. An advantage of working with real sets instead of green screens is the way that the camera is suddenly allowed to move, making the end result look less like something filmed during the very earliest days of cinema and more like a product of the post-Citizen Kane era. One of the very first scenes is arguably the most impressive of them all. The camera starts on the ceiling of a meeting hall, looking directly down at the assembled dignitaries, then slowly sweeps to ground level, shifting as it moves from a vertical to a horizontal orientation. I’d set this scene up beside the opening of Activision’s Spycraft — released at almost the same time as Wing Commander IV, as it happens — as the most sophisticated that this generation of interactive movies ever got by the purely technical standards of film-making. (I do suspect that Wing Commander IV‘s relative adroitness is not so much down to Chris Roberts as to its cinematographer, a 21-year Hollywood veteran named Eric Goldstein.)
The acting, by contrast, is on about the same level as Wing Commander III: professional if not quite passionate. Mark Hamill’s dour performance is actually among the least engaging. (This is made doubly odd by the fact that he had recently been reinventing himself as a voice actor, through a series of portrayals — including a memorable one in the game Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers — that are as giddy and uninhibited as his Colonel Blair isn’t.) On the other hand, it’s a pleasure to hear Malcolm McDowell and John Rhys-Davies deploy their dulcet Shakespearian-trained voices on even pedestrian (at best) dialog like this. But the happiest member of the cast must be Tom Wilson, whose agent’s phone hadn’t exactly been ringing off the hook in recent years; his traditional-cinema career had peaked with his role as the cretinous villain Biff in the Back to the Future films. Here he takes on the similarly over-the-top role of Maniac, a character who had become a surprise hit with the fans in Wing Commander III, and sees his screen time increased considerably in the fourth game as a result. As comic-relief sidekicks go, he’s no Sancho Panza, but he does provide a welcome respite from Blair’s always prattling on, a little listlessly and sleepy-eyed at times, about duty and honor and what hell war is (such hell that Chris Roberts can’t stop making games about it).
That said, the best humor in Wing Commander IV is of the unintentional kind. There’s a sort of Uncanny Valley in the midst of this business of interactive movies, as there is in so many creative fields. When the term was applied to games that merely took some inspiration from cinema, perhaps with a few (bad) actors mouthing some lines in front of green screens, it was easier to accept fairly uncritically. But the closer games like this one come to being real movies, the more their remaining shortcomings seem to stand out, and, paradoxically, the farther from their goal they seem to be. The reality is that 37 sets isn’t many by Hollywood standards — and most of these are cheap, sparse, painfully plastic-looking sets at that. Like in those old 1960s episodes of Star Trek, everybody onscreen visibly jumps — not in any particular unison, mind you — when the camera shakes to indicate an explosion and the party-supply-store smoke machines start up. The ray guns they shoot each other with look like gaudy plastic toys that Wal Mart would be ashamed to stock, while the accompanying sound effects would have been rejected as too cheesy by half by the producers of Battlestar Galactica.
All of this is understandable, even forgivable. A shooting budget of $9 million may have been enormous in game terms, but it was nothing by the standards of a Hollywood popcorn flick. (The 1996 film Star Trek: First Contact, for example, had five times the budget of Wing Commander IV, and it was not even an especially expensive example of its breed.) In the long run, interactive movies would find their Uncanny Valley impossible to bridge. Those who made them believed that they were uniquely capable of attracting a wider, more diverse audience than the people who typically played games in the mid-1990s. That proposition may have been debatable, but we’ll take it at face value. The problem was that, in order to attract these folks, they had to look like more than C-movies with aspirations of reaching B status. And the games industry’s current revenues simply didn’t give them any way to get from here to there. Wing Commander IV is a prime case in point: the most expensive game ever made still looked like a cheap joke by Hollywood standards.
Other failings of Wing Commander IV, however, are less understandable and perchance less forgivable. It’s sometimes hard to believe that this script was the product of professional screenwriters, given the quantity of dialog which seems lifted from a Saturday Night Live sketch, which often had my wife and I rolling on the floor when we played the game together recently. (Or rather, when I played and she watched and laughed.) “Just because we operate in the void of space, is loyalty equally weightless?” Malcolm McDowell somehow manages to intone in that gorgeously honed accent of his without smirking. A young woman mourning the loss of her beau — as soon as you saw that these two had a thing going, you knew he was doomed, by the timeless logic of war movies — chooses the wrong horse as her metaphor and then just keeps on riding it out into the rhetorical sagebrush: “He’s out there along with my heart. Both no more than space dust. People fly through him every day and don’t even know it.”
