Just imagine for a second; you’re clicking through webcam-based nattering site ChatRoulette, hoping desperately not to get another eyeful of genitalia, and these four magical words pop up; ‘Type ‘Start’ To Begin.’ What do you do? Keep clicking on, or enter the word and see what happens next?
For those brave souls who went for it earlier this year, Realm Pictures had an incredible treat in store. With a health bar, and a Doomguy-style mugshot at the bottom of the screen, a slew of ChatRouletters were instantly in charge of the survival of a man in a church that just happened to be crawling with zombies. Starting off in a room with a corpse and a locked door, they had to tell the character what to do in order to find their way out and reach the end of the level.
“The first incarnation of the idea came about several years ago, when we were messing around on ChatRoulette,” explains Shaz Abdullah from the Realm Pictures team. “My housemate Dave (the director) had a webcam attached to his netbook (to really date how long ago this was) and decided to hold it in a ‘first person’ perspective while someone else behind him held the netbook and talked to the person on the other end and asked ‘what should I do?’. Cut to a few years later, and we wondered what it would be like, with the new tech available to make almost a real first person shooter level with guns and enemies to fight,” It’s moments like this that GoPros were made for,
Incredibly, those watching and controlling the ‘game’ could see everything in real time. When the leading man picked up a shotgun – with a satisfied whoop from the voice actor – a graphic popped up in the left corner of the screen to let them know what they were armed with. As players inevitably lost health, even the mugshot at the bottom changed, with blood pouring from the hero’s nose. As labours of love go, it was an incredible feat.
“The prep took about a month, which mainly consisted of getting the streaming system to work and with as little latency as possible, as well as finding a way to play sounds and lay over the HUD graphics in real time over the GoPro feed,” explains Abdullah. “As well as that, I prepped and painted the Nerf guns and built the props and set pieces. The place we shot is actually our house. It’s a converted church that we both live in and base our film company out of, so we decided to make the most of it for the aesthetic of the video!”
Neighbours arrived to be mocked up as zombies, and there was a massive team to make sure everything ran smoothly. As players progressed, the leading man constantly asked what to do, from who to shoot to how to solve puzzles. “All of his dialogue was completely ad-libbed,” explains Abdullah. “Originally it was intended to just be a bit of a guide for the player and say things such as “I can’t open this door, it’s locked”, but it evolved into more of a banter between him and the player.”
Unlike a game, there were no lives. If players were overcome by zombies and died, that was it. No restarts, and the team went onto a new player. The finale of the level was a giant demonic boss – actually a man in Chaos Space Marine cosplay – to be taken down with some serious weaponry. “Only a handful of people made it to the end,” Abdullah enthuses. “The mechanic we had put forth was the only way he could be defeated was with the rocket launcher. So the majority of players just ran in all-guns-blazing and were defeated – there were only two people who made it all the way to the end!”
And remarkably there was only one slight accident with the GoPro, and not a single zombie ended up in casualty. “The only major issue we ran into during the shoot was when the battery that powered the GoPro and the Teradek streaming system died, after it’s cells just pretty much melted,” Abdullah says. “In the space of about 10 minutes, I watched some of the guys rig together a new power system out of a motorcycle battery, some wires and a lot of gaffer tape. It was like that scene in Apollo 13 when Houston had to figure out what they could do with a load of spare bits laying around…”
And this was only Level One – the team has now made Level Two, a Dead Space style sci-fi shooter with some big surprises as players desperately try to escape a ship of aliens. Once again the team built all the props and weapons themselves and the sets are bigger and better than the previous version. Who knows what Level Three will bring. Platformer anyone..? No…?