The Movies – Hands-on Preview (PC)
By Ben Serviss

Say what you will about Peter Molyneux—the man is not easily intimidated. The Movies, one of several unusual Lionhead projects set for imminent release, aims to give the player the experience of running his very own movie studio, complete with detailed movie creation tools to complement the SimCity-esque main game mode. And that’s not all, The Movies promises to let the player evolve through a century of filmmaking during the running of his/her studio, from the 1920s to the present and well into the future. Yet this progression through time is no gimmick. Through the decades, real-world trends are tracked via mini news clippings and headlines, as certain films will be welcome more in some eras than in others. For example, the rise of teenage subculture in the ‘50s prompts an audience predilection for horror movies, while the advent of anti-communist sentiment in the same decade gives moviegoers an affinity for science fiction. Countless details like these shone through during our hands-on experience with The Movies.

But let’s return to the feature presentation. Starting a new game in The Movies presents the player with an empty yet expansive back lot that can be used for building facilities. Key construction from the off is the stage school, where players create their first lead actors, directors and extras. Then there’s the casting office, the epicenter for preproduction matters like casting and rehearsals; and the crew building, for the training of movie crewpersons. And, of course, the production office, home of industry charts, archives of past releases, and records of the studio’s financial history. The camera perspective is a wide, pulled-back view similar to The Sims and the spook-management title Ghost Master, which affords plenty of visibility. Players can also zoom in to the action via the mouse wheel, getting a closer look while retaining all of the detail and smoothness of the main angle.

Creating your own actors and directors is as simple as picking from the hopefuls lined up outside the stage school and dropping them into the corresponding room in the building. Once given professional status, you can check their stats by right-clicking on a character. While showbiz newbies are down-to-earth and modest, they don’t possess the same star power and box-office draw as the spoiled divas, thus creating a healthy dynamic between satiating studio pets and chucking them in favor of fresher, less jaded stars. Key stats to watch for are overall happiness, salary satisfaction, boredom, relationships with other stars, and image—which is divided up into looks and physique. Should a star’s happiness—critical for capturing solid movie performances—take a turn for the worse, you can always give them a raise. But, once again, this dynamic has implications of its own: give a particular star too big a pay increase and fellow thespians will turn sour through jealousy.

One way to turn that envious frown upside down is by applying a makeover, changing a star or director’s image to suit new tastes. After constructing a makeover department on your lot and dragging the star to it, you’ll enter a rather large screen filled with options for tuning the character’s appearance. Everything from clothing to hairstyle, tattoos, facial hair, and even nails, can be customized. And what better way to boost your revamped star’s confidence than a candid shot of their new look for the willing press? Over the course of the game, photographers will show up and wander around the studio looking to capture stars at their best (or worst), and just like any other in-game character, even the paparazzi can be manipulated to better serve your needs.

While there’s plenty of studio drama to tide you over, there’s also the actual aspect of making movies to contend with. Once the stable of screenwriters has penned a suitable script, you simply drag it over to the casting office to discover how many lead actors and extras you’ll need in addition to a director, and, once secured, rehearsals can begin. When all the principles are in place and ready, the film crew will then begin shooting the movie on sets built on the back lot—granted, of course, that you’ve constructed all the necessary backdrops. After shooting wraps, you simply drop the script into the release room at the production office to put the finished film out into the world.

After completing a film and releasing it, you’ll be taken to a summary screen, breaking down your film into its base elements like director and star experience, script quality, star chemistry, set condition, and other aspects. Factor in the public’s interest in the genre, novelty value and technology used, and you’ll get the film’s final ranking out of five stars. Critical perception of your films is key since it dictates your placement on the all-important charts that track the prestige of not only your films, but also your actors and your studio. And, of course, you’ll have the option to view your film in its entirety.

While the game streamlines the movie-making process to keep the core game moving, the player can get as involved in film production as desired. After unlocking a certain tool, the player can dictate everything from the movie’s title, genre and script structure, to how many roles are filled and the individual scenes filmed. Looking like a knockoff of Windows Movie Maker, the player picks which scenes to film from a massive list of available actions, each specific to a different type of set. Sets can be dressed any which way, and props can be added or dropped, even the weather and lighting are at the player’s command.

Custom scripts are treated just like the computer-generated ones, and once you’re finished tinkering with your latest feature you can send it off to production like any other. But, after filming, if you’ve unlocked yet another special tool, you can take your printed and edited movie and customize it even more. Scenes can be switched around and edited further to your liking, you can add subtitles, fades and other effects, and—though this hasn’t been confirmed—you can switch out the stock musical score in favor of own choice soundtrack. What’s more, the gibberish your actors mutter to one another can be pulled and replaced by actual voiceovers, with support for pre-recorded sound files and on-the-fly recording. Even more interesting, the game engine will automatically lip-synch your actors to fit the words in your custom voiceover for added authenticity.

Players also have the choice to export their creations as movie files, to share with friends and the Internet at large. In fact, in lieu of a proper multiplayer mode, the developers are banking on The Movies to have a large online community of movie-swappers, which is quite a reasonable expectation given the enormous potential for creativity through the game’s powerful tools. With solid gameplay, beefy customization options, and downloadable content packs in the works, The Movies is looking like the place to be when the game is finally released this coming November.