Then there’s the way that everyone, excepting only Blair, is constantly referred to only by his or her call sign. This doesn’t do much to enhance the stateliness of a formal military funeral: “Some may think that Catscratch will be forgotten. They’re wrong. He’ll stay in our hearts always.” There’s the way that all of the men are constantly saluting each other at random moments, as if they’re channeling all of the feelings they don’t know how to express into that act — saluting to keep from crying, saluting as a way to avoid saying, “I love you, man!,” saluting whenever the screenwriters don’t know what the hell else to have them do. (Of course, they all do it so sloppily that anyone who really was in the military will be itching to jump through the monitor and smack them into shape.) And then there’s the ranks and titles, which sound like something children on a playground — or perhaps (ahem!) someone else? — came up with: Admiral Tolwyn gets promoted to “Space Marshal,” for Pete’s sake.
I do feel just a little bad to make fun of all this so much because Chris Roberts’s heart is clearly in the right place. As a time when an increasing number of games were appealing only to the worst sides of their players, Wing Commander IV at least gave lip service to the ties that bind, the thing things we owe to one another. It’s not precisely wrong in anything it says, even if it does become a bit one-note in that tedious John Wayne kind of way. Deep into the game, you discover that the sinister conspiracy you’ve been pursuing involves a new spin on the loathsome old arguments of eugenics, those beliefs that some of us have better genes than others and are thus more useful, valuable human beings, entitled to things that their inferior counterparts are not. Wing Commander IV knows precisely where it stands on this issue — on the right side. But boy, can its delivery be clumsy. And its handling of a more complex social issue like the plight of war veterans trying to integrate back into civilian society is about as nuanced as the old episodes of Magnum, P.I. that probably inspired it.
But betwixt and between all of the speechifying and saluting, there is still a game to play, consisting of about 25 to 30 missions worth of space-combat action, depending on the choices you make from the interactive movie’s occasional menus and how well you fly the missions themselves. The unsung hero of Wing Commander IV must surely be one Anthony Morone, who bore the thankless title of “Game Director,” meaning that he was the one who oversaw the creation of the far less glamorous game part of the game back in Austin while Chris Roberts was off in Hollywood shooting his movie. He did what he could with the limited time and resources at his disposal.
I noted above how the very way that this fourth game was made tended to pull the two halves of its personality even farther apart. That’s true on one level, but it’s also true that Morone made some not entirely unsuccessful efforts to push back against that centrifugal drift. Some of the storytelling now happens inside the missions themselves — something Wing Commander II, the first heavily plot-based entry in the series, did notably well, only to have Wing Commander III forget about it almost completely. Now, though, it’s back, such that your actions during the missions have a much greater impact on the direction of the movie. For example, at one point you’re sent to intercept some Confederation personnel who have apparently turned traitor. In the course of this mission, you learn what their real motivations are, and, if you think they’re good ones, you can change sides and become their escort rather than their attacker.
Indeed, there are quite a few possible paths through the story line and a handful of different endings, based on both the choices you take from those menus that pop up from time to time during the movie portions and your actions in the heat of battle. In this respect too, Wing Commander IV is more ambitious and more sophisticated than Wing Commander III.
But it is enough? It’s hard to escape a creeping sense of ennui as you play this game. The flight engine and mission design still lag well behind LucasArts’s 1994 release TIE Fighter, a game that has aged much better than this one in all of its particulars. Roughly two out of every three missions here still don’t have much to do with the plot and aren’t much more than the usual “fly between these way points and shoot whatever you find there” — a product of the need to turn Roberts’s movie into a game that lasts longer than a few hours, in order to be sure that players feel like they have gotten their $50 worth. Worse, the missions are poorly balanced, being much more difficult than those in the previous game; enemy missiles are brutally overpowered, being now virtually guaranteed to kill you with one hit. The sharply increased difficulty feels more accidental than intentional, a product of the compressed development schedule and a resultant lack of play-testing. However it came about, it pulls directly against Origin’s urgent need to attract more — read, more casual — gamers to the series in order to justify its escalating budgets. Here as in so many other places in this game, the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing, to the detriment of both.
In the end, then, neither the movie nor the game of Wing Commander IV can fully stand up on its own, and in combination they tend to clash more than they create any scintillating synergy. One senses when playing through the complete package that Origin’s explorations in this direction have indeed reached a sort of natural limit akin to that alpine-horn-playing keyboard player, that the only thing left to do now is to back up and try something else.
The magazines may have been carried away by the hype around Wing Commander IV, but not all ordinary gamers were. For example, one by the name of Robert Fletcher sent Origin the following letter:
I have noticed that the game design used by Origin has stayed basically the same. Wing Commander IV is a good example of a game design that has shown little growth. If one were to strip away the film clips, there would be a bare-bones game. The game would look and play like a game from the early 1980s. A very simple branching story line, with a little arcade action.
With all the muscle and talent at Origin’s command, it makes me wonder if Origin is really trying to push the frontier of game design. I know a little of what it takes to develop a game, from all the articles I have read (and I have read many). Many writers and developers are calling for their peers to get back to pushing the frontier of game design, over the development of better graphics.
Wing Commander IV has the best graphics I have seen, and it will be a while before anyone will match this work of art. But as a game, Wing Commander IV makes a better movie.
In its April 1996 issue — notice that date! — Computer Gaming World published an alleged preview of Origin’s plans for Wing Commander V. Silly though the article is, it says something about the reputation that Chris Roberts and his franchise were garnering among gamers like our Mr. Fletcher for pushing the envelope of money and technology past the boundaries of common sense, traveling far out on a limb that was in serious danger of being cut off behind them.
With Wing Commander IV barely a month old, Origin has already announced incredible plans for the next game in the highly successful series. In another first for a computer-game company, Origin says it will design small working models of highly maneuverable drones which can be launched into space, piloted remotely, and filmed. The craft will enable Wing V to have “unprecedented spaceflight realism and true ‘star appeal,'” said a company spokesman.
Although the next game in the science-fiction series sounds more like fiction than science, Origin’s Chris Roberts says it’s the next logical step for his six-year-old creation. “If you think about it,” he says, “Wing Commander [I] was the game where we learned the mechanics of space fighting. We made lots of changes and improvements in Wing II. With Wing III, we raised the bar considerably with better graphics, more realistic action, full-motion video, and big-name stars in video segments. In Wing IV, we upped the ante again with real sets, more video, and, in my opinion, a much better story. We’ve reached the point of using real stars and real sets — now it’s time to take our act on location: real space.”
Analysts say it’s nearly impossible to estimate the cost of such an undertaking. Some put figures at between $100 million and $10 billion, just to deploy a small number of remotely pilotable vehicles beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Despite this, Origin’s Lord British (Richard Garriott) claims that he has much of the necessary financial support from investors. Says Garriott, “When we told [investors] what we wanted to do for Wing Commander V, they were amazed. We’re talking about one of man’s deepest desires — to break free of the bonds of Earth. We know it seems costly in comparison with other games, but this is unlike anything that’s ever been done. I don’t see any problem getting the financial backing for this project, and we expect to recoup the investment in the first week. You’re going to see a worldwide release on eight platforms in 36 countries. It’s going to be a huge event. It’ll dwarf even Windows 95.”
Tellingly, some fans believed the announcement was real, writing Origin concerned letters about whether this was really such a good use of its resources.
Still, the sense of unease about Origin’s direction was far from universal. In a sidebar that accompanied its glowing review of Wing Commander IV in that same April 1996 issue, Computer Gaming World asked on a less satirical note, “Is it time to take interactive movies seriously?” The answer according to the magazine was yes: “Some will continue to mock the concept of ‘Siliwood,’ but the marriage of Hollywood and Silicon Valley is definitely real and here to stay. In this regard, no current game charts a more optimistic path to the future of multimedia entertainment than Wing Commander IV.” Alas, the magazine’s satire would prove more prescient than this straightforward opinion piece. Rather than the end of the beginning of the era of interactive movies, Wing Commander IV would go down in history as the beginning of the end, a limit of grandiosity beyond which further progress was impossible.
The reason came down to the cold, hard logic of dollars and cents, working off of a single data point: Wing Commander IV sold less than half as many copies as Wing Commander III. Despite the increased budget and improved production values, despite all the mainstream press coverage, despite the gala premiere at Planet Hollywood, it just barely managed to break even, long after its initial release. I believe the reason why had everything to with that Uncanny Valley I described for you. Those excited enough by the potential of the medium to give these interactive movies the benefit of the doubt had already done so, and even many of these folks were now losing interest. Meanwhile the rest of the world was, at best, waiting for such productions to mature enough that they could sit comfortably beside real movies, or even television. But this was a leap that even Origin Systems, a subsidiary of Electronic Arts, the biggest game publisher in the country, was financially incapable of making. And as things currently stood, the return on investment on productions even the size of Wing Commander IV — much less still larger — simply wasn’t there.
During this period, a group of enterprising Netizens took it upon themselves to compile a weekly “Internet PC Games Chart” by polling thousands of their fellow gamers on what they were playing just at that moment. Wing Commander IV is present on the lists they published during the spring of 1996, rising as high as number four for a couple of weeks. But the list of games that consistently place above it is telling: Command & Conquer, Warcraft II, DOOM II, Descent, Civilization II. Although some of them do have some elements of story to bind their campaigns together and deliver a long-form single-player experience, none of them aspires to full-blown interactive movie-dom (not even Command & Conquer, which does feature real human actors onscreen giving its mission briefings). In fact, no games meeting that description are ever to be found anywhere in the top ten at the same time as Wing Commander IV.
Thanks to data like this, it was slowly beginning to dawn on the industry’s movers and shakers that the existing hardcore gamers — the people actually buying games today, and thereby sustaining their companies — were less interested in a merger of Silicon Valley and Hollywood than they were. “I don’t think it’s necessary to spend that much money to suspend disbelief and entertain the gamer,” said Jim Namestka of Dreamforge Intertainment by way of articulating the emerging new conventional wisdom. “It’s alright to spend a lot of money on enhancing the game experience, but a large portion spent instead on huge salaries for big-name actors… I question whether that’s really necessary.”
I’ve written quite a lot in recent articles about 1996 as the year that essentially erased the point-and-click adventure game as one of the industry’s marquee genres. Wing Commander IV isn’t one of those, of course, even if it does look a bit like one at times, when you’re wandering around a ship talking to your crew mates. Still, the Venn diagram of the interactive movie does encompass games like Wing Commander IV, just as it does games like, say, Phantasmagoria, the biggest adventure hit of 1995, which sold even more copies than Wing Commander III. In 1996, however, no game inside that Venn diagram became a million-selling breakout hit. The best any could manage was a middling performance relative to expectations, as was the case for Wing Commander IV. And so the retrenchment began.
It would have been financially foolish to do anything else. The titles that accompanied and often bested Wing Commander IV on those Internet PC Games Charts had all cost vastly less money to make and yet sold as well or better. id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM, the games that had started the shift away from overblown storytelling and extended multimedia cut scenes and back to the nuts and bolts of gameplay, had been built by a tiny team of scruffy outsiders working on a shoestring; call this the games industry’s own version of Buzzcocks versus Yes.
The shift away from interactive movies didn’t happen overnight. At Origin, the process of bargaining with financial realities would lead to one more Wing Commander game before the franchise was put out to pasture, still incorporating real actors in live-action cut scenes, but on a less lavish, more sustainable — read, cheaper — scale. The proof was right there in the box: Wing Commander: Prophecy, which but for a last-minute decision by marketing would have been known as Wing Commander V, shipped on three CDs in early 1997 rather than the six of Wing Commander IV. By that time, the whole franchise was looking hopelessly passé in a sea of real-time strategy and first-person shooters whose ethic was to get you into the action fast and keep you there, without any clichéd meditations about the hell that is war. Wing Commander IV had proved to be the peak of the interactive-movie mountain rather than the next base camp which Chris Roberts had imagined it to be.
This is not to say that digital interactive storytelling as a whole died in 1996. It just needed to find other, more practical and ultimately more satisfying ways to move forward. Some of those would take shape in the long-moribund CRPG genre, which enjoyed an unexpected revival close to the decade’s end. Adventure games too would soldier on, but on a smaller scale more appropriate to their reduced commercial circumstances, driven now by passion for the medium rather than hype, painted once again in lovely pixel art instead of grainy digitized video. For that matter, even space simulators would enjoy a golden twilight before falling out of fashion for good, thanks to several titles that kicked against what Wing Commander had become by returning the focus to what happened in the cockpit.
All of these development have left Wing Commander IV standing alone and exposed, its obvious faults only magnified that much more by its splendid isolation. It isn’t a great game, nor even all that good a game, but it isn’t a cynical or unlikable one either. Call it a true child of Chris Roberts: a gawky chip off the old block, with too much money and talent and yet not quite enough.
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(Sources: the book Origin’s Official Guide to Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom by Melissa Tyler; Computer Gaming World of February 1995, May 1995, December 1995, April 1996, and July 1997; Strategy Plus of December 1995; the American PC Gamer of September 1995 and May 1996; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of September 8 1995, January 12 1996, February 12 1996, April 5 1996, and May 17 1996; Retro Gamer 59. Online sources include the various other internal Origin documents, video clips, pictures, and more hosted at Wing Commander News and Mark Asher’s CNET GameCenter columns from March 24 1999 and October 29 1999. And, for something completely different, Buzzcocks being interview at the British Library in 2016. RIP Pete Shelley.
Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom is available from GOG.com as a digital purchase.)
April 7, 2023 at 10:22 pm
” A young woman mourning the lost [loss] of her beau … ”
The background infos are much appreciated, especially the money mechanics, I had been wondering why the sheer scope of WCIV was never really followed up on… even though game – and movie – budgets kept inflating.
You are entirely correct in your litany of criticisms.
However, there is a case to be made also for redeeming features of WCIV that in my book make it at least an interesting example of interactive video at the time.
While I can’t compete against the sound of “verisimilitudious”, I found space combat much more interesting than in part III. Here I do think the decision to largely re-use their previous engine paid off: one of the main drawbacks of part III was that it effectively required a high-end machine to play not even smoothly at the time it came out (even though it was directed as mass market).
It has been a while but I seem to remember that the difficulty level could be set from easy to impossible to accommodate serious space combat gamers vs people who wanted to advance to the next cutscene / story decision point?
Design-wise I found especially the Border Worlds ships to be fresh and quirky for the series.
Crucially leech guns were included for the Border World fighters allowing the pilot to stun and not kill enemy vessels. At the time I felt quite strongly that this did provide a link to the story/movie scenes as this was the first (and only) mature WC game: exploding a ship meant doing something akin to actual violence to virtual people who had been of the protagonist’s tribe until recently, especially big ships, squared for the mega space station. This could – and sometimes had to be – avoided at cost. This tangibly went against the instincts that games like the WC series have inculcated in players.
Movie and Ethics:
At least compared to part III where the player is meant to effectively commit genocide against another race and be celebrated for this, part IV actually featured ethical decisions that did impact the course of the movie.
With hindsight, there is certainly nothing special anymore to cast the player’s side as the actual bad guys even Nazis: all major action franchises from Star Wars to James Bond have felt compelled to go there in some fashion in an effort to stay with the times. However, we are talking 1996 here: a time when “history had ended” before the dot com crash, 9/11, and so on. Back then it still was a fascinating concept to explore especially for an otherwise unfailingly gung-ho space sim.
And (spoiler alert):
In this installment and in this installment only all the fighting in a space shooter / military glorification movie literally came down to a chance to argue ethics in front of the Senate. ;-)
And while movies about the military always surround the protagonists with extras, Malcolm McDowell and Jason Bernard especially, but also Hamill and Tom Wilson really carried the movie / cutscenes in a way they didn’t in WCIII, which really helped with the suspension of disbelief.
I’m sure I would downgrade all these aspects were I to play this again today, which I won’t for this very reason ;-)
April 8, 2023 at 6:02 am
Thanks for the correction!
You’re right about the difficulty setting, but I don’t think its presence excuses the imbalance regarding missiles. Even if you’re playing on Easy — and no shame in that; I find myself doing it with more and more games, when I just want to enjoy the experience and don’t want a death struggle — missiles are way more powerful than anything else, in a way that just doesn’t make sense. It’s still, in other words, an imbalance, which I would be bet dollars to doughnuts is more of a mistake than a premeditated shift.
You aren’t wrong in your other points either, especially the uniqueness of the ending. We’ve never seen a final boss fight quite like it. ;)
April 9, 2023 at 9:17 am
“one of the main drawbacks of part III was that it effectively required a high-end machine to play not even smoothly at the time it came out (even though it was directed as mass market).”
Origin in the ’90s was notorious for targeting bleeding-edge hardware at release (and, presumably, taking a gamble on anticipating what said specs would look like during development). This limited their target market at release time to the moneybags whales gaming on brand new supercomputers, but also ensured that their games would continue looking relatively contemporary even months and years after being released.
April 9, 2023 at 12:59 pm
Origin games in the 90s were ALSO notorious for being extremely buggy at release, so maybe waiting until they caught up to your hardware let them get fixed :-)
(I kid, I used to buy them when they came out. By WC4 I was at University playing with Unix and stuff and never did play it)
April 20, 2023 at 1:45 pm
WC3 paired nicely with my parents’ brand new Pentium 75. However, it was nigh unplayable on my 486/33.
April 7, 2023 at 10:46 pm
“A shooting budget of $9 million may have been enormous in game terms, but it was nothing by the standards of a Hollywood popcorn flick. (The 1996 film Star Trek: First Contact, for example, had five times the budget of Wing Commander IV, and it was not even an especially expensive example of its breed.)”
I’m having a bit of a problem with the math, here, though this may be in part because I’ve never played Wing Commander IV (or any Wing Commander). It seems to me that a feature-length film would be AT LEAST five times as long as the total cut scenes from a video game, so the per-minute expense might be one-to-one, or even better. Similarly, 37 sets sounds pretty generous for the amount of time I’m imagining they were used.
But, if the cut scenes do amount to 90-100 minutes worth of screen time, then I concede your points here completely.
April 8, 2023 at 5:53 am
Taken together, the cut scenes actually add up to considerably more than the average feature film. I believe there are three and a half to four hours of video in the game, of which the typical user on the typical playthrough might see two and a half to three hours.
April 8, 2023 at 7:37 am
The intended point of reference here would be Wolfenstein 3D, not Castle Wolfenstein, I think.
April 8, 2023 at 10:06 am
April 8, 2023 at 9:07 am
This article brought me back straight into the middle of the 90s. I never played Wing Commander, but of course cutscenes like the ones shown above were used in quite a lot of the games I was playing at the time. In fact, the only flight simulator I ever bought was a Top Gun-Game full of video cut-scenes that featured James Tolkan in the part he played in the original movie. I loved this game because of it and I didn´t think that these video-sequences didn´t look too bad in general, no matter what game. Of course, today I don´t need to watch this things again and I never had the urge to do so after the 90s ended. I never missed this technology .
Good call on the Buzzcocks versus Yes. For many years I was a stereotypical vinyl-collecting Prog-Listener (so of course I know who that keyboarder was), but finally I got myself to confess that this music didn´t say anything about my life or anything that´s going on around me, so I gave up on it. So I can relate totally to this sentence you are refering to.
On a last note, according to Wikipedia, Malcom McDowell is still quite active. I sometimes ask myself what he thinks about his career-downslide, but maye he is fine with his life.
April 8, 2023 at 3:08 pm
Yes, that must have been Patrick Moraz who was only with Yes for the Relayer album. I can see the point about the live shows, but the album is still highly regarded today (and not that excessive, especially compared to its predecessor).
April 11, 2023 at 1:01 pm
Hey, I like Yes! And progressive rock in general. But also punk rock. There’s room for everyone!
April 8, 2023 at 5:31 pm
Wing Commander IV is far from alone in reducing or removing cockpit graphics. Tie Fighter, for example, lets you toggle them on or off by hitting, I believe, the period key. Freespace never had any to begin with. While extensive cockpit graphics may be immersive, they also reduce visibility and make the game harder to play. You cannot track or shoot what you cannot see, and when over a half of the screen is taken up by instruments or, worse, somebody’s knees you cannot see a lot. I personally like cockpit graphics, but I confess I prefer implementations that allow for good visibility. In Tie Fighter, I’d rather fly the titular Tie Fighter than the Assault Gunboat. The Gunboat’s a much more powerful ship, but it’s much less fun to fly in part because the visibility from the cockpit is so much worse.
Incidentally, I have always suspected (on the basis of admittedly no evidence whatsoever) that the real reason for the extensive cockpit graphics in the early Wing Commander games is not immersion but rather performance. The more space the player can see, the more calculations the game has to do to determine what to draw and how to draw it.
As for the cheap props in Wing Commander IV, all I can say is that big-budget movies aren’t necessarily any better. There’s a Star Trek movie–Generations, I believe–in which Commander Riker pilots the Enterprise with what is clearly a Logitech flight stick.
April 8, 2023 at 7:18 pm
The Star Trek movie where Riker pilots the enterprise with an off the shelf looking joystick was Insurrection.
April 8, 2023 at 7:28 pm
Yes, the cockpit graphics in Wing Commander at least absolutely served as a performance hedge, whatever other purpose they might have served. Still very cleverly done, though, showing the cockpit getting damaged as your ship does, and showing the controls actually moving as the pilot pushes them around.
April 8, 2023 at 10:22 pm
I confess that I personally find on-screen hands and flight controls a little uncanny and counter-immersive. When I’m playing a space sim, I like to imagine that I’m sitting in a real spaceship and that my monitor is not a monitor but my window into space. I can already see my real hands on a real joystick. I don’t need to see a second pair of virtual hands on a virtual joystick too. Not only is that two hands too many, it’s also a constant reminder that my monitor is in fact just a monitor.
April 9, 2023 at 3:37 am
That sort of diegetic interface, complete with the character’s hands moving the controls, was already present in Arcticfox in 1986, though in a futuristic tank rather than a spaceship, and a sufficient amount of cumulative damage would become visibly apparent (as well as disrupting the vehicle’s capabilities).
April 8, 2023 at 8:52 pm
This was definitely an era where the tradeoff between viewport size and performance was visible to consumers, and having less HUD on the screen was a selling point. Ultima VII touts its “full-screen view” on the back of the box. A distant forerunner to today’s “60fps at 4k” boasts. I personally find the HUD in the earlier WC games makes it harder to me to understand what’s going on, but I’m extremely bad at keeping oriented in 3D flying games in general.
April 10, 2023 at 1:17 pm
While I always loved and now miss the intricate UI elements in games in general, now that such things are mininalistic if present at all, games presented in the first person have always been a big struggle for me in this regard. I’ve got unusually sensitive peripheral vision (Probably due to childhood strabismus), and while I’m sure it serves me well in avoiding predators, it makes me prone to getting disoriented when playing a first-person game. My field of vision cutting off at the monitor’s edge is something I’ve never been able to overcome. I’m curious if I’d adapt to VR, but so far, I haven’t used a VR headset that can accomodate my glasses without inducing intense pain.
April 8, 2023 at 6:04 pm
The interactive movie genre didn’t completely die out. It inadvertently was continued on by some modern games which have long series of cut scenes, puntuated by short gameplay sequences. The later games in the Metal Gear Solid series are often like this, even though the “movies” in that game are done in engine rather than with live action actors. But the feeling is the same where it seems like the actual gameplay is subservient to the story told in the cut scenes.
April 9, 2023 at 5:40 am
I remember when WC4 came out well, as at the time I had been collecting the video game novel tie-ins for Wing Commander. Most of the best ones were written by William Forstchen who continued and expanded the World War II similarities. His novelization of WC4 though is curiously out of alignment with the game itself on many levels, suggesting he had an early script to work off of that was changed later.
What struck me with the cut scene material is how linear it is. There’s only a few places you can pivot and still win the game.
If you eject from your ship in ANY mission you get yelled at and ridiculed by your commanding officer. If you do so too many times prior to turning sides, you get this funny scene with Tolwyn and Blair where Tolwyn is shocked and embarrassed by Blair’s loss of skill and all Blair can say is “Maybe… some more time in the simulator sir?” and Tolwyn has to quietly retire him back to his farm world to avoid the bad press of the “Heart of the Tiger” losing his edge.
If you resist turning sides the first time it comes up, you end up seeing a lot of cut scenes that reinforce you screwed up and made the wrong decision. You’re not given a choice the second time to turn sides. Plus that route means you miss some pivotal cut-scenes explaining the background of the Border Worlds and seeing a major character’s death. (In fact, when you arrive on their ship they are cool and officious with you, rather than friendly.)
Another pivot is when you’re given the choice to either seek out military resources to aid the Border Worlds or to help save a planet under attack. Doing the former gives you the chance to get new missile types to play with, while the latter is the “ethically right choice” even though you gain nothing from it materially.
The final pivot is whether or not to destroy the huge enemy capital ship with the same mine that they’ve been using to cook and destroy ships from the inside out, or to take it out with conventional weapons. (The point being there are many innocent techs and personnel on the ship that aren’t part of the conspiracy.) That one has an impact on what path Blair takes after his victory in the Senate.
April 12, 2023 at 8:04 am
“What struck me with the cut scene material is how linear it is. There’s only a few places you can pivot and still win the game.”
As Jimmy said in a reply above “I believe there are three and a half to four hours of video in the game, of which the typical user on the typical playthrough might see two and a half to three hours.”
So it is the old problem of combinatorial explosion – only worse since the relative high quality or at least budget they were aiming at.
Instead, I think what they mostly tried to do was to explore how decisions played out on largely the same material. This is why they chose a story where the agenda is set by the antagonists’ plot.
Sometimes this was a bit on the nose as the “pivotal” decision whether or not to free the captured Tolwyn: freeing him will result in a cutscene of Blair rationalizing his decision to a skeptical Maniac; if you choose to keep him, Maniac will free him instead – resulting in a cutscene of Maniac rationalizing his decision to Blair along the exact same lines but quickly admitting his error.
I found the more subtle consequences to be more satisfying story-telling wise. Case in point is the opening where Blair can or cannot spare a space-dime for a – as Jimmy outlined, Vietnam war like – vet down on his luck. Out of options, he will “volunteer” for the Confeds once again only to be captured by your side and interrogated. Having helped him before helps to build rapport for him to turn sides. Small galaxy I guess – still, nice touch.
“Another pivot is when you’re given the choice to either seek out military resources to aid the Border Worlds or to help save a planet under attack. Doing the former gives you the chance to get new missile types to play with, while the latter is the “ethically right choice” even though you gain nothing from it materially.”
I believe that was the one time where you decide on which chapter – star system – to explore, rather than merely following the antagonists’ lead. Not gaining anything materially yourself is precisely what makes this a case of utilitarian vs compassionate choice.
Here the choice is strategic rather than tactical: how do you deal with the space station and super-carrier that the story throws in your way as obstacles to be removed with or without war crimes / “collateral damage”. Also, failing to assist civilians will not get you prosecuted whereas actively killing military(-adjacent) people will.
April 9, 2023 at 5:43 pm
I realize how tangential the genre is to your main thrust, but this article makes me very much want one on 1998’s Descent: Freespace, which took largely a totally opposite approach to storytelling while still having a fairly in-depth one. Nearly everything is told in written codex entries, briefings/debriefing and in-mission dialogue, and there’s very few “filler” missions.
Not only is the fusion of game and story much better executed, but both are far stronger than WC4’s in my memories. Though after an extra two years you’d expect much more.
April 9, 2023 at 7:33 pm
That one actually is on my list. I’m going to give it a shot at some point, and if I enjoy it and have something to say, I’ll write about it. I do have a bit of a soft spot for space sims.
April 10, 2023 at 1:00 pm
I came to the comments with exactly this suggestion in mind.
It’s tempting to look back on freespace as a direct response to WC, in everything from the storytelling to the very physics model itself.
April 11, 2023 at 2:14 pm
I played Freespace for the first time just last year. I only made it about a third of the way through the game before I encountered a bug that prevented further progress, but I have to say that I was not impressed by the portion of the story that I got to see. The game is going for a certain tone that, frankly, just isn’t supported in the gameplay at all, at least not on the default difficulty. Some of the cutscenes have also aged very poorly. I would have preferred static images or even the campiest of FMV to the crude and awkwardly animated 3D character models that they contained.
To be clear, I don’t think that Freespace is a bad game. It’s thoroughly competent, mechanically speaking. In terms of mission design, I think it’s comparable to Tie Fighter–that’s a good thing–and better than Wing Commander. It’s just the story that left me cold. I’m told that Freespace 2, which seems to be the game that most people have in mind when they gush about the series, is much better.
April 10, 2023 at 4:59 am
Yes, that was a great game! I found it in a compilation and tried it out just because it was there. Although I didn´t finish it, I was hooked right from the beginning because of its perfect balancing between gameplay and story. Definitely a game I remember very fondly.
April 11, 2023 at 2:52 am
I think the swang song of the adventure genre in the 90’s was Jordan Mechner’s The Last Express, more even so than Grim Fandango. The lavishly and ambitious period recreation for that game, the excesive money lost on that gem is really heartbreaking
April 11, 2023 at 5:30 am
What about the Longest Journey in 2000?
April 11, 2023 at 1:05 pm
Every time you mention the coming “death” of the adventure game, I must put in my request for your own analysis of the famous Gabriel Knight 3 puzzle covered in the Old Man Murray article (https://www.oldmanmurray.com/features/77.html). I can’t help but agree completely with it but I think a more detailed or thoughtful “how we got here” would be nice to see.
April 11, 2023 at 3:19 pm
We’ll get there… ;)
April 11, 2023 at 8:11 pm
Weirdly, I kind of liked the way WC4 treated missiles. What was most likely to frustrate me in earlier games was the tendency for some dogfights to just drag on and on. Missiles provided a fast way of ending the fight, one way or another. And from what I remember, a missile was just as fatal to an opponent as it was to you, so it seemed pretty fair.
I’d liken it to the thrill of TIE Fighter’s early stages, where you’re flying a very fragile craft. For me, at least, this sort of thing creates a tension that just isn’t there when you’re protected by energy shields.
Beyond that, your review is spot-on. While I enjoyed WC4, there’s no denying that the movie elements clash badly with the gameplay in spite of the two being separated. It’s like a particularly cheesy SciFi channel movie with a game attached.
I also wonder if some of the folks who’d later form BioWare played this game. Many of the player’s decisions in WC4 seem like early versions of the Paragon/Renegade decisions of Mass Effect.
April 12, 2023 at 8:26 am
Excellent write-up, as per. Though I take issue with your Yes vs. Buzzcocks thing, and not just because I much, much prefer the music of Yes.
Game developers in general have more in common with Yes than The Buzzcocks: Intensely nerdy, devoted to telling sprawling, colourful wonderous stories, and with a deep fascination with technology and its potential. And if they lack technical ability, such is their enthusiasm that they’ll play around until they’ve mastered it. Do you think that Yes keyboard player had formal training in using that “telephone exchange of electronic things”? Or did he just think it looked cool, and thus it became essential to his sound?
By contrast, Mr. Diggle’s comment betrays a narrow-minded, uncurious, conservative, and almost anti-intellectual view of the world. He comes across as less interested in what’s possible, and more concerned with how things SHOULD be. “I thought, ‘Something’s got to change.'” Has it? Why? Because you don’t like new things, Steve?
If Steve were a game designer, he’d be using Twine to make very short “slice of life” narratives. No hope, no colour, no wonder – no graphics, in fact. But it’s cheap, accessible, and anyone can do it. But what do I get? Nothing. I might find the whole thing mildly enjoyable the first time, but will I still be thinking about it five years from now? Or even five minutes from now?
Alright, it “says something” about life. But these developers – and musicians – who use tools and techniques “that nobody could afford or relate to”? Dream-weavers. They give us something to think about, something to care about, and something to love.
I know I’m missing the point – which was that Wing Commander IV was too much of one thing, and perhaps people were hungry for something simpler and more immediate. But I repeat: Game development is INHERENTLY prog rock. If it were punk rock, it wouldn’t exist.
…or, if game developers aren’t prog rockers, they’re metalheads. Maybe that would be a more apposite comparison? Rather than stroking their chins throughout a long Yes keyboard solo, gamers were itching to return to Slayer’s circle pit?
May 3, 2023 at 2:29 am
Good comment. Speaking as a metalhead who dabbles in prog a bit, I’d like to add that metal definitely draws on prog a lot more than it does punk (although there are more punkish bands like Slayer). Many bands have a fair bit of proggish pompousity/showmanship (black metal in general), there’s a strong focus on virtuosity regardless of subgenre (guitar solos!), or just bands making weird/’challenging’ music.
Would also add that punk is now one of the most moribund, backward looking, and boring of all genres. Even worse than modern prog, which I admit isn’t particularly progressive!
So yeah, Steve Diggle, something did change, but it sucks. Well done.
(That said, I had a look at the wiki pages of most of Yes’ keyboard players and they did all have some kind of formal training. Rick Wakeman was a conservatory drop-out, but hey, he still went!)
April 12, 2023 at 5:59 pm
I’ll be interested to see if you cover Privateer and Privateer 2 as part of your Wing Commander series.
April 13, 2023 at 7:28 am
I have a little bit of guilt about skimming past Privateer 1, which I’ve been told corrects my biggest complaints about the series in general by being much more player-directed. Maybe I can find somewhere to shoehorn it in yet. (Privateer 2 I’ve heard less good about…)
April 12, 2023 at 7:48 pm
The missile thing is what made me quit this game even though I love the series … it just didn’t FEEL like Wing Commander. Even Prophecy, which feels way different from the other games, for some reason worked better for me than WC4